In this week’s parsha we read about the mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim. Sefer Chareidim has an important opinion about the mitzvah of the priestly blessing—Birkas Kohanim. Although the Torah instruction to bless the nation is directed to the Kohanim alone, the Chareidim writes that “the congregation, standing face to face with the Kohanim, in silent acceptance of the blessing as Hashem commanded, also participates in the mitzvah” (chap 12, no. 18). This opinion is mentioned by the Biur Halachah (beginning of Siman 128). However, others disagree as we will describe below.
Although he tells us that the entire nation is included in the mitzvah, the Chareidim does not reveal the nature of this inclusion. The Mishnah Berurah also offers no explanation further to the actual statement of the Chareidim. We will try to understand how the congregation is included in the mitzvah of the priestly blessing.
Specifically, the following question is worthy of investigation: Does this inclusion of the nation in the mitzvah imply an obligation to go to receive a blessing from a Kohen? For example, if somebody prayed in a minyan where no Kohen was present, does he have to find another minyan to fulfill his mitzvah of receiving the blessing? In addition, must somebody davening shemona esrei stop his prayers to listen to the blessing? Does a minyan of Kohanim bless even when no congregation is present?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Participating in the Kohen’s Mitzvah
Addressing the meaning of the mitzvah for a non-Kohen, Shut Mahari Asad (Orach Chayim 46) writes that the mitzvah implies being a party to the mitzvah of the Kohen. There is a Torah instruction to the Kohanim to bless the people, as the Pasuk says: “Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying: So shall you bless the Children of Israel: Say unto them….” (Bamidbar 6:23). The blessing can only be given to a congregation; thus, the congregation is part of the Kohen’s blessing. The congregation helps the Kohen fulfill his mitzvah but there is no independent mitzvah on the congregation.
A comparison for this idea is found in the mitzvah of a woman to marry and have children. Although the Gemara rules that a woman is not directly commanded in peru u’revu, the Ran writes that she participates in the mitzvah of her husband (Ran, Kiddushin, beginning of chap. 2). It is therefore a mitzvah for a woman to get married, for by doing so she is a party to the mitzvah of having children that her husband fulfills.
According to this reasoning, a non-Kohen has no specific mitzvah to receive the blessing. Rather, the mitzvah incumbent on a non-Kohen is only to be part of the Kohen’s mitzvah, which he does by receiving the blessing with proper intent.
The words of the Chareidim fit well with the explanation above. As he writes, “the congregation, standing face to face with the Kohanim/.. participates in the mitzvah.” The point seems to be that the congregation is part of the Kohen’s mitzvah, and not that they have an independent mitzvah to be blessed.
An Independent Mitzvah
The Chasam Sofer (Orach Chayim 22), however, takes a different approach.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 28b) states that a Kohen who adds an extra blessing to the three Torah blessings transgresses the prohibition of bal tosif (“you shall not add”). The Gemara proceeds to question this assertion: Surely one transgresses the prohibition of adding to a mitzvah only at the time when the Torah mitzvah is being performed? After the Kohen has completed the three priestly blessings, he has completed the mitzvah, and thus should no longer transgress the prohibition of bal tosif. The Gemara responds that since the Kohen would have a mitzvah of giving a blessing if he encountered another congregation, it is considered as though he has not completed the mitzvah.
Why does the possibility of encountering a congregation render the Kohen’s mitzvah incomplete? True, he is obligated to grant a blessing to every congregation he meets, but does this mean that he never completes his mitzvah?
The Chasam Sofer suggests the following explanation: the mitzvah is incomplete because the Kohen is responsible not only for his own mitzvah, but also for that of the non-Kohen congregation. He must enable them to fulfill their mitzvah of receiving the Kohen’s blessing. Since he is responsible for the people being blessed, it follows that the possibility of additional congregations means that the mitzvah remains incomplete.
People in the Field
According to the Chasam Sofer, it thus emerges that according to the Charedim a non-Kohen has an independent mitzvah to receive a blessing from a Kohen (a position that seems to be supported by Raavad, commentary to the end of Tamid). If he has not yet been blessed, the non-Kohen has an obligation to find a Kohen from whom to receive the blessing.
According to the Mahari Asad, however, the only mitzvah for a non-Kohen is to participate in the Kohen’s blessing, empowering the Kohen to give the blessing. If no Kohen was present in his minyan, the non-Kohen is not obligated to seek out a Kohen from whom to be blessed.
An interesting point to note is the fact that ten Kohanim are able to give a blessing even when no non-Kohen is present. This is stated by the Gemara (Sotah 38b), explaining that the blessing is directed at the “people in the fields” (Sotah 38b). Why (according to Chasam Sofer) is there a mitzvah to be blessed directly if one can be blessed even while in the fields? And why (according to Mahari Asad) is there a mitzvah of being part of the blessing if the blessing be given without the participation of non-Kohanim?
According to the Chasam Sofer, it is clear that there are two types of blessing. The “superior” blessing, which a person is obligated to receive, is the direct blessing in the presence of Kohanim. When this is impossible, one receives a lesser blessing as one of the “people in the fields,” but one may not rely on this lesser form of blessing and must strive to receive the direct blessing in the presence of a Kohen. This will also answer the approach of the Mahari Assad: it is better to participate directly rather than just being included. Moreover, if one can be present and chooses not to be present he is not included in the blessing (Shulchan Aruch 128, 24)
Stopping One’s Prayer for the Blessing
Modern-day authorities discuss the case of someone who is still davening the Amidah when the Kohanim begin their blessing. Should he stop and focus his attention on the blessing, or should he continue his prayer?
Shut Iggros Moshe (Orach Chaim 4:21, sec. 2) writes that he should stop his prayer and focus on the blessing, a ruling seconded by Shut Shevet Ha-Levi (3:15) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Eshei Yisroel Chapter 32, Note 55). It is also quoted in the name of the Chazon Ish that this is the right way to act. Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, however, is reported as opining that one should carry on one’s prayer uninterrupted. The Oz Nidberu (12, 28) also rules that one should stop and listen to Birchas Kohanim.
The Yabia Omer (7, 12) relates this dispute to the previous discussion. He brings many poskim who side with one of the above positions. He continues that according to the Chasam Sofer, since there is an independent obligation on the non-Kohen to be blessed, one should stop and listen to the blessing in order to fulfill his mitzva.
According to Shut Mahari Asad, and those who side with his opinion, however, the congregation does not have an independent mitzvah to hear the brocho. Therefore, one who is in the middle of prayer is not required to stop and focus on receiving the blessing.
In a practical sense, it seems that the general custom follows Shut Mahari Asad. Outside of Israel, for instance, we do not find that Ashkenazim, whose custom is not to perform Birkas Kohanim (except on festivals), visit a Sephardi synagogue (whose custom is to perform the blessing every day) to receive the blessing. According to Mahari Asad, this is easily understood: if no Kohen actually blesses the people (in the Ashkenazi synagogue), the congregation does not have an obligation to find an alternative. The Yabia Omer also rules that one can rely on this opinion. It should be noted that the entire dispute between the Chassam Sofer and the Mahari Assad is on how to understand the opinion of the Sefer Hacharedim and there are many who disagree with the latter. (See Yabia Omer.) However, as far as stopping and listening to the brocho in the middle of Shemonah Erei is concerned the consensus is that one should stop and listen since the effort is minor and no loss is involved.
Some, however, are particular to ensure that they receive a direct blessing, and doing so is certainly worthwhile according to the Chasam Sofer..