Siman 128 Birkat Kohanim

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #68: Siman 128


by Rav Asher Meir



SIMAN 128 SE'IF 1-7





And HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying: Thus shall you bless the children of Israel - say to them:

May HaShem bless you and guard you; may HaShem make His face shine upon you, and show you grace; may HaShem lift up His face towards your, and grant you peace.

And they will put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them  (Bamidbar 6:22-27).


And Aharon raised his hands towards the people and blessed them, and then came down from doing the sin-offering (chatat) and the burnt-offering (ola) and the peace-offering (shelamim)  (Vayikra 9:22).


            The gemara Sota (38a-b) learns a list of rules from these two passages:


1.  "THUS shall you bless" - in Hebrew.

2.  "THUS shall you bless" - standing up.  These two rules are also learned from the mass blessing of the people as they enter the Land of Israel.

3.  "THUS shall you bless" - with raised hands.  This is also learned from the passage in Vayikra.  For this reason BK is customarily called (as it is in the title of our siman) "nesi'at kapayim."

4.  "THUS shall you bless" - with the enunciated name; this is also learned from the words "and they will put My name on the children of Israel.  "But from another verse we learn that this enunciation may only be done in the Temple itself.

5.  "THUS shall you bless"- face to face. This is also learned from the words "say to them" as one customarily says something while facing one's fellow.

6.  "THUS shall you bless" - aloud. Again, we understand from the words "say to them", that the intent is to bless as one speaks to one's fellow, namely out loud.

7.  "Say to THEM" - we only summon kohanim to BK if there are at least two.

8.  A kohen who does not ascend the dukhan when called transgresses three positive commandments: "Thus shall you bless;" "Say to them;" "And they shall place My name."

9. "And Aharon ... blessed them, and then came down from [the sacrifices]" - BK is done while the Temple service is still unfinished, or in the synagogue the kohanim should leave their places while the avoda BENEDICTION is still unfinished.





            It may be surprising that the MB (s.k. 1) needs to tell us that we let anyone who claims to be a kohen bless BK.  The potential problem is hinted at in the source - Even HaEzer.  In the past, many strictures were placed on doubtful kohanim fulfilling even innocent priestly roles - for instance, being called first to the Torah.  In fact, the Rema cited by the MB actually disputes the Shulchan Arukh (EHE 3:1).  The SA himself FORBIDS a kohen to bless BK and even to be called first to the Torah on his own say-so.  There is a fear that this person will then be considered entitled to matnot kehuna (teruma, challa, zero'a-lechayim veakeiva, redemption of a bekhor, etc.), involving a "mammon" problem since he will deprive other kohanim, and even more an "issur" problem since there is a very severe prohibition for a zar (non-kohen) to eat teruma or challa.


            But it seems from the gemara (Ketubot 24) that the most serious problem of all is a "yichus" (lineage) problem, which is not technically a halakhic problem.  The gemara asks if it is customary to assume from the fact that a kohen blesses BK, or from the fact that he eats teruma, or from the fact that he appears in a court document as so-and-so "Hakohen," that he is a true kohen fitting to marry a "meyucheset" - a pedigreed lady.  If such an assumption is customary, then we can not allow a doubtful kohen to engage in these activities without examining his background.


            It seems that a "meyucheset" is not particular to marry specifically a kohen, rather she is particular to marry a meyuchas JEW - one who has no forefather who was a ger (proselyte) or who married a giyoret.  For a Yisrael to prove this requires a "megillat yuchsin" - a carefully written record of all his forebears.  But for a KOHEN to prove this requires only that he blesses BK or eats teruma, activities which are forbidden to a Yisrael (as any paternal descendant of gerim must be) or a chalal (a disqualified kohen, including one whose mother is a giyoret - since a giyoret is forbidden to a kohen).  (See Sukka 51a and Rambam Kelei Mikdash 3:3.)


            The Magen Avraham on our siman seems to rule like the SA, against the Rema.




