Among all the different items covered in this week’s reading is a brief commandment to Aaron and his sons. As is well known, Aaron’s sons will henceforth be the kohanim, the hereditary priests in Israel, and one of their jobs, according to this week’s reading, is to bless the people of Israel with these words:
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make His face to shine and be gracious toward you.
May the Lord lift up His face toward you and grant you peace.
I have translated this three-part blessing fairly literally, so some explanations may be in order. The word “keep” in the first line probably means something more specific in context—like “guard” or “watch over.” In the second line, to “make His face to shine” is a bit more difficult to pin down, but “to be well disposed toward you” might best capture the intended sense. Among other appearances of this Hebrew idiom, the one in Ecclesiastes seems informative, “A person’s wisdom causes His face to shine, and the harshness of His face is changed.” In other words, for God to “make His face shine” is to turn away any harshness or ill feeling and be well disposed.
It seems that the third line’s “lift up His face toward you” should be an intensification (rather than a simple restatement) of this same idea, so, for example, the NJPS translation “bestow His favor upon you”—a more active thing than simply being well disposed—is probably not far off the mark. (I should mention that standard Bible translations are usually not wild guesses, but are based on the examination of the same or similar expressions as they appear elsewhere in the Bible.)
In this connection, it is noteworthy that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain an interesting restatement of this blessing, as follows:
May [the Lord] bless you with all good, and may He keep you from all evil. May He cause your heart to shine with the discernment of life, and may He be gracious toward you with eternal knowledge. May He lift up His gracious countenance toward you for eternal peace. (1 QS Community Rule 2:2-4)
This is an obviously free version (note especially “cause your heart to shine”), but apart from its reworking of the text, it may demonstrate how significant the priestly blessing continued to be throughout the biblical period. Another measure of its importance is its continued use in amulets and other inscriptions—going back to a seventh century BCE copy of the priestly blessing that was found outside the city walls of Jerusalem in 1979.
The Bible itself gives some evidence of how people prized the act of being blessed by the temple priests with these exact words. Psalm 67 begins:
May God be gracious toward us and bless us; may He cause His face to shine with us, Selah.
The psalm ends:
May God, our God, bless us,
May God bless us and may He be revered to the ends of the earth.
It seems likely that this psalm was recited as a follow-up to the priestly blessing, allowing those present to stress how much they wished the priests’ blessing to be carried out.
The Hallel psalms that are recited on Rosh Ḥodesh (the new month) and festivals also contain a reference to the priestly blessing—but here, apparently, the words were intended to be recited by the priests themselves:
By the name of the Lord, may everyone who enters here be blessed! We [priests] bless you from the House of the Lord! The Lord is God—let Him cause [His face] to shine upon us! (Ps 118:26-27)
In short, the priestly blessing was something like the blessing in biblical times—and continues to be long after.