Siman 128 Birkat Kohanim continued

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #71: Siman 128


by Rav Asher Meir


SE'IFIM 34-44






A minor may read from the Torah and recite the Targum, but he may not "pores al shema" [make an abbreviated prayer service so as to say "barkhu" or "kedusha"], nor approach the [reader's] stand [to lead prayers], nor raise his hands [to bless BK]  (Mishna Megilla 24a).


A minor who knows how to raise his hands [in BK] is eligible to receive teruma at the threshing floor (Sukka 42a).


Our Rabbis taught [in a beraita]: Once [a man's] beard is full, he is fit to lead prayers, to approach the stand, and to raise his hands [to bless BK] (Chullin 24b).


            The first two sources suggest that as soon as a kohen reaches maturity at the age of thirteen he may begin to bless BK. But the last source limits this to a kohen "whose beard is full" - who is recognizably mature.  (The Shulchan Arukh and Rema in 53:8 define this as either one whose beard is actually full, or who has SOME beard and is eighteen, or who has reached the age of twenty.)


Both opinions are readily understandable.  On the one hand, once a kohen is bar mitzva, he is subject to a Torah commandment to bless BK.  On the other hand, there is a certain compromise to the dignity of the congregation when receiving a blessing from a mere youth; and it is for this same reason we prefer that he not lead prayers, as the mishna explains.  But how do we reconcile the two sources?


Rashi explains that the source in Sukka is not referring to a minor but rather to an adolescent who is bar mitzva but before the stage of a "full beard."


The Rambam and the Tur rule that an adolescent (and even a true minor) may bless BK together with other kohanim, but that only one with a full beard can ascend the dukhan alone.  According to this view, there is no difference between a minor and a youth.  This seems to contradict the source in Megilla which distinguishes between a minor and an adult who has reached bar mitzva; the Radbaz (V:60) says that the mishna in Megilla means a "minor" for that particular halakha, in our case one who has no "full beard."


Most Rishonim (see the list in the Beit Yosef) conclude that three different stages are being discussed.  If we look carefully at the language of these halakhot, we see that the first one refers to someone who MAY NOT say BK, and clearly refers to any minor.  Yet the second, while also evidently relating to any minor, refers to one who KNOWS HOW to say BK; the third mentions one who is FIT to say BK, and this beraita also gives a specific age.  The result is as follows:


i. Before bar mitzva, a boy may not say BK at all, except together with other kohanim.  (But clearly we are referring to one who knows how to do so since he DOES bless when others are present.)  This is in order to gain experience in dukhaning.  The Ritva adds another reason - in order to provide a choral accompaniment.


ii. From bar mitzva until a "full beard" he may even say BK by himself, but only occasionally.  This is important so that people should know that he is a kohen.


iii. And once he has a full beard he is FIT to say BK, and he may dukhan by himself even regularly.


This is the ruling of the SA.


The intermediate case of a kohen who blesses alone "occasionally" seems very problematic.  The BH s.v. Aval cites the Olat Tamid to the effect that a boy may ascend the dukhan even regularly when together with other kohanim.  When must he limit his appearances?  Evidently, only when there are NO other kohanim.  What does the BH (s.v. U-mihu) say about this case - also in the name of the Olat Tamid (and the Eshkol)?!


Perhaps there is a difference between a case where there are DAYS when there are no other kohanim - then a youngster should skip days so as not to slight "kevod ha-tzibbur" - and when a whole COMMUNITY has no other kohanim, in which case they would have to regularly skip BK if they were to prevent the adolescent from dukhanim regularly.  (Perhaps the days when the youngster ascends the dukhan together with a grown-up are like skipped days.)


The Torat Chaim suggests that blessing alone when there are no other kohanim is forbidden in Israel, but permissible abroad when dukhanim is only occasional (on Yom Tov), and that this is the intention of the Olat Tamid.


The Minchat Yitzchak (VI:15) makes a different distinction - between a situation where there are no other kohanim at all, and where there are no other grown kohanim.  In a responsum addressed to a Yeshiva Ketana where there were no grown kohanim, he rules that if there are only young kohanim they must take turns ascending the dukhan.  In this way, no single bachur ascends regularly - even though the congregation does suffer from being blessed every day by youngsters only.  It is only with GROWN kohanim that a youngster may say BK regularly - not with other teenagers.


However, if there is no other kohen at all, then a youngster may say BK every day.


The Minchat Yitzchak also suggests the distinction that I made above, between community and minyan.  Only if there is no grown kohen in the COMMUNITY may the youth say BK regularly.  Why doesn't he do so if there is such a kohen?  The Minchat Yitzchak suggests that it is because when there is a grown kohen, we should seek him out and bring him to Beit Knesset.  It may be that the Minchat Yitzchak only intends to say that we should make sure the grown-up comes often - not every day - in which case my solution is about the same as that of the Minchat Yitzchak.


The MB (125) gives a reason why the problem does not arise in Europe at all.  This reason is the opinion of most Acharonim, but some disagree - for instance, the Elia Rabba.




R. Yochanan said, a kohen who killed someone may not raise his hands [to say BK], as it is said (Yeshayahu 1:15) "[And when you spread out your hands I will hide my face from you; even if you multiply  prayers I do not hear, for] your hands are filled with blood" (Berakhot 32b).