            The quite extensive discussion of what seems a fairly marginal issue is due to a very surprising passage in the gemara and Tosafot's comment on it:


R. Yose said, I have never defied  the word of my colleagues.  [Even though] I am certain of myself that I am not a kohen, if they tell me to ascend to the dukhan [to bless BK] I ascend  (Shabbat 118b).


            It seems amazing to us that a zar would dare ascend to the dukhan, and R. Yose's example seems calculated to impress upon us just how seriously he takes his colleague's judgement.  Indeed, the gemara (Ketubot 24b) says that there is an "issur aseh" - transgression of a positive commandment - for a zar to bless BK.  (The mitzva is for kohanim to bless, and implicitly for zarim to NOT bless.)


            However, Tosafot's surprise is quite the opposite - they wonder what the big deal is.  "Rabeinu Yitzchak didn't know what prohibition there would be for a zar to ascend the dukhan - unless perhaps it is considered a vain blessing, since the Torah ordered the kohanim to bless Israel."


            The Bach (on our siman) seems to understand that the "vain blessing" is the one the kohanim bless BEFORE BK itself - see se'if 11 in our siman.  According to this understanding, even according to the CONCLUSION of Tosafot there is really nothing wrong with a zar blessing the congregation with BK.


            From Tosafot's words "since the Torah ordered the kohanim to bless Israel" it sounds as though the BK itself could be considered a vain berakha.  (Both approaches are mentioned in the Eshkol,cited in Yechaveh Daat V:14.)  This underscores the fact that the transgression of a vain berakha is not merely a problem because one mentions God's name (since there is no prohibition to mention God's name in a verse of the Torah), but rather the very fact that one makes a berakha invokes God's presence in a way that is disrespectful if the berakha is unnecessary.  At any rate, according to the conclusion there is indeed a prohibition for a zar to bless BK itself, at least if he intends to bestow the berakha on the congregation.


            We still have not answered our original problem - how R. Yose could commit such a "transgression" in the name of deferring to his peers.  Many answers are brought in the commentators (most of the following are referenced in the Be'er Heitev s.k. 2):


1. The Rosh (Tosafot Rosh) explains that R. Yose purposely gave an extreme example, but in fact would not have gone so far as to ascend the dukhan merely on his peers' say-so.  The Taz also understands that a zar may never ascend the dukhan.  He suggests that R. Yose would have trusted his peers' judgement and concluded that he really was a kohen after all.


2. The Rema (Darkhei Moshe, hinted at in the Rema on the SA and in MB s.k. 6) cites an opinion that the issur aseh only applies when there are no kohanim on the dukhan.  This makes sense since that is the extreme case of the issur aseh: the Torah said kohanim - but not yisraelim, meaning that the essential problem is blessing with a yisrael and NOT kohanim.  But a yisrael together with kohanim does not contradict the mitzva.  Alternatively, this is not an issur aseh since it ENHANCES the mitzva, as opposed to competing with it (Chatam Sofer).


3. The Magen Avraham suggests that the opinion in Ketubot which maintains that there is an issur aseh is ultimately rejected, and accordingly there is no prohibition.


4. The Maharit suggests that the issur aseh only applies when using the "shem ha-meforash" - the kohanim in the Temple used to enunciate the four-letter name in birkat kohanim, and that is certainly forbidden to a zar. (I:149)


5. Ginat Veradim OC I:13 suggests that the prohibition only applies during tefilla, when BK is expected and obligatory.


6. The Bach suggests that the issur aseh is only with "nesi'at kapayim" - spreading out the hands.


7. The Magen Giborim suggests that there is a prohibition only if there is an intention to fulfill the Torah mitzva. (These last two views are mentioned in MB s.k. 3.)


            The custom of saying BK when we bless the children on Shabbat night is permissible according to opinions 3-7.  Perhaps we could suggest an additional reason, that at night there is no mitzva even for kohanim so the issur aseh is not operative.


