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Birkat Kohanim - The Priestly Blessing Part V

  • Rav David Brofsky



     Last week, we studied the laws relating to the recitation of Birkat Kohanim, including the requirement to recite the blessing while standing, in Hebrew and with raised arms.  We also discussed the behavior of the congregation during Birkat Kohanim


     This week, we will continue our discussion of the congregation's conduct during Birkat Kohanim and look at the places in which Birkat Kohanim is not recited.  Furthermore, we will enumerate qualities or attributes which may disqualify a kohen from reciting Birkat Kohanim.


The Congregation's Position During Birkat Kohanim:


     The Gemara (Sota 38b) teaches that the tzibbur (congregation) should face the kohanim during Birkat Kohanim.


"In this way shall you bless" (Bamidbar 6:23) — 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" (ibid.) — like a man who talks to his companion.


Furthermore, the gemara discusses WHO is included in the Priestley Blessing.


Ada said in the name of Rabbi Simlai: "In a synagogue where all the worshippers are kohanim, they all ascend the platform."

For whom, then, do they pronounce the blessing?  Rabbi Zeira answered: "For their brethren [working] in the fields." 

But it is not so; for Abba, the son of Rav Minyamin bar Chiyya, taught: "The people who are BEHIND the kohanim do not come within the scope of the berakha!"

There is no contradiction: the former refers to those who are compelled (anisei) [to be absent] and the latter to men who are not compelled [to be stationed behind the kohanim]. 

But Rav Shimi of Fort Shichori taught: "In a synagogue where all the worshippers are kohanim, some ascend [the platform] and the rest respond with 'Amen!'"

There is no contradiction: the latter refers to [a case] where ten remain [to respond "Amen"], and the former where ten do not remain.


This gemara raises two interesting points. 


     Firstly, the Priestly Blessing only includes those in FRONT of the kohanim, as we saw above.  Secondly, those unable to attend the service in which Birkat Kohanim is recited, such as those laboring "in the fields," are defined as anisei (anusim in Hebrew) and also included in the blessing.


     Regarding those who are in front of the kohanim, yet blocked by an object, the gemara adds:


The [above] text stated: "Abba, the son of Rav Minyamin bar Chiyya, taught: 'The people who are BEHIND the kohanim do not come within the scope of the berakha.'"  It is obvious that the tall do not create an obstruction for the short, nor does the Holy Ark [where the Torah scrolls sit] create an obstruction; but what about a partition [within the synagogue]? 

Come and hear: "Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: 'Even a partition of iron does not divide between Israel and their Father in heaven.'"


Regarding one who stands to the side of the kohanim, the Gemara adds:


The question was asked: what about those standing on the side [of the kohanim]? 

Abba Mar son of Rav Ashi said: "Come and hear, for we have learnt (Mishna, Para 12:2):  'If he intended to sprinkle in front of him and he sprinkled behind him, or vice versa, the sprinkling is invalid; [but if he intended to sprinkle] in front of him and did so on the sides in front of him, his sprinkling is valid.'"


In other words, just as regarding the sprinkling of the water of the para adumma (red cow), which ritually purifies a person from the impurity caused by a human corpse, the "front" includes the entire peripheral area of the sides; so too, Birkat Kohanim includes those standing to the sides of the kohanim


     The Mishna Berura (128:95) adds that in a synagogue (beit keneset) in which the Aron Ha-kodesh (Holy Ark) protrudes into the sanctuary, those standing next to the Aron Ha-kodesh are not included in Birkat Kohanim; therefore, they must move to a place in which they face the kohanim for Birkat Kohanim.  Furthermore, he cites the Bach, who suggests that nowadays, when people pay for specific places in the beit keneset, those behind the kohanim, who are unable to move to a different seat, should be considered anusim (those who are unable to face the kohanim, like those working in the fields), and should be included in the berakha.  The Mishna Berura rejects this logic, as generally there are other areas in the beit keneset where a person may stand during Birkat Kohanim, e.g. on the bima, from where the Torah is read, or in the back of the sanctuary. 


