Judaism: Torah MiTzion: The Cohen Gadol's First Blessing
We are quite aware of the beautiful mitzva of Birkat Kohanim, in which the descendants of Aharon bless the people assembled in shul. While in most of the world, Ashkenzi Kohanim do so only on Yom Tov, in Israel the almost uniform practice is that they do so daily. We are probably also aware where this berakha (blessing) appears: in Parashat Naso.
However, the first time that the first kohen is recorded blessing the people is in Parashat Shemini. The background follows. Bnei Yisrael, led by Moshe, had been performing service in the Mishkan as it was being inaugurated for seven days. On the eighth day (thus, the name of the parasha), Rosh Chodesh Nisan, Aharon started bringing korbanot of various types, from various animals, and for various purposes.
After the description of these korbanot, the Torah continues: “Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he went down from doing the chatat (sin offering), the olah (burnt offering), and the shelamim (korban that is “shared” by the altar, the Kohanim, and the people who bring it). And Moshe and Aharon came to the Tent of Meeting, and they exited and blessed the nation, and the glory of Hashem was seen by the nation” (Vayikra 9:22-23).
The gemara (Sota 38a-b) uses these p’sukim to learn halakhot of Birkat Kohanim. For one, the source that gave the practice one of its names, Nesi’at Kapayim (The Lifting of the Hands) is learned from the fact that Aharon raised his hands while blessing the people. Another halakha is that the Kohanim must walk toward “the dukhan” (podium) during the berakha of R’tzei (known as Avoda because it requests that Hashem will allow us to return to full service in the Beit Hamikdash). This is learned from the fact that this blessing of Aharon was done while he was in the midst of bringing korbanot on the altar. (There is considerable discussion among the commentaries as to if the berakha was made while he was still on the altar or after he came down – see Siftei Chachamim and Malbim ad loc.)
Rashi, basing himself on Torat Kohanim says that the berakha that Aharon made was actually the same triple berakha that Kohanim recite to this day. If so, it is clear why the gemara learned the laws of Birkat Kohanim from the manner in which it was performed, apparently the very first time.
According to the Ba’al Haturim, the very nature of the berakha corresponded to the setting in which it was performed on that special eighth day of the inauguration. The three berakhot correspond to the three types of korbanot that Aharon was involved in at the time.
The first, ending with “and he shall protect you” corresponds to chatat, the first korban mentioned in the pasuk. Indeed, the chatat is the main korban for atonement, which protects us from the consequences of sin.
The berakha beseeching Hashem shine His countenance upon us, understood to refer to a close relationship with Hashem, corresponds to the olah. This makes sense in that the olah is less of a korban of atonement and more of fully giving of ourselves in an attempt to make our relationship with Hashem closer.
The final berakha, which ends with a request for shalom, corresponds to shelamim. Not only is there is an obvious linguistic correlation between the two words, but there is also a significant parallel in regard to content. Shalom has to do with finding the proper balance between all the different interests. So too, korban shelamim is the korban that has something for everyone, so that it epitomizes balance and inclusiveness.
The Ramban is somewhat bothered by the prospect of this unspecified berakha being the one that the Torah specifies (apparently) later in Parashat Naso as the Birkat Kohanim. Therefore, he raises the possibility that the berakha was an original text that Aharon composed, just as King Shlomo did centuries later when he inaugurated the Beit Hamikdash (see the beautiful speech starting at Melachim I, 8:22). The Ramban may be picking up on the fact that, as opposed to the matter of the korbanot, the Torah does not mention a commandment here to Aharon to say the berakha.
The Ramban does raise the possibility that the timing of the commandment in Parashat Naso was actually prior to this event, so that Aharon was indeed just carrying out the berakha as commanded, albeit under special circumstances. Another possibility he raises is that first Aharon was commanded to say that which would be Birkat Kohanim as a special one-time berakha. Later on, Hashem gave the same berakha to all the Kohanim for all generations.
It occurred to me to suggest the following idea as a compromise between the possibility that Aharon made up some unspecified blessing and that he was simply carrying out that which is written elsewhere. Perhaps Aharon did compose a berakha that he was not commanded to do. But perhaps the berakha he composed, after bringing the three different korbanot, each with its own character, was precisely the triple blessing that we know of as Birkat Kohanim.
If Aharon was so inspired as to tap precisely into the sentiments and wishes that Hashem later mandated his descendants for generations, then we can especially appreciate the berakha that the Kohanim recite before Birkat Kohanim: “… who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon and commanded us to bless his nation, Israel, with love.” Indeed, this very text is the proof of the sanctity of Aharon and his great love for Israel, which inspired and enabled him to compose the exact blessing that was chosen by Hashem for his descendants to use for eternity.
May the blessings be fulfilled in all of us!