Though I would never criticize my dad, he probably regretted waiting until the last minute to explain the concept of the priestly blessings to me.
I was 7, sitting in the men’s section of the historic Yeshurun Central Synagogue in Jerusalem during my first trip to Israel, and my father had just told me that he needed to leave me alone in the pews for a few minutes. Did he really expect that, after alerting me to the fact that he was about to take off his shoes, have his hands washed, pull a tallit over his head, and contort his fingers, I wouldn’t have any follow-up questions?
Even compared to many of Judaism’s seemingly odd practices, the ritual of the priestly blessings — aka Birkat Kohanim, or as it’s often referred to in Yiddish, duchening — seems particularly strange (though the practice of swinging a live chicken over one’s head prior to Yom Kippur still has it beat by a mile). Yet it’s one of our oldest traditions — going back to when our people wandered the desert, according to some Jewish scholars — and it is performed in synagogues throughout the world.
In the Book of Numbers, God commanded the priests (or kohanim, descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, who prepared the sacrifices in the days when the Temple stood), to bless the Jewish people using a specific three-sentence formula. The overall process is as follows: During the cantor’s repetition of the silent Amidah, the kohanim remove their shoes; have their hands washed by a Levite; stand at the front of the sanctuary; cover their heads and hands with a tallit; and recite the priestly blessing from Numbers. And as we learned from Leonard Nimoy, underneath the prayer shawl a kohen gives the “Vulcan Salute,” forming a V between the ring and middle fingers (replicating the Hebrew letter shin), with the thumbs of both hands touching.
In practice, like virtually every Jewish ritual, the customs vary. Congregations in Israel generally duchen every day, whereas most diaspora communities only do so on yom tov, and others skip it when yom tov coincides with Shabbat. I’ve duchened three times since the High Holy Day season began (for the two days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur), and I expect to do so four more times before it ends, assuming I don’t oversleep during the first or last days of Sukkot.
Some synagogues have a minimum age for kids to duchen. Growing up, the policy at the congregation my family belonged to in Newton, Mass., was that kids had to be at least 12-and-a-half before they could join their fathers for Birkat Kohanim. Actually, for the sake of my loyal readers, I’ll be more forthcoming: This only became policy after I, at age 10, in full view of all the worshippers, gave the unsuspecting kohen standing next to me “bunny ears” for the duration of the ritual.
Even though it’s an honor to be the instrument through which God blesses the Jewish nation, if I’m being nitpicky, some aspects can be a minor nuisance. For instance, in Israel they repeat the Amidah so quickly that the kohanim almost have to run to wash their hands or they might miss it. I’ve never been a fan of removing my shoes, either; it adds a layer of stress to choosing my outfit, as the shame of standing before hundreds of people on Yom Kippur while wearing socks that are mismatched or hole-y is almost too much to bear. And when I was a teenager and hoping to impress the fairer sex, I abhorred the way my tallit always mussed up my heavily gelled coif.
And then there is the singing. To allow time for congregants’ personal reflections, the kohanim stall by engaging in a vocal exercise that I would describe as one part singing, one part humming, and three parts clearing their throats. The lyrics are the always-popular Ashkenazi “ay-yay-yay.”
This would be all well and good if only kohanim could carry a tune. But through years of anecdotal and subjective research, I believe the most apt comparison for the collective voices of kohanim moved to song is a walrus who’s just had a tooth pulled.
But if you think a group of tone deaf individuals singing together sounds bad, just imagine what it’s like if they’re not even singing the same tune.
As Jews frequently travel during our plethora of holy days, there’s a decent shot that a few wayward priests will duchen at an unfamiliar synagogue. Most, if they don’t recognize the established tune, will go with the flow and hum quietly until they pick it up. But there are others who are adamant that there is but one melody they will chant, and they insist on doing so loudly and unapologetically, even if all the other kohanim happen to be singing an altogether different tune.
What’s really frustrating is that, unless there’s a small number of kohanim, it’s nearly impossible to identify the guilty party. After all, as scripture teaches, we are all suspects in the eyes of the Lord when there is a tallit draped over our heads.
Live long and prosper and chag sameach!
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Reuven Cohn, HaRav Reuven Tzvi ben HaRav Moshe Yeshayah HaKohen uDevorah Breina a”h. Rabbi Cohn, who passed away earlier this week, taught my father, my nieces and nephew, and me. He was among the kohanim who duchened with me during my formative years, and I’d like to think he would have appreciated this remembrance.