The meaning of the priestly blessing for peace and the Pax Romana
This source in Sifre Numbers (a tannaitic midrash) is from the section that offers explanations of the blessing that God instructs priests to recite over Israel: “(22) The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: (23) Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, (24)The Lord bless you and keep you; (25) the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; (26) the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (27) So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.’” (Numbers 6:22-27 NRSV). This Priestly Benediction was part of service at the Second Temple and it has continued to be an element of Jewish liturgy since its destruction (Reif, “Peace,” p. 386-388). The text presented here expounds on the blessing for peace in Numbers 6:26, attempting to clarify the meaning of that peace. Since the word “peace” (shalom) appears in the Tanakh in numerous contexts, the sages are able to develop various ideas, depending on their choice from an array of biblical verses. Tannaitic and amoraic compositions both include midrashim that focus on shalom and its importance (see, for example, Leviticus Rabbah 9:9). Although these peace midrashim were composed under Roman rule (and, later, Christian rule), they do not mention Rome. Thus, scholars who study these sources have usually failed to consider this broader context. It is noteworthy that peace also played a significant role in Roman imperial ideology (see Woolf, “Roman peace,” p. 176-177): Rome was presented as bringing peace to the empire (see, for example, on coins: Sestertius depicting the head of Vespasian and Pax; Denarius depicting the head of Trajan and Pax); and, the Pax Romana was secured by Rome's military power and legal system.
In the remainder of this essay, I examine this passage from Sifre Numbers and its possible relationship with Roman concepts of peace from three angles: Does this rabbinic source convey a latent dialogue with Roman peace? To what extent do Roman notions of peace appear to have influenced rabbinic thinking about shalom? And, might we identify a debate between the different rabbinic voices on peace and Rome within this text? (More on these questions in Wilfand, “How Great Is Peace”).
Section A opens with an explanation of the last three words of Numbers 6:26: “[The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and] give you peace” (NRSV). In an anonymous voice, this teaching states that the Priestly Blessing refers to peace with anyone within and outside one’s home, extending to peace with all humans. Without reference to a political dimension, peace is equated with the amicable relationships that are valued in any human society.
Section B cites Rabbi Ḥananya (sometimes Ḥanina), the chief of the priests, a first-generation tanna who was active before and after the Great Revolt. His title indicates that he served as a deputy to the high priest in the Temple. According to the explanation attributed to this sage, the blessing of peace refers to the state of one’s home, thereby being restricted to the private domain. Interestingly, in Mishnah Avot 3:2, ascribes the following adage to this same sage:
ר' חנניה סגן הכהנים או'. הווי מתפלל בשלומה שלמלכות. שאילולי מוראה איש את רעהו חיים בלענו
“Rabbi Ḥananya, the chief of the priests, says: “Pray for the peace of the kingdom, for without its authority (or, without fearing it), we would swallow one another (lit: a man would swallow his fellow) alive.”
According to this text, Roman rule provides security (on Roman power, security, and concord, see Wengst, Pax Romana, p. 19-22; Woolf, “Roman peace,” p. 176-178). If these two attributions to Rabbi Ḥananya are accurate, this sage seems to exhibit a view that accepts Roman authority or, at least, appreciates the order that it provides; therefore, it is not surprising that he would situate this blessing of shalom within one’s home. The next section of the midrash may reinforce this understanding.
Whereas Sections A and B limit the peace being envisioned in the Priestly Benediction, Section C broadens its scope to encompass the political and redemptive domains. This section cites Rabbi Nathan, a fourth-generation tanna who was active during the second century, especially after the Bar Kokhba revolt. For Rabbi Nathan, when the priests bless Israel with peace, they invoke peace for the reign of the House of David. This sage quotes a biblical verse to justify this claim: “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6; verse 7 in NRSV). Even though Rome is not mentioned here, it is clear that such a future kingdom would take its place. Despite Roman imperial ideology's presentation of Rome as the source of law and eternal peace (see, for example, As depicting the head of Marcus Aurelius and Pax Aeterna Augusta), for Rabbi Nathan, only the House of David can establish true and enduring peace and justice.
Section D cites Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch (often called Rabbi), who was active in the last decades of the second century and the early third century. Menahem I. Kahana explains that this teaching is based on the rabbinic convention that the Hebrew word ‘oz, which originally denoted strength, refers to the Torah (Sifre on Numbers, p. 328). Thus, when Rabbi quotes from Psalms: “The Lord will give strength (‘oz) to his people! The Lord will bless his people with peace!” (29:11, based on NRSV), this teaching may resemble the Roman view that peace relies on law or, at least, on morality (Wengst, Pax Romana, p. 14, 37, 42; Ando, Imperial Ideology, 48-49), for here too, Israel’s peace depends on the Torah, the foundation of their legal system.
The word shalom occurs over 330 times in the Hebrew Bible, providing the rabbis with an enormous range of verses to incorporate in midrashim. Yet, in addition to considering the rabbis’ scriptural choices, I would suggest that an analysis of the shalom midrashim also requires us to look at the world in which the sages lived. The priests ask God to bless Israel with peace yet, in our midrash, the nature of this peace varies: Section A speaks of peace inside and outside the home; Section B focuses on the domestic setting; Section C refers to a future peace under the House of David; and, Section D links peace with Torah. While these four views may be seen as an aggregation of the many dimensions of peace, they may also articulate a latent debate regarding Roman rule: Is it sufficient to hope for security and peace at home and in the personal realm? Or might aspirations aim for the peace that accompanies liberation from Roman rule, to be realized under Davidic rule? Alternatively, perhaps this blessing of shalom is the peace of the Torah? In each case, God alone bestows the peace that priests petition for Israel through their blessing.
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