The Priestly Blessing is Weird and Most Impressive (Hertz Pentateuch)

priestly blessing

As I continue to scroll through the Hertz Pentateuch in search of wayward things and other points of interest that tell us something about the HP and its time and place, I found this odd and unexpected thing. It’s his comment to the priestly blessing that appears on a comment in the commentary to Number 6:22-7. The actual blessing appears at v.24-6: The Lord bless you and guard you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious with you. The Lord lift up His face upon you and give you peace. THAT is how the Torah instructs the children of Israel “to put My name” upon them (v.27).

What Hertz highlights is the simplicity and beauty of the petition. Its image is of  “the crown and seal of the whole sacred order.” The fifteen words are “clothed in a rhythmic form of great beauty, and they fall with majestic solemnity upon the ear.” Reference is made here as well to the Temple in Jerusalem and the place of the blessing in the synagogue. Its “ancient melody” in its “original form” Hertz calls “weird and most impressive.” (Hertz, introductory comment to 6:22-7).

Nothing that follows the introductory comments to the blessing compare to these remarks, not the comments on God’s “light” and not on the virtue of peace, which are all nice enough, the ones on peace being particularly instructive re: early 20th c. Jewish attitudes re: the subject. But what I walk away with is the introduction, which is supposed to call attention to itself, and to the coupling there of “beauty,” “simplicity,” and “weird and most impressive.” The final phrase suggests something that is maybe true about the original blessing, and about the rite and theology that is its expression, that these were, indeed, weird impressive things. At the very least, we get a snapshot of the way that archaic thing (the blessing writ small and, writ large, the sacred of order of Judaism) looked to the modern liberal Anglophone Jewish reader in the first half of the twentieth century. The remarks confirm my own hunch that this attraction to an archaic religious form was and remains aesthetic and (then) ethical.

Re: the image at the top of the post, I chose it, precisely because it is weird and archaic, and not familiar like, for instance, the over used kitsch-image of the ancient priestly hand-signal. The blessing on the amulet in an impossible to read script is the more unfamiliar and also a more original form. The First Temple era amulets are held at the Israel Museum where I found this note:


H: 3.9-9.7; W: 1.1-2.7 cm

These two silver amulets bear the oldest copies of biblical text known to us today. They are some five hundred years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. | The amulets, inscribed with ancient Hebrew script, were found rolled into tiny scrolls in a burial cave in Jerusalem. They were incised with a sharp, thin stylus, no thicker than a hair’s breadth, and thus deciphering the inscription was difficult. The lower part of the inscription has been identified as a version of Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless and protect you. The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. The Lord bestow his favor upon you and grant you peace.” This formula, which found its way into the Jewish liturgy, is known as the Priestly Benediction. 

Weird indeed, such close incision, a form of writing not meant to be read. About the amulets and the ancient form of miniature writing is this note here at Biblical Archaeology Society website, including a link to “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, by Jeremy D. Smoak.

At the website of the BAS:

In 1979 during the excavation of a late Iron Age (seventh century B.C.E.) tomb at the funerary site of Ketef Hinnom outside of Jerusalem, archaeologist Gabriel Barkay uncovered two small silver scrolls—no bigger than the diameter of a quarter—that were originally worn as amulets around the neck. When researchers from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, unrolled the sheets of silver, they detected tiny lines of the ancient Hebrew script inscribed on them. High-resolution photos of the miniature writing were taken in 1994 by the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California, giving researchers the opportunity to study and decipher the Hebrew text on the ancient amulets. When they finally read the arcane writing, the researchers discovered that the inscriptions, dating to the eighth–sixth centuries B.C.E., contained blessings similar to Numbers 6:24–26.1

The miniature writing on the silver scrolls was clearly not meant to be read—the letters are too small, and the writing was furthermore concealed inside the rolls. If this was the case, then what purpose did they serve? In “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hebrew Bible scholar Jeremy D. Smoak discusses what these ancient amulets from Ketef Hinnom can tell us about religion in ancient Judah.

Upon discovery, Amulet 1 was 1 inch in height and 0.4 inches in diameter; unrolled, the scroll measures 3.8 inches in height and 1 inch in width. Amulet 2 was 0.5 inches in height and 0.2 inches in diameter; unrolled, the scroll has a height of 1.5 inches and a width of 0.4 inches. The second scroll contains about 100 words arranged in 12 lines of text—thus, the person who inscribed the text was able to fit all of that onto a silver sheet the length of a match stick.


In addition to containing blessings similar to Numbers 6:24–26, the inscriptions are illuminating for what they reveal about the deity Yahweh as well as amuletic magic in Iron Age Judah. As Smoak writes:

Amulet 1 refers to Yahweh as the one who shows graciousness to those who love him and keep his commandments. This expression exhibits close parallels to several Biblical texts (cf. Deuteronomy 7:9; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4). Amulet 2 refers to Yahweh as the deity who has the power to expel Evil.

As the amulets from Ketef Hinnom contained small inscriptions that were not meant to be read, Smoak further considers in his article the significance of miniature writing:

Miniatures—especially those worn on the human body … create a sense of intimacy, privacy, and personal time between the body and the object. Such objects became part of one’s daily routine and lifecycle. Their lightweight quality allows them to dangle comfortably from necks, producing a feeling that they are part of the body. In the case of miniature texts on jewelry, this means that even though the writing might be invisible or hidden from eyes, the words are always accessible in the wearer’s mind as the writing interacts with the body on a physical level. As the jewelry dangles from, bounces off, and returns to the body, the words inscribed on their surfaces are replayed in the mind.

Read Jeremy D. Smoak’s complete analysis of the ancient amulets’ miniature writing in “Words Unseen: The Power of Hidden Writing” in the January/February 2018 issue of BAR, and discover what these unique artifacts illuminate about religion in Iron Age Judah.

Also, here, thanks to Ittai Hershman, is a essay by G. Barkay and A. Vaughn on the Ketef Hinom amulets.

Weird and impressive is some unexpected interest over at FB in these amulets in a post about the Hertz.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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