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Naso – The Role of the Congregation in Birkas Kohanim

The Sefer Chareidim teaches us an important principle in the mitzvah of the priestly blessing. Although the Torah instruction to bless the nation is directed at the Kohanim alone, the Sefer Chareidim writes that “the congregation, standing face to face with the Kohanim, in silent acceptance of the blessing as Hashem commanded, also participate in the mitzvah”  ((chap 12, no. 18)) . This teaching is mentioned in the Biur Halachah ((beginning of sec. 128)) .

Yet, 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 must therefore seek to understand how the congregation is included in the mitzvah of the priestly blessing.

Specifically, the following question is worthy of investigation: Does the inclusion of the nation in the mitzvah imply an actual obligation to go and receive a blessing from a Kohen? For example, imagine somebody who prayed in a minyan where no Kohen was present. Does he now have to find another minyan in order to fulfill his mitzvah of receiving the blessing?

Participating in the Kohen’s Mitzvah

Addressing the meaning of the mitzvah for a non-Kohen, Mahari Asad ((Orach Chayim 46)) writes that the mitzvah implies nothing more than being party to the mitzvah of the Kohen.

A comparison for this idea is found in the mitzvah of a woman to marry and beget children. Although a woman is not 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 begetting children that her husband fulfils.

According to this reasoning, it emerges that 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 … participate in the mitzvah.” The point seems to be that the congregation are part of the Kohen’s mitzvah, and not that they have an independent mitzvah of being 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 during which the Torah mitzvah is being performed. After the Kohen has completed the three priestly blessings, he has surely completed the mitzvah, and should no longer transgress the prohibition of bal tosif? The Gemara responds that because the Kohen would have a mitzvah of giving a further blessing if he encountered another congregation, it is considered as though he has not completed the performance of the mitzvah.

Why is the Kohen’s mitzvah considered incomplete? One might suggest that because he is obligated to grant a blessing to every congregation he encounters, he never actually completes his mitzvah. In potential, he always has more blessings to grant.

The Chasam Sofer offers a different explanation: the mitzvah continues because the Kohen is responsible not only for his own mitzvah, but even for that of the non-Kohen congregation. He must enable them to fulfill their mitzvah of receiving the Kohen’s blessing.

People in the Field

According to the Chasam Sofer, it thus emerges that a non-Kohen has an independent mitzvah of receiving a blessing from a Kohen—a position that seems to be supported by the Raavad ((commentary on end of Tamid)) . If he has not yet been blessed, he would have an obligation to find a Kohen from whom to receive the blessing.

According to Mahari Asad, however, the only mitzvah for a non-Kohen is to participate in the Kohen’s blessing. If no Kohen was present in his minyan, the non-Kohen would not be 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. The reason for this, as the Gemara writes, is because the blessing is directed at the “people in the fields” ((Sotah 38b)) . Why (according to the 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 can take effect without the participation of non-Kohanim?

According to the Chasam Sofer, we are forced to conclude 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 an indirect 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.

Without a supporting source, this idea seems somewhat strained: from where do the two qualities of blessing emerge. Yet, the entire concept of an independent mitzvah incumbent on the non-Kohen, as suggested by the Chasam Sofer, is somewhat strained: Surely the Torah addresses Kohanim alone?

According to Mahari Asad, we may suggest that although the blessing can apply to the people in the fields, we find that it nevertheless requires the actual presence of some non-Kohen persona. As the Shulchan Aruch ((Orach Chayim 128:25, based on Rambam and Yerushalmi)) rules, where no non-Kohen is present the wives and children of the Kohanim must be present to answer Amen. The blessing itself can apply to “people in the fields,” yet it also requires some form of direct acceptance. A non-Kohen who properly accepts the blessing therefore participates in the Kohen’s mitzvah.

Stopping One’s Prayer for the Blessing

Modern-day authorities discuss the case of someone who is still davening the Amidah prayer when the Kohanim begin their blessing. Should he stop and focus his attention on the blessing, or should he continue his prayer?

The Iggros Moshe ((Orach Chayim 4:21, sec. 2)) writes that he should stop his prayer and focus on the blessing, a ruling seconded by the Shevet Ha-Levi ((3:15)) . It is also quoted of the Chazon Ish that this is the right way to act. Harav Elyashiv shlita, however, is quoted as opining that one should carry on one’s prayer uninterrupted.

The dispute might be related to the discussion above. According to the Chasam Sofer an independent obligation is incumbent on the non-Kohen to be blessed. Because one who is praying is unable to fulfill his personal obligation, he becomes like one of the “people of the fields,” who are included in the blessing even in spite of their distance from the synagogue.

According to Mahari Asad, however, the commencement of the priestly blessing automatically includes the congregation, who as “present receivers” are an inherent part of the blessing. Even someone in the middle of prayer must therefore stop and focus on receiving the blessing.

In a practical sense, it would seem that the general custom follows Mahari Asad. Outside of Israel, for instance, we do not find that Ashkenazim, whose custom (excluding festivals) is not to perform the priestly blessing, visit a Sephardi synagogue (whose custom is to perform the blessing) to receive the blessing. According to Mahari Asad, this is easily understood: because no Kohen actually blesses the people (in the Ashkenazi synagogue), the congregation has no obligation to find an alternative.

Some, however, are particular to ensure that they receive a direct blessing, and the deed is certainly worthy according to the Chasam Sofer.

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