Birkat Kohanim - The Priestly Blessing Part IV

  • Rav David Brofsky



     Last week, we discussed both the kohen's approach to the dukhan (platform) and the occasional conflict between the kohen's personal obligation to pray and his responsibility to participate in Birkat Kohanim


     Rav Yosef Karo (Shulchan Arukh, OC 128:4) isolates four basic rules, all mi-deoraita, of Birkat Kohanim:


The blessing should be recited only in the Holy Tongue, while standing, with raised hands and in a loud voice


This week, we will address these and other basic laws of Birkat Kohanim, as we study the halakhot of the Priestly Blessing itself, including how and when it is performed.



The Recitation of Birkat Kohanim: In Hebrew, Standing, Loudly:


The Gemara (Sota 38a) teaches that Birkat Kohanim must be recited in Hebrew.


Our Rabbis taught: "'In this way shall you bless…' (Bamidbar 6:23) — in the Holy Tongue.  You say that it means in the Holy Tongue, but perhaps it is not so, and it means in any language!  It is stated here, 'In this way shall you bless…' and elsewhere it is stated: 'These shall stand to bless the people' (Devarim 27:12) - just as in this latter passage, it must be in the Holy Tongue, so also in the former it must be in the Holy Tongue. 

"Rabbi Yehuda says: '[This deduction] is unnecessary, because it states "In THIS way shall you bless" [which signifies] that they must pronounce it in this language [as written in Scripture].'"


This sharply contrasts with other recitations and prayers, which may be recited in the vernacular (see, where we address this topic), as the Mishna (Sota 7:1-2) teaches:


The following may be recited in any language: the section concerning the suspected adulteress, the Confession of the Tithes, Keriat Shema, Tefilla, the Grace after Meals, the oath concerning testimony and the oath concerning a deposit.

The following must be recited in the Holy Tongue: the Declaration of the Firstfruits, Chalitza, the Blessings and the Curses, Birkat Kohanim


Thus, one who recites Birkat Kohanim in the vernacular has NOT fulfilled the obligation. 


The Gemara (Sota 39a) also teaches that Birkat Kohanim must be recited while standing.


"'In this way shall you bless' — standing.  You say that it means standing, but perhaps that is not so, and [it may be pronounced] even while sitting!  It is stated here, 'In this way shall you bless' and elsewhere it is stated: 'These shall stand to bless' — as here it must be while standing, so in the former passage it must be while standing. 

"Rabbi Natan says: '[This deduction] is unnecessary; behold, it states: "To minister to Him and to bless in His Name" (Devarim 10:8) — as [the kohen] ministers while standing, so he blesses while standing.  From where do we know that the ministering itself [must be performed while standing]? Because it is written: "To stand to minister" (Devarim 18:5).'"


The Ba'er Heitev (128:25) cites a debate regarding whether a kohen may recite Birkat Kohanim while leaning.  He relates that while the Shevut Yaakov permits this, the Yad Aharon and the Keneset Ha-gedola disagree and prohibit a kohen from reciting Birkat Kohanim while leaning.  The Mishna Berura (51) rules that a kohen who feels weak and unable to recite Birkat Kohanim while standing may not ascend, even if he would be able to recite the blessing while leaning. 


     Ostensibly, a kohen may ascend and recite each word while standing and lean in between words.  However, if he is unable to stand for the duration, then he should leave the sanctuary BEFORE the sheliach tzibbur reaches the blessing of Retzeh, as according to the Shevut Yaakov, cited above, he may still be obligated to participate in Birkat Kohanim.  The Kaf Ha-chayyim (128:90) insists that if there are other kohanim present, he may even ascend and listen, responding "Amen" to the initial berakha recited by another kohen, and then join in as the kohanim recite the verses and bless the people. 


     One might question whether a kohen with a prosthetic leg may recite Birkat Kohanim.  It seems that there may be two concerns.  Firstly, to what extent is a prosthetic leg a "distraction" to the congregation?  Due to the ever-improving quality of prosthetics, as well as the familiarity of people with prosthetic limbs, this should not be of great concern.  Preferably, the kohen should wear cloth shoes without laces (see Rav Moshe Feinstein's Iggerot Moshe, OC 2:32, and Tefilla Ke-hilkhata, 14:18). 


