One of the most impressive gatherings of the year is the Birkat Kohanim, the twice-annual priestly blessing held on the second intermediate days of Passover and Sukkoth when some 40,000 Jews come to the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem to be blessed by hundreds of Kohanim (the descendants of Aaron the priest).
Among fears that the event would be canceled or held in a subdued fashion as it has been the last two times (Sukkot in October and last year during Passover), the Western Wall Heritage Foundation announced that the event will be held in all its glory. But to allow for social distancing while still opening the event to the general public, the Kohanim will bless the Jews in two separate events.
Last Passover marked 50 years since the reinstatement of the priestly blessing ceremony, this event took place in a minimal manner with a quorum of ten priests blessing an equal number of Jews who were all residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, in accordance with the special regulations for the coronavirus pandemic. They recited a special prayer and blessing dedicated to the complete recovery of the United States and the entire world by U.S. Ambassador David Friedman who is also a kohen.
In October, the Birkat Kohanim for Sukkot took place with dozens of kohanim who were residents of the Jewish Quarter, and with almost no public.
“With praise and gratitude to G-d, this Passover, kohanim from around Israel will be allowed to participate in the traditional event and bless the Jewish people, in accordance with regulations,” theWestern Wall Heritage Foundation stated in a media release. “The event will be an exciting one of unity and gratitude for the improvement we are witnessing in the battle with the coronavirus.”
The event will be split into two separate events on consecutive days in order to limit crowding, as people from all around Israel are expected to arrive. The events will take place on Monday, 16 Nissan (March 29th) and on Tuesday, 17 Nissan (March 30th). The events will take place between 8:45-10:30 am.
As in previous years, the events this year will take place in the presence of the chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Yosef and Rabbi Lau, the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites, Rabbi Rabinowitz, as well as the minister for religious affairs, Rabbi Yaakov Avitan and the mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Moshe Leon.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation requested that people plan to come to only one of the two events so that all those who wish to participate can do so within the limits of the Western Wall Plaza’s capacity. The events will be broadcast live. A separate announcement on this will follow.
The blessing is performed by kohanim, male Jews with priestly heritage who have a clear patrilineal tradition leading back to Aaron the high priest, brother of Moses. The lineage is rigorously protected, and its integrity has been proven in recent years as scientists have discovered a genetic factor common to most kohanim.
Demographically, kohanim have always represented about five percent of the Jewish population. The Temple Institute recently instituted a registry for the priestly class as a step towards reinstating the Temple service.
The priestly blessing is said daily during the year as part of the morning prayer service, and twice during Sabbath and holiday morning prayer services. Before saying the blessing, men from the tribe of Levi wash the hands of the kohanim. The ritual may only be performed by a kohen and only in the presence of a quorum of ten Jews. A kohen who is under the influence of alcohol or in mourning may not perform the blessing.
The blessing is performed by the priests holding their hands up with the fingers spread in the manner made famous by Leonard Nimoy (a kohen) when he played Spock on the television series Star Trek. The fingers of both hands are separated so as to make five spaces between them; spaces are between the ring finger and middle finger of each hand, between the index finger and thumb of each hand, and the two thumbs touch each other at the knuckle.
The priests then recite Numbers 6:23-27:
May the LORD bless you and guard you,
May the LORD make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you,
May the LORD lift up His face unto you and give you peace.
In Biblical Israel, the Temple was the center of the Passover holiday as the entire nation arrived to sacrifice the Paschal lamb and celebrate the seder as individual families. The bi-annual priestly blessing is an impressive reminder of the glory of the Jewish people coming together as a nation to serve God, something that was entirely lacking until the Jews returned to Jerusalem less than fifty years ago.