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Siman 128 Birkat Kohanim continued

  • Rav Asher Meir





SHIUR #70: Simanim 128


by Rav Asher Meir








In the Temple, it was forbidden to look at the kohanim during BK.  The source for this prohibition is in tractate Chagiga:


R. Yehuda be-R. Nachmani, Reish Lakish's announcer (meturgeman) homilized: Anyone who gazes at one of the following three things, his eyes become dim: The rainbow, the nasi, and the kohanim [during BK]. ... At the kohanim - [only] when the Temple stands, when they would stand on their dukhan and bless Israel with the enunciated Name (Chagiga 16a).


For the Shekhina rests in the joints of their fingers (Rashi there).


            From here we learn that when the kohanim bless BK in the Temple, with the enunciated four-letter name of God, we are forbidden to gaze at them.  We find two examples of similar problematic gazing in the Torah.  There is an evident lack of awe in such a gaze.  The people were afraid to look at Moshe when his face glowed from his encounter with the Divine Presence (Shemot 34:30); and the elders who "saw the God of Israel," and "saw God and [yet] ate and drank" (Shemot 24:10-11) were later severely punished (Bamidbar 11:16 and Rashi there).


            It is evident from the context that glancing, as opposed to gazing, is permissible even in the Temple.  It is permissible to see a rainbow and indeed a special blessing is recited - SA OC 229a.  And of course people did see the nasi (and recited a berakha on him as well - SA OC 224:6).


            However, our siman refers to a different halakha, as the MB explains (s.k. 89).  The source is in tractate Megilla, in the Mishna and Yerushalmi:


MISHNA: A kohen who has blemishes on his hands should not raise his hands [to bless BK].  R. Yehuda says, likewise someone whose hands are dyed from istis would not raise his hand [for BK], because people will look at him.

GEMARA: ... R. Yose said: That is to say, it is forbidden to look at the kohanim when they are blessing Israel.  R. Chagai said, is there any basis for the prohibition other than mere distraction? [I swear by the Torah of] Moshe that I look and do not become distracted  (Yerushalmi Megilla 4:8).


            R. Yose learns from our Mishna, which forbids conspicuous kohanim to dukhan because it will cause people to look at them, that there is something improper about looking at the kohanim during BK.  Since we know that the prohibition mentioned in Chagiga holds only in the Temple, R. Chagai points out that the basis must be distraction.  (Evidently R. Chagai is asserting that the prohibition does not apply to him personally.  But perhaps he is saying something different - that since he AND OTHERS don't stare at the kohanim, there is no need to be strict with a blemished kohen.)


            In last week's shiur, we suggested that the requirement to remove shoes for BK is mainly meant to commemorate the Temple service, while the other reasons given are meant to give an operative HALAKHIC rationale for the rule - which is appropriate according to the Tosafot we cited.  We supported this suggestion by pointing out that this rule was one of the special takanot of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, almost all of which were meant to commemorate the Temple or otherwise adjust to its absence - which R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, unlike some other members of his generation, anticipated could be very long.


            [This subject is worth a short digression, especially since it is relevant to the momentous events of this century.  During the time of the destruction, among the Jewish people was a faction who felt that deliverance from our enemies was certain and divinely promised, and that we should struggle against all odds to realize this deliverance.  These were the "birionim" who tried to keep R. Yochanan ben Zakkai and the other sages from capitulating to the Romans.  It is clear that our sages viewed the birionim as a harmful and destructive group (Gittin 56a), and this is reflected in modern Hebrew usage where birion is synonymous with gangster.  In the WAKE of the destruction, many - evidently most - of our sages felt that we should reconcile ourselves to the possibility that despite the eternal promise of HaShem through his prophets that Mashiach's coming and the building of the Temple will definitely occur, we should be prepared for the possibility that the destruction and exile might be prolonged.  Among these was R. Yochanan ben Zakai.  Others had a strong feeling that redemption was imminent, and that this in turn carried an obligation to try and bring it about in a natural way.  Among these was R. Akiva.  Even though our generation draws great inspiration from the spirit of R. Akiva, it is appropriate to recall that his colleagues warned him that his approach was rash (Yerushalmi Ta'anit 4:5), and that in the end they were vindicated. (Certainly to their own dismay. Sanhedrin 93b.)]


            The evidence for such an understanding is even stronger regarding the rule of looking at the kohanim.  Rashi on the mishna in Megilla cites the reason given in Chagiga, even though the gemara itself in Chagiga explicitly limits the prohibition to BK in the Temple, while the ruling in Megilla applies OUTSIDE the Temple (see Tosafot on Chagiga).  Here again there is a dichotomy between the REASON (commemoration of the Temple service) and the RATIONALE (avoiding distraction).  We can understand the problem of blemishes (mumim - se'if 30) in a similar way.  The RATIONALE is explicitly the same as in our siman - so that people should not be distracted, yet the underlying rule is strikingly reminiscent of the Torah prohibition for a blemished kohen to serve in the Temple.




