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Birkat Kohanim - The Priestly Blessing Part II

  • Rav David Brofsky



     Last week we introduced the mitzva of Birkat Kohanim.  We discussed whether the Priestly Blessing should be viewed as part of the Temple service or as a section of the daily prayers.  Furthermore, we suggested that one might even distinguish between Birkat Kohanim as performed in the Beit Ha-mikdash and Birkat Kohanim as recited outside of the Temple.


     This week, we will begin to study the laws of Birkat Kohanim, beginning with how and when a kohen fulfills or violates this mitzva of Birkat Kohanim, as well as the preparations for the priestly blessing. 


The Mitzva of Nesiat Kappayim (Raising the Hands):


     The Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Aseh 26) records that a kohen who refuses to participate in Birkat Kohanim violates one mitzvat aseh, i.e. a positive commandment. 


     However, the Talmud (Sota 38b), emphasizing the severity of Birkat Kohanim, teaches:


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi also said: "Any kohen who refuses to ascend to the platform (dukhan) transgresses three positive commandments: 'In this way shall you bless' (Bamidbar 6:23) 'You shall say to them' (ibid.) and 'So shall they put My name' (ibid., v. 27)."


     Indeed the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla U-nsiat Kappayim 15:12) explains:


Any kohen who does not ascend to the dukhan, even though he has violated one positive commandment, it is as if he violates three commandments, as it says, 'In this way shall you bless,' 'You shall say to them,' and 'So shall they put My name.'"


     The Hagahot Maimoniyyot (Hilkhot Tefilla U-nsiat Kappayim 15:9) explains, based upon the Yerushalmi, that only one who does not ascend when one is CALLED violates the mitzvat aseh.  Furthermore, one who has already recited Birkat Kohanim earlier in the day, is not obligated to recite it again, even if he is present when they call the kohanim to ascend.  Indeed, the Tosafot (Rosh Ha-shana 28b) derive that after reciting Birkat Kohanim once, a kohen does not violate the mitzva of Birkat Kohanim if he chooses not to participate in a second Birkat Kohanim.  The Shulchan Arukh (OC 128:3) concurs with this ruling. 


     As we shall see in future discussion, one who cannot participate in Birkat Kohanim is often advised to leave before being called to ascend, in order not to violate the mitzvat aseh of Birkat Kohanim.


     Interestingly, the Sefer Ha-charedim (12:18) implies that the congregation ALSO fulfills the mitzvat aseh by being blessed by the kohanim.  If so, one might raise the following interesting question: if one has the choice of attending a synagogue where he will hear the Torah reading but not Birkat Kohanim, or the opposite, which mitzva takes precedence?


     Seemingly, this discussion should depend both upon whether Birkat Kohanim, as a mitzva, applies to those who receive the blessing or just to the kohen, and whether Birkat Kohanim and the Torah reading should be viewed as a chovat yachid (individual mitzva) or a chovat tzibbur (a communal mitzva). 


Preparations for Birkat Kohanim:


     The Talmud (Sota 39a) teaches that a kohen must wash his hands (perform netilat yadayim) before pronouncing the Birkat Kohanim


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi also said: "Any kohen who has not washed his hands may not lift them up [to pronounce the benediction], as it is said: 'Lift up your hands in holiness and bless God (Tehillim 134:2).'"


     The Rishonim debate whether this statement teaches that "washing" constitutes a separate mitzva, i.e. to purify one's hands before blessing the Jewish people, or whether it simply instructs the kohen to ensure that his hands are clean for the blessing.  These positions differ as to whether a kohen who washes his hands properly before Shacharit and pays attention so that his hands will not be sullied in the meantime must wash his hands specifically for Birkat Kohanim.


     Rav Yosef Karo, in his commentary on the Rambam (Kesef Mishneh, Hilkhot Tefilla U-nsiat Kappayim 15:5), insists that the Rambam believes that only a kohen who has NOT washed his hands before Shacharit, or one who became distracted and may have sullied his hands, must wash before Birkat Kohanim.  In fact, he cites the Rambam's son, Rav Avraham ben Ha-Rambam, who relates that his father actually ruled, when asked, that a kohen should rely upon the earlier netilat yadayim performed for Keriat Shema and Tefilla.  Furthermore, in his commentary to the Tur (Beit Yosef 125), Rav Yosef Karo relates that this was the custom in Egypt. 


     Interestingly, Tosafot (Sota 39a, s.v. Kol kohen) cite a variant text in which Rashi quotes his teacher, who rules that a kohen who washes his hands for Shacharit need not wash again for Birkat Kohanim.


     However, Tosafot (ibid., s.v. Kol kohen) rejects this tradition and rules that the kohen must wash his hands immediately preceding, and specifically for, Birkat Kohanim.  In fact, in our version, Rashi (Sota 39a, s.v. She-lo) not only does not mention his teacher's ruling, but he explains that the kohen must wash immediately before Birkat Kohanim!


     Rav Yosef Karo (OC 125:6) rules, in accordance with Rashi and Tosafot, that the kohanim should wash their hands again before Birkat Kohanim


     The Tur (128) writes that the kohen should recite the berakha "'al netilat yadayim" upon washing his hands before reciting Birkat Kohanim.  The Darkhei Moshe adds that in deference to the view of the Rambam, who opines that netilat yadayim may not be necessary at all if one washes before Shacharit, one should not recite a berakha.  The Magen Avraham (9) asserts that, as all would agree, according to the Tur, that a berakha should theoretically be recited, then certainly a kohen who sullies his hands MUST wash them before performing Birkat Kohanim, even according to the Rambam, and he therefore should recite the berakha


     The Mishna Berura (24) cites the Eliyya Rabba, who disagrees, insisting that the Rabbis may not have instituted a berakha on this 'washing' at all!


