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Birkat Kohanim - The Priestly Blessing (Part I)

  • Rav David Brofsky



     Last week, we concluded our study of Chazarat Ha-shatz and Kedusha.  This week, we will begin our study of Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing recited before the final berakha of the repetition.


     The Torah (Bamidbar 6:22-27) states:


The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, "Speak to Aharon and to his sons, saying: 'In this way shall you bless the children of Israel; you shall say to them: "May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord make His countenance shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up His countenance to you and give you peace."'  So shall they put My Name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them."


     During the upcoming shiurim, we will examine the nature of Birkat Kohanim and its role in the Beit Ha-mikdash (Temple) as well as in the beit ha-keneset (synagogue).  Furthermore, we will study the obligation, laws and qualifications of the kohen (priest), as well as the blessing's place within the tefilla.


Birkat Kohanim: Inside and Outside the Beit Ha-mikdash:


     The original location, as well as the primary fulfillment, of Birkat Kohanim seems to be in the holy precincts, first in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and afterwards in the Beit Ha-mikdash (Temple).  In fact, the Torah relates that upon concluding the sacrificial service of the eighth day of the Mishkan's dedication, Aharon blesses the people:


And Aharon raised up his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin-offering and the burnt-offering and the peace-offerings.(Vayikra 9:22)


     Based on this verse, the first mention of the concept in the Torah, the ceremony of Birkat Kohanim is often referred to as Nesiat Kappayim, Raising the Hands.  Indeed, the Rambam, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, lists Birkat Kohanim among the positive mitzvot associated with the Beit Ha-mikdash and its service (Mitzvat Aseh 26).  In fact, the Mishna (Tamid 7:2) describes how the kohanim would bless the people after the haktarat ha-evarim (burning of the limbs) of the korban tamid


     Furthermore, the Mishna lists three differences between the blessing recited in the Beit Ha-mikdash as opposed to the one recited outside.  For example, in the Beit Ha-mikdash, the kohanim employ the Shem Ha-mforash, the true pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton and not the kinnui (byname), used today.  As such, the Sifrei (Parashat Re'eh) teaches:


It says here "To put His Name there (Devarim 12:5)," and it is stated there, "So shall they put My Name (Bamidbar 6:27)" – just as there, it refers to Birkat Kohanim; so too here, it refers to Birkat Kohanim.  I only know about the Beit Ha-mikdash; from where do I know that [it should be recited] OUTSIDE of the Beit Ha-mikdash?  It says (Shemot 20:20), "In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned."  If so, why does it say, "THERE, to His place, shall you seek, and there you shall come?"  To teach that in the Beit Ha-mikdash, one should recite the NAME as it is written, and elsewhere you should use a byname.


     The Gemara (Sota 38a) arrives at a similar conclusion.  


     While this source indicates that the Priestly Blessing is to be recited OUTSIDE the Beit Ha-mikdash as well, it also clearly indicates the uniqueness, if not the primacy, of Birkat Kohanim as it is recited in the Beit Ha-mikdash.     In fact, even outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash, the kohanim bless the people immediately after the berakha of "Retzeh," which petitions for the restoration of the Templeservice!


     If so, one might ask whether, technically, the mitzva of Birkat Kohanim OUTSIDE of the Beit Ha-mikdash is biblical (mi-de'oraita) or rabbinic (mi-derabbanan).


     The Yerushalmi (Nazir 7:1), as well as the Rishonim (Rambam, Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Aseh 26; Ramban, Bamidbar 8:2; Sefer Ha-chinukh 378, etc.), and  Acharonim (Keren Ora, Sota 38a; Peri Megadim, OC 128:3, etc.), agree that Birkat Kohanim, outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash, and even after its destruction, remains mi-de'oraita


     However, even if the obligation of Birkat Kohanim applies equally outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash, one may still ask: is its nature different?  Furthermore, one might also question whether Birkat Kohanim, in general, should be seen as a part of the daily service in the Beit Ha-mikdash; or whether, fundamentally, Birkat Kohanim is a form of tefilla, recited both inside AND outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash.


     Interestingly, the Mishna chooses to include the laws of Birkat Kohanim in Tractate Sota, adjacent to laws of the ceremony of the "Berakhot U-kelalot" (Blessings and Curses) on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, and not in Tractate Berakhot, which addresses the laws of prayer and blessings directly.