            (Some authorities have questioned this custom for an additional reason, that the placing of two hands on the child's head is a kind of "nesi'at kapayim" which is an issur aseh in itself - see Torah Temima on birkat kohanim.  Rav Ovadia refutes this position - Yechaveh Da'at V:14.)




            The gemara (Sota 40a at the end) explains that one of the regulations of R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai was that kohanim should not dukhan wearing shoes.  He instituted this rule either because of the dignity of the congregation (that they shouldn't see all of the muddy shoes on the dukhan) or, according to the conclusion, so that the kohanim shouldn't be occupied with tying their shoelaces as they ascend the dukhan - this may cause them to miss dukhaning and cause people to doubt their pedigree.


            Let us examine the other regulations instituted by R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Temple (may it be rapidly rebuilt).  They are as follows (see Rosh HaShana 31b):


1. That the shofar should be blown on Rosh HaShana Shabbat anywhere there is a beit din - and not only in the Temple area.


2. That the lulav should be taken during chol ha-mo'ed - as it was in the Temple.


3. That chadash (the new grain crop) should be forbidden for all of the 16th of Nisan and not permissible from daybreak, because it was forbidden in the days of the Temple until the omer was brought during the day.


4. That testimony for Rosh Chodesh Elul should be acceptable all day - unlike the custom in the time of the Temple, when this practice caused confusion in the Temple service.


5. That the Rosh Chodesh witnesses should go to testify only to the place of the beit din, even if the rosh beit din was in a different place.


6. That the witnesses may profane the Shabbat only to testify on the new moon of Tishrei and Nisan, and not for every month as was the custom when the Temple stood.


7. That a ger should designate money for a sacrifice - just as was required when the Temple existed (this regulation was annulled).


8. The eighth regulation relates either to revai (the fruits of the fourth year of a tree which are similar to ma'aser sheni) or to the crimson string tied to the horns of the se'ir on Yom Kippur.


            Many of these regulations institute Temple-like customs outside of the Temple, so that these customs should not be forgotten after the destruction (1, 2, 3, 7).  Others on the contrary come to CHANGE the halakha from what it was in the time of the Temple, because the halakha was geared to some specific situation which no longer existed after the destruction (4, 6).


            The fact that almost all of the takanot come to relate to the new reality after the destruction of the Temple could suggest that the custom of removing shoes for BK is also meant to remind us of the service of the kohanim in the Temple, which was performed barefoot.  Indeed, the Rambam (Tefilla 21:6) does not say that the kohanim should not wear shoes (as the SA does) but rather that they should ascend barefoot - though the Beit Yosef explains that this is not meant literally. (See Tosafot on Gittin 14a s.v. Kehilkheta who explain that very often the reason for instituting a regulation differs from the operative reason which determines its halakhic parameters.)


            Many questions arise regarding this obligation.  Army soldiers often find themselves praying in very muddy places where removing shoes is out of the question, and many shuls lack heating, creating an obstacle to removing shoes.  In Israel it is common to wear shoes without socks, creating a problem with the MB's ruling that one should NOT be completely barefoot.


            Some authorities have permitted blessing BK in shoes for a kohen who remains at floor level and does not ascend to the dukhan.  This is for two reasons:

1. On the floor there is no question of the dignity of the congregation since they can not see the kohen's shoes if he is not in an elevated place.  For the same reason the kohen himself won't delay for an untied shoelace since no one is looking at his shoes.

2. The language of the edict is that a kohen should not ASCEND THE DUKHAN in shoes - if he does not ascend then there is no need to take off shoes.


            Rav Ovadia (Yechaveh Da'at II:13) brings the lenient opinions and concludes that blessing BK in shoes from the floor is better than not blessing at all, but anyone who is capable should remove his shoes and ascend the dukhan.  A similar ruling is in Tefilla KeHilkheta 14:24.


            Since one of the rationales for removing shoes is so that the congregation should not see the muddy shoes on the feet of the kohanim, it is also appropriate to put the shoes in an out-of-the-way place so that the congregation does not see them OFF the feet of the kohanim.