Tens of thousands of worshippers filled the Western Wall, or Kotel, Plaza on Monday morning for the Birkat Hakohanim (priestly blessing) performed en masse at the Kotel during Passover and Sukkot.
The capital was flooded as over 50,000 Jews made their way to the Old City to receive the Biblical blessing from hundreds of kohanim at the Kotel. Over 3,000 police and security personnel were on hand due to heightened tensions after last week’s bus bombing. However, there were no security incidents at the event.
Chief Rabbis Yitzchak Yosef and David Lau were honored guests, as millions of people around the world viewed remotely via the Kotel website.
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.