"It Was Heaven That Prevented Him"

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

The Gra's legacy

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein


Shiur 21: "It was heaven that prevented HIm"




            In this shiur we shall focus on a custom that greatly preoccupied the Vilna Gaon. The very existence of this custom caused the Gra serious frustration, and even led him to try and uproot it. We refer to the customary practice regarding how often to recite birkat kohanim, the priestly benediction. In the Ashkenazi world it was customary for the kohanim to recite the benediction only on festivals. The Vilna Gaon, however, wished to institute that the mitzva should be fulfilled on a daily basis day in accordance with the plain understanding of the Halakha. His motivation to effect this change was profound, as the author of Pe'at Ha-shulchan testifies –


that he had heard several times from the Gra that he would go from town to town and neglect Torah [his own] study and prayer, were it in his power to institute for the benefit of the community that birkat kohanim be recited every day.[1]


            And similarly, Rav Chayyim of Volozhin testifies that -


several times his master, of blessed memory, yearned to institute in his Beit Midrash that the kohanim should recite birkat kohanim on a daily basis. But he dared not take action, until one time in the middle of the day he decided that on the next day the kohanim would recite their benediction. But that very same day they took him and placed him under arrest, because of the slander that had been spread about him, as is well known. Apparently, it was Heaven that prevented him from acting on the matter.[2]


            We see that along with his great desire, the Gra also had reservations about making the change, for many times he refrained from introducing the new custom, only because "he dared not take action." It would be interesting to know what exactly it was that he feared. How was this any different from other practices about which the Vilna Gaon unabashedly expressed his position, both in theory and in practice?


            The aforementioned testimony was given by Rav Chayyim to his nephew, R. Avraham Simcha from Amtzislav; the nephew continues with his report of his uncle's words:


Regarding the same matter, my uncle, the Gaon, of blessed memory, also said that he too had once decided to instruct in his own town that on the next day the kohanim should recite their benediction. But that night his Beit Midrash burned down. From all this it is evident that the matter was not supported [by Heaven], perhaps for the sake of the honor of the earlier generations.


            Rav Chayyim followed in the footsteps of his master and tried to introduce this change, but without success. The master and his disciple understood that it was Heaven's intention to leave the old practice in place, "perhaps for the sake of the honor of the earlier generations."


As we know, despite the failed attempts to institute the daily recitation of birkat kohanim in the European context, the Gra's disciples were successful in instituting the practice in Eretz Israel. This is similar to what happened with respect to the recitation of "Barukh HaShem le-olam Amen ve-Amen," only that there the failure to introduce the change outside Eretz Israel was not accompanied by the explanation that "Heaven prevented the matter." Is this significant?


It should be mentioned that in several other cases as well the Gra understood that Heaven was interfering with his plans to effect certain changes. It is reported in "Aliyot Eliyahu" that it was the customary practice in Vilna to recite selichot on Hoshana Rabba, but the Gra saw this as detracting from the sanctity and joy of the festival. One year he decided to abolish the practice and joyfully celebrated the night of Hoshana Rabba with his disciples. But "the joy became mixed with grief" when one member of the group suddenly died. The Gra understood from this that Heaven did not support his plan.


Similarly the Gra's sons report about two additional contexts in which the Gra thought that the Heavenly court was preventing him from realizing his plans. These details are recorded in their introduction to the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh. They first relate that the Gaon had wanted to write a new Shulchan Arukh, based on his own independent Halakhic rulings, in a manner that would accord with the sources of these laws in Chazal. In practice, however, the Gaon did not carry out his plan, and in answer to his sons' question as to why, he said that Heaven had prevented the matter.


Another instance relates to the Gra's plan to move to Eretz Israel. We know that he had set out on his way, and that he had even reached Amsterdam; there, however, he turned back. Here too the Gra later claimed that the cancellation of his plans was forced upon him by the Heavenly court (as opposed to the previous examples, however, this was a question that was not related to Halakhic changes).


In light of all this, the question arises: Why should the Heavenly court oppose these changes in practice? We are not yet ready to answer this question, and so we must leave it hanging for the time being. We shall first examine the issue of birkat kohanim – when does the obligation apply, and why was its year round recitation abolished. This will allow us to better understand the Gra's desire to cancel the prevalent practice of his day, and why his efforts enjoyed only partial success.




