Tag Archives: Birkat Kohanim

Calling in the Name of God

At the end of this week’s parasha, Chukat, the Torah tells us about the war between the Israelites and the Moabites. The Torah says woe to “the people of Chemosh” who will be lost and destroyed (Numbers 21:29). Chemosh is the name of the chief deity of the Moabites. It is interesting that the Torah names this idol, considering that there’s a clear mitzvah to completely obliterate the names of false idols and never so much as mention their names! (Exodus 23:13) The Talmud explains that if a name of a certain idol is recorded in the Torah, then we are obviously permitted to pronounce it in the course of learning and reading the Torah (Sanhedrin 63b).

Others comment that the prohibition of mentioning idol names is only if actually employing the names like idolaters might, such as in the form of worship or reverance, or by swearing on an idol’s name for business deals or in a courthouse. (See the Rambam’s Avodat Kochavim 5:10-11, and the Ramban on Exodus 23:13). It would even be forbidden for a Jew to make a gentile swear in the name of his false god, or for a Jew to tell a fellow Jew to meet him by the statue of a certain idol. That said, it is not prohibited to mention the names of idols for valid educational purposes and warnings about idolatry. (If you can’t clearly name and identify the idols, it might be difficult to educate people on avoiding them!)

The Haftarah for this week’s parasha builds on the same theme, with the hero Yiftach delivering a long historical speech, and telling the Moabites: “that which Chemosh your god gives you to possess, you may possess; and all that which יהוה [YHWH], our God, has driven out from before us, we shall possess!” (Judges 11:24) The Haftarah makes a point to specifically name Hashem multiple times, highlighting the greatness of YHWH over the false idol Chemosh. This reminds us of the mitzvah mentioned countless times throughout the Tanakh that the Jewish people should spread the name of God far and wide, to “call in God’s Name”—a practice that goes all the way back to Abraham himself, who “planted an eshel tree at Beer-Sheva, and from there called in the name of YHWH, the Everlasting God.” (Genesis 21:33)

The parts of God’s Ineffable Name (the four letters and the “crown” atop the Yud) correspond to the five levels of soul, the five mystical dimensions or olamot, the five groupings or “faces” of the Sefirot, as well as the five books of the Torah.

This begs the question: what does it mean to “call in God’s Name”? And are we even allowed to pronounce the various names of God? It is common knowledge that we don’t pronounce the Ineffable Name, YHWH, but what of all the other titles for God, such as Elohim, Adonai, and El Shaddai? Can we utter these names outside of prayers and Torah readings?

The Evolution of Ineffable

Originally, the Ineffable Name of God was not “Ineffable” at all. In Biblical times, it was used freely by Israelites, and frequently embedded within people’s names (usually without the final letter Hei) like Eliyahu, Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yehudah, Yehoshafat, Yehoyada, and so on. In the Book of Ruth we read of the common greeting YHWH imachem, “God be with you”, to which the recipient would reply: yevarekhekha YHWH, “God bless you!” (Ruth 2:4) Even today there is a fairly widespread custom to say these phrases when a person gets called up to the Torah, before reciting the blessings, except that now YHWH is typically replaced with “Hashem”.

Meanwhile, the Torah commands the kohanim to pronounce the Name when blessing the congregation: “And they shall place My Name upon the Children of Israel, and I will bless them!” (Numbers 6:27) The Name itself is the conduit of God’s special blessing. We still do the priestly blessing today, but without the actual pronunciation of God’s Name, in which place the kohanim say Adonai or Adonoi. It makes one wonder if the blessing still has the same effect if the kohanim are not actually placing God’s Name “upon the Children of Israel” as the Torah commands. So, how did Adonai come to replace YHWH?

