Birkat Kohanim - The Priestly Blessing Part III

  • Rav David Brofsky



     Last week, we explored the parameters of the obligation of Birkat Kohanim.  In addition, we discussed the preparations before Birkat Kohanim, such as the washing of the kohanim's hands, as well as the obligation to remove one's shoes before reciting the blessing.


     This week, we will begin our discussion of the laws of the blessing itself and the interaction between the kohanim, the chazzan (prayer leader, also known as the sheliach tzibbur or shatz) and the congregation.


Approaching the Dukhan (Platform):


In the chazzan's repetition, Birkat Kohanim is placed in the final section, which consists of three blessings, known by their initial words: "Retzeh," also know as Service, which asks for the restoration of the Temple ritual; "Modim," also known as Thanksgiving; and "Sim Shalom," which focuses on peace.  The Gemara (Megilla 18b) explains the placement of Birkat Kohanim between Modim and Sim Shalom


Why did they institute saying Birkat Kohanim after Thanksgiving?  As is says (Vayikra 9:22), "And Aharon lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down from bringing the sin-offering and the burnt-offering and the peace-offerings."


Furthermore, the Gemara (Sota 38b) explains that the kohen must begin his ascent during the blessing of Retzeh:


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi also said: "Any kohen who does not ascend during Service may not ascend later, as it is said: 'And Aharon lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down from bringing the sin-offering and the burnt-offering and the peace-offerings' – just as in this passage it is during the service, so here [in the synagogue] it must be during Service." 

That is not so, seeing that Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi ascended [at a later point]!

Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi had already moved their feet [at the proper point to ascend the platform], but they did not reach there [in time].


According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, a kohen who does not at least begin his ascent during the blessing of Retzeh may not participate in Birkat Kohanim!  The Acharonim (see Peri Megadim 12, et al.) question what the precise limit is: while the sheliach tzibbur is still reciting Retzeh itself; or even while the congregation is answering "Amen;" or perhaps even afterwards, as long as the sheliach tzibbur has not begun the next berakha, Modim.


     What should a kohen do in a situation where his private Shemoneh Esreh runs long and he does not have time to wash his hands before the berakha of Retzeh?  Some suggest (see Piskei Teshuvot 128:29) that the kohen should quickly walk to the washing basin, pass it in the general direction of the dukhan, and then return to the basin.  This gesture may be considered, be-diavad (in retrospect), to be a valid ascent to the dukhan.


     The Arukh Ha-shulchan (128:16) suggests that even walking towards the washing basin may be considered to be a proper ascent, be-diavad, as the washing is part of the preparation for the mitzva, and a kohen who has done so may participate in Birkat Kohanim.


Interrupting Prayer in Order to Recite Birkat Kohanim:


     What about a kohen who is in the middle of his own silent prayer as the as the kohanim ascend to the dukhan?


     Rav Yosef Karo (OC 128:29) rules that if a kohen finds a congregation which has reached Birkat Kohanim, even though he has not yet prayed, he may participate in Birkat Kohanim


A kohen who is in the middle of reciting Shema and its blessings should try to finish the paragraph (perek) before participating in Birkat Kohanim.  If he is unable to finish the paragraph before Birkat Kohanim, then he should still join with the kohanim, as stopping for Birkat Kohanim should be no worse than one who interrupts to respond during the Shema and its blessings mi-penei ha-kavod (out of respect), which is allowed.  One who is reciting Pesukei De-zimra, the Verses of Praise, may certainly ascend the dukhan and participate in Birkat Kohanim.  However, as mentioned above, one who has not begun to ascend when the sheliach tzibbur reaches Retzeh should not ascend at all, and he should preferably leave the sanctuary. 


