Standing Up and Leading the Way

On Language

By Philologos

Published November 18, 2009, issue of November 27, 2009.
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Sybil Terres Gilmar writes from Philadelphia:

“Recently, as part of my work as a docent at Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuous congregation in Philadelphia (since 1740), I came across the word ‘duchening’ in conjunction with an early 19th-century chair adorned with hands indicating the priestly blessing. In trying to research the origin of the word, I came across information that it derives from dukhan, the platform in the Temple from which the priests blessed the people, but a recent Israeli visitor said that it was from a Hebrew verb meaning ‘to stand.’ What do you think? Is it a noun? A verb? From Hebrew? From Yiddish?”

The Yiddish verb dukhnen, which can be either a verb meaning “to recite the priestly blessing” or a noun referring to the blessing itself, indeed comes from the Hebrew noun dukhan, which means “a platform or raised level.” (In contemporary Israeli Hebrew, it also means “a stand in a marketplace,” which may be the source of the confusion involving Ms. Gilmar’s Israeli visitor.) Dukhan is first found in the Mishnah, where it occurs in a number of tractates, including that of Middot, in which the physical layout of the Second Temple — destroyed by the Romans more than 100 years previously — is described.

According to Middot, there were three open azarot, or galleries, in front of the Temple building, in the space beneath the sacrificial altar: “The Priests’ Gallery,” which was closest to the altar; “the Israelites’ Gallery” beneath it, and still lower, “the Women’s Gallery.” Between the Priests’ Gallery and the Israelites’ Gallery was a step that was one amah (about 2 feet high), and on this step was a platform, or apron, called the dukhan. From it, the Levites sang their daily song, and each morning and evening, at the time of the daily sacrifices on the altar, priests stood and blessed the people below, arms spread wide and their last two fingers parted from their middle two fingers (this is the familiar priestly hand symbol that Ms. Gilmar saw on the synagogue chair), as they said, in words taken from the Book of Numbers: “May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn His face toward you and grant you peace.”

In antiquity, the priestly blessing was also recited on a daily basis in the synagogue in the course of the cantor’s repetition of the amida, or silent prayer. But in the course of time, this custom lapsed in the Diaspora, where it was reduced to holidays, and continued to be observed only in Palestine (as it still is in Israel). The word dukhan now came to refer to the top step, or apron, in front of the synagogue Ark, and la’alot la’dukhan, “to ascend to the dukhan,” became a rabbinic expression for a priest’s participation in the blessing. Hence, Yiddish dukhnen.

But where does the word dukhan itself come from? It does not occur in the Bible, and the letters dalet-khaf-nun do not compose any Hebrew root from which it could have been formed. Nor do either of the two etymological Hebrew dictionaries in existence, Eliezer ben Yehuda’s Milon ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit and Avraham Even-Shoshan’s Ha-Milon he-ḥadash, give a derivation for it. This led me to turn to Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Talmud — which, though it, too, gives no etymology for dukhan, refers the reader to an entry on dukh. There it says: “Leader, chief commander, only in dukh dukhnin (an adaptation of dux ducem), the leader of the services of the Levites, v. dukhan…. Num. R. s. 7 (rendering of nesi nesi’ey, Num. III, 32).”

Let’s decode that. “Num. R.” is Numbers Rabba, known in Hebrew as Bamidbar Rabba, a large collection of early midrashim on the Book of Numbers. In Section 7 (“s.7”) of it, there is a midrash on Numbers 3:32, a verse that says, “And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be chief over the chiefs of the Levites, and have the oversight of them that keep the charge of the sanctuary.” “Chief over the chiefs of the Levites” is the King James translation of the Hebrew nesi nesi’ey ha-leviyim — and in our midrash we read:

“Just as a king of flesh and blood has his chiefs, so God has His chiefs, it being written, ‘Chief over the chiefs of the Levites.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, ‘This was the *dukh dukhnin.’”

The Aramaic phrase dukh dukhnin occurs in two or three other places in ancient Rabbinic sources, and Jastrow — quite correctly, in my opinion — believed that it came from the Latin dux ducem, “leader of leaders,” a Roman epithet for Caesar. And from it, in turn (so Jastrow hazarded the guess), came dukhan, at first the platform on which Caesar stood while reviewing his troops or addressing the Roman people, and eventually the platform in the Temple on which the Levites stood and from which the priests gave their blessing.

If this is so, dukhan comes from Latin dux, “leader” — the same word that gives us English “duke” and that produced the Italian Duce, as Mussolini liked to be called by his adoring thousands as he stood looking down on them from above. That’s a surprise I had not expected when I set out in search of the origins of “duchening.”

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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