Israel’s Traditional Priestly Blessing Ceremony Prays for Whole World in Midst of Coronavirus Pandemic

Sunday’s Priestly Blessing ceremony looked far different than years’ past due to coronavirus. Photo courtesy of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation and Haim Zach (GPO)

With the coronavirus pandemic shuttering much of the planet, descendants of Israel’s High Priestly line carefully met outdoors on Sunday—in line with health protocol—at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray the traditional Priestly Blessing from the Biblical book of Numbers. While the ceremony normally is attended by tens of thousands of worshippers, including dozens of priestly descendants —known in the plural in Hebrew as kohanim—this year’s prayerful group consisted of just 10 priests offering up the prayers that include the blessing. Yet while the crowd was small, the focus of the prayers was much grander: literally the entire world.

A press release on the event noted that the kohanim “prayed for all who have fallen ill among the Jewish people and the entire world and for the end of the pandemic.” The Priestly Blessing comes from Numbers chapter 6, verses 24-26. The passage is a prayer to Heaven asking for blessing, protection and peace.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites and leader of Sunday’s prayers, was quoted in the press release as saying, “These days, with the entire Jewish people and everyone in the world looking up to Heaven, the priestly blessing is that much more significant.

“We know that the gates of tears are never closed, let alone the gates of the Western Wall. May the priestly blessing and the prayers of masses of Jews to protect us from harm rise up to Heaven and may G-d say—Stop! And may we all merit to return to pray a prayer of thanksgiving with great joy at the Western Wall.”

The kohanim praying on Sunday are residents of Jerusalem’s Old City and met “in accordance with the special regulations for the coronavirus pandemic,” according to the press release. A photo included with the press release showed priests spaced out in the outdoor Western Wall plaza. The Western Wall in Jerusalem is located at the outer retention wall of what was the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. Today, the Western Wall is one of Judaism’s holiest places of worship.

Among the small number of permitted attendees at this year’s Priestly Blessing was United States Ambassador David Friedman, himself a descendant of the Israeli priesthood. Friedman posted photos on Twitter of himself praying with a facemask, noting in a separate tweet that last year he was one of 100,000 persons at the Wall, but this year “unfortunately, far less” as one of the 10 worshippers.

“Socially distanced and masked at the Western Wall, missing the many thousands who gather semi-annually for the Priestly Blessing. But the spirit is stronger than ever as we seek Divine relief for all suffering from the Coronavirus plague. May we all recover fully and quickly!!” said Friedman in a follow-up tweet.

Sunday’s Priestly Blessing was noteworthy for another reason as well—Sunday’s prayers marked the 50th anniversary since the ceremony was reinstated following nearly 2,000 years of exile and enemy occupation of the Temple location.

With much of the world at a standstill and government-mandated restrictions limiting religious group activities, the Priestly Blessing found a creative way to continue—at a time when it is needed so very much.

(By Joshua Spurlock,, April 12, 2020)

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