Clearly, the Tanakh does not prohibit pronouncing God’s Name, and only warns against pronouncing God’s Name in vain, which is one of the Ten Commandments. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) presents a minority opinion that someone who pronounces God’s Name has no share in the World to Come. Again, this must be referring to someone who pronounces the Name in vain, since we know the Name was known and used even in Talmudic times. In one place (Avodah Zarah 18a), the Talmud speculates on the deeper reasons for why Rabbi Chanania ben Teradion was executed by the Romans, with one opinion suggests he may have been too careless with pronouncing the Ineffable Name in public, and should have been more discrete. In another place (Kiddushin 71a), the Talmud says the Sages would teach the Ineffable Name once or twice in seven years. It is here that the Talmud affirms to avoid pronouncing the Ineffable Name with its actual four letters, and instead to say “Adonai”.

The earliest origin of using Adonai in reference to God is Genesis 18:3, when God appears to Abraham. Three angels then show up, and Abraham says: “Adonai, if it please you, do not go on past your servant!” The classic question here is: to whom does Adonai refer? Was Abraham speaking to God, or to the three angels that suddenly showed up? At first glance, the latter makes more sense, and Abraham was referring to the three mysterious figures as Adonai, “my lords”, in the plural. Hospitable Abraham was asking the three to stick around and not pass him by.

Rabbinic tradition, however, concludes that Adonai refers to Hashem here, and Abraham was telling God not to “pass by” or leave while he goes off to assist the three unannounced guests. This is where Adonai is first linked to YHWH, and the fact that “Adonai” is plural is not an issue, the same way “Elohim” is plural. The plurality is a form of respect, as is still found in many languages (including Russian and French) to refer to an elder or authority figure. It used to be the case in English, too, where “you” used to be the plural and “thou” the singular. Over time, the respectful plural “you” became the standard singular, while the informal “thou” disappeared.

Interestingly, while Adonai was instituted in order to avoid pronouncing the Ineffable Name in vain, over time Adonai itself became a holy name that shouldn’t be said in vain! Today, it has become common for people to instead say Hashem, “The Name”. Sometimes people (especially musicians) will say “Amonai” instead of Adonai—but this is highly problematic because Amon was the name of a chief deity of the ancient Egyptians! Other times, people will refer to the Ineffable Name by saying the actual letters sequentially, as Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei. This is perfectly appropriate, and was the practice of the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534-1572). Yet, as expected, people tend to add extra (unnecessary) fences and now many will say Yud-Kei-Vav-Kei.

In Sha’ar haMitzvot (on parashat Shemot), the Arizal’s primary disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital notes how “My master of blessed memory [the Arizal] told me that one should not pronounce the four letters of God’s Name unless he does so through a milui, as follows: Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei”. (אמר לי מורי זלה”ה כי אמיתות פי’ דבר זה הוא שלא יקרא ד’ אותיות ההוי”ה ככתבן בלי מילוי אבל אם גם יקראנו במילוי כזה יו”ד ה”י וי”ו ה”י.) Rabbi Vital goes on to explain that the Arizal was careful to avoid pronouncing the names of certain angels, so Rabbi Vital asked him: “If we are allowed to always pronounce names of God like Adonai and Elohim, why would we be forbidden from pronouncing names of created angels?” (ופעם אחת שאלתי למורי זלה”ה כי הרי שמות אדני ואלהים וכיוצא אנו מזכירים אותם תמיד ואם כן למה אסור להזכיר שמות המלאכים הנבראים.) In other words, the names of angels are obviously less holy than names of God, so why are we careful with the former and not the latter? The Arizal explained that names of God are pure and can never receive any impurity, while names of angels can be manipulated, misused, and attract impurity. Hence, we can use names of God freely, but we should be more careful with the names of certain angels. The passage concludes by saying that, of course, when it comes to the names of common angels which have also become people’s names (examples given are Michael and Gabriel), these are permitted to use freely and as necessary.