     Secondly, must we define one who uses a prosthetic leg as "leaning"?  On the one hand, he is certainly NOT leaning from the perspective of his posture, but he IS technically leaning on his prosthetic leg.  Furthermore, the entire question of leaning is subject to a halakhic debate!  While Rav Moshe Feinstein, cited above, is clearly not concerned with this issue, see Responsa Even Yisrael 7:10 for a different perspective.


The Gemara (Sota 39a) continues:


Another [baraita] teaches: "'In this way shall you bless' — in a loud voice (be-kol ram).  But perhaps it is not so, and it may be said softly!  Scripture states (ibid.), 'You shall say to them' — like a man who talks to his companion."


The Acharonim explain that "kol ram" refers to a pleasant, audible voice.  The Mishna Berura (53), for example, cites those who describe it as a "kol beinoni" - a medium volume. 


     Furthermore, he adds that one who suffers from a sore throat and whose voice is hoarse cannot participate in Birkat Kohanim; he should preferably leave the sanctuary before the sheliach tzibbur reaches Retzeh.


     Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, in his Tzitz Eliezer (15:21) defends the common custom of kohanim to ascend even when they are unable to produce a sound that will be audible to the congregation (tzibbur).  He supports his claim by citing a well-known debate regarding the custom of some communities, where one kohen raises his voice and the others whisper.  Apparently, these congregation believe that as long as Birkat Kohanim is performed, by the group, be-kol ram, the kohanim have fulfilled their obligation.    


     Furthermore, as we mentioned in a previous shiur (, the Acharonim disagree as to whether kohanim may fulfill their mitzva of Birkat Kohanim through the principle of shome'a ke-oneh.  According to this principle, one may fulfill one's obligation to recite a certain text by listening to another person recite the words while having in mind to fulfill the obligation and answering "Amen" at its conclusion.


     Rav Betzalel Ha-kohen of Vilna, in his Responsa Reshit Bikkurim (4), relates that the custom in the city of Trieste, Italy, is that only one kohen would bless the tzibbur and the other kohanim would fulfill their obligation through shome'a ke-oneh.  A number of Acharonim discuss this practice.  Rav Yosef Dov Ha-levi Soloveitchik (1829-1892), for example, in his Beit Ha-levi (Al Ha-Torah, Inyanei Chanukka), insists that while generally shome'a ke-oneh works, it cannot satisfy the requirement of kol ram (a loud voice), which is necessary for Birkat Kohanim (see Sukka 38a).  Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893), known as the Netziv, disagrees in his Meshiv Davar (1:47). 


     As we discussed there, the question may revolve around different understandings of the principle of shome'a ke-oneh: is shome'a ke-oneh merely a means of fulfilling one's obligation through listening to another person, or does it literally mean that through listening to another person recite a certain text, it is exactly as if he himself has recited the text?  The latter option may include the additional attributes given to the text, such as the obligation to recite Birkat Kohanim "be-kol ram."


     Alternatively, one may question the nature of the obligation to recite Birkat Kohanim "be-kol ram."  Does "be-kol ram" require that each kohen personally raise his voice in order that he can be heard, or does "be-kol ram" refer to the experience of Birkat Kohanim, which should be, as described by the Gemara, "like a man who talks to his companion."


     Based on the latter explanation, one may understand the practice of certain communities, cited by the Tzitz Eliezer (above), in which only one kohen recites the verses out loud and the others recite them quietly.  Since these others are part of a larger "dialogue-like" experience of Birkat Kohanim, they need not raise their voices. 



The Laws of the Raising the Hands (Nesiat Kappayim):


The Gemara (Sota 39a) goes on:


Another [baraita] teaches: "'In this way shall you bless' — raising one's hands (nesiat kappayim).  You say that it means with nesiat kappayim, but perhaps that is not so, [and it may be done] without nesiat kappayim!  It is stated here, 'In this way shall you bless,' and elsewhere it is stated: 'And Aharon raised up his hands toward the people and blessed them' (Vayikra 9:22); as in this latter passage, it was done with nesiat kappayim, so also in the former passage, it must be done with nesiat kappayim."


How is this "raising of the hands" performed?