     Regarding the final times to recite Tefilla and Keriat Shema, the Mishna Berura (107) notes that if one sees that by participating in Birkat Kohanim he will miss sof zeman tefilla (the latest time at which he may recite Shemoneh Esreh, i.e. the end of the first third of the day's sunlight), he should walk out of the beit keneset and pray.  However, if the kohanim have already been "called" to ascend, and by not joining he will violate a positive Biblical commandment (as we discussed last week), then he should ascend, as the Biblical mitzva of Birkat Kohanim overrides the rabbinic commandment of reciting Shemoneh Esreh


     Furthermore, the Mishna Berura adds that if one who has already been called to ascend fears that by doing so he will miss the latest time to perform Keriat Shema, a mitzva mi-deoraita, he should at least recite the first verse of the Shema.  Obviously, as according to some opinions (see, one may fulfill the mitzva by reciting the first, or the first and second paragraphs, of the Shema, then certainly one should recite as much as possible before beginning to recite the berakha before Birkat Kohanim


     What if a kohen is in the middle of his personal Shemoneh Esreh?  Rabbi David ben Shelomo ibn Avi Zimra (1479–1573), known as the Radbaz, rules (Shut Ha-Radbaz 4:293) that if he is the only kohen in the beit keneset, and without him the congregation will omit Birkat Kohanim, then he should ascend, recite Birkat Kohanim, and return to his place to conclude his Shemoneh Esreh.  He insists that if there are other kohanim he should not ascend, and that even if they are "called" to ascend, the "call" is only addressed to those able to do so.


     The Magen Avraham (128:40) agrees, although he adds that even if there are other kohanim, if one is summoned to ascend (seemingly before the blessing of Retzeh), then he must do so. 


     The Eliyya Rabba (129:50), however, disagrees.  He questions whether even one who is summoned to ascend may interrupt his Shemoneh Esreh in order to participate in Birkat Kohanim.  The Mishna Berura (106) cites Rav Yaakov Emden, who concurs, and he instructs the kohanim not to interrupt their Tefilla unless the kohen has reached the point immediately prior to Sim Shalom, in which case participating in Birkat Kohanim would not constitute an interruption.  Furthermore, one who ascends during his Tefilla should start his ascent during the blessing of Retzeh, as discussed above, and he should do so only if he is confident that he will be able to properly return to his Tefilla upon concluding Birkat Kohanim


     In summary, it seems that only one who begins moving towards the dukhan during Retzeh and who himself has concluded Modim should ascend and participate in Birkat Kohanim in the middle of his own Tefilla.  Furthermore, he should rely upon his netilat yadayim from before he began praying, as we discussed last week.  The Acharonim debate whether this applies only when one is the only kohen in the congregation (Teshuvot Ve-hanhagot 3:52) or even if there are other kohanim present (Yalkut Yosef, Dinei Nesiat Kappayim 129:57).


     It seems that one who must interrupt his Shemoneh Esreh in order to recite Birkat Kohanim with the congregation should wash his hands before Birkot Keriat Shema and pray near the place from which the kohanim recite their blessing, in order to minimize his interruption.  If there are other kohanim in the congregation, he should preferably pray outside of the sanctuary, in deference to the opinion of the Mishna Berura, who would require him to ascend. 


What about a kohen who is also the sheliach tzibbur?


     The Mishna (Berakhot 5:4) expresses concern that a kohen who serves as the sheliach tzibbur and also participates in Birkat Kohanim may become confused and not properly return to his Tefilla.


The sheliach tzibbur should not respond Amen after [the blessings of] the priests because this might confuse him.  If there is no priest there but he, he should not raise his hands; but if he is confident that he can raise his hands and go back to his place in his prayer, he is permitted to do so.


The simple reading of the gemara implies that a kohen may only serve as the sheliach tzibbur and ALSO participate in Birkat Kohanim if "there is no priest there but he," and "he is confident the he can raise his hands and go back to his place in his prayer." 


     Consequently, the Hagahot Maimoniyyot (Hilkhot Tefilla 15:6), citing the Maharam of Rotenberg, insists that while if he is the ONLY kohen, one may bless the people while serving as the sheliach tzibbur, if there is another kohen in the beit keneset, the kohen serving as the sheliach tzibbur should NOT participate in Birkat Kohanim.  Rav Yosef Karo (OC 128:20) rules in accordance with the Maharam of Rotenberg.