[The Shaliach Tzibbur who calls out "kohanim"] calls only the tribe, [not the individual kohanim present.]  So that you should not say, so and so is an adulterer, or sheds blood, and he is supposed to bless us?!  The Holy One, blessed be He, says, who is blessing you?  Is it not Myself, as it is said "And they will place My name on the children of Israel and I will bless them" (Yerushalmi Gittin 5:9).


            The Yerushalmi seems to say that a murderer may say BK this presumably refers to one who repented.  Indeed, the Ra'avia maintains that the rule of R. Yochanan refers only to a habitual murderer.


            But the Rambam rules that R. Yochanan's rule applies even to one who killed accidentally; one who killed intentionally is obviously prevented from saying BK.  The Bach explains that "ein kategor na'aseh sanegor" - the prosecutor can not be made into the defense lawyer, that is, the hands which killed someone are not a suitable instrument to seek mercy for the Jewish people.  He further points out that this is the plain sense of the verse from Yeshayahu, since someone who is spreading out his hands and multiplying prayers has presumably expressed regret at committing murder!


But according to the Rambam we must ask who is the "so-and-so" (ploni) in the Yerushalmi who sheds blood and still blesses?  The Beit Yosef explains that this refers not to an actual adulterer and murderer but rather to someone who is careless with his religious obligations and others exaggerate and spread stories about his wickedness.  (And so he rules in se'if 36.)


The conclusion of the MB is intermediate between the SA and the Rema - see s.k. 131 and BH s.v. Afilu asa teshuva.


This BH cites the Rema as bringing a proof from the fact that even an apostate may bless BK if he repents.  (I don't know where this Rema is.  The opposite comparison is made in the She'iltot, who forbids an apostate to say BK and brings a proof from murder.)  We can question this proof since the concept of "ein kategor na'aseh sanegor" is not relevant to idolatry since idolatry is not performed with the hands.




Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Da'at V:16) rules that a kohen who killed someone in an auto accident may NOT say BK.  This qualifies as an ordinary case of a kohen who killed accidentally, and according to the Shulchan Arukh - whose rulings are followed by the Sefaradim - such a kohen may not bless BK.




This question commonly arises after wartime, when quite a number of kohanim have killed others in circumstances which are partially voluntary, partially duress, and not infrequently accidental.


Rav Moshe Feinstein (YD II:158), based on the case of one who killed under duress (MB 128), says that the case of killing in war is even more lenient, since a soldier is required by the authorities to fight.  Therefore, he concludes, there is no question that such a veteran may and indeed must say BK.


Rav Moshe clearly implies that a Jewish inductee is obligated to fight in a war and is not merely allowed to do so because of duress.  This is the obvious conclusion since duress does not allow us to shed blood - murder being one of the three transgressions which we must give up our lives not to commit.


There is a dispute among the posekim if the disqualification applies to one who kills a non-Jew.  The Pri Megadim (Eshel Avraham 51) says that it does, whereas the Perisha (find an uncensored printing, such as the Tur HaShalem) says that it does not.  The Tzitz Eliezer (XIV:60) mentions this as an additional consideration to allow a leniency.


Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Da'at III:14) suggests that the stringent rulings forbidding Jewish veterans to say BK refer primarily to wars in which Jews fought on both sides, in which case there is a chance that kohanim killed other Jews.  But in the case of wars fought in the state of Israel which were waged to protect Jewish lives, there is no question that veterans who are kohanim may say BK.  Indeed, Rav Ovadia seems to suggest that in this case the concept of "ein kategor na'aseh sanegor" is reversed - a Jewish soldier who risked his life in order to protect his fellow Jews is particularly worthy to be an instrument of God's blessing.




Many physicians have practices which bring them into regular contact with tum'a.  Of course, a psychiatrist may encounter this problem less than a specialist in forensic medicine, but even practitioners of "harmless" specialties like dermatology may make frequent visits to large hospitals where "ohel ha-met" (being in the same enclosure with a corpse) is the norm.  The MB (s.k. 151) cites the Ketav Sofer's view of whether a kohen in such a practice may ascend the dukhan.  A similar view is brought in the Ketav Sofer's contemporary, Mahari Asad (Yehuda Ya'aleh, I Orach Chaim 47).


Rav Kook's ruling is different - Orach Mishpat 29.  But even Rav Kook writes that the physician should be informed that it is improper for him to subject himself to tum'a.


BECOMING a physician is a different question.  To the extent that it is impossible to become a doctor without incurring tum'a, it is definitely forbidden.  (See Igrot Moshe YD III:155 who says that this prohibition is so well established that even if a leading Torah scholar were to permit it we would not pay attention to his words.)  I have heard of cases of kohanim (with especially good marks) who made deals with their med schools that they could observe dissections from outside the room, but I don't think that a person can enter med school with the hope that he may be able to make a similar arrangement which, if it exists, must be quite rare.


This certainly does not mean that any physician may not bless BK.  On the contrary, the presumption should be that they were unaware of the severity of the problem at the time they were in medical school.




In a typical Orthodox congregation - especially in countries where other denominations don't have any real presence so anyone affiliated with a congregation belongs to an Orthodox one - there are likely to be quite a few kohanim who should not be allowed to bless BK - those who regularly come in contact with tum'a, or are public Sabbath-breakers, or are in a forbidden marriage, and the like.  How far should the local Rabbi go in urging them to refrain from dukhaning?


A few authorities have written that it is not necessary to protest too loudly.  Rav Ovadia Yosef makes this point in Yalkut Yosef; Rav Moshe Feinstein writes this in Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim I:33 (though perhaps Rav Moshe is only referring to a case where the prohibition is not "me-ikar ha-din").