     The kohanim, upon being summoned by the call "Kohanim!," ascend to the dukhan.  The Rishonim relate that the kohanim should first face towards the front of the beit keneset, towards the Aron Ha-kodesh (Holy Ark), and then turn towards the people.  In fact, the Gemara (Sota 38a) teaches:


"'In this way shall you bless' — face to face.  You say that it means face to face, but perhaps that is not so, and it means the face [of the priests] towards the back [of the people]!  Scripture states, 'You shall say to them' — like a man who talks to his companion."


However, the Rishonim differ as to when the kohen recites the birkat ha-mitzva, the blessing upon the commandment ("Blessed are You… Who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to bless His nation, Yisrael, with love"), and then he turns towards the tzibbur.


     Rashi (Sota 39b) and the Tur explain that the birkat ha-mitzva should be recited while facing the congregation, before turning towards the people.  In Shulchan Arukh (128:10-11), Rav Yosef Karo also rules that after the kohanim are summoned, they turn around and recite the birkat ha-mitzva, followed by the verses of Birkat Kohanim


     The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 14:12), however, writes that the kohanim first recite their birkat ha-mitzva and only afterwards turn around towards the congregation and recite Birkat Kohanim


     The Acharonim suggest different reasons for this practice.  Some suggest that the birkat ha-mitzva should be recited towards the Aron Ha-kodesh, out of respect for the berakha.  Others suggest that in order that the birkat ha-mitzva NOT be perceived as an addition to Birkat Kohanim, it is recited while facing forwards. 


     The Sha'arei Teshuva (128:18) cites Acharonim who suggest that while the first part of the birkat ha-mitzva should be recited while facing forwards, the kohanim should turn around before finishing the berakha.  The custom seems to be in accordance with the view of the Eliyya Rabba (128:25), who suggests turning around while reciting the word "be-ahava" ("with love"). 


     Regarding the height of nesiat kappayim, the Mishna (Sota 7:6) teaches that "in the province, the priests raise their hands to shoulder level; in the Temple, [they raise their hands] above their heads."


     While Rav Yosef Karo (128:12) also writes that the kohen should raise his hands to shoulder level, the Ari, as well as other Kabbalists, insist that one should raise his hands to the height of his head. 


     Rav Yosef Karo also cites the Hagahot Maimoniyyot, who suggests that the right hand should be held slightly higher than the left.  He explains that the word "yadav" ("his hands") is written in the singular in Vayikra 9:22, suggesting that one hand should be held higher than the other.


     The Gemara (Sota 39a) also teaches that "the kohanim are not permitted to bend their finger joints until they have turned their faces away from the congregation."


     Rav Yosef Karo cites a custom mentioned by the German Rishonim (see Rosh, Mordekhai and Rokeach, cited in Beit Yosef) in which the kohen would spread out his hands and fingers, creating five gaps: between the index and middle fingers and the ring and pinky fingers of both hands; between the index finger and the thumb of both hands; and between the thumbs of the right and left hand. 


     They explains that this practice originates from a Midrash (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 2:2) based upon the verse (2:9) "Behold, he stands behind our wall; he looks in through the windows; he peers through the lattice."  The Midrash describes how God "'looks in through the windows' — BETWEEN THE SHOULDERS OF THE KOHANIM; 'he peers through the lattice' — BETWEEN THE FINGERS OF THE KOHANIM."


     A kohen who is unable to spread out his fingers as described should at least spread his fingers normally; regardless, a failure to do so does not invalidate the performance of the mitzva.


     Rav Yosef Karo (45) adds that the kohanim should turn their faces and hands from side to side, which the Mishna Berura (168) explains as symbolically "spreading" the blessing over the people. 


     The Mishna Berura (52) notes that one who is unable to raise one's hands may not recite Birkat Kohanim.  However, one can raise his hands for the duration of each word, even if he rests in between them.  One whose hand has been amputated may not recite Birkat Kohanim; however, one whose hands are intact, though he is missing some or all of his fingers, may still participate in Birkat Kohanim.


