The Untranslated Blessing


Year by year, we read through the Torah from beginning to end, skipping nothing, right?

Maybe not. Not originally, anyway. The Talmud Yerushalmi (the Talmud from the Land of Israel) reports in Mishnah Megillah, “The Priestly Benediction [Numbers 6:24-26] is neither read nor translated.” However, the parallel passage in the Talmud Bavli (the Talmud from Babylonia), says, “We read the Priestly Benediction but do not translate it.” And that is the rule today. In either case, it may not be translated.

“Translated” refers to simultaneous translation during services, a practice that was commonplace when there were no printed books for following along. In either Talmud, the Priestly Benediction remains untranslated. But why?

The Yerushalmi doesn’t say, but the Bavli explains that the blessing asks God: one, to bless us and keep us; two, to deal kindly with us and be gracious to us; and three, to bestow favor upon us and grant us peace. The problem, says the Bavli,  is the Hebrew verb, “to bestow favor,” which can also mean “to show judicial favoritism,” a practice that is deeply abhorrent to the Torah’s sense of justice. Indeed, Deuteronomy 10:17 says explicitly, God “shows no favoritism.”

To be sure, only the uninformed would confuse “favor” with “favoritism,” the Bavli says. People with enough education to understand the original Hebrew would know better. They would reason, for example, that when we keep the mitzvot, we even go beyond the letter of the law to do it right [Brachot 20b], so when we ask God to “bestow favor” we just mean that God should properly reward meritorious behavior.

Still, the uninformed might confuse “showing favor” with “favoritism,” as might the translators themselves, so even the opinion that permits the Hebrew reading prohibits its translation — just to play it safe.

There is more to this than meets the eye. The debate has consequences for the central Jewish belief in being “the Chosen People.” When we say, in our Torah blessings, for example, “asher bachar banu … v’natan lanu et Torato” (who chose us … and gave us Torah), is God’s “favoring” of Israel really “favoritism”?

The answer has to be no! Israel must somehow have merited the right to be chosen. Indeed, a familiar midrash says that God offered the Torah to many peoples, but only Israel accepted it. That claim can sound gratuitously self-congratulatory, but its point is not to boast about ourselves; it is to save the reputation of God, and to underscore the virtue of judicial impartiality. Moral probity demands that any special relationship with God must be earned.

The Rabbis make the same claim about other peoples, who are said to have their own “Noahide” covenants with God, and who, presumably, must merit them, as we do ours. The prophet Amos likens Israel to Cushites and Philistines, for example, leading Rashi to picture God asking Israel rhetorically, “Aren’t you descended from Noah, the same as everyone else?” Jewish Peoplehood is nothing if it is not earned. The minute we cease deserving to be “God’s People,” it is as if we no longer are.

In the days of Israelite infancy, we had Moses to intercede for us when we faltered. But having now grown up, we must also face up to the demands of Jewish Peoplehood. Jewish continuity cannot exist just for its own sake. It must be rooted in some transcendent mission. More than just a People, we must be a People with purpose.

Much is said and written about the threats to Jewish peoplehood: anti-Semitism from without and apathy from within. By contrast, relatively little conversation occurs on why we still deserve this age-old relationship with God. Jews were “chosen” because God had a purpose for us in mind. Our organizational agendas, school curricula, and institutional mission statements would do well to insist on that purpose. The “why” of survival is no less important than the “how.”

Without knowing the “why,” the “how” will fail. Committed to the “why,” the “how” will follow.  

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:57 p.m.

Torah: Num. 4:21-7:89

Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25

Havdalah: 8:58 p.m.