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Blessing Children on Shabbat

  • Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon

L'iluy nishmat Yosef ben Aharon Shmuel H"YD, Grandpa Joe.


Translated and Adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass


"Yisrael saw the sons of Yosef and he said, 'Take them unto me and I will bless them..." (Bereishit 48:8-9)

     It is customary in many communities for a father to bless his children on Shabbat evening, as Yaakov blessed Efraim and Menashe.  The common text of the blessing is:

for a boy - "May God make you as Efraim and Menashe;"

for a girl - "May God make you as Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah."

These blessings are then followed by the birkat kohanim, the blessing administered by the kohanim to the nation:

"May God bless you and keep you.  May His Face shine on you and show you favor.  May God lift up His Face towards you and grant you peace." (Bemidbar 6:24-26)

     The permissibility of a parent's use of birkat kohanim is called into question by the gemara in Ketubot (24b).  The gemara there discusses whether we can assume that one who participates in Birkat kohanim is actually a kohen.  In the course of discussion, the gemara comments that even if we can assume that one we observe eating teruma is a kohen, we cannot make that assumption about everyone who goes up and joins the kohanim for their blessing.  Says the gemara:

"This assumption can be made only about teruma, which has a death penalty associated with it (for a non-kohen who eats teruma), but not about birkat kohanim, which is a prohibition based on a positive commandment (issur asei) associated with it."

Therefore, reasons the gemara, participating in birkat kohanim is not as accurate a proof of priesthood as eating teruma.

     Rashi explains: 

"A prohibition based on a positive commandment - 'Thus you should bless kohen:' you and not non-kohanim.  A negative command that stems out of a positive commandment retains the status of a positive commandment."

Based on this gemara, the Torah Temima (Bemidbar, Naso #131) writes:

"A comment must be made concerning the common custom to give blessings [with birkat kohanim] through placing hands on the head of the recepient of the blessing.  On what does everyone rely on to permit this?  It is clear (from this source) that this blessing is restricted to kohanim and it is a prohibition based on a positive commandment for non-kohanim.

"I heard from a reliable source that the Vilna Gaon placed one hand on the head of the Gaon Rav Yechezkel Landau, the rav of Vilna, while blessing him at his wedding.  They asked the Vilna Gaon about this and he replied that only kohanim in the Mikdash bless with two hands. [Thus, blessing while placing one hand does not constitute a violation.] Besides this, I have neither seen nor heard anyone address this issue."



     In our discussion we will attempt to find support for, and justify, the common custom of blessing children using birkat kohanim.

     A problem similar to ours seems to already appear in the Talmud.  The Gemara (Shabbat 118b) presents an amazing anecdote about Rabbi Yossi, listing some of his pious practices, both in his religious and his interpersonal life.  Among them we find:

"Said Rabbi Yossi: I never went against the words of my friends.  I know that I am not a kohen, but if my friends told me, "Go up to the platform ("dukhan" -- for birkat kohanim)!" I would go up."

This seems to directly contradict the passage quoted above (Ketubot 24b) restricting birkat kohanim to kohanim.  It sounds like Rabbi Yossi was willing to go even further than parents using the birkat kohanim to bless their children; he was ready to join the kohanim in their blessing! 

     The question sharpens when reading Tosafot's comments (Shabbat 118b, s.v. "Ilu") on this passage:

"Rabbi Yossi did not know what prohibition exists for a non-kohen to join them for the blessing, except perhaps the unnecessary blessing -- for only the kohanim were commanded to bless Israel."  

Tosafot also seems to ignore the passage in Ketubot 24b forbidding a non-kohen from blessing the people with birkat kohanim.



A. The Rema (Darkei Moshe, OC 128a) resolves the issue as follows.  There is only a prohibition for non-kohanim to make the blessing alone.  Joining other kohanim while they recite the blessing, however, involves no prohibition.

