Two hours ago, I was in a little town about thirty minutes and several worlds away from Jerusalem. Now I’m here. Shabbat begins very soon. As seems to have been the case a lot lately, I have a great deal that I would like to say, and this blog post will not be the time to say it. So on to the blessing:
This week’s blessing comes from old family friends who have known me since I was in preschool. They’ve been wonderful cheerleaders for me for most of my life and now, thanks to the wonders of facebook, it’s pretty easy to keep up with them and vice versa! They wrote: To a rabbi Cohen this is most appropriate and sent this picture of what’s called the priestly or Kohanic blessing:
This blessing’s translation might look familiar to many Christians as well as Jews, since it comes from the book of deuteronomy. I’ve heard it used in church services before, and here in Jerusalem it’s a regular part of most morning services. My first significant memories of this blessing come from my first rabbi, Leivy Smolar (z”l), who used to recite this only at what I thought of as the most precious of occasions. He blessed me with it at my Bat Mitzvah and a few other times throughout my childhood. Even though I have heard (and recited) this blessing on countless occasions throughout my life, a part of me always thinks of him when I hear it.
Now, you might think of Judaism as a religion, and you would be right, but the Kohanim are one of the remnants of the tribal nature of this whole shebang. In general, most Jews are what’s called “Yisraelim– Israelites.” Fathers (tribes are paternal, not maternal) pass down that status through the generations from one of the original 12 tribes (aka most of Jacob’s sons, with a few exceptions and a few substituted grandchildren). There are two categories of Jews who are not Yisraelim: Kohanim and Levi’im. The Kohans, since they’re all special and priestly, get a special blessing. My name is Emily Cohen. My father is a Cohen/Kohan. His father was a Cohen/Kohan. And so it goes back through the generations all the way to Torah (or so the story goes). That makes me what’s called a “Bat Kohan,” a daughter of a Cohen.
There are a number of regulations regarding Kohanic status and privilege, and I won’t go into all of them, but there are a couple that I witness a lot. According to tradition, the first aliyah goes to a Kohan and the second to a Levite. And, here in Israel, the Birkat haKohanim (the Kohanic Blessing) is recited by a Kohan during morning prayer services.
This would be a good time to mention that the Reconstructionist movement doesn’t believe in this sort of classification. While it is wonderful to be conscious of one’s genealogy and to draw the good from it, the three “classes” of Jews, as it were, harken too much to a sort of caste system to feel appropriate for today’s age. There are also many Reform and Conservative communities (I can’t speak to Orthodox) who don’t prioritize giving a Kohan the first aliyah and that sort of thing. Personally, I very much appreciate my heritage, and I totally feel like a Cohen/Kohan, and at the same time I think when it comes down to it most Jews probably have a bit of Kohan in them and I don’t deserve the first aliyah anymore than anybody else does.
Ok. As usual these days, shabbat is moments away and so I will wrap this up and leave you with two rather marvelous gifts from the states that made me VERY HAPPY INDEED. Shabbat Shalom.