the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

"Holy Land" Spring 1997


Fr. Frèderic Manns, ofm

Solomon constructed a dwelling where the Lord would live forever (1 K 8:13). God, manifesting His Glory from the clouds was pleased with the Temple as His dwelling place. But, certainly God is not tied to a sensible sign. The heavens cannot contain Him, so much more any earthly dwelling place (1 K 8:27). But in order to have his people encounter Him, He chose this dwelling place about which He has said: "My Name is there" (1 K 8:29).

Pilgrimages are made to this Temple, the center of worship, because the believer wants to see the face of God (Ps 42:3). It is here that Isaiah had his revelation of the Glory of God. This attachment to the Temple often ran the risk of becoming superstitious confidence (Is 1:11-17; Jer 7:4). When the Temple was destroyed, the prophets tried to teach the people that God has different modes to His presence. Despite this, the first business of repatriation after the exile was to rebuild the Temple. It quickly became the center of Judaism with three pilgrimages made there each year. Ben Sirach 50:5-21 enthusiastically describes the splendor of the ceremonies. When King Antiochus profaned it, the people undertook to defend it (1 Mac 4:36-43).

Isaiah 56:8 defines the Temple at the return of the exile as the house of prayer for all people. But when we look closely at these prayers it is not so evident. An inquiry into the rabbinic texts renders only meager results. Bickerman goes as far as to say that the priests of the Temple were professional butchers and not prayer virtuosi. In fact, the author of the Letter of Aristeas 92-95 is struck by the silence of the priests which, with a remarkable ability, cut the meat for the sacrifices on the altar. The underlying concept of the sacrifices from Lev 17:11 is that blood expiates (cf. Jubilees 6:14; 50:11). Later Rabbi Jonathan ben Zakkai says that it is the stones of the altar which will establish peace in Jerusalem (Mekilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Ex 20:21).

Some rare information about the prayers comes to us, however, from the rabbinic literature. A baraita from the Ta'anit Tractate 27b says:

"Members of the division (Mishmar) prayed that the offering of their brethren should be favorably accepted, while those of the Ma'amad assembled in the synagogues and observed four fasts a week."

These men of the Mishmar were laymen who accompanied the priests to the Temple during the time of their service.

Mishna Tamid 5:1 informs us that the priests recited the ten commandments, the Shema, the emet weyasib blessing, the `Abodah' blessing (the 16th from the Shemoneh Ezre), and the priestly blessing every morning.

The Mishna Tamid 7:3 also reports that when the high priest offered libations on the altar, Ben Arza sounded the cymbals and the Levites intoned the songs. 2 Chr 29:37; 2 Mac 1:30 and Ben Sirach 50:1 confirm the use of song when the holocaust began.

Since our sources are scarce in detail about the prayers themselves, we will try to see how the popular tradition depicted the Dwelling Place.

Three times a year each Jew had to go up to the Temple to "look for the face of God." The Temple of God's dwelling had become the object of a fervent and passionate love. One of the most striking paradoxes was that while the pilgrims who brought their offerings, and who were filled with the joy of the liturgical celebrations enjoyed being in the midst of the brouhaha, God wanted to dwell among His people plunged in the total obscurity of the Holy of Holies. The Ark of the Covenant which used to be there was the vacant throne of God from where His voice resounded from between the wings of the Cherubim. The Ark disappeared from the Temple at the exile to Babylon. This presence and absence, darkness and light, noise and silence characterize God's dwelling among His people.


"Solomon the prophet said: How beautiful is the house of the sanctuary of the Lord which I have built out of cedar with my own hands. How much more beautiful will be the sanctuary which I will build in the days of the King Messiah. Its joists will be made with cedar coming from the Garden of Eden, its beams will be out of cypress, box-wood and pine" (Tg Ct 1:17).

"When wicked Pharaoh persecuted Israel the community was like a dove caught in the crevice of a rock between a serpent beneath and a falcon from with out. In a similar way Israel was surrounded by the four corners of the world... As soon as Israel prayed before the Lord, a voice made itself heard from heaven: You, Assembly of Israel, who is like a pure dove, you are caught in the crags of the rock and in a place hidden from the paths; show me your face and your works; let me hear your voice, for your voice takes refuge in prayer that resounds in the `little sanctuary' (the Synagogue) and your face is made beautiful by your deeds'' (Tg Ct 2:14).

"His left arm is under my head and His right arm embraces me. The Assembly of Israel says: I am preferred to all the peoples, for I put phylacteries on my left arm and on my forehead. And I attach the mezouza on the right side of my door, three inches from the lintel in order to keep the demons away" (Tg Ct 8:3).


"I will bless the priests while they are extending their arms in prayer to bless thy sons" (Tj I Gen 12,3).
"Aaron, column of the prayer of Israel, atoned for them" (Tj I Nb 20:29).
In the Book of Nb 6:22, God says to Moses: "Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them: this is how you shall bless the Israelites." Say to them:
"The Lord bless and keep you !
The Lord let His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you !
The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!"

In Hebrew, the text of this blessing is remarkable. Each blessing in the triple blessing contains two verbs and the second word is always Yahweh. Further, it is marked by a progressive increase in words.

The first blessing has three words, the second has five, and the third has seven. The symbolism is obvious.

At the Temple in Jerusalem, the priests would bless the people every morning after the offering of the lamb, also called the perpetual sacrifice (Tamid 5:1). It should be remembered that the priests officiated at the Temple with bare feet. When Shekhina appears it is necessary to take one's shoes off as Moses had done before the burning bush.

When the Temple was destroyed and the people scattered, the priestly blessing was reserved for major feasts. Wearing the tallit, the priests then stood along the Western Wall, known also as the Wailing Wall. They would turn toward the crowd, extend their hands and bless the people.

They took particular care to pronounce this blessing. Generally, a priest pronounced a word solemnly and the others continued in choir.

Everyone covered one's hands and face with the tallit so as not to be distracted by another's exterior appearance. All the more so the priest should not be an object of distraction. The Babylonian Talmud in the Sota Tractate 40a relates a custom told by R. Johanan ben Zakkai according to which the priests removed their shoes while they gave the blessing in order to avoid any possibility of distracting the faithful.

An interesting detail merits telling. After having concluded the blessing, the priests would raise their hands at the height of the shoulders and point their fingers downward. The right arm was to be raised higher than the left. This detail, probably cabbalistic in origin, is made because the right arm symbolizes goodness (hesed) which must be higher than the left arm which is the symbol of strength (Gebura). The two hands are brought together and the fingers spread apart leaving 5 openings.

The hands are thereby formed like lattices. This brings the Canticle text to mind: "Gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices" (Song of Songs 2:9). It is this amorous dialogue between the espoused which is symbolized by the position of the priest's hands (Sota 39b).

According to the exhortation from Mishna Meg 4:10, the priestly blessing should not be translated. Nevertheless, and in spite of this caution, we know that it has been commented on by the Pharisees (Sifre Nb) and by the Essenes (lQS 2:14), as well in the liturgy of the Synagogue.

The version from Targum Jonathan is:

"The Lord bless and keep thee.
The Lord bless thee in all thy business, and keep thee
from demons of the night, and bad spirits,
and from demons of the noon and of the morning
and from demons of the ruins and from demons of the evenings.
The Lord make His face shine upon thee, when occupied in the Law,
and reveal to thee its secrets, and be merciful unto thee.
The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee in thy prayer
and grant thee peace in all your territory."

The blessing becomes principally a request for protection against the powers of evil. The study of the Law remains the best remedy against evil spirits.

© copyright 1997

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