     Apparently, he views this entire prohibition as forbidding a non-kohen from blessing the people in a situation that a kohen would be obligated by the mitzvat assei to bless.  Based on this, the Chatam Sofer (Ketubot 24b, s.v. "Amnam") explains that the requirement for a kohen to go up to bless the people is only when he is directly called.  However, if the call was "Kohanim" (plural) - this does not constitute a direct personal call.  It is therefore only prohibited for a non-kohen to go up for birkat kohanim by himself, as he would then appear as an obligated kohen.  When they call "Kohanim!" and he joins the responding group, the calling is not directed at him. (Our custom now, however, is not to call an individual kohen.)


B.  The Magen Avraham (OC 128:1) offers a different explanation.  He maintains that the only problem with a non-kohen participating in birkat kohanim is making an unnecessary blessing (berakha levatala).  He suggests, therefore, that all Rabbi Yossi did was recite the actual  birkat kohanim itself, without the blessing beforehand.  (The Magen Avraham was preceded in his explanation by the Eshkol (Hilkhot Birkat Kohanim 15) who goes even further, suggesting that Rabbi Yossi would just stand on the platform with the kohanim, not participating in the birkat kohanim at all.)

The Magen Avraham's approach must be examined in light of the nature of the prohibition of uttering an unnecessary blessing.  Implicitly, he indicates that this prohibition constitutes a biblical violation, and it is this prohibition to which the aforementioned gemara in Ketubot refers in the context of the non-kohen who administers birkat kohanim.  Tosafot (Rosh Hashana, 33a), however, maintain that uttering an unnecessary blessing is forbidden rabbinically (against the straightforward reading of the gemara in Berakhot 33a).  Where, then, may we find a source for the Magen Avraham's position, that an unnecessary berakha involves a biblical prohibition?

The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:15) writes: "One who recites an unnecessary blessing is considered as bearing God's Name in vein and swearing in vein.  One may therefore not recite, 'amen' to such a blessing."  The Rambam explicitly rules that enunciating an unnecessary blessing involves a Torah violation.  Could the Rambam then serve as a source for the Magen Avraham's view?

No.  The Magen Avraham's remarks must be understood in the context of the gemara in Ketubot, which speaks of a biblical prohibition for a non-kohen's utilization of birkat kohanim.  The gemara stated clearly that this prohibition is an "issur asei" - a prohibition evolving from a positive commandment.  According to the Magen Avraham, that the prohibition referred to is that of reciting an unnecessary blessing, then, by extension, the prohibition of reciting an unnecessary blessing must be an issur asei.  The Rambam, however, writes that this prohibition is that a bearing God's Name in vein, which is a NEGATIVE commandment, not an issur asei!    

Perhaps the Magen Avraham distinguishes between the first and second halves of the blessing over birkat kohanim.  "Blessed are You, God," is a true statement praising God, so its recitation is not considered as taking His Name in vein.  It does, however, violate the sages' decree that only kohanim administer the blessing and is therefore forbidden rabbinically.  The end of the statement, though, is more problematic. The statement of a non-kohen, "Who sanctified US with the holiness of AHARON and commanded US to bless the people of Israel with love," is just not true.  Such a false blessing does, indeed, constitute a biblical transgression.  The gemara in Temura (4a) quotes, "You should fear Hashem your God," a positive mitzva, as the source for the prohibition against saying an unnecessary blessing.  This applies when saying the blessing involves a lack of fear of God.  In our situation, where the blessing contains outright falsehood, this prohibition is clearly applicable. (The Magen Avraham must then assume that the gemara in Ketubot 24a is referring to this positive mitzva, of "You should fear Hashem your God.)


C.  The Baal Ha-hafla'a (Ketubot 25a, s.v. Rashi "Issur Asei") resolves the issue differently.  The author of Sefer Charedim (4:18) writes that not only do the kohanim fulfill a mitzva when they bless the people, but so do the people when they intend to receive a blessing from the kohanim.  (He bases this assertion on the gemara's statement [Sota 38a], "'Thus you should bless -- face to face, like a man speaking to his friend.")

Thus, says the Baal Ha-hafla'a, a non-kohen who does not stand before the kohanim but joins them in the blessing, neglects his own mitzvah by not receiving the blessing from the kohanim.  This is the positive mitzva about which the gemara in Ketubot speaks.  There is no prohibition against a non-kohen blessing the people, but it is prohibited to miss the kohen's blessing when present. 