 Qualities and Attributes Which Disqualify the Kohen:


     In previous shiurim, we discussed different physical attributes which may or may not disqualify a kohen from reciting Birkat Kohanim.  We discussed kohanim who are unable to stand or to raise their hands, as well as kohanim whose physical features may distract the congregation. 


One might question, conceptually, WHY certain qualities or attributes disqualify a kohen from reciting Birkat Kohanim.  In our first shiur on Birkat Kohanim (, we discussed whether Birkat Kohanim functions within the framework of the laws of "avodat Ha-mikdash," the Temple service.


     We noted that the Taz (128:27) questions why Rav Yosef Karo rules in Shulchan Arukh, as we learned last week, that if a community is already accustomed to the kohen's physical blemish, he may recite Birkat Kohanim.  He asks, based upon sources that equate Birkat Kohanim and the Temple service, why this kohen should not be disqualified categorically!


     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 learn from the Temple service those disqualification which are within the ability of the kohen to repair, e.g., to be sober or to stand during the blessings, those which relate to his physical appearance, which he cannot change, 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 thatone who is uncircumcised MAY participate in Birkat Kohanim, despite his apparent disqualification from Temple service.  It seems that he rejects the comparison between Birkat Kohanim and the Temple service.


     In other words, these Acharonim debate whether there are some characteristics which disqualify a kohen because they fundamentally disqualify him from serving in the Temple.  However, even according to the Taz, this comparison may only extend to one who is inebriated or one who cannot stand. 


Aveira — The Kohen Who Sins:


     The Talmud refers to other qualities and characteristics which may or may not disqualify a kohen from reciting Birkat Kohanim.


     For example, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Gittin 5:9) relates to a kohen who has committed numerous sins. 


Rav Huna said: "…you should not say that a certain kohen who is a violator of sexual immorality (megalleh arayot) or a murderer is blessing them.  Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (God) says: "Does he bless you?  I am the One who blesses you!  As it says (Bamidbar 6:27): 'So shall they put My Name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.'"


Similarly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 15:6-7) writes:


A kohen… even if he is not wise and not strict regarding the performance of mitzvot, or the people gossip about him, or he behaves dishonestly in business transactions, he should still raise his hands…  One should not tell an evil person (adam rasha): "Refrain from fulfilling mitzvot."  Do not be puzzled and ask: how will the blessing of this common person help?  The blessing is not dependent upon the kohanim, but rather on Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu…  Kohanim should perform their mitzva as they are instructed, and Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu, in His mercy, will willingly bless Israel.


Most authorities explain that this passage in the Yerushalmi refers to a kohen who has NOT repented.  For example, the Rambam cited above, who refers to this kohen as a rasha, clearly believes that even a kohen who has NOT repented may participate in Birkat Kohanim.  According to him, it seems that Halakha demands that a sinner NOT be excluded from Birkat Kohanim, lest one think that the kohen blesses the congregation, and not Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu


     The Magen Avraham (56), however, cites Rabbi Eliyya ben Chayyim (1530–1610), in his Shut Ranach, who insists that only after repenting is this kohen allowed to raise his hands.  Apparently, he understand that the Yerushalmi is suggesting exactly the opposite: while we might have thought that the kohen's behavior should permanently disqualify him from Birkat Kohanim, nevertheless, since ultimately it is not the kohen who actually bestows the blessing, he may resume his participation in Birkat Kohanim once he repents.


The custom is in accordance with the first view. 


     Despite the Talmud's somewhat liberal stance regarding the relationship between moral qualities and Birkat Kohanim, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 15:3) cites three cases of sins which disqualify a kohen from reciting Birkat Kohanim: a kohen who has murdered, committed idolatry or converted to an idolatrous religion. 


     Regarding a kohen who has murdered, the Gemara (Berakhot 32b) teaches that the hands of a kohen who has murdered may not be vehicles of a Divine blessing. 


Rabbi Yochanan said: "A kohen who has killed someone may not raise his hands, since it says (Yeshayahu 1:15), '[When you spread your hands, I will ignore you…] your hands have been filled with blood.'"


Interestingly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 15:3) writes that even one who repents may not participate in Birkat Kohanim.  In other words, taking a life permanently "taints" one's hands, preventing one from serving as a vehicle of Divine blessing. 


