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Don't miss the Birkat Kohanim tomorrow

by michael October 15 2008
Things to doHolidays
Masses of worshipers at last year's Birkat Kohanim

In keeping with the Jerusalem Sukkot tradition, this holiday season features a massive Birkat Kohanim at the Western Wall on Thursday, the second intermediary day of Sukkot.

The Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, is a Jewish tradition most non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews are unfamiliar with, at least in its Orthodox incarnation. Kohanim are members of the Jewish hereditary priestly caste, whose main historical function Judaism was to direct the sacrificial worship centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. Claiming descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first priest, modern genetic research has actually demonstrated that over 90% of self-identified Jewish Kohanim share common elements on their Y-chromosomes indicating a common male ancestor who lived in the Biblical era. While the role of the priests diminished after the destruction of the Temple, they are still called upon to bless congregations at certain points during the year. The blessing involves a special hand sign, which most people will recognize as Mr. Spock's "Live Long and Prosper," (Leonard Nimoy, a Jew, derived the greeting from the priestly custom) and the familiar blessing, "May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord shine his countenance toward you and be gracious to you, may the Lord lift up his countenance toward you and give you peace."

Seeing the Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel is a special treat, and a true sight to behold. Hundreds upon hundreds of kohanim gather together to bless the assembled crowd, who as per tradition cover their faces with their prayer shawls, turning the packed Kotel plaza into a sea of stooped white figures, the lulavs (bundles of myrtle branches and other symbolic plants) of Sukkot bobbing overhead. Of course, only men are allowed into the the worship section of the Kotel plaza, and if you want any chance at all of getting in to see the blessing, arrive early - before the thousands of other worshipers and sightseers do (arrive before 8:00 AM - Shacharit begins at 8:15 and the blessing itself occurs at 9:00, and once more at 10:00). If you're interested in glimpsing a rarely-seen Jewish tradition, though, it's worth the early morning wake-up.

Image courtesy of israluv from Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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