We learn from this that it is not necessary to replace Elohim with Elokim, like many today do, or to fear using titles like Adonai. Similarly, names like El Shaddai are not ineffable, and can be pronounced as is, assuming it is done in a respectful manner or in the course of education or recitation of verses (so there is no need to say “Shakkai” in place of “Shaddai”). In fact, it is actually inappropriate to do so: Over the years, I’ve spoken to many recent baalei teshuva, converts, new students, and the like, and oftentimes these well-meaning people do not realize that Shakkai or Elokim are not genuine names of God at all. Because they heard others speak this way, they were unaware of the true name of God—and this is highly problematic and unfortunate.

For God’s sake, we really must use the appropriate titles, and “call in God’s Name” as the Torah reminds us many times. Our mission is to spread Godliness and awareness of Hashem far and wide, and to do so we must use the proper names of God, or else we spread confusion and misinformation. This sentiment was echoed in a detailed analysis of the issue by Rabbi Yitzchak Ratzavi in his Olat Yitzchak (II, 74 on Orach Chaim). There, he argues that such distortions of God’s names were never used by our Sages or referenced in any early Jewish holy texts, and that this is a recent phenomenon which actually denigrates God’s holy names!

דע שהזכרת שם אלקים בקו״ף במקום ה״א כפי שנפוץ בזמנינו, וכן קל במקום אל, קה במקום יה [שק״י במקום שדי, צבקות בשם צבעות] וכיו״ב לא נזכר שמץ מנהו בדברי חז״ל והקדמונים… ואדרבה י״ל שהוא גנאי לכנות כך לשמו ית׳

Know that mentioning “Elokim” with a kuf instead of a hei, as is common in our days, and similarly “Kel” instead of “El”, “Kah” instead of “Yah”, “Shakkai” instead of “Shaddai”, “Tzvakot” instead of “Tzva’ot”, and the like – these are not mentioned at all in the words of our Sages of blessed memory or the early rabbis… on the contrary, one could say that it is a denigration of God’s Names!

One thing that Rabbi Ratzavi points out in his historical examination is that these name-distortions were innovated by Ashkenazim who sought more stringencies, but were unheard of in the Mizrachi world, including the Yemenite community from which he hails. Indeed, Sephardic sources have always been far more balanced and logical in this regard, and truer to the Torah’s call for Jews to invoke God’s proper names. Rav Ovadia Yosef, for instance, was known to use the proper names of God in reciting verses both while learning and teaching.

To summarize: the Tetragrammaton YHWH is not to be pronounced (and few know the proper pronunciation anyway!) Adonai is the proper replacement when reciting verses—and does have its own status as a genuine name of God as well, so should not be misused. In colloquial speech, Adonai is replaced by Hashem. Other titles and appellations of God may be used, too, respectfully and not in vain, of course. These include six more names of God that are considered especially holy and, like the Tetragrammaton, are forbidden from being erased if written down: El, Elo’ah, Elohim, Elohai, Shaddai, and Tzva’ot (see Rambam’s Yesodei HaTorah 6:2). On the point of “not in vain”: saying names of God while reciting verses during prayers or Torah study (including Talmud study) is obviously not in vain, nor is it in vain in the course of teaching Torah or in the context of a shiur. It is also not in vain when singing verses from Psalms, various piyyutim and Shabbat zemirot (and I would even add: kosher Hebrew songs by modern-day artists), since it is a legitimate shevach or praise of God, sung with positive and spiritual intentions. Plus, they help to spread knowledge of God’s names throughout the world, as the Torah instructs us to do.