     The Hagahot Maimoniyyot (15:1) cites the Ra'avya and Rabbeinu Simcha, who explain that only a murderer who is "known and inclined to kill" may not raise his hands. 


     Rav Yosef Karo, in Shulchan Arukh (128:35), rules that anyone who has murdered, even unintentionally, may not recite Birkat Kohanim, even after repenting.  The Rema, however, adds that the custom is to be lenient for those who have repented, in order not to "close the door" on them.  The Mishna Berura (Bei'ur Halakha, s.v. Afillu asa) cites the Peri Chadash and Eliyya Rabba, who insist that one should not rule leniently regarding a kohen who intentionally murdered, even if he has repented. 


     The Mishna Berura (128:129) adds that one who has been "forced" to kill, as well as one who inadvertently causes a women to miscarry, may recite Birkat Kohanim


     The contemporary authorities discuss a number of unfortunate yet practical cases.  For example, may one who has caused a fatal car crash participate in Birkat Kohanim?  This question may be more relevant for Sephardic communities, who adhere to the ruling of Rav Yosef Karo and do not permit any kohen responsible for murder, even after repenting, to raise his hands.


     Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechavveh Da'at 5:16), for example, rules that a Sephardic kohen should not recite Birkat Kohanim if he has caused a fatal car crash.  However, he adds, if the kohen was driving carefully and a person suddenly jumped in front of the car and was killed, he may recite Birkat Kohanim after repenting.  Furthermore, if the victim was injured and died days later, then one may also rule leniently, if the kohen repents.  He notes that Ashkenazic authorities rule leniently in all cases, as long as the kohen has repented. 


     The Maharsham (5:30) addresses a similar case, regarding a kohen who throws an object at someone during a fight; if the victim dies weeks later, but the doctors rule that it is a result of the wound, this would present a comparable problem.


     Similarly, Rav Yosef Karo, in Shulchan Arukh (128:36), cites the Mordekhai (Megilla 818), who rules that a kohen who performs a circumcision on a child who subsequently passes away may continue to raise his hands, as, among other reasons, he "intended to fulfill a mitzva."  The Acharonim point out that a doctor whose patient passes away under his care may continue to recite Birkat Kohanim, as he also "intended to fulfill a mitzva."


     Regarding a soldier, the Acharonim discuss kohanim who are forcibly conscripted to fight in their country's wars and kill other Jews during battle.  Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe YD 2:158), for example, rules that this kohen should be considered as if he was "forced" to kill, and he should continue to participate in Birkat Kohanim.  Certainly a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, fighting the state's enemies, continues to raise his hands, as he has fought to save the Jewish people, and he should be encouraged and commended. 


     Regarding one who has converted to another religion, the Rambam clearly writes that even after repenting a kohen is not permitted to raise his hands. The Hagahot Maimoniyyot (15:3) cites the Ra'avya and the She'iltot (Parashat Korach), who concur. 


     Tosafot (Menachot 109a, s.v. Lo), however, cite Rashi, who writes that a kohen who converts to another religion and subsequently repents and returns to Judaism MAY recite Birkat Kohanim.  Similarly, the Hagahot Maimoniyyot cites Rabbeinu Gershom, the Semak, Rabbeinu Shimshon and Rabbeinu Simcha, who all concur with Rashi. 


     Rav Yosef Karo, in Shulchan Arukh (128:37), cites both opinions, and the Rema adds that we follow the more lenient view. 


     Interestingly, the Mishna Berura (134) explains that even one who converts to Islam (which is often regarded as non-idolatrous, due to its strict monotheism) may not recite Birkat Kohanim


     Some Acharonim (see Peri Chadash 128) suggest that since Halakha disqualifies one who worships idols from reciting Birkat Kohanim, then a kohen who PUBLICLY violates Shabbat should be prevented from reciting Birkat Kohanim, based on the gemara (Chullin 5a) which describes one who publicly violates the Sabbath as an akkum (an acronym for "worshipper of stars and constellations").


