The priestly benediction — Numbers 6:22–27 — is a three-line formula that the ancient priests used to bless the people, enabling God to bless the people as well. While millennia have passed since this blessing was offered in the Temple, the ritual persists in synagogues today as part of the repetition of the Amidah. While in many communities the blessing is delivered by whoever is leading services, in others the priests in attendance go to the front of the congregation to deliver it themselves. In many communities, congregants cover their own heads with a tallit since shekhinah, the divine presence, is understood to be summoned in this moment, and gazing could damage one’s eyesight.
I recall being with my grandfather in synagogue as a young boy, wrapped with him under his tallit, listening to the words of the blessing emerging from the priests gathered on the bimah. I remember trying to keep up with the mumbling congregants who recited a verse after each word of the benediction and joining in the singing of the wordless melody led by the hazzan between the three lines of the blessing.
The mishnah’s version of the ritual is simpler than what I witnessed in my grandfather’s synagogue. The priests recite the benediction verse by verse and, after each verse, the congregation responds amen.
Today, the Gemara poses a wonderfully talmudic question: What happens if the entire community is made up of priests? Do they all offer the blessing? And who, then, receives it?
Adda said that Rabbi Samlai says: In a synagogue that is made up entirely of priests, everyone ascends the platform to recite the priestly benediction.
But if the entire congregation is composed of priests, for whom do they utter the blessing?
Rabbi Zeira says: They say the blessing for their fellows who are in the fields.
The benediction benefits those who could not make it to synagogue. A great answer, but one that yields a few objections:
Is that so? But didn’t Abba, son of Rav Minyamin bar Hiyya, teach that the people who are standing behind the backs of the priests are not included in the priestly benediction?
Abba’s teaching contradicts the Gemara’s answer. If those in the field are not standing before the priests to receive the blessing, how can they receive the blessing?
That is not difficult. The former is a case where the people are compelled to be in the fields because of their work; Abba’s statement is referring to people who are not compelled to be away but still do not stand face-to-face with the priests.
The resolution is this: If you are able to be present for the blessing, but choose not to, you are not included. But if you have an excused absence, you get the benefit.
But what about this?
Didn’t Rav Shimi of Birte deShihorei teach that in a synagogue that is made up entirely of priests, some of them ascend to recite the benediction and some of them answer amen?
Rav Shimi’s teaching also makes sense: We don’t necessarily need all the priests to make the blessing, and there should be someone around to acknowledge it by saying amen.
Again, the Gemra responds:
That is not difficult.
Rav Shimi is dealing with a case where, if some of the priests recite the benediction, a quorum of ten priests still remains to receive the benediction and answer amen. Therefore, only some of the priests ascend to recite the benediction. The original case, however, is one where a quorum of ten does not remain to answer amen, so it is better for all of the priests to ascend and bless the people working in the fields.
As before, the Gemara responds to the objection by explaining how the two cases are different. However, while the first explanation left our understanding of the original case intact, this one changes it.
We first thought he was saying that, in a congregation entirely made up of priests, they all should go up to recite the benediction. Based upon the resolution to the second objection, however, we are now to understand that he meant that all go up only if there are at least 10 but less than 19 of them (in which case, when a quorum of 10 go up to make the blessing, less than 10 remain in the congregation).
And while this solution appears to upend Rav Simlai’s original intent, it sits well with me. Thinking back to those moments in my grandfather’s synagogue, what made this ritual powerful was the liturgical interaction between the priests and congregation, an embodiment of the link between God and the Israelites alluded to in Numbers 6:27. For this to happen, someone must be present to receive it — even when everyone in the room is a priest.
Read all of Sotah 38 on Sefaria.