Birkat Kohanim: New Music for the Priestly Blessing - (July 2009)

Judaism used to be a religion which had a temple cult and priestly sacrifices at its liturgical centre. The descendants of Aaron were its priests (kohanim) and the members of the tribe of Levi were its temple officials. Religious and observant (and usually Orthodox) Jews avidly hope that the  Temple liturgy and its full  priestly liturgy will one day be restored.

Rabbinical Judaism stresses the idea that, now that the temple does not exist, those sacrifices are replaced by prayers-- prayers which are offered not by hereditary priests but by all sections of the community.

When the Temple sacrifices and liturgy ceased, the animal sacrifices may be seen as having been replaced by prayer:- most often by liturgical worship ( songs, texts, and community recitations relating to the worship of the Levites) but also, I would suggest by silent contemplative prayer which I see as a kind of continuation of the silent rituals of the kohanim. It's worth mentioning that these rituals  include highly symbolic acts like tending a ner tamid (perpetual light) and offering bread or incense as well as the more usually remembered animal sacrifices. These are acts which can readily be “translated” into contemporary forms of spiritual activity by a lay contemplative.

“Let my prayer be as the incense offering before you,And the lifting up of my hands be as the evening offering.”Psalm 141:2

If the service of the temple has become the service of the heart. If the tribe of Levi’s function is to be perpetuated and not suspended or rendered obsolete:- it seems to me that the Dedicated Jewish Contemplative is a potential “Levite by extension”.

The tasks of such a contemplative are those expressed in Psalm 27:

“To dwell in the House of the Lord All the days of one’s life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord,
And to meditate in His Sanctuary.”

I have mentioned before that I was not the first to make a connection between the Levites and those wishing to lead dedicated lives of prayer: A beautiful expression of the idea is to be found in the writings of Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) who wrote,

"Why did the tribe of Levi not merit an inheritance in the land of Israel and a share in the spoils of war together with its brothers?
Because it was set aside to worship God, to teach His direct ways and His righteous judgements to the public ...

Therefore, they were set aside from the ways of the world: they did not wage war like the rest of Israel and they did not inherit the land ... Rather, they are the army of the Lord, as it says ...

The tribe of Levi is not alone in this.
Rather, every single person of those who live in the world,
whose spirit has gratefully welled up,
and who has comprehended in his or her mind to be separated
and to stand before God,
to serve Him,
to worship Him,
and to know Him;
who has walked in the straight path that God has intended for her or him;
and who has shed from his or her neck the yoke of the many accountings that humans make of one another --

this person has become holy like the holy of holies, and God will be her or his portion and inheritance forever and ever. Such a person will have sufficient in this world, as did the priests and levites, as David, may he rest in peace, said, "The Lord is my portion of inheritance and my cup; You sustain my destiny" (Ps. 16:5)."
Mishne Torah in Hilkhot Shemitta ve-Yovel 13:12-13

In the traditional liturgy the prayer known as "Birkhat Kohanim" (The Priestly Blessing) is recited ritually  by descendents of the Temple Kohanim while the  congregation  gather before them to receive their solemn and highly charged blessing. The blessing is recited to a very ancient chant  which  remains largely consistent in  most synagogues. In the absence of Kohanim, the rabbi or cantor recites the  blessing without its  attendant physical gestures.  In both cases,the  congregation responds with affirmations of "amen" and  "may it be Your will".  The prayer is also recited by parents blessing their children on  the  eve of the Sabbath.

In 1992 I had a dream in which I heard  the text of that prayer sung to a different melody (viz. not the traditional chant).  I wrote the melody down immediately on awakening and reproduce it here now.  This week I arranged that same melody  in a simple  choir version but with slightly altered text in the choir part. (The cantor sings "may the L-rd bless you" the choir sings "may the L-rd bless us".......but there is  no reason why it could not be sung using the original text in the choir  version as well.)

RIGHT click on the graphics to see score full size

RIGHT click on the graphics to see score full size

Here is a version for BASS soloist which not only involves transposition,
but also a harmonic modulation between the sections
which may be more to the taste of some singers:
RIGHT click on the graphics to see score full size

These two videos can also be viewed on YouTube
HERE (solo version) and HERE(choir version).

Should you be interested, you can read about how I came to write the original melody in the first place,  and view some related "folk" calligraphy:      HERE