As a child in temple on Shabbat, I thought that when the congregation sang the opening words of the Torah service, the doors to the ark magically opened. Every week, the congregation sang that liturgy and the doors responded
on cue. We prayed, and something really happened! The kids loved it.
But one week when I was in about the third grade, as a kind of initiation, our rabbi took our entire religious school class onto the sanctuary’s bimah. He showed us a button hidden on the floor near the ark. He casually pressed it with his foot, and the ark doors opened. Although he meant well, the effect for me was that a bit of the magic was stripped from the synagogue service. I have been searching for that magic ever since.
This week’s parashah brings us a bit of that magic. Aaron and his sons, the Temple priests, are instructed to bless the people of Israel with the “Priestly Blessing,” our most ancient piece of liturgy. “May God bless you and protect you! May God deal kindly and graciously with you! May God’s face lift up towards you and grant you peace!” (Numbers 6:24-26)
In the 1970s at a burial cave in Jerusalem, archaeologists found two rolled silver scrolls with these words. It is the oldest biblical text fragment, dating back to the seventh century BCE, 400 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls. The discovery proves, at the very least, that some of the Torah writings existed during the period of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
What makes this finding even more intriguing is that each scroll was rolled within an amulet — a piece of jewelry or an ornament thought to bring the wearer protection. The Priestly Blessing, in this earliest known form, was worn, or in this case buried, with a person in the hopes that the individual would be granted protection. The word “protect” in the blessing is found in other such incantations of this period, suggesting its magical power to turn away evil forces, called an apotropaic power.
Both the fact that the amulets contained this word and that they were inscribed on silver connects them to Psalm 12:7-8: “The utterance of YHWH is a pure utterance, silver refined in a furnace in the Earth, purified seven times. You, O YHWH, will guard them; You will protect him from this generation forever.” Some scholars believe these verses reflected a practice of writing sacred incantations on silver at this time. The potent nature of the Priestly Blessing was corroborated by later Jewish mystics, who believed that when the priests said these words in the Temple, they “swallowed” a secret name of God (Joshua Trachtenberg, “Jewish Magic and Superstition,” 78-93).
The Priestly Blessing is a window into how our ancestors viewed the potency of words, divine names and ritual. Because the opening verses of Genesis tell us that it was through God’s utterances that the world came into being, it was thought that humans, too, held great power through our speech. Speaking or wearing a divine name was a way of harnessing power as well. Religious rituals were transformative, not merely ceremonial. When the high priest uttered the name of God in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he put himself in actual danger because the tetragrammaton was that potent. An offering at the altar held so much danger that one could perish as a result, as evidenced by the death of two of Aaron’s sons when they offered a “strange fire.” And the action of blessing someone, as with the Priestly Blessing, held mystery and energy.
As we have become more enlightened, we have had to put aside some of this history and might even scoff at our ancestors’ needs or beliefs. As a result, we have rejected much of what made ancient practices so powerful, yet we try to step into that worldview once a week during our Torah reading. Indeed, we have had to sterilize much of Jewish prayer and practice by necessity. But some of us hunger for the kind of transformative ritual that our ancestors believed the Priestly Blessing held — without compromising our intellects. Is there a way to hold both mystery and rationality as we search for some of that priestly magic?
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.