Torah Weekly

For the week ending 18 April 2015 / 29 Nisan 5775

Parshat Shemini

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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On the eighth day of the dedication of the Mishkan, Aharon, his sons, and the entire nation bring various korbanot (offerings) as commanded by Moshe. Aharon and Moshe bless the nation. G-d allows the Jewish People to sense His Presence after they complete the Mishkan. Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, innovate an offering not commanded by G-d. A fire comes from before G-d and consumes them, stressing the need to perform the commandments only as Moshe directs. Moshe consoles Aharon, who grieves in silence. Moshe directs the kohanim as to their behavior during the mourning period, and warns them that they must not drink intoxicating beverages before serving in the Mishkan. The Torah lists the two characteristics of a kosher animal: It has split hooves, and it chews, regurgitates, and re-chews its food. The Torah specifies by name those non-kosher animals which have only one of these two signs. A kosher fish has fins and easily removable scales. All birds not included in the list of forbidden families are permitted. The Torah forbids all types of insects except for four species of locusts. Details are given of the purification process after coming in contact with ritually-impure species. Bnei Yisrael are commanded to be separate and holy — like G-d.


Chant of Love

"Aharon raised his hands toward the people and blessed them" (9:22)

One of the most awe-inspiring experiences is the “Birkat Kohanim”, when thousands of kohanim bless the many thousands of people at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during the Festivals.

Most of the time, prayer at the Wall is a segmented affair. This group starts as that one finishes, while yet another group is somewhere in the middle.

Apart from the daily moments of silence at sunrise when everyone begins together the Silent Prayer of eighteen blessings, I can think of no other time when the whole of the Kotel is as unified as it is by Birkat Kohanim.

The haunting chant of the Kohanic blessing evokes deep and powerful feelings in the heart of every Jew, however religious he may be. It is a chant that echoes down the years. It is a living witness to the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition that links us to Sinai.

The first appearance of that chant is in this week’s Torah portion. Aharon completed his first day of service in the Sanctuary and he then blessed the people with great joy. Such was his desire to bless the people that G-d rewarded him and his descendents that they should bless the Jewish People throughout the generations.

The word for blessing in Hebrew, beracha, is connected to bereicha, which means a "pool." Blessing is an overflowing pool that enriches and fills our lives.

In the time of the Holy Temple, when the kohanim would bless the people, they would raise their hands over their heads and make a space between the third and fourth fingers of hands. When they recited the blessings using the ineffable Name of G-d, the Shechina, the Divine Presence, would rest upon their hands. Even nowadays they cover their heads and hands with their prayer shawls when they recite the blessings.

But perhaps we could also understand a different symbolism behind the covering of the hands of the kohen.

Our Sages teach us that blessing only descends on things that are hidden from the eye; that the eye doesn’t see. For example, a farmer who starts to weigh his grain may pray that his crop will be large, but if he has already weighed it he may no longer make such a request — for the size of the crop is already revealed to the eye. When the kohanim cover their hands they symbolize this idea that blessing descends only on that which is hidden from the eye.

  • Sources: Talmud Bava Metzia 42a, Mishna Berura 128:98

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