Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing)


By Rav Binyamin Tabory



In Parashat Naso, God commands Moshe Rabbeinu to instruct Aharon and his sons with regard to the prescribed Birkat Kohanim, or "Priestly Blessing" (Bamidbar 6:22-27).  Although this mitzva is ideally to be performed by the kohanim in the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the same mitzva (with minor variations) is obligatory today, as well.  In fact, the Rambam lists this mitzva (number 26 in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot) as one of the sixty mitzvot which remain obligatory in all times under normal conditions (end of the mitzvot asei section of Sefer Ha-Mitzvot).  It should be noted that Rav Yaakov Emden (Mor U'Ketziah 128) maintained that the Biblical obligation of Birkat Kohanim applies only in the Beit Ha-Mikdash when the avoda (Temple service) was performed.  However, the Sifrei (Devarim 12,5) says explicitly,  "I know (the source of Birkat Kohanim in the Mikdash); from where do we know that it also applies outside the Beit Ha-mikdash? From the verse, 'Wherever I permit My Name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you'."  Similarly, the Shukchan Arukh states plainly (O.C. 128:12), "A kohen who does not bestow the berakha negates the mitzva," implying that he, too, considers this a Torah obligation even nowadays.


The Bahag enumerated two separate mitzvot regarding Birkat Kohanim.  He listed it in his general list of individual mitzvot, and counted it again under the heading of general mitzvot (parashiyot).  Some have taken this to mean that the Bahag considers Birkat Kohanim in and outside the Mikdash as separate mitzvot. It seems more likely, however, that the two listings reflect the idea that one mitzva is a personal obligation upon the kohanim, while the other is a communal responsibility of Am Yisrael to hear and receive the Berakhot.  In fact, a famous view of the Sefer Charedim (quoted in the Mishna Berura's introduction to Siman 128) maintains that when Am Yisrael stand opposite the kohanim face-to-face and silently have intention to receive the berakha according to the will of God, they are included in the mitzva. 


The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 28b) says that a kohen who has already said Birkat Kohanim may go to another shul and recite it again there.  Tosafot explain that the prohibition of bal tosif (adding onto mitzvot) never applies to performing the same mitzva twice.  The Chatam Sofer (responsa, O.C. 22), however, suggests a different explanation, claiming that the kohen may give the berakha again because the second congregation still bears an obligation to hear the berakha. He cites the Yere'im as the source for the idea of a communal obligation to hear the berakha, but this position is not found in our editions of the Yere'im. 


There is a well-known custom for the community to close or cover their eyes during Birkat Kohanim.  The Gemara (Chagiga 16a) says that we should avoid looking at the kohanim when they pronounce the ineffable name of God during Birkat Kohanim in the Beit Ha-mikdash. Rashi (Megilla 24b) writes that looking at the kohanim during Birkat Kohanim anywhere, even outside the Mikdash, causes dimness of the eyes. Tosafot (in Chagiga), however, reject this reason, and explain that we should not look at the kohanim in order to focus our concentration on the berakha.  Tosafot bring a passage in the Yerushalmi citing Rav Chagai as saying that he, unlike most people, may look at the kohanim. Since he felt assured of his ability to concentrate on the berakha, in his case looking was permitted.  The Devar Avraham notes that this would lend support to the aforementioned view of the Sefer Charedim.  If there were no mitzva upon the community, why would they need to concentrate and receive the berakha?  Apparently, they must concentrate to fulfill their own obligation of Birkat Kohanim.


Regarding this prohibition against looking at the kohanim, the Mishna Berura (128:88) distinguishes between the Mikdash and outside the Mikdash. Since the Shekhina rested on the kohanim in the Mikdash, it was forbidden to look at them at all.  However, outside the Beit Ha-Mikdash, one should not look at the kohanim in order to maintain his concentration.  Therefore, a brief glance, which would not hinder concentration, would be permitted.


The Minchat Chinukh (mitzva 378) added that women would also be included in this mitzva, since it does not depend upon any particular timeframe (mitzvat asei she-lo ha-zeman gerama).  Therefore, it is obvious that women, as well as men, should face the kohanim but avoid looking at them during the berakha.


The Gemara (Sota 38a) says that the kohanim and the community should face each other during the berakha.  The Torah instructed the kohanim to "tell them" (Bamidbar 6:23), which implies that this should be done in the normal way of conversation, namely, with the two parties facing each other.


An interesting practice has evolved regarding the berakha recited by the kohanim ("asher kiddeshanu be'mitzvotav" etc.) before the actual Birkat Kohanim.  The kohanim face the Aron Kodesh with their backs to the community and begin that berakha.  In the middle of the berakha, they turn to face the community and remain in that position until the end of Birkat Kohanim.


The Gemara did not describe the proper position for the recitation of Birkat Kohanim.  The Meiri (Sota 3aa) said that the kohanim should face the people while they say that berakha as well as when they say the entire Birkat Kohanim.  On the other hand, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 14:12) ruled that the kohanim should recite the introductory berakha facing the Aron Kodesh, and then, when they conclude that berakha, they should turn to face the community and say Birkat Kohanim.  The Tur and Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 128:11) codify the opinion of the Meiri.  The Mishna Berura (ad loc.) comments that meticulous people try to satisfy both opinions and turn in the middle of the berakha.  Although the Chafetz Chaim seems to endorse this compromise solution, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan finds this practice very surprising and thinks that we should follow the opinion of the Shulchan Arukh (Meiri). 


This debate between the Rambam and the Meiri hinges upon the fundamental relationship between the introductory berakha and Birkat Kohanim itself. The Rambam apparently felt that given the impropriety of turning one's back to Aron Kodesh, the kohanim should do so to face the congregation only when absolutely necessary – meaning, for Birkat Kohanim itself.  However, the Meiri felt that the berakha is inherently related to Birkat Kohanim and therefore must be said as the kohanim face the people – just like Birkat Kohanim itself.  In fact, the Meiri thinks that this berakha is a form of enhancing Birkat Kohanim ("hiddur mitzva") and therefore is directly related to it.


In conclusion, we might suggest a homiletic approach to our custom.  Inasmuch as God commanded kohanim with regard to this mitzva, should we consider it a mitzva between Man and God ("Bein Adam La-Makom"), or between Man and Man ("Bein Adam Le-Chaveiro")?  Perhaps the kohanim's practice is intended to demonstrate that this mitzva actually contains both elements.  They begin the berakha as a mitzva Bein Adam La-Makom, by facing the Aron, but they also wish to demonstrate that it is a mitzva bein Adam Le-Chaveiro, and therefore face the people for the end of the berakha.


We have seen that there is a mitzva for kohanim to recite Birkat Kohanim and there may be a mitzva upon the community, as well.  There is a third "partner" in this mitzva, as well, and that is, of course, God himself:


"Do not wonder, 'What benefit is there in a human berakha?' The acceptance of the berakha depends not on the kohanim, but on God... The kohanim fulfill the mitzva which they were commanded, and God, in His mercy, blesses Israel as He wishes." (Rambam, Hilkhot Nesi'at Kapayim 15:7)