     The Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav (128:52), the Peri Megadim (52) and the Mishna Berura (134) also rule that a public Sabbath violator should not recite Birkat Kohanim


     The question of how to relate to a public violator of the Sabbath has been discussed by recent halakhic authorities, especially in light of the changes in religious demographics since the Enlightenment.  They question whether the laws governing a public Sabbath desecrator should apply equally to one's whose chillul Shabbat represents the norm of his society, and not necessarily a rebellious act. 


     Regarding our question, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC 1:33), for example, rules that mi-dina (by the letter of the law) one should not prevent such a kohen from reciting Birkat Kohanim.  We should also note the famous responsum of Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (1798–1871), in his Binyan Tziyyon (23), regarding the halakhic ramifications of public Sabbath desecration in our day, especially regarding the potential of a violator to prohibit wine through his touch. 


     Aside from issues relating to the kohen's behavior, a kohen who has the status of a chalal may not participate in Birkat Kohanim (Shulchan Arukh 128:40 and Mishna Berura, 147).  This applies to one who is married to a woman forbidden to kohanim, e.g. a divorcee, as well as the child of such a union.  A woman born from such a union is a chalala, and it is forbidden for her to marry a kohen; if she does, her children retain the chalal status.  Furthermore, a kohen married to a convert or a non-Jew may also be prohibited from reciting Birkat Kohanim.    


 Places in Which Birkat Kohanim Is Not Recited


Chutz La-aretz (The Diaspora):


     Rav Yaakov ben Moshe Moelin (1365-1472), known as the Maharil, is one of the earliest authorities to mention the custom not to recite Birkat Kohanim daily.  Cited by the Agur (176), and later by Rav Yosef Karo, the Beit Yosef (128), he gives the following reasons:


Since the custom of the kohanim is to immerse in the mikveh before [reciting Birkat Kohanim]… and it is difficult to immerse in the winter… and ALSO because it delays people from going to work (bittul melakha), and if a kohen is not called to ascend, he does not violate the mitzva.


The Beit Yosef criticizes this practice, explaining that fulfilling the stringency of immersing before Birkat Kohanim should not lead to the nullification of the mitzva of Birkat Kohanim!  Furthermore, he congratulates ("vi-yasher kocham") the communities of Eretz Yisrael and Egypt, who recite Birkat Kohanim daily.


     The Rema (128:48) records that the practice in Ashkenazic lands is NOT to recite Birkat Kohanim, except during the Musaf prayer of Yom Tov.  He explains that on the Festivals, "they are experiencing the happiness of Yom Tov, and it is proper for him to bless, as opposed to the other days, even on the Shabbat days, when people are distracted by thoughts of sustenance and loss of work."


     Other, such as the Orechot Chayyim (Hilkhot Nesiat Kappayim) and the Kol Bo (125), cite the custom of reciting Birkat Kohanim on Shabbat as well. 


     The practice of reciting Birkat Kohanim only at the Musaf prayer of Yom Tov has received great criticism throughout the years.  For example, Rabbi Menachem Azarya da Fano (Italy, 1548-1620), known as the Rema Mi-Fano, writes:


That which in most of the world the kohanim do not ascend during the year is a bad custom (minhag garua)…  Some have supported this with a feeble argument, which has all the strength of straw…  They cite the verse (Vayikra 9:22), "And Aharon lifted up his hands… and he came down from offering the sin-offering…" – therefore [they argue], the custom is to recite Birkat Kohanim only on Yamim Tovim, during Musaf prayer, for then there would be a [communal] sin-offering!  However, they have caused harm to the kohanim with their great error [since the verse also refers to a communal peace-offering, offered only on Shavuot], even though the kohen only violates the positive commandment when he is called to ascend.


Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov (1770-1839), considered one of the closest students of the Vilna Gaon (despite only having learned with him, in 1797, for the last twenty days of his life!), authored Pe'at Ha-shulchan after emigrating to Eretz Yisrael in 1810.  Regarding Birkat Kohanim, he writes (Hilkhot Eretz Yisrael 2:16) that the custom in Yerushalayim is to recite Birkat Kohanim daily, and he attributes this position to his teacher, the Vilna Gaon, many of whose students emigrated to Israel in the late 18th century.