The Rambam writes in Sefer Ha-mitzvot (no. 336):


That the kohanim are commanded to bless Israel every day. This is what He said: "In this way you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them" (Bemidbar 6:22).


            Similarly, Sefer Ha-chinukh writes (no. 378):


This mitzva applies to the kohanim in all places and at all times, for this mitzva is upon them to bless Israel. They are obligated to bless them at Shacharit, Musaf and Ne'ila, but at Mincha on ordinary days there is no birkat kohanim, because by Mincha everyone has already eaten, and there is concern there about wine, and someone who is drunk is forbidden to recite birkat kohanim.


            But despite the fact that according to the straightforward understanding of the Halakha, the kohanim are obligated to recite their blessing every day, it was the widespread practice in Ashkenaz to recite birkat kohanim only on Yom Tov. The halakhic sources offer two main explanations for this practice.


The one stems from a stringency that had been adopted by the kohanim in Ashkenaz. The Maharam of Rotenburg writes as follows:[3]


Regarding a kohen who recites birkat kohanim whom you obligate to undergo immersion - even though the world follows the three Elders, it is a fit custom, for our Rabbis the Geonim write that [immersion] is necessary even for prayer, and all the more so, for birkat kohanim. And it is my impression that they all act in this manner.


            The Maharam refers to the Gemara which states that "the world follows the three Elders" (Berakhot 22b) – that is to say, "the world" has accepted upon itself to follow the rulings of three Elders regarding a number of halakhic questions. One of these "Elders" is Rabbi Yehuda ben Betera who cancelled Ezra's enactment requiring a ba'al keri (someone who experienced an emission of semen) to undergo immersion before engaging in prayer or Torah study. Thus the Halakha is in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda ben Betera that such immersion is unnecessary, but nevertheless the Geonim recommended immersion prior to prayer, and according to this the Maharam concludes: "And all the more so, for birkat kohanim." Maharam notes that in practice, "they all," i.e., all the priests – are accustomed to immerse in a mikveh prior to reciting birkat kohanim.


            Thus far we have been dealing with a stringency that had been accepted by the kohanim. But it turned out that this stringency was a classic example of "a stringency that leads to leniency" – for this is what caused kohanim to refrain from reciting birkat kohanim on a daily basis. Thus writes the Agur (no.176) in the name of the Maharil:


Because the kohanim were accustomed to first undergo immersion, as it is written in Hagahot Maimuniyot, and it was difficult to undergo immersion every day during the winter, therefore the custom developed [to recite birkat kohanim] only on Yom Tov…


            This position aroused the protest of R. Yosef Karo in his Beit Yosef on Orach Chayyim:


He (Maharil) gave a forced explanation for the custom in his place, but it does not suffice. For that which he writes: "Because the kohanim were accustomed to first undergo immersion," this is a stringency that leads to a leniency. And he bases something that is written on that which is not written, for there is no mention in the Talmud of immersion for birkat kohanim. And if they adopted a stringency to immerse, why should they therefore cancel three positive precepts every day? And even though [a kohen] only transgresses if he was called,[4] nevertheless it is better that they should fulfill three positive precepts every day, and not undergo immersion, since they are not obligated to do so, than that they should immerse themselves and because of that set aside three positive precepts every day. Praise to the people of Eretz Israel and all of Egypt, who recite birkat kohanim every day and do not undergo immersion for birkat kohanim.


            Not only did the Ahskenazi world limit the performance of the mitzva, but there apparently developed a general attitude that birkat kohanim as a mitzva that is not an absolute obligation. This is what we learn from the words of R. Yaakov of Marvege, author of She'eilot u-Teshuvot min ha-Shamayim (no. 38):


We are also in doubt about those places where there are kohanim who are fit to recite birkat kohanim, but they are not accustomed to recite the benediction even once a year. And I asked about this whether this is sinful, or whether we can rely on Rabbeinu Yaakov who said that the kohanim are not obligated to recite the benediction, unless ordinary Israelites instruct them to do so. And they answered: Both these and these sin – the ordinary Israelites who do not instruct them [to recite the benediction], as it seems that they are not interested in receiving the blessing of their Father in heaven; and the kohanim when they don't recite the benediction on their own also [sin], for it is written: "And I shall bless those who bless you." And from this positive formulation you can infer the negative.


            The criticism sounded here is based not on solid halakhic grounds, but on a fundamental feeling that one must not take God's blessings lightly.