What emerges is a position exactly opposite to that of the Rema's presented above.  When a non-kohen joins kohanim for the blessing, he transgresses by missing their blessing. Blessing the people himself, though, is permissible, since in any event there are no kohanim to bless him.  According to the Hafla'ah, then, Rabbi Yossi would not have transgressed were he to have recited birkat kohanim by himself.


D.  The Pnei Yehoshua (Ketubot 25, s.v. "Aval Nesiut Kapaim") adopts a different approach.  The gemara in Sota (38a) says that "Thus you should bless . . ." refers specifically to blessing in the Beit Hamikdash, where the actual Divine Name (Shem Ha-meforash) is used.  The Pnei Yehoshua thus claims that the prohibition for non-kohanim applies only in the Temple.  He further suggests a second explanation, that the prohibition relates to the non-kohen's  pronouncing the Divine Name explicitly.

His first explanation very likely presupposes that birkat kohanim outside the Temple in Jerusalem is only a rabbinic obligation.  This approach was taken by Rav Yaakov Emden (Mor Uketzia 128, 52a, s.v. "Umilvad" and 52b, s.v. "Amnam") but was not accepted by the majority of authorities.  Indeed, the Shulchan Arukh (OC 128:2) seems to assume that birkat kohanim is a biblical obligation even today, in the absence of the Temple:

"Any kohen who has nothing preventing him from reciting the blessing and does not go up when they call 'Kohanim!' or told him to go, transgresses only one positive mitzva but it is as if he made three transgressions ('Thus you should bless,' 'Say to them,' and, 'Place My Name' -- Sota 38b)."

This position may be supported by the Sifrei at the beginning of Re'ei:

"It says (concerning the Temple), 'To place My Name there,' and it says (concerning birkat kohanim), 'Place My Name on them.'  Just like the second refers to birkat kohanim, so does the first.  Perhaps just as the first refers to the Temple, so does the second (thus limiting birkat kohanim to the Temple)?  Another verse teaches us, 'Wherever I mention My Name' (allowing birkat kohanim anywhere, even outside the Temple).  If so, why does it say, 'Place His Name -- Search out His Dwelling Place'?  [To teach that] only in the Temple is the actual Divine Name pronounced as it is written, while outside only the approximate name (A-D-N-Y) is used."

Birkat Kohanim's biblical status has practical ramifications.  The authorities discuss when should a kohen interrupt his prayers to go up for birkat kohanim.  The Radvaz (Responsa 4:293) writes that a kohen should stop his prayers and go up for birkat kohanim (when there is no other kohen) even if he is currently in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei. Since the three fixed prayers are merely of rabbinic obligation, birkat kohanim - a biblical requirement - takes precedence.  The Magen Avraham (OC 128:40) rules this way as well.  The Mishna Berura, however, maintains that a kohen should interrupt his Shemoneh Esrei for birkat kohanim only if he is precisely at the point in the Shemoneh Esrei where birkat kohanim is recited (between "Hatov Shimkha U'Lekha naeh lehodot" and "Sim shalom"). 

All evidence considered, it seems more plausible to assume that even outside the Temple birkat kohanim is a biblical, rather than rabbinic, obligation.  This is probably why the Pnei Yehoshua preferred his second answer -- that a non-kohen making birkat kohanim transgresses only if he pronounces the explicit Divine Name.


E. The Bach (beginning of OC 128) limits the prohibition against a non-kohen doing birkat kohanim to a case where he lifts up his hands during the blessing, as the kohanim do as they administer birkat kohanim.  The Torah says that Aharon lifted up his hands when he blessed the people,  and this comprises an essential part of the blessing.  It follows that a non-kohen who does not raise his hands does not transgress any prohibition when he recites birkat kohanim.  Since Rabbi Yossi did not lift his hands, he violated no prohibition.


F. The Magen Gibborim (quoted by the Mishna Berura OC 128:3) writes that only a non-kohen who intends to fulfill the mitzva of birkat kohanim violates a prohibition by reciting the blessing.  This would explain Rabbi Yossi's conduct; he only wanted to fulfill his friends' wishes, not any commandment.


