The mitzva of birkat kohanim, which the Torah introduces in Parashat Naso (6:22-27), requires the kohanim to bless the rest of the nation with the specific text presented by the Torah. The Sefer Ha-chareidim (by Rav Elazar Azkari of Tzefat), in discussing this mitzva (mitzvat asei 4), writes that while the kohanim recite the priestly blessing, the congregation must remain silent and pay close attention to the blessing, because “they, too, are included in the mitzva.” Many later writers noted the implication of the Sefer Ha-chareidim that just as the kohanim have an obligation to bless the congregation, the congregation has an obligation to receive and listen to the blessing. This point was made by Rav Pinchas Horowitz (the “Ba’al Hafla’a”), in his Sefer Ha-makneh commentary to Masekhet Ketubot (24b).
By contrast, the Ritva, in his commentary to Masekhet Sukka (31b), writes explicitly that non-kohanim bear no obligation at all with regard to birkat kohanim. The context of the Ritva’s discussion is the prohibition of bal tosif – adding onto mitzvot. The Ritva asserts that this prohibition forbids adding additional features to a mitzva – such as adding a fifth species to the arba minim on Sukkot – but does not forbid repeating a mitzva. He draws proof from the fact that a kohein who recited birkat kohanim may recite the blessing again later in the day, adding, “And one cannot say that this is done to fulfill the obligation for others” – meaning, for the congregation – “because there is no obligation upon Israel” – meaning, upon non-kohanim. The Ritva clearly maintained that there is no obligation upon non-kohanim to receive the priestly blessing.
Rav Avraham Dov Kahana Shapiro, in his Devar Avraham (1:31), disputes the Sefer Ha-makneh’s understanding of the Sefer Ha-chareidim’s comment, and argues that there is no disagreement between the Sefer Ha-chareidim and the Ritva. Even according to the Sefer Ha-chareidim, Rav Shapiro explains, the congregation is obligated to pay attention and intend to receive the blessing as it is given, but they have no obligation to put themselves in a position to receive the blessing. Once they are in the synagogue when the kohanim confer the blessing, they are required to do their part by listening attentively, but this does not mean that they have an obligation to make a point of receiving birkat kohanim the way the kohanim have an obligation to recite birkat kohanim.
Rav Shapiro challenges the Sefer Ha-makneh’s understanding by noting the example of charity, which is a mitzva cast upon the donor, but not the recipient. A person with the ability to give has the obligation to offer charity to an individual in need, but the mitzva of charity certainly does not obligate the needy individual to accept it. By the same token, the fact that the Torah required the kohanim to extend a blessing to the people does not require the people to take advantage of this opportunity and receive the blessing. (Rav Shapiro notes also the example of ha’anaka – the obligatory gifts which a master must give to his servant when his servant is released after six years of service. The master is required to grant these gifts, but the servant certainly is under no obligation to accept them.)
We might consider explaining the Sefer Ha-makneh’s position in light of the comments of Rav Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala, regarding the significance of birkat kohanim. As we saw yesterday, Rav Mecklenberg writes that the purpose (or at least one purpose) of birkat kohanim is to direct the people’s attention to the fact that their success and wellbeing is determined by God. By wishing the people that God should bless them, care for them and grant them happiness and success, the kohanim heighten the people’s awareness of providence, that it is God who protects them and gives them all they have. Rav Mecklenberg explains on this basis God’s conclusion to the command of birkat kohanim – “They shall place My Name upon the Israelites, and I shall bless them” (6:27). According to Rav Mecklenberg, “They shall place My Name upon the Israelites” means that the kohanim, through their blessing, will instill within the people greater awareness of His control over the world and over their lives.
If so, then we can perhaps understand the view of the Sefer Ha-makneh that the mitzva of birkat kohanim imposes an obligation not only upon the kohanim, but also upon the people. Unlike the mitzva of charity, which is intended to assist the poor, and it is thus up to a needy person to decide whether or not to avail himself of this assistance, the mitzva of birkat kohanim is intended not only to help the people, but also to reinforce their belief in, and awareness of, God’s providence. As such, they do not have the option of whether or not to receive this blessing, and are rather required to put themselves in a position to receive birkat kohanim no less than the kohanim are required to pronounce birkat kohanim.