On that note, everyone agrees that we are now in Ikvot haMashiach, the “Footsteps of the Messiah”, and are gradually transitioning into the long-awaited Olam haBa, the “World to Come”. It is therefore worth noting that the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) states in this current world, we pronounce the Ineffable Name as Adonai, but in the World to Come, we will go back to properly pronouncing the four letters YHWH as in ancient times. In fact, the Talmud (Bava Batra 75b) says that in the future, three will be called by the Ineffable Name: the four holy letters will be appended to the name of the holy city of Jerusalem, and to the name of Mashiach, and to all of the tzadikim that will merit to be alive then:

עֲתִידִין צַדִּיקִים שֶׁנִּקְרָאִין עַל שְׁמוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כֹּל הַנִּקְרָא בִשְׁמִי וְלִכְבוֹדִי בְּרָאתִיו, יְצַרְתִּיו אַף עֲשִׂיתִיו״. וְאָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: שְׁלֹשָׁה נִקְרְאוּ עַל שְׁמוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: צַדִּיקִים, וּמָשִׁיחַ, וִירוּשָׁלִַים. צַדִּיקִים – הָא דַּאֲמַרַן. מָשִׁיחַ – דִּכְתִיב: ״וְזֶה שְּׁמוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִקְרְאוֹ ה׳ צִדְקֵנוּ״. יְרוּשָׁלַיִם – דִּכְתִיב: ״סָבִיב שְׁמֹנָה עָשָׂר אָלֶף, וְשֵׁם הָעִיר מִיּוֹם ה׳ שָׁמָּה״…

In the future, the righteous will be called by the Name of the Holy One, Blessed be He; as it is stated: “Every one that is called by My Name, and whom I have created for My glory, I have formed him, and I have made him.” (Isaiah 43:7) And Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani says that Rabbi Yochanan says: Three will be called by the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and they are: The righteous, and Mashiach, and Jerusalem. The righteous, as already explained. Mashiach, as it is written: “And this is his name whereby he shall be called: YHWH-Tzidkenu.” (Jeremiah 23:6) Jerusalem, as it is written: “It shall be eighteen thousand reeds round about. And the name of the city from that day shall be YHWH-Shammah.” (Ezekiel 48:35)

One could therefore argue that it may be the task of Mashiach himself to re-teach the world the true pronunciation of God’s Ineffable Name, and to restore the primordial task of “calling in God’s Name” wherever we go. Indeed, right after describing Mashiach in chapter 11, the prophet Yeshayahu tells us that in that future era, “you shall say: thank YHWH, call in His Name, publicize His deeds among the peoples; keep it in remembrance, for His Name is exalted!” (Isaiah 12:4) And the prophet Tzfanyah adds: “For then I will make the peoples pure of speech so that they will all call YHWH by name, to serve Him together.” (Zephaniah 3:9)

May we merit to see that day very soon!

Secrets of the Priestly Blessing

This week’s parasha (in the diaspora) is Nasso, the longest in the Torah. In it, we read how God commanded Moses to instruct Aaron and his priestly descendants to bless the people with the following formula:

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Loosely translated: “God bless you and protect you; God shine His Face upon you, and be gracious to you; God lift His Face upon you, and place peace upon you.” (Numbers 6:25-27) This unique, enigmatic phrase carries tremendous meaning, and an interesting history, too. In fact, the oldest Hebrew inscription of a Torah verse ever found is this blessing!

In 1979, archaeologists in Ketef Hinnom near the Old City of Jerusalem discovered two small silver scrolls. After painstakingly unravelling the fragile scrolls (a feat that took three years), they discovered that they were inscribed with Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, along with a few introductory lines. The scrolls have been dated back to the 7th century BCE, and are considered among the greatest finds in the history of Biblical archaeology.

What secrets are buried within the words of Birkat Kohanim?

Silver scroll with priestly blessing, discovered near Jerusalem in 1979

Restoring Divine Light

In introducing the Priestly Blessing, the Torah commands koh tevarkhu, (כֹּ֥ה תְבָרְכ֖וּ), “thus shall you bless…” The Zohar (III, 146a) reminds us that koh is an allusion to the divine light of Creation. The value of koh (כה) is 25, hinting to the 25th word of the Torah, “light”. When Adam and Eve consumed the Fruit, that original divine light of Creation was concealed. This is the secret behind God calling to Adam: ayekah (איכה), usually translated simply as “where are you?” but really meaning ayeh koh, “where is the divine light?” Indeed, the very purpose of the kohen is to help restore some of that hidden divine light. This is why he is called a kohen!