G. The Beit Yaakov (by the author of the Netivot -- Ketubot 25, s.v. "Bigemara Aval Nesiat Kapayim") posits an entirely different approach, one that presents a completely different interpretation of the gemara in Ketubot.  The gemara's discussion reads as follows:

"According to the opinion that only eating teruma is a proof of priesthood, is this limited to eating teruma, which involves a transgression with the death penalty, to the exclusion of birkat kohanim, which only entails transgressing a positive obligation, or does it make no difference?"

The simple explanation, which we have assumed until now, is that eating teruma sufficiently proves one's priesthood, since a non-kohen who eats teruma is liable for the death penalty.  A non-kohen's participation in birkat kohanim, however, constitutes a lesser crime - the neglect of a positive commandment - and thus one who does birkat kohanim may not be assumed to be a kohen.

However, the passage may be read differently.  One whose priestly status is in question could have been prevented by the rabbis from eating teruma.  If they did not, in spite of the death penalty for a non-kohen, we can assume his priestly ancestry.  With regards to birkat kohanim, however, there is a positive mitzva FOR THE KOHEN TO RECITE THE BLESSING.  It is possible, then, that the rabbis did not prevent him from reciting the blessing simply because they did not want to allow the possibility of his neglecting the mitzvah should he actually be a kohen.  This is why participation in birkat kohanim does not prove one's priesthood.

In other words, this reading understands the prohibition spoken about in the gemara as that of a kohen not reciting birkat kohanim.  The standard explanation understood that the recitation of birkat kohanim is no proof of priesthood because only a positive transgression is involved in a non-kohen making the blessing.  The Beit Yaakov's reading of the gemara explains that birkat kohanim is no proof of priesthood because a positive mitzvah requires a kohen to administer the blessing.  Therefore, the fact that the rabbis did not prevent the questionable kohen from reciting the blessing may be attributed to their concern that should he actually be a kohen, his lack of participation in birkat kohanim would constitute the neglect of a mitzvah.


     The Rema rules (OC 128:1):

"A non-kohen should not recite birkat kohanim, even with other kohanim, as it says in the second chapter of Ketubot, that a non-kohen thereby transgresses a positive commandment.  Tosafot in Shabbat write, 'The R"i did not know what transgression is involved with a non-kohen going up.'  Perhaps it is permitted when he goes up with other kohanim, but this matter requires further elucidation."  Thus, the Rema remains in doubt about the issue.    

The Torah Temima (Naso 6:23, #131), as mentioned above, questions the common practice of non-kohanim using birkat kohanim as a blessing and even placing hands on the head of the recepient of the blessing.    

Common practice, however, is to employ birkat kohanim, especially on Shabbat evening when blessing children.    

The Biur Halakha, in his discussion of the issue (OC 128:1, s.v. "Dezar"), suggests that a non-kohen transgresses only when uttering the blessing in the context of prayer.  Initially, he rejects this justification, contending that the establishment of birkat kohanim in Shemoneh Esreih is a rabbinic institution.  It should have no bearing, then, on the biblical prohibition outlawing the use of the blessing by a non-kohen.  He then suggests another basis for the leniency, that once birkat kohanim was instituted specifically within the context of prayer, one reciting the blessing any other time clearly has no intention to fulfill the mitzva, and therefore violates no prohibition. (This approach is similar to resolution F above, that of the Magen Giborim).

In light of our discussion, we may add other sources to justify the common practice:

- there is no blessing recited prior to the actual birkat kohanim (the Magen Avraham, B above);

- the parent does not miss the kohen's blessing while blessing his children(the Hafla'a, C above);

- the Divine Name is not pronounced, and the blessing is not recited in the Temple (the Pnei Yehoshua, D above);

- the hands are not lifted (the Bach, E above);

- there is no intention to fulfill the mitzva of birkat kohanim (the Magen Giborim, F above);

- there might not be any prohibition against a non-kohen in the first place (the Beit Yaakov, G above).

Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Da'at 5:14) affirms this leniency, adding that the blessing can even be made with two hands on the head of the child.

Thus, there is ample support for a parent or a rav using birkat kohanim as a blessing.


(Adapted from Daf Kesher #579, Tevet 5757, vol.6, pp. 384-388.)