In Chazarat HaShatz (the repetition of the Amidah), right after the Berachah of Modim is the special prayer of Birchat Kohanim, also described as the “Berachah HaMeshuleshet.” The exact translation is unclear, but it is generally understood to mean “the triple Berachah.” Rav Mordechai Willig in his introduction to his Sefer Am Mordechai points out, though, that the “three” Berachot seem more like six Berachot!
To explain, if one pays attention to the Kohanim when they are reciting the Blessing, one will notice that they twist around only at specific words. These words are only on phrases that apply specifically to us, the nation.
The Pesukim in Naso tell us exactly what to say when we perform Birchat Kohanim, and the Kohanim twist after six of the words (BeMidbar 6:24-26): First Berachah: “Yevarechicha (twist) Hashem VeYishmerecha (twist).” Next Berachah: “YaEir Hashem Panav Eilecha (twist) VeYichuneka (twist).” Next Berachah: “Yisa Hashem Panav Eilecha (twist) VeYaseim Lecha Shalom (twist).” Thus, if the Kohanim are twisting only on the phrases that apply to us, why does it seem that there are two per Berachah or phrase? Shouldn’t they be twisting only once per Berachah?
Additionally, if one carefully examines the text of Birchat Kohanim, he will notice that they also seem like individual Berachot. Therefore why, when the Chazzan repeats Shemoneh Esrei, does he call them the “triple Berachot” (“Barcheinu VaBerachah HaMeshuleshet”)?
Rav Willig suggests a beautiful approach to the Pesukim that might shed light onto our dilemma. He presents a three-part answer. In order to answer the question, we must first split up the priestly blessing into the three individual Berachot, as separated in the Torah. “Yevarechicha Hashem, VeYishmerecha,” “YaEir Hashem Panav Eilecha, VeYichuneka,” and finally, “Yisa Hashem Panav Eilecha, VeYaseim Lecha Shalom.” Rav Willig then explains why each Berachah seems to actually have two Berachot (as separated by the commas above), therefore making it seem to be six Berachot rather than three.
If one looks at the actual meaning of the word “Yevarechicha,” it can be translated along with the entire Berachah as, “Hashem should give you blessings of goodness.” This is interpreted as the Kohanim blessing us that Hashem should make us prosperous. This blessing is most welcome, but it doesn’t ensure that we will be made prosperous and remain at that state. For example, what is stopping us from losing our prosperity due to thieves or even from natural occurrences?
Therefore, we need the second Berachah of the first series (“VeYishmerecha”). The Kohanim are blessing us that God may give us prosperity, and that He will make sure that it stays that way. Thus, these two Berachot are in reality one Berachah that comes in a package.
The second Berachah of “YaEir” is a blessing from the Kohanim that we should be blessed with knowledge. The literal translation of this phrase is, “Hashem should illuminate His face to you.” What does this mean? To answer this question, we can look at the Berachah of Sim Shalom: “Ki BeOr Panecha Natatah Lanu Hashem Elokeinu Torat Chayim VeAhavat Chesed,” easily translated as Hashem giving us the Torah. We can apply that translation to the second clause of Birchat Kohanim as well and we will extract from our Pasuk in Birchat Kohanim that they are blessing the nation that the people will be granted with success in Torah.
But, this could be a curse, because if one receives the Berachah of success in Torah, one will be more vulnerable to do Chilul Hashem that is severely punishable. On the other hand, if one were a scoundrel, then doing an abominable deed would not affect that person or anyone else greatly. For example, when a famous Jew does something wrong, people will remark, “look what the Torah does to the Jews, and look what the Jews are doing to our world.” Therefore, we also say that people grant Bnei Yisrael (“VeYichuneka”) that God give them “charm.” People will always look for others in a good light so that they will not make a Chilul Hashem. Thus, these two Berachot as well combine to form one packaged Berachah.
Regarding the third Berachah, “Yisa Hashem Panav Eilecha,” Rav Willlig derives from the Gemara in Berachot (20b) a story in which God tells us that He does not favor anyone. God is asked by the angels, “’Yisa Hashem Panav Eilecha VeYaseim Lecha Shalom,’ ‘Hashem will turn His face toward you and will place peace upon you.’ Doesn’t this Pasuk imply that Hashem favors the Jewish people!?” God answers that He favors the Bnei Yisrael only because they recite Zimun, the blessing after a meal, even when God does not require it. More specifically, God requires Bnei Yisrael to recite Zimun after they are satiated, but they take it upon themselves to recite Zimun even when they eat only a KeZayit, a small amount. God therefore finds it impossible to not treat His nation with favor and give the people what they deserve. Thus, the Kohanim are conferring upon Bnei Yisrael a Berachah that God give them extra courtesy. Another example may be someone who is at ease with Ruchniyut (spirituality) –God will help him/her out. Similarly, if someone experiences material success, God will also help him/her out as well. The question becomes, though, why we need the second Berachah of the third set, “VeYaseim Lecha Shalom,” “and He will place peace upon you.” Aren’t these clauses two separate Berachot? How is the second part of the Berachah connected to the first part?
It must be that the Kohanim are blessing the nation that if a person is blessed with both Ruchniyut and Gashmiyut, he/she might struggle to determine which he/she should be investing more effort into, because Ruchniyut and Gashmiyut have tendencies to pull in completely different directions. Essentially, he/she will feel swamped by internal conflict. Therefore, the last part of Birchat Kohanim is a Berachah that one will be able to find inner peace, with a balance of Gashmiyut and Ruchniyut. This is how the last Berachah presents a package deal.
This is a wonderful resolution to the issue of Birchat Kohanim seeming like “the six Berachot of Kohanim” rather than the “Berachah HaMeshuleshet.” While the Birchat Kohanim may seem like six exclusive Berachot at first glance, further analysis helps reveal that they are beautifully intertwined with one another to create eternal essential blessings for the Jewish people.