In this week’s parashah we read of the tragic dispute between Korach and his assembly, and Moshe Rabbeinu.
The dispute, as the verses make clear, centered on the question of the Kehunah: Korach and his assembly were not satisfied with their status as Levites, and desired to serve as Kohanim. Moshe Rabbeinu thus admonished them (Bamidbar 16:9): “Is it not sufficient for you that the G-d of Israel has separated you from the nation, drawing you close to Him to perform the service of Hashem’s Tabernacle, and to stand before the nation in service?”
Latent in the words is the fundamental difference between the tribe of Levi, and the elevated Kohanim. The entire tribe of Levi was separated for the service of Hashem. Kohanim, however, are granted an extra elevation, in that they are holy to Hashem.
Korach’s claim was that “the entire nation is holy, and Hashem is among them.” If the whole nation is holy, a tallis that is entirely techeiles, the special status of Kohanim is unjustified. Moshe’s retort, however, was that the nation of Israel is a hierarchy, and not all groups are equivalent. The Kohanim are indeed holy, and although the tribe of Levi is separated to serve Hashem, it does not possess the holiness of the Kohanim.
We take the opportunity to discuss a halachah that merges the respective virtues of Kohanim and Levites: The halachah of washing the Kohanim’s hands before birkas kohanim. As the Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 128:6), “the Levi pours water on their hands.” What are the parameters of this halachah? Is there indeed an obligation for Levites to wash Kohanim’s hands? Can several Levi’im partake in the mitzvah? What does one do when no Levites are present?
We will seek to study the sources of this halachah, and to clarify its parameters and details.
The Obligation of Washing the Kohanim’s Hands
Based on a biblical verse—”Raise your hands in the sanctuary and bless Hashem”—the Gemara (Sotah 39) teaches that a Kohen who does not wash his hands may not participate in birkas kohanim. Before the Kohanim raise their hands in blessing, they must first ‘sanctify’ them by means of washing (Mishnah Berurah 128:19).
The question of who should wash the Kohanim’s hands is not mentioned in the Gemara, and the simple interpretation is that the Kohanim wash their own hands. However, the Shulchan Aruch (128:6) rules that the task of washing the Kohanim’s hands is specifically given to the Levi’im. This halachah is based on a teaching of the Zohar (Vol. 3, p. 146a-b), which writes that the Kohen must gain extra holiness by means of washing his hands from those who are holy—the Levites.
According to the Zohar, the Levites’ pouring the water empowers the blessing of the Kohanim. A Kohen must therefore be careful not to wash his own hands, and not to wash his hands from an Israelite, but specifically from a Levi. As the Maharash Halevi (no. 9) writes, “Perhaps this is the means by which the Divine Presence will rest on the hands of the Kohanim, and Hashem will thus agree to the blessing, because the hands are sanctified by the Levi.”
Several poskim, quoting from the Zohar, therefore state that there is a mitzvah for Levites to wash Kohanim’s hands. Maharash Halevi writes that “although it is not explicit in the Talmud or in [early] poskim, the Zohar commands it… and one should certainly uphold its laws and obligations.” As the Mateh Moshe writes, “When the Kohen washes his hands he should wash them specifically from a Levite—as stated in the Zohar.”
Washing the Levites’ Hands
Citing from Safra de’Tzniusa, the Zohar states further that before washing the hands of the Kohanim, the Levites should be careful to wash their own hands. This halachah is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch, and the Levush (128:7) offers a simple rationale: “For how can they add holiness, if they themselves are not sanctified?”
Yet, the Rema (128:6) writes that the common custom is that Levites do not wash their own hands before washing the Kohanim’s hands. However, the Mishnah Berurah (23, based on Magen Avraham and Bach) writes that if the Levites were distracted from ‘guarding’ their hands (from anything unclean) since the morning washing, and certainly if they touched something unclean (such as a covered part of the body), they should wash their own hands first.
Although many Levites do not wash their hands before the Kohanim’s, the Kenesses Hagedolah (glosses to Beis Yosef 128) writes that the “simple custom” is for Levites to wash their own hands. This ruling is cited by the Kaf Hachaim (128:42), who concludes: “Therefore it is correct for any G-d-fearing person to wash his own hands before the Kohanim’s hands, even where the general custom is not to do so, in order to fulfill the Zohar’s instructions.”