            The Gra's yearning for daily birkat kohanim can be understood in light of his general desire to restore Halakha to its original format as established by Chazal, free of the layers of man-made customs and explanations that deviate from pristine Halakha. It is my impression, however, that this unusual "yearning" reveals another motive – a motive that accompanied the Gra's general wish to restore Halakha to its original state, but expressed itself with respect to birkat kohanim with special force. The motive to which I refer may explain not only the Gra's desire to repair the breach regarding birkat kohanim, but also his fear and hesitation ("he dared not take action") to execute the reform in practice. As we shall see, even after the fact, when he failed to carry out the intended change, we once again encounter this motive, for it is precisely what reinforced the Gra's feeling that Heaven was preventing him from achieving his goal.


We already noted that the Gra understood that he had a role to play in bringing the redemption of Israel closer. His Torah enterprise was part of this vision. Fixing the halakhic conventions and returning them to their Talmudic paradigms was meant to prepare the people of Israel for freedom in their own land. It is inconceivable that in the days of the Messiah the people of Israel will continue to neglect laws and mitzvot based on rationales invented during the period of Israel's exile. The Gra's personal goal of moving to Eretz Israel and his wish to write the ultimate Shulchan Arukh that will mark "the end of the period of ruling," were part of his program of hastening the arrival of the days of the Messiah. Only that steps taken to hasten the arrival of the Messiah are suspect. It was always difficult to distinguish between legitimate actions aimed at hastening his arrival and "rushing the end" – attempting to force history and hasten processes that have not yet ripened. Therefore, when these two plans – moving to Eretz Israel and writing a new Shulchan Arukh – did not materialize, it is not surprising to hear the explanation that it was Heaven that stood in the way. Over-zealous activity borders on impudence and is perceived as an attempt to dictate the course of the end of days, as if to express dissatisfaction at the rate at which things were progressing.




            These notions might seem puzzling to us, for if there are halakhic demands, surely they must be fulfilled to the letter, without regard to any non-halakhic considerations. Assuming that the Vilna Gaon's halakhic assumptions were correct, and that birkat kohanim is a daily obligation, why should we not ignore messianic considerations, and say that Halakha must be strictly followed? The matter, however, is not so simple. Observing Halakha is not only an obligation, but also a privilege. To illustrate, let us "listen in" to an exchange between two modern Torah scholars.


            It once happened that, as Pesach was approaching, Rav Yisrael Ariel, head of Makhon Ha-mikdash, blessed Rav Yoel Bin Nun that he should merit to offer the Paschal sacrifice that very year. Rav Bin Nun answered: May we be worthy of it; to which Rav Ariel responded: It is a Halakha, it is an obligation, and it makes no difference whether we are "worthy" or "unworthy." But Rav Bin Nun did not back down: Nevertheless, I hope that we should be worthy.


            Two conflicting viewpoints underlie this disagreement. Rav Ariel clings to the halakhic position which teaches that since the Torah requires us to build the Mikdash and to offer sacrifices, we are bound to make all efforts, leaving no stone unturned, in order to fulfill our obligation. Rav Bin Nun, on the other hand, maintains that the fulfillment of certain mitzvot depends on the spiritual level of the Jewish people and on the progress of the historical process. He understands from the words of the prophets that the building of the Mikdash is not solely a halakhic obligation, but also a promised development that will not come until the people of Israel are worthy for it.


            These considerations have special application to birkat kohanim. The proper functioning of the kohanim, whose role it is to minister in the Temple, can be interpreted as a significant step in the process of restoring the priestly service. Thus, the efforts to expand the fulfillment of the mitzva of birkat kohanim are connected to messianic yearnings, and are a form of redemptive activism.




            Support for this idea – that there is a connection between birkat kohanim and messianic activism – may be brought from a halakhic question that was raised in the seventeenth century, in the aftermath of the tragedy of the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi.