Ada said in the name of Rav Simlai: A Beit Knesset which is all kohanim, all of them ascend the dukhan.  [But] whom are they blessing?!  R. Zera said: their brethren in the fields.  But didn't Abba b.Rav Binyamin bar Chiya teach that [even] those who are behind the kohanim are not included in the berakha? That is no difficulty - in our case there is duress, but [Abba's rule] is where there is no duress....  It is obvious that a tall person does not obstruct a short one, and that furniture does not obstruct.  What about a partition?  Listen to what R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: Even a partition of iron does not come between Israel and their Father in heaven.  It was asked, what about the people on the sides?  Abba Mar bar Rav Ashi said, Hear, it is taught in the Mishna: If he intended to sprinkle in front but sprinkled behind, behind but sprinkled in front - his sprinkling is invalid. In front but sprinkled to the side towards the front - his sprinkling is valid  (Sota 38b).


            The MB gives a reason for this rule - s.k. 94.


            It seems obvious that a person does not have to directly face the kohanim and even when he is a bit to the side is still considered in front; therefore, the question of the gemara regarding the sides presumably means ENTIRELY to the side.  On the other hand, the inference from sprinkling, which is valid only if it is a bit forward, suggests that entirely sideways is invalid.  The Beit Yosef seems to rule leniently like the first approach, which he concludes is the majority view, and not like the second view which he attributes to Rashi.  It seems that this is also the intent of the SA which mentions "in front" and "on the side" as two separate places.


            I found a very interesting parallel to this rule in the Chazon Ish.  The Chazon Ish cites the gemara in Rosh HaShana where we rule that during the year the shaliach tzibur can fulfill the prayer obligation only for someone who does not know how to pray, and only on Rosh HaShana do we rule like Rabban Gamliel that the shaliach tzibbur can vicariously fulfill the obligation of anyone in the congregation.  The gemara then asserts that even according to Rabban Gamliel, the obligation is only fulfilled for the "people in the fields."


The Chazon Ish, citing the Ran, concludes that just as Rabban Gamliel considers those in the fields to have fulfilled their obligation via the shaliach tzibbur even if they ARE well-versed in the tefilla, Rabbanan consider those in the fields to have fulfilled their obligation if they are ignorant of the tefilla.  And since we learn (here) that someone under duress fulfills his obligation from afar, the Chazon Ish reaches a surprising conclusion: those who are in the fields and are unable to reach Beit Knesset have fulfilled the obligation of hearing the shaliach tzibbur's recap if they are unable to reach the synagogue.  And if they do gather together to pray, they do not need to recite chazarat ha-shatz!


However, those in town but not in Beit Knesset are NOT included in the berakha according to the Chazon Ish, and this is similar to what the Bi'ur Halakha concludes regarding BK (s.v. Im hem anusim) (Chazon Ish Orach Chaim 19:3).





The gemara on Sota 39b asks, "While the kohanim are blessing the people, what do they [the people] say?"  The gemara then gives a whole list of different responses - one for weekdays, one for Musaf on Shabbat, one for Mincha on a fast day, one for Ne'ila.  But then we encounter some qualifications:


Rav Chiya bar Abba said, anyone who says [such verses] outside of the Temple is in error.  R. Chanina bar Pappa said, You should know that even in the Temple one shouldn't say them. Have you ever seen a servant being blessed [by his master] and not listen?!  R. Acha bar Chanina said, You should know that even outside the Temple one SHOULD say them.  Have you ever seen a servant being blessed [by his master] and not express his appreciation?


R. Abahu said, I used to say them, [but] since I saw that R. Abba of Acco doesn't say them, I also don't say them (Sota 40a).


            The conclusion of the gemara seems to be that it is better NOT to say these verse, and this is indeed the ruling of the SA.


            Yet, the Rema points out that the custom in Europe IS to recite verses, and he seems to be reconciled to this custom.  What could be the basis for this custom?  See siman 130 and MB s.k. 1 there.  This also explains why the verses we recite on Yom Tov are different than the ones cited in the gemara Sota.


            Another reason to be lenient is the fact that we recite the verses while the kohanim are merely singing a melody, not while they are saying the words.  This is mentioned as a consideration by the Rosh (cited in the Tur) regarding the parallel question of saying "yishtabach" during "Barkhu" - as we pointed out in the shiur on siman 57.  It is worth reviewing the SA, Rema, and MB there.





The MB (s.k. 107) resolves the conflict between BK and saying shacharit at the proper time.  Tefilla KeHilkheta (14:7 and in note 21) cites the Avnei Yashfeh that BK is more important than praying with a minyan, and than hearing the Torah reading.  It should follow that a kohen who prays at length should wait for BK and only then begin his tefilla, just as any person who prays at length should wait for kedusha and then begin to pray.  But as we observed in the shiur on siman 109, this is not universally observed regarding kedusha, and it seems that the same is true regarding BK.  It does seem that the Shaliach Tzibbur should wait a bit before "retzei" for a kohen to finish his tefilla.




A kohen with a blemish on his hands may not recite BK.


Tani: and likewise on his face.  It is taught: And if he is well known in his town, it is permissible. ... Rav Huna once disqualified someone with a sparse beard ... because his legs were short [as well], so that people should not come to say that a minor may bless BK (Yerushalmi Megilla 4:8).


Here we also have part of the source for se'if 30 - the prohibition for a kohen with blemishes to bless BK, and the lenient situations.