‘May God bless you and keep you, may God look kindly upon you and be gracious to you, may God reach out to you in tenderness, and give you peace’ (Numbers 6.22-24)
This well-known blessing has significant theological problems. The Biblical context makes clear that it is to be said only by the priests and that the consequence of its utterance is that God will bless them/the people.
Implicit is a sense that if said correctly by the right person (the priest), the words can force or ‘assist’ God into action.
Another powerful type of ‘blesser’ in the Torah is the father, especially if it is the blessing said at the end of the father’s life, exemplified in Isaac’s blessing of his two sons.
The priest or the father were believed to have a special spiritual privilege that others didn’t. And it all verges dangerously close to the idea of ritual magic -— that by doing something “down here” in the right way by the right person with the right credentials’ we can influence or even control God “up there”.
The discomfort is not modern. Rashbam, who lived around the 11th century, questioned the idea of cause-and-effect blessings and instead suggested that we see it as a prayer: an aspiration for others.
At the end of a service, I invite the community to choose a concluding benediction and then bless each other face-to-face, a ritual I learnt about from Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu.
Over time, I’ve realised that the power of blessings has little to do with the title of being a rabbi or a representative, or a cause (and effect), and everything to do with the relationships you create with the person or the couple being blessed.
Their hearts are opened because of the link you have forged with them, because you get to know them, and because they are given the space to become blessers themselves.
Sandra Kviat is rabbi at Crouch End Chavurah