            The story, which is brought in Responsa Ohel Ya'akov (68), goes as follows:


            The members of a synagogue in Amsterdam – who, like most of their co-religionists at that time, were avidly awaiting the imminent realization of the messianic prophecies - decided to enact an important ordinance. From now on, it would be the practice in their synagogue to recite birkat kohanim every Shabbat. Since the messianic period involves a return to perfection, it was essential that they begin to restore the observance of mitzvot to its perfect state, and birkat kohanim was meant to play a part in this process. As background to this story, it is important to note that the Sabbateans had introduced the daily recitation of birkat kohanim. It seems that it was precisely this mitzva of birkat kohanim that was perceived as a fitting preparation for the arrival of the Messiah. Nevertheless, the members of this congregation did not dare restore the mitzva to its daily format, but rather they sufficed with a modest upgrade which involved reciting birkat kohanim every Shabbat. This hesitation also characterized the Gra. On the one hand, there was a strong inner desire to restore the original practice of daily birkat kohanim, but on the other hand, there was this fear that perhaps the time has not yet arrived. It is noteworthy that it was absolutely clear to the members of the community that the prevalent custom regarding birkat kohanim was flawed from a purely halakhic perspective, and that they did not need the Vilna Gaon to teach this to them.


            In the wake of the collapse of the Sabbatean movement, a dispute arose among the members of that congregation:


And when owing to our many sins, we ran like deer ready to believe anything… our true King punished us for the mistake which has now come to light. Some of the important members of the community concluded from this that it would be better to return to the earlier custom, for since the cause is gone, so should the result (i.e. the amended custom) be cancelled … Whereas some members of the community objected saying it is a positive precept, and once they embraced it, they cannot give it up.


            The disagreement brings to mind the aforementioned discussion between Rav Ariel and Rav Bin Nun. On the one hand, there were those who based the reform on preparations for the redemption. Since everything had been done on the assumption that they would be leaving the exile, when it became clear that this wasn't happening and that the exile would continue, the situation should now be restored to its former state. This was not only because the custom had been introduced in error. The Jews were overtaken by feelings of guilt about what appeared to them, at least in retrospect, as simple-mindedness, arrogance, and insolence, qualities which had brought them to crown a swindler as the messianic king. The true King, God, was now punishing them with the very shame of revealing their mistake. It, therefore, fell upon them once again to act with humility and submission, and to admit that they were not worthy of this halakhic-redemptive upgrade. On the other hand, there were those who argued that fulfilling the mitzva on Shabbat is mandated by strict law, and that the previous custom contradicts Halakha. According to them, the critical factor here is not the historic context, but the legal question. Since they had embraced the mitzva anew, there was no turning back.


            The practical question was directed to Rav Yaakov Sasportas, one of the important – and also one of the only – rabbinic figures who fought against the Sabbatean movement almost from its very beginning. He set the need to fight the Sabbateans above almost every other consideration, and he was ready even to pay the price of passive cancellation of a mitzva. In practice, retreating from the messianic awakening was connected to a reduction in the observance of the mitzva, and this, even at the cost of the sacrifice of a certain halakhic gain. We are simply not "worthy" yet of fulfilling this mitzva.[5]


            To summarize, it is reasonable to conjecture that the Gra was aware of the messianic significance of restoring birkat kohanim to its full format. On the one hand, this awareness spurred him to action, but on the other hand, it also served as a deterring factor.




The common practice today in most of Eretz Israel is to recite birkat kohanaim on a daily basis. The author of Pe'at Ha-shulchan cites the Gra's position on the matter, and the Gra's disciples made sure that in Eretz Israel his viewpoint would be adopted. In the Galilee, however, the custom took root to recite birkat kohanim only on Shabbat, despite the fact that the assertion of the Beit Yosef, that in his area they recited birkat kohanim every day. It would seem that the Galilean practice familiar to us today came into being as a result of the influx of Chassidim into the region. These Chassidim clung to their customary practice outside Eretz Israel. Despite the practice of the Gra's disciples who reached Tzefat a few years after the Chassidim, a compromise was eventually adopted, according to which birkat kohanim is recited on Shabbat. In our day, the rabbi of Haifa, Rav She'ar-Yashuv Cohen, tried to establish the Gra's custom in his city as well. His position had a certain impact on common practice, but several contemporary halakhic authorities support leaving the Galilean custom in place as it has developed over the course of recent generations.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Hilkhot ha-Gra u-Minhagav, p. 124.

[2] Brought in Aliyot Eliyahu, Jerusalem 5749, pp. 57-58.

[3] Teshuvot u-Piskei Maharam, ed. Kahana, 32.

[4] That is to say, technically there is no real violation of a positive precept, since the kohanim are not obligated to recite their benediction until they are invited to do so by the congregation with the call, "Kohanim."

[5] Despite the position of the author of Ohel Ya'akov, the custom of the Spanish congregation in Amsterdam remained in place – to recite Birkat Kohanim on Shabbat.