     As mentioned above, the Rambam cites Birkat Kohanim, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, among the other mitzvot related to the Beit Ha-mikdash.  However, he puts the laws of Birkat Kohanim alongside the laws of prayer, calling the entire unit "Hilkhot Tefilla U-nesiat Kappayim," "The Laws of Prayer and Raising the Hands!"


     These sources highlight the apparent ambiguity in, or dual nature of, Birkat Kohanim.


     It seems that we should start by investigating whether and to what extent, aside from the three distinctions enumerated by the Mishna (Tamid 7:3), there are halakhic similarities or differences between Birkat Kohanim in the synagogue and Birkat Kohanim in the Temple service.


     We seem to find an apparent contradiction in the Talmud.  On the one hand, the gemara in Sota (38a), deriving that Birkat Kohanim should be recited while standing, cites a baraita:


"In THIS way you shall bless" — STANDING.  You say that it means standing, but perhaps that is not so and [the blessing may be pronounced] even sitting!  It is stated here, "In this way you shall bless," and elsewhere (Devarim 27:12) it is stated: "These shall stand to bless" (referring to the Mount Gerizim ceremony) — just as here, it is standing; so too in the former passage, it is standing. 


Rabbi Natan says: "[This deduction] is unnecessary; behold, it states [regarding the kohanim]: 'To serve Him and to bless in His Name (ibid. 10:8)' — as [the priest] serves standing, so he blesses standing.  How do we know that the service [was performed standing]?  Because it is written [regarding the kohanim]: 'To stand to serve (ibid. 18:5).'"


     This gemara concludes that just as the kohen must perform all of the other parts of the Temple service while standing, so too he must recite Birkat Kohanim while standing.  This apparently supports the position which views Birkat Kohanim as a form of Temple service.


     On the other hand, the Gemara elsewhere (Ta'anit 26b-27a) rejects this comparison:


Everyone agrees that one who is intoxicated may not perform Birkat Kohanim.  How do we know this?


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said in the name of Bar Kappara: "Why is the section relating to the kohen taught immediately following the section relating to a nazir (who is prohibited to drink wine)?  [To teach that] just as wine is forbidden for a nazir, so too wine is forbidden for a kohen who blesses." 


If so, then just as grape seeds are forbidden for a nazir [so too a kohen]! 


Rabbi Yitzchak says: "The verse says 'To serve Him and to bless in His Name' - just as one who serves (i.e., a kohen during the Temple service) may consume grape seeds, so to a kohen who blesses may consume grape seeds. 


If so, just as one who serves may not have a blemish (mum), so too a kohen who blesses…


It is merely an asmakhta (mnemonic), and it is of rabbinic origin.


     Seemingly, this gemara rejects the above comparison, adopted by the other gemara (Sota 28a), between a kohen who serves in the Beit Ha-mikdash and a kohen who recites Birkat Kohanim!


     While the Gemara does not point out this apparent contradiction, the Rishonim debate whether to apply the comparison between Templeservice and Birkat Kohanim


     On the one hand, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 15:3-4) disqualifies one guilty of idolatry or murder, as well as one who has consumed a revi'it of wine, by comparison to the Temple service.  On the other hand, Tosafot (Ta'anit 27a) rule that a blemished or apostate kohen may recite Birkat Kohanim, rejecting the comparison between Birkat Kohanim and the Templeservice.


     The Acharonim also discuss this question.  For example, the Taz (128:27) questions why the Shulchan Arukh rules that if a community is already accustomed to the kohen's physical blemish, he may recite Birkat Kohanim.  He asks, based upon the sources cited above, why this kohen should not be disqualified due to the comparison between Birkat Kohanim and the Templeservice!


     He offers what he himself describes as "a novel explanation, as we have not found this question or its answer in any commentary, old or new."  He suggests that while we DO derive from the Templeservice those disqualifications which the kohen can avoid, e.g., being drunk or being sedentary, those which relate to his physical appearance, which he cannot avoid, do not disqualify him.


     Alternatively, the Magen Avraham (128:54) questions whether an arel, one who is uncircumcised, may participate in Birkat Kohanim.  He concludes that one who is uncircumcised MAY participate in Birkat Kohanim, despite his apparent disqualification from Templeservice.  In other words, he rejects the comparison between Birkat Kohanim and the Templeservice.


     The Peri Megadim (OC 128) also explores this issue, and expends great effort defending the position of the Taz.   