Even on Yom Kippur and on Tisha Be’Av, Levites that wash their hands throughout the year should wash their own hands (Maharash Halevi 9). Yet, unlike the Kohanim’s hands, on these days Levites should only wash their hands up to the knuckles (Mateh Efraim 621:17; see, however, Mo’ed Lekol Chai, Customs of Yom Kippur).
Walking in Front of Somebody Praying
A common question that arises is whether a Levite may pass in front of somebody praying the Amidah prayer on his way to wash the Kohanim’s hands.
In previous generations some Levites had the custom of washing the Kohanim’s hands in the shul itself. The Mekor Chaim (128:6) describes how three Levites would surround a single Kohen, one of them holding a pitcher of water, a second carrying a bowl in which to collect the water, and a third bringing a towel. The Levites thus catered for all the Kohen’s hand-washing needs (see also Eliyah Rabbah 128:4; Mordechai, Megillah 817).
Today, the virtually universal custom is for Levites to wash the Kohanim’s hands outside the main shul, giving rise to the question of passing in front of those still praying—for as a general rule “it is forbidden to pass in front of those who are praying” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 102).
With regard to the Kohen himself, authorities write that it is permitted for a Kohen to pass in front of somebody praying in order to wash his hands. Although it is generally forbidden to do so, where one needs to do it for performing a mitzvah it is permitted to pass in front of somebody praying (Eishel Avraham 102). Even if one may not do so for the sake of a regular mitzvah (authorities dispute the ruling), in the case of the Kohanim the very departure from one’s place for the sake of giving the blessing is a mitzvah, and it is therefore permitted to pass in front of those still praying (see Minchas Yitzchak 8:10). This ruling is also given in the name of Rav Elyashiv (see Dalet Amos Shel Tefillah Vol. 1, Biurim Chap. 7, 1:3), and is supported by the general custom (see Haberachah Hameshuleshes 4:19).
Yet, with regard to the Levi, Rabbi Mordechai Potash (Dalet Amos Shel Tefillah p. 61) writes that one should not pass in front of somebody praying, because washing hands from a Levite is only an “added virtue” (the same ruling is given by Shut Anaf Eitz Avos no. 9). Rabbi Menachem Mendel Paksher (Haberachah Hameshuleshes, p. 174) explains further that the principle mitzvah of washing hands is incumbent on the Kohen rather than the Levi (the Kohen is obligates to wash his hands by means of a Levite). Therefore, even where there is no other Levi to wash the Kohen’s hands, the Levi may not cross the path of somebody in prayer.
Yet, where the Levi will not be passing directly in front of somebody praying, but only entering his path on a diagonal, there is room for leniency. Authorities dispute the halachah of Passing in front of somebody on a diagonal (Magen Avraham is stringent, but Eliyah Rabbah is lenient), and on account of the doubt involved, one may be lenient for the sake of washing the Kohanim’s hands—particularly where there is no other Levite to do it.
Answering Amen in Shul
Aside from the issue of passing in front of somebody praying, Levites must also be wary of leaving the shul too empty. For the repetition of the Amidah prayer a minimum of six people must remain in shul (Orach Chaim 55:2; see Biur Halachah), and Levites must take stock of the situation before leaving the shul to wash Kohanim’s hands. The door to the shul should preferably be left open, so that the Kohanim and Levites outside the shul will be able to see people inside, and therefore join in the minyan (Shulchan Aruch 55:14; see Mishnah Berurah 55:18 and 55:52).
Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos Vol. 3, no. 48) writes further that if less than ten men will remain in shul, a Levite should not exit the shul to wash the Kohanim’s hands. This is because the principle mitzvah of repeating the Amidah prayer was enacted for a quorum of ten, and this mitzvah takes preference over the mitzvah of Levites washing the Kohanim’s hands.
Moreover, where there are other Levites available to wash the Kohanim’s hands, Rabbi Sternbuch writes that it is better for a Levite to stay in shul (and answer amen to the blessings of the cantor) than to leave to wash hands. “The mitzvah of answering amen is very great indeed,” and it should not missed where other Levites can wash the Kohanim’s hands.
However, on festival days, Rabbi Sternbuch concedes that all Levites should try to wash the Kohanim’s hands, for in doing so a Levite asserts his status as part of the tribe of Levi. Rabbi Sternbuch cites that this was the practice of the Brisk Rav, who was careful to wash the Kohanim’s hands on festival days.
Should a Torah Scholar Wash Hands?