It is also why it is customary not to look directly at the kohanim when they relay the blessing. The hidden light may be far too intense, and might cause the observer’s eyes to dim (Chagigah 16a). The ancient mystical text Sefer haBahir (#124) adds that the kohanim put together their ten fingers in that unique arrangement in order to channel the energy of all Ten Sefirot. Elsewhere, we learn that the hands of the kohanim come together to roughly form an inner samekh, the only circular letter in the Hebrew alphabet, representing infinite cycles and endless blessings. Sefer haTemunah teaches that the proper shape of a samekh is a combination of a kaf and a vav. (The sum of the values of kaf and vav is 26, equal to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name.) Kaf literally means the “palm” of the hand, and the linear vav represents a shining ray of light.  These are the hidden rays of light, the light of koh, emerging through the hands of the kohanim as they bless.

In his commentary on the Torah, the Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1340) states that koh reminds us also of the Akedah, when Abraham told his attendants that he and Isaac would go ‘ad koh, “until there”. The deeper meaning is that Abraham saw the divine light emanating from the top of Mt. Moriah, the future site of the Holy of Holies. This is how he knew exactly where to bind Isaac. Previously, God had already blessed Abraham with the words כה יהיה זרעך, that his offspring would be luminous (and numerous) like the stars (Genesis 15:5). The Ba’al haTurim adds that the Shema has 25 letters for the same reasons and, amazingly, the term “blessing” is mentioned 25 times in the Torah, as is the word “peace”!

The first line of Birkat Kohanim has three words and fifteen letters, the Ba’al haTurim points out, alluding to the three Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—whose lives overlapped for 15 years. Recall that Abraham had Isaac when he was 100 years old, and Isaac had Jacob at 60 years old, ie. when Abraham was 160. Since we know Abraham passed away at the age of 175, there were 15 years when all three Avot lived together.

More specifically, the first line of the blessing is for Abraham, the second is for Isaac, and the third is for Jacob. This is why the second line speaks of illumination since, as is well-known, Isaac saw the intensely bright divine light unfiltered at the Akedah, and this is the reason he later became (physically) blind. The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia ben Yakov Sforno, 1475-1550) adds that within the second line of the blessing is a request for God to give light to our eyes so that we could see God within all things, in all the wonders of the world, and in all the wealth (material and otherwise) that God has blessed us with.

The Ba’al haTurim continues that the third line of Birkat Kohanim is for Jacob, which is why it begins with the word yisa (יִשָּׂ֨א), reminding us of Genesis 29:1 when Jacob fled (וישא יעקב רגליו). It has seven words to indicate the subsequent births of the Twelve Tribes, who were (except for Benjamin) born to Jacob over a span of 7 years. The last line again has 25 letters to remind us of koh, and further alludes to the Sinai Revelation—another burst of divine light—when God said (Exodus 19:3) “thus [koh] you shall speak to the House of Jacob” (כה תאמר לבית יעקב). The Ba’al haTurim concludes that the final word of the blessing, shalom, has the same numerical value as Esau (376) to teach us that one should spread peace among all people, gentiles included, and even Esau!

Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) says that “peace” means complete peace, with not even a little stone or a wild animal to bother a person. Meanwhile, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) says that “peace” here refers to shalom malkhut beit David, peace upon the kingdom of David and his dynasty. We may infer from this that it refers as well to geopolitical peace in Israel, and a request to hasten the coming of Mashiach. This is related to the Sforno’s interpretation, as he says the verse refers specifically to the World to Come in which, as described in the Talmud (Berakhot 17a), the righteous will bask peacefully in God’s glory.

May we merit to see it soon!

The above essay is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Three.
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