     The Peri Chadash (128:20), cited in Sha'ar Ha-tziyyun 64, and other Acharonim, disagree.  He argues that the gemara refers even to a case in which there are other kohanim among the congregation.  As long as he is confident that he can return to his place in the prayers, the shatz may participate in Birkat Kohanim.


     Rav Yechiel Mikhel Tukitchinsky, in his Ir Ha-kodesh Ve-hamikdash (Vol. 3), relates that the established custom in Jerusalem is that a kohen serving as the sheliach tzibbur participates in Birkat Kohanim EVEN if there are other kohanim in the beit keneset


     To this day, there are different customs among the communities of Eretz Yisrael.  While many communities follow the Peri Chadash, as reflected by the comments of Rav Yechiel Mikhel Tukitchinsky and presented as the normative practice by the compendium Tefilla Ke-hilkhata (14:61), some Sephardic communities (see Yalkut Yosef 128:56, footnotes ad loc.), as well as the Chazon Ish (see Tefilla Ke-hilkhata ibid.), follow the ruling of Rav Yosef Karo.


     A kohen serving shatz who intends to participate in Birkat Kohanim should wash his hands and loosen his shoes before the repetition.  Furthermore, a member of the congregation should call out the words of Birkat Kohanim, instead of the sheliach tzibbur.


     When there are no kohanim at all in the congregation, or in the Diaspora where Birkat Kohanim is only recited on the Festivals, the Rav Yosef Karo (127:2) cites the custom for the chazzan to say "Elokeinubarekhenu…," "Our God and the God of our ancestors, bless us with the three-fold blessing…," and then read out the three verses of Birkat Kohanim (Bamidbar 6:24-26).


The Mishna Berura (127:8) writes that while saying "Yevarekhekha," the first verse, the sheliach tzibbur should turn towards his right; while saying "Ya'er," the second, he should face the front; finally, he should turn to the left while saying "Yissa," the final verse.


"Calling" the Kohanim:


The Talmud (Sota 38a) teaches:


Abbayyei said: "We have a tradition that he exclaims 'Kohanim!' when [at least] two [kohanim] are present, but he does not exclaim 'Kohen!' when only one is there; as it is said (Bamidbar 6:23): You shall say to THEM' — i.e., [at least] two…"

The halakha is in accordance with the view of Abbayyei.


As opposed to the Talmud Bavli, which asserts that a single kohen is not summoned to ascend, the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 5:4) disagrees and insists that the call "kohanim" invites the tribe, not the individual members.  The custom is in accordance with the Talmud Bavli.


     The Rishonim debate WHEN the kohanim should be summoned.  Rav Yosef Karo, in his Beit Yosef (128), suggests that while the Ran (Megilla 15b) implies that they are summoned BEFORE the blessing of Retzeh, Rashi and the Rambam explain that they are summoned immediately preceding Birkat Kohanim


     Furthermore, the Rishonim differ as to WHO calls upon the kohen.  Tosafot (Berakhot 34a), as well as the Mordekhai (Berakhot 109) and the Rosh (Berakhot 5:17), in the name of Rabbeinu Chananel, insist that what we nowadays call the gabbai, NOT the sheliach tzibbur, should summon the kohanim.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 14:8) disagrees, insisting that the sheliach tzibbur calls the kohanim


     In addition, the kohanim recite Birkat Kohanim word-for-word AFTER the sheliach tzibbur, lest they confuse the words of the berakha.  Rav Yosef Karo, in his Beit Yosef, explains that while the Ran (Megilla 15b) rules that the sheliach tzibbur should read the first word of the blessing, "Yevarekhekha," even though the kohanim are certainly not confused before the first word, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 14:3) apparently disagrees.  In fact, he relates, the Egyptian custom is in accordance with the Rambam!  In Shulchan Arukh (128:18), however, he writes that the sheliach tzibbur begins with the first word of the blessing, "Yevarekhekha."




     Next week, we will continue our study of Birkat Kohanim, focusing on the performance and recitation of the blessing, as well as the custom not to recite Birkat Kohanim daily in the Diaspora.