In fact, the Netziv (Meshiv Davar 2:104) relates:


I remember hearing from my father-in-law, the Gaon Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin, that once our teacher the Vilna Gaon agreed to [recite Birkat Kohanim] each day in his beit midrash, buy he was prevented by the heavens and taken to prison during the great controversy in Vilna.  At that point, the Gaon and Great Shepherd, Rav Chayyim Volozhin (his wife's grandfather), agreed that the next day he would tell the kohanim to recite Birkat Kohanim.  That night half of the city was burnt down, including the city's synagogues, and they saw this and concluded that there must be a secret effect of the blessing bestowed by the kohanim in the Diaspora.


The Arukh Ha-shulchan (128:68) alludes to these incidents, and asserts that it is as if a Bat Kol (Heavenly Voice) had declared that Birkat Kohanim should not be recited in the Diaspora.


     Interestingly, in Chut Ha-mshullash (p. 20), a biography of Rav Moshe Sofer (the Chatam Sofer), his son Rav Avraham Shemuel Binyamin (author of the Ketav Sofer) and Rav Akiva Eger (the Chatam Sofer's son-in-law), it is recorded that the Chatam Sofer's teacher, Rabbi Natan Ha-kohen Adler, recited Birkat Kohanim daily in his beit midrash.


     Despite the attempts by the Vilna Gaon and his students to reinstitute Birkat Kohanim in the Diaspora, common practice in Ashkenazic congregations is to recite Birkat Kohanim during the Musaf prayer on Yamim Tovim only. 


     Rav Yechiel Michel Tukitchinsky, in his Ir Ha-kodesh Ve-hamikdash (3:25:6) concurs with the above, but he adds that the Ashkenazic communities of the Galilee are NOT accustomed to reciting Birkat Kohanim daily; rather, they recite it during Musaf of Shabbat and Yom Tov


Beit Avel:


     The Rishonim suggest, in different contexts, that one who is not happy should not recite Birkat Kohanim


     For example, the Shibbolei Ha-leket (23) cites Rabbeinu Yitzchak bar Yehuda, who asserts that one who is not married should not recite Birkat Kohanim, as "one who lives without a wife lives without happiness" (Yevamot 62b). 


     The Rashba (Shut Ha-Rashba 1:85), among others, disagrees, as does Rav Yosef Karo, in the Shulchan Arukh (128:44). 


     Regarding a kohen who is in mourning, the Rishonim discuss whether he should raise his hands. The Shibbolei Ha-leket (Hilkhot Semachot 22-3), for example, criticizes those who permit a mourner to recite Birkat Kohanim, as "one who rises to bless should be happy." Similarly, the Mordekhai (Megilla 817) writes that a kohen, during the twelve months of mourning following the death of a parent, should leave the sanctuary before the blessing of Retzeh in order to avoid reciting Birkat Kohanim.  The Beit Yosef (128) records that the custom is not in accordance with their views.


     In Shulchan Arukh (128:43), he writes that after the first week of mourning (shiva) a kohen may recite Birkat Kohanim; during shiva, he should leave before the cantor reaches Retzeh. The Rema records that the custom is that a kohen does not recite Birkat Kohanim during the entire twelve months of mourning for a parent. 


     There are many different customs (see Piskei Teshuvot 128:87) regarding this question.  In Israel, Birkat Kohanim is generally NOT recited by any kohanim in the house of the mourner, during the seven days of mourning.  In Yerushalayim, Birkat Kohanim IS generally recited in the house of a mourner, and some mourners actually recite Birkat Kohanim!  After shiva, however, it is common for kohanim to recite Birkat Kohanim, during the thirty days (for siblings, spouses and children) or twelve months of mourning (for parents).  Outside of Israel, most Ashkenazim follow the ruling of the Rema, and refrain from reciting Birkat Kohanim during the entire thirty days or twelve months of mourning.


     We have concluded our study of the laws of Birkat Kohanim.  Next week we will briefly address the different texts of the final blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh, Sim Shalom or Shalom Rav, and then begin our study of Tachanun.