By Israel Drazin
The Bible in Numbers 6:22-27 describes God telling Moses to instruct the priests to bless the Israelites with a three-fold blessing. Leviticus 9:22 states that Aaron the priest “lifted his hand toward the people” and blessed them after offering a sacrifice. Jews and Christians understand that this biblical command still applies today, especially after a prayer service, since prayer services replaced sacrifices.
The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31b) states that when Jews had a Temple until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, priest functioned in the Temple barefoot and the priestly blessing was made barefoot. When the Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yochnan ben Zakkai, who led the people at that time, decreed that the blessing, which had also been made outside the Temple until the Temple was destroyed, but by priests wearing shoes, should now be recited by the priests in synagogues without shoes. This innovation prompted the people to remember the former practice and elevated the importance of synagogues as proper replacements for the Temple. Ben Zakkai said that they should also raise their hands during the blessing as Aaron and the priests after him did.
Actually, as we translated above, Leviticus 9:22 does not say “hands,” yadav, but yado, “hand.” However, the Masorites stated that the word should be understood as plural, yadav.
The Masorites were biblical scholars and scribes who studied the wording and spelling of scriptural words and determined the correct Torah text. The Masorites are generally thought to have worked in Israel from around the seventh century CE until about the eleventh century.
Not all scholars accepted the Masorites’ understanding. Rashi, ibn Ezra, and others agreed with the Masorites and maintained that Aaron was blessing the people with the priestly benediction found in Numbers 6:22–27, which necessitated both hands. But Nachmanides disagreed and said that Aaron offered a personal prayer, as King Solomon did in I Kings 8:22, and could have used one hand.
Be this as it may, there is no requirement that either the priests or the congregants cover themselves or how the priests should separate their fingers during the recitation of the blessing. This came later. The custom arose that priests should combine the two hands and separate their fingers so that there are four spaces between the fingers corresponding to the four letters of the divine name contained in the Torah. This practice led the people to believe that God would descend upon the fingers of the priests. This, in turn, led the priests to cover their heads and hands so that the people wouldn’t see God. As an abundance of caution, many people who listened to the blessing covered their heads as well.
Needless to say, the notion underlying these concealments supposes that God can be seen, is not always present but descends on fingers when the priestly blessing is recited, and the covering of hands and head protects people from God. These ideas are superstitions and contrary to Jewish teachings.