     Is it possible that just as the Mishna lists the TECHNICAL differences between Birkat Kohanim inside and outside the Beit Ha-mikdash, there may be a fundamental distinction as well?  Might we suggest that while in the Beit Ha-mikdash, Birkat Kohanim functions as an integral part of the Templeservice, Birkat Kohanim outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash is integrated into the mitzva of tefilla


     We noted above that most Rishonim and Acharonim conclude that the mitzva of Birkat Kohanim applies equally inside and outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash.  However, one may certainly suggest (see Keren Ora, Sota 38a) that Birkat Kohanim recited outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash, which lacks the proper use of the Shem Ha-mforash, may only be mi-derabbanan!  Furthermore, in what biblical context, some ask, could Birkat Kohanim outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash take place?  According to many, the mitzva of tefilla is only of rabbinic origin, and even if its origin is biblical (as we attributed to the Rambam in last year's shiurim), it certainly does not mandate communal prayer!  If so, then certainly we might suggest that while the biblical character of Birkat Kohanim as recited in the Beit Ha-mikdash relates to the Templeservice, the rabbinical character of Birkat Kohanim recited during the tefilla relates to public prayer.  However, the Keren Ora, cited above, rejects this somewhat tempting suggestion. 


     Interestingly, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893), known as the Netziv, suggests (Hamek Davar, Bamidbar 6:23 and Vayikra 9:22), based on a close textual reading, that Birkat Kohanim is recited twice in the Beit Ha-mikdash: once as part of the Templeservice, and a second time, as described in the Mishna (Tamid 5:1), as part of the daily prayers.


     If indeed there are two aspects of, or even venues for, of Birkat Kohanim, one might suggest a resolution to the contradiction presented above.  The gemara in Sota refers to Birkat Kohanim in the Beit Ha-mikdash, and it therefore maintains a comparison between the Templeservice and Birkat Kohanim.  The gemara in Ta'anit, however, refers to Birkat Kohanim recited as part of tefilla, either inside (according to the Netziv) or outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash, and it therefore rejects the above comparison. 


     One final issue related to this question arises yearly during the Ne'ila (closing) prayer of Yom Kippur, specifically in Eretz Yisrael.  The Mishna (Ta'anit 4:1) states explicitly that Birkat Kohanim is recited during Tefillat Ne'ila.


     Aside from the general question whether Tefillat Ne'ila should be concluded during the day or whether it may continue into the night (see Yerushalmi Ta'anit 4:1), the Rishonim ALSO debate whether Birkat Kohanim may be recited after dark.


     The Hagahot Maimoniyyot (Hilkhot Tefilla 3, Letter Heh), citing the Mordekhai, attempts to prove that Tefillat Ne'ila must be recited during the day from the laws of Birkat Kohanim:


The law is in accordance [with Rabbi Yochanan, who explains that Ne'ila must be concluded during the day]…  Furthermore, they bring a proof from the three times [that Birkat Kohanim is recited]… implying that [it is concluded] while it is still light out, as it is compared to the service, i.e. the song recited over the sacrifice… which is recited while it is still day…  Our ancestors certainly did not establish this custom, to recite it at night; rather, it is because the cantors drag it out until night that people think that that the law is such.


     The Hagahot Maimoniyyot maintains that the proper practice is to recite Tefillat Ne'ila and Birkat Kohanim while it is still day. 


     The Maharil (cited by the Darkhei Moshe), the Magen Avraham (623:3) and others permit saying Birkat Kohanim after nightfall.  Others, such as the Shulchan Arukh Ha-rav (623:8), rule that Birkat Kohanim may performed UNTIL the stars come out.  Others (see Peri Megadim, cited by the Sha'ar Ha-tziyyun, 623:11) are lenient until about an hour and a half after sunset (shekia); or, in Eretz Yisrael, until about thirteen and a half minutes after shekia


     Interestingly, the Rema (623:5) records the custom in his area NOT to recite Birkat Kohanim at Tefillat Ne'ila.  Many Acharonim explain that since the cantors often reach the end of Ne'ila after dark, Birkat Kohanim can no longer be recited.  In Eretz Yisrael, it is still customary to recite Birkat Kohanim at Ne'ila, and then recite Avinu Malkenu, responsively, until the end of the fast. 


     Seemingly, this question should be related to the broader issue discussed above: is Birkat Kohanim part of the Templeservice, or is it an independent mitzva related to prayer?  In fact, the Hagahot Maimoniyyot, cited above, explains that since Birkat Kohanim is compared to the Templeservice, it cannot be performed at night. 


     For further treatment of this topic, see Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik's essay, entitled "Nesiat Kappayim," in Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mori, Volume2; and Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein's shiurim on Tractate Sota (



     Next week, we will continue our study of Birkat Kohanim.