     Alternatively, one may suggest that the need for a berakha might be dependent upon the debate between the Rambam and Tosafot, cited above.  In other words, while according to Rashi and Tosafot, there is a special and unique mitzva to wash before Birkat Kohanim, and therefore a berakha should be recited, according to the Rambam, one must merely insure that one's hands are clean, and therefore a berakha might be unnecessary. 


     Some Acharonim (see, for example, Magen Avraham 8) suggest that as this netilat yadayim is modeled after the netilat yadayim for the Temple service, it should be performed from a vessel, with a minimum of a revi'it of water, poured directly by a person (koach gavra).  However, in extenuating circumstances one may wash directly from the faucet; one may even use liquids other than water.


     Furthermore, Rav Yosef Karo, based upon the Rambam, rules that one should wash until one's wrist, as did the kohanim in the Beit Ha-mikdash (Chullin 106b).  Even on Yom Kippur, when washing is permitted for tefilla only until the top of one's fingers (OC 613:2), a kohen should still wash until his wrists (Mishna Berura 613:7).


     The prevalent custom nowadays is for the Levi'im (Levites, descendants of Levi, who assisted their cousins, the kohanim, in the Temple) to wash the hands of the kohanim.  What is the source for this practice?


     In the Beit Yosef (128), Rav Yosef Karo writes:


I have heard that this was also the practice in Spain, and that the Levi'im would pour out the water on their hands, and I did not know the origin of this, that the washing should be performed by the Levi'im, until God graced me and I found it explicitly in the holy Zohar (Parashat Naso 126b).


     He later codifies this practice in his Shulchan Arukh (128:6).  He adds that the Levi should wash his own hands before pouring water onto the kohen's hands.  The Rema adds that the custom is for the Levi'im to rely upon their washing before Shacharit and NOT to wash before pouring water for the kohanim


     Interestingly, Rav Yoel Sirkis (1561-1640), author of the Bayit Chadash (known, by its acronym, as the Bach), a commentary on the Tur, writes that he found in an old machzor, in the name of the Maharil, that if there is no Levi to wash the kohen's hands, then a bekhor, a male who is his father's firstborn (who is also a peter rechem, the first from his mother's womb), should wash in his stead.  In fact, Rabbi Chayyim Beneviste (1603-1673), in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh known as Kenesset Ha-gedola, writes that such was the custom in Izmir.  While the Kaf Ha-chayyim (128:40) rejects this practice, numerous Acharonim, including the Mishna Berura (22) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Hilkhot Shlomo 10:9), endorse this practice. 


     When neither a Levi nor a bekhor is present, a kohen should wash his own hands. 


     A kohen who has not washed his hands at all, even before Shacharit, should NOT recite Birkat Kohanim (Sota 39a). 


Removing One's Shoes Before Birkat Kohanim:


     The Talmud (Sota 40a) teaches:


The rabbis said: "It is derived from the regulation that the kohanim are not permitted to ascend to the dukhan wearing their shoes.  This is one of the ten ordinances which Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai instituted."

What is the reason?  Is it not out of respect for the congregation?  Rav Ashi said: "No, [the reason] there is lest a shoelace become untied and he proceeds to retie it; then people might say: 'He is the son of a divorcee.'"


The gemara cites two possible reasons why even outside of the Beit Ha-mikdash a kohen should remove his shoes before reciting Birkat Kohanim.  According to the first reason, it is out of respect for the congregation.  Rashi explains that when the kohen lifts his hands, he raises the hem of his robe, thereby exposing his muddy shoes, which demonstrates disrespect for the tzibbur.  While some view this reason as merely a rejected hypothesis, others understand that it remains valid even according to the gemara's conclusion.


     According to the second reason, we fear that his shoelaces or straps may become untied, and he may bend over to tie them.  In such a case, the people may misinterpret his actions as an attempt to avoid participating in Birkat Kohanim due to a problem with his personal status (i.e. that he is the product of a marriage forbidden to a kohen.)


     Rav Yosef Karo rules (128:5) that one may recite Birkat Kohanim while wearing socks.  The Rema notes that while some are strict and prohibit slippers made from leather, in some communities they are lenient.  The Mishna Berura (18) writes that one should not ascend barefoot, as it is uncommon to walk before important people without socks. 


     At times, one is unable to remove one's shoes, either because of sickness or another disability.  One might even find one's self without sufficient time to remove one's shoes, such as a soldier wearing army boots!  The Acharonim discuss whether under certain circumstances one may recite Birkat Kohanim while wearing shoes.


     Some suggest that the reasons cited by the Talmud may only apply to a kohen who literally ascends to the dukhan, i.e. a kohen standing ABOVE the congregation.  However, the community cannot see the feet of a kohen standing on their level, on the floor, and therefore the takkana of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai may not apply (see Tzitz Eliezer 14:11, Yechavveh Da'at 2:32, et al.)  Furthermore, these kohanim should preferably wear shoes not made from leather, without straps or laces.  Others rule (see Iggerot Moshe 2:32) that when one's disability is known to the community, the gemara's reason may not apply. 



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