     Rav Yosef Karo (128:16) concludes that the kohanim should not turn around until the sheliach tzibbur begins to recite the final berakha of Chazarat Ha-shatz, Sim Shalom.  Similarly, at that point they may also bend their fingers.  Furthermore, they should not leave the dukhan until the sheliach tzibbur has concluded the berakha and the congregation has answered "Amen."


     Upon concluding Birkat Kohanim, there is a well-established custom to wish the kohanim "Yeyasher kochakhem" (literally, "May your strength be straight") as a sign of appreciation, in order to strengthen and encourage them (Matteh Efrayim 592:11).  The Mishna Berura (60) writes that since it is customary for the congregation to 'salute' the kohanim, they should not descend until after the recitation of Kaddish, in order to ensure that all respond properly to it.


     The Arukh Ha-shulchan (128:24) notes that it is customary for the kohanim to respond "Barukh tihyeh" ("May you be blessed").



The Congregation's Behavior During Birkat Kohanim:


The Mishna (Megilla 4:7) teaches:


A priest whose hands have blemishes may not raise his hands. 

Rabbi Yehuda says, "Moreover, one whose hands are stained with woad (a blue dye) or madder (a red dye) may not lift up his hands because the people will gaze at him."


The Talmud Yerushalmi (Megilla 4:8) teaches:


If the people are accustomed to his appearance, it is permitted…

From here we see that it is prohibited to gaze at the kohanim while they are blessing the Jewish people.


The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 14:7) explains that just as the kohanim should not gaze at the people — rather, they should direct their eyes towards the ground, lest they become distracted — the congregation should not gaze at the kohanim.


     Contrary to a common misconception, there is no threat of losing one's sight should one gaze at the kohen.  The Gemara (Chagiga 15a) clearly teaches:


Reish Lakish explained: "One who gazes at the following three things risks losing his vision… one who would gaze at the kohanim during the time that the Temple stood, as they would stand on the dukhan and bless the people with the ShemHa-mforash (the Tetragrammaton)."


Rashi explains that gazing at the kohanim while Birkat Kohanim was performed in the Temple would be tantamount to gazing at God, as the Divine Presence rested upon the fingers of the kohanim during the blessing.


     However, as the Gemara clearly states, this phenomenon exists only in the Temple, where the kohanim pronounce the explicit name of God.


     In Beit Yosef (128), Rav Yosef Karo cites the custom of the kohanim of Egypt to extend their tallitot (prayer shawls) over their heads and hands, in order that the kohanim and the tzibbur will not come to gaze at each other.  The Rema (128:23) cites this custom as well.  In addition, in his commentary on the Tur, Darkhei Moshe, he writes that it is also customary for the congregation to cover their faces with their tallitot, to avoid being distracted. 


     While the tzibbur should stand attentively and focus on the words of Birkat Kohanim, as it is currently customary for the kohanim to cover their hands and faces, it does not seem imperative that the congregation avoid looking at the kohanim, as long as they remain focused on the verses.  Nevertheless, the Mishna Berura (89) suggests that it may be customary never to look at the kohanim as a "zekher La-mikdash," a remembrance of the destroyed Temple. 


     Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former Lubavitcher Rebbe, compiled a calendar for the Hebrew year of 5703 (1942-3), comprised of concise thoughts relevant to the season or weekly Torah portion, at the behest, and based on the talks and letters, of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.  For the entry for the 15th of Tishrei, he writes:


We know that… the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi) would take [his grandson] the Tzemach Tzedek, before the latter's marriage, under his tallit during Birkat Kohanim


This may be the source of the common custom for each father to cover his children with his tallit during Birkat Kohanim


     Interestingly, some Acharonim note that if a kohen does not have a tallit, he should not ascend, as participating in Birkat Kohanim WITHOUT a tallit would distract the congregation.  Furthermore, if a kohen only has a tallit which is pesula (disqualified for use), he should wear it for the blessing, while having in mind that he is wearing it only out of 'respect,' not as a garment, thereby exempting the garment from the obligation to attach fringes and allowing the kohen to wear this disqualified tallit (see Piskei Teshuvot 128:53). 



     Next week, we will conclude our discussion of Birkat Kohanim.  We will explore additional circumstances during which a kohen cannot do nesiat kappayim.  We will also discuss places in which Birkat Kohanim is not recited, such as the Diaspora and the house of a mourner.