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Adventures in Ancient Jewish Liturgy: the Birkat Kohanim

The earliest artifacts recording Jewish liturgy (or for that matter any Hebrew formulation found in the Torah) are two small silver amulets, discovered in 1979 by Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay. He discovered the amulets in a burial chamber while excavating in Ketef Hinnom, a section of the Hinnom Valley south of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The inscriptions on these amulets conclude with parts of the Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing), the three-part blessing in which the Kohanim are instructed to bless the people of Israel in Numbers 6:22-27. The script in the amulets dates them approximately to the reign of King Yoshiyahu (late 7th or early 6th century BCE) predating the Nash papyrus, and the earliest of the Dead Sea Scrolls by four centuries.

The Birkat Kohanim may have been a well-known liturgical formula in Ancient Israelite religion, and so was recorded both in amulets and in the Torah. Here is the Birkat Kohanim according to the Masoretic text of Book of Numbers 6:22-27:


כב וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר׃
כג דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר כֹּה תְבָרֲכוּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָמוֹר לָהֶם׃
(6:22) Speak to Aharon and his sons:
(6:23) Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

כד יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ׃
כה יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ׃
כו יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם׃
(6:24) May YHVH bless you and protect you!
(6:25) May YHVH shine his face upon you and be gracious towards you!
(6:26) May YHVH lift his face up to you, and give you peace!

כז וְשָׂמוּ אֶת שְׁמִי עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַאֲנִי אֲבָרֲכֵם׃
(6:27) Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

The wording of the blessings in the amulets is not exactly the wording as found in the Masoretic text of the Torah. Note that the formulation veyichunekha (be gracious towards you) is not present in either of the scrolls below. The formula of the Birkat Kohanim begins on the 5th line:[1]Gabriel Barkay, “The Priestly Benediction on the Ketef Hinnom Plaques,” Cathedra 52 (1989), p. 58

[Top line(s) broken: For PN xxxx] 1) -h/hu. May be blessed h/sh-
2) -[e] by YHW[H,] 3) the warrior/helper and
4) the rebuker of
5) [E]vil: May bless you,
6) YHWH,
7) keep you.
8) Make shine, YH-
9) -[W]H, His face
10) [upon] you and g-
11) -rant you p-
12) -[ea]ce.
[Bottom line(s) broken.]
Ketef Hinnom Amulet II recto (collage: Aharon Varady; from image by Ardon Bar Hama, COJS, and drawing by Gabriel Barkay)

Ketef Hinnom Amulet II recto (collage: Aharon Varady; from image by Ardon Bar Hama, COJS, and drawing by Gabriel Barkay)

The formula of the Birkat Kohanim begins on the 14th line of the first amulet. All of Numbers 6:25-26 may have appeared on KH1 after line 18 where the scroll has disintegrated. [2]Gabriel Barkay, “The Priestly Benediction on the Ketef Hinnom Plaques,” Cathedra 52 (1989), p. 52

[Top line(s) broken] 1) …] YHW …
2) […] 3) the grea[t … who keeps] 4) the covenant and
5) [G]raciousness towards those who love [him] and (alt: [hi]m;)
6) those who keep [his commandments … [3]Compare lines 3-6 to:
Exodus 20:6—showing mercy to thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments
Deuteronomy 5:10—showing mercy to thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments
Deuteronomy 7:9—keeping covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations
Daniel 9:4—keeping covenant and mercy to them that love Him, and to them that keep His commandments
Nehemiah 1:5—keeping covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe His commandments

7) …]. [4]The omission of “thousands” may have originally appeared on line 7 as in Deuteronomy 7:9.
8) the Eternal? […].
9) [the?] blessing more than any
10) [sna]re and more than Evil.
11) For redemption is in him.
12) For YHVH
13) is our restorer [and] 14) rock. May YHVH bles[s] 15) you and
16) [may he] protect you.
17) [May] YHVH make
18) [his face] shine …
[Bottom line(s) broken.]
Ketef Hinnom Amulet I recto (collage: Aharon Varady; from image by Nahum Slapak , Israel Museum, and drawing by Gabriel Barkay)

Ketef Hinnom Amulet I recto (collage: Aharon Varady; from image by Nahum Slapak , Israel Museum, and drawing by Gabriel Barkay)

Notes   [ + ]

1. Gabriel Barkay, “The Priestly Benediction on the Ketef Hinnom Plaques,” Cathedra 52 (1989), p. 58
2. Gabriel Barkay, “The Priestly Benediction on the Ketef Hinnom Plaques,” Cathedra 52 (1989), p. 52
3. Compare lines 3-6 to:
Exodus 20:6—showing mercy to thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments
Deuteronomy 5:10—showing mercy to thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments
Deuteronomy 7:9—keeping covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations
Daniel 9:4—keeping covenant and mercy to them that love Him, and to them that keep His commandments
Nehemiah 1:5—keeping covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe His commandments
4. The omission of “thousands” may have originally appeared on line 7 as in Deuteronomy 7:9.

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