If a Levite is a Torah scholar, and the Kohen whose hands must be washed is not, some authorities write that the Levite may refrain from washing the Kohen’s hands (Magen Avraham 128:7; Maharash Halevi 9). Indeed, the Peri Chadash is particularly stringent in this matter, writing that it is actually forbidden for a Levite Torah scholar to wash the hands of an ignorant Kohen, and thereby degrading the honor of the Torah.
However, even according to this opinion, if a group of Kohanim includes Torah scholars, the Levite must wash the hands of all the Kohanim, and not distinguish between one and another (for doing so would cause the non-Torah scholars to be ashamed).
Other authorities write that even there are no Kohanim that are Torah scholars, a Levite Torah scholar should nonetheless wash the hands of the Kohanim (Kenesses Hagedolah, cited in Be’er Heitev 128:8). The Shulchan Aruch Harav (128:11) writes that the reason for this is on account of darkei shalom—to ensure that no conflict should arise. Yet, he writes that the principle halachah follows the first opinion, for the chance of a conflict arising from the passive conduct of the Levite is slim.
Many authorities add that even though there is no obligation incumbent on a Levite Torah scholar to wash hands (of a non-Torah scholar), it remains worthy practice to forego one’s honor and do so, in order to add sanctity to the holiness of the Kohen (Maharash Halevi; Shulchan Aruch Harav). This is also the ruling given by the Mishnah Berurah (128:22), who writes that a Levite should be stringent in this matter. Rabbi Sternbuch notes that certainly on festival days, even a Levite Torah scholar should ensure he washes the Kohanim’s hands.
Several Levites Together
Where a Levite Torah scholar is present among other Levites, Rabbi Sternbuch writes that the other Levites should honor him by allowing him to wash the Kohanim’s hands alone. Moreover, he casts doubt concerning the general worthiness of the custom whereby several Levites join together (holding the washing-cup together) in washing a Kohen’s hands, stating that it is preferable for a single Levite to wash a Kohen’s hands.
However, the common custom, in particular among Ashkenazi communities, is for several Levites to hold the washing-cup together. It is possible that this custom emerged from the situation of Ashkenazi communities outside Israel, where birkas kohanim is only conducted on festival days, and all the Levites wanted to join in infrequent mitzvah of washing the Kohanim’s hands. Indeed, the Leket Kemach Hachadash (128:45) writes that the custom of several Levites washing the hands of a single Kohen is only practiced among Ashkenazi communities (he notes that for certain Ashkenazi communities, such as Frankfurt, a particular Levite family was appointed for washing hands.)
Yet, it appears that the common custom, among both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, is for several Levites to wash the hands of one Kohen.
Several authorities write that where no Levites are present, a firstborn (from his mother) should wash the hands of the Kohanim (Bach in the name of Mahari Molin; Taz 128:4; Magen Avraham 128:7).
The Kaf Hachaim cites this halachah in the name of the Ben Ish Chai, yet concludes: “However, I have not seen anybody practicing this custom, and it appears that they rely on the simple reading of the Zohar, which implies that only a Levite washes the Kohen’s hands. If there is no Levite, the Kohen should wash his own hands.” Today, the washing of Kohanim’s hands by firstborns is virtually unheard of.
Poskim add that an Israelite should not wash the Kohanim’s hands, and where there are no Levites or firstborns, a Kohen should wash his own hands. Shut Nishal Le-David (91) writes at length on the question of whether one Kohen can wash the hands of a fellow Kohen, but the widespread custom is that a Kohen washes his own hands.
Forming the Backdrop
In conclusion, it is interesting to note the words of the Rikanti (Parashas Naso), who writes that “The Levite serves [the Kohen] like a woman serves her husband.”
This can be understood to mean that the holiness of the Kohanim emerges from the ‘backdrop’ of the tribe of Levi (Kohanim belong to the tribe of Levi, but were selected for special holiness).
The Levites were separated by a process of purification: “Take the Levites from among the Children of Israel, and purify them” (Bamidbar 8:6). From a backdrop of purity, the holiness of the Kohanim could be revealed. It is therefore fitting that the Levites should be the ones to wash the Kohanim’s hands, preparing a backdrop of purity from which the blessing can emerge.
This is similar to a man and his wife. The wife is charged with the house and home, playing the role of Minister of the Interior. This provides the backdrop for the husband’s role (Minister of the Exterior), allowing his strengths and capacities to be revealed.
Our prayer is that we should speedily see the Levites in their song—preparing the backdrop for the sacrificial service—and the Kohanim performing their labor.
 There is room to question why being called up to the Torah is not sufficient for a Levite to assert his tribal status.