The principal claim of Korach and his assembly, as told in Parashas Korach, was dissatisfaction with their Levite status. They desired to serve as Kohanim; their status as Levi’im was not sufficient for them. Moshe Rabbeinu rebuked them: “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?” (Bamidbar 16:9).

The words of Moshe express the special separation of the tribe of Levi from the rest of the Jewish People. The entire tribe of Levi, including both Kohanim and Levi’im, was separated for the service of Hashem. Kohanim have an extra elevation, in that they are holy to Hashem—an elevation that Korach denied in his claim that “the entire nation is holy, and Hashem is among them”—but this does not negate the special status of the entire tribe of Levi.

In our days, a prominent expression of a Levi’s special nature is connected to the blessing of the Kohanim. While only Kohanim bless the people, the custom is that Levi’im wash the hands of the Kohanim, as the Shulchan Aruch notes: “the Levi pours water on their hands” (Orach Chaim 128:6).

What are the parameters of this halachah? Is there a full obligation upon Levi’im to wash Kohanim’s hands? Can several Levi’im perform the mitzvah together? What should be done when no Levi’im are present? We will discuss these questions, among others, below.

Who Washes the Kohanim’s Hands?

Based on a verse in Tehillim (134) that states—“Raise your hands in the sanctuary and bless Hashem”—the Gemara teaches that a Kohen who does not wash his hands may not participate in birkas kohanim (Sotah 39). Before the Kohanim raise their hands in blessing the people, they must first sanctify their hands by washing them (Mishnah Berurah 128:19).

Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (128:6) rules that even if a Kohen already washed his hands upon awakening in the morning, he must do so again prior to blessing the people.

The Gemara does not  mention that  others wash the Kohanim’s hands. However, the Shulchan Aruch (128:6) rules that the task of washing the Kohanim’s hands is specifically given to the Levi’im. The source for this halacha is a teaching of the Zohar (Vol. 3, p. 146a-b), that the Kohen gains extra holiness by washing his hands from those who are themselves holy—the Levi’im.

According to the Zohar, this enhancement of the Kohanim cannot be achieved by a Kohen washing his own hands, or by the washing of a fellow Kohen, but specifically by washing by 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.”

In a practical sense, Maharash Halevi adds 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 noted, this halacha is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch, and Mateh Moshe adds that “when the Kohen washes his hands he should wash them specifically from a Levite—as stated in the Zohar.”

The Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chayim 128:15) adds an additional reason for Levi’im to wash the Kohanim’s hands: it is reminiscent of the Beis Hamikdash, where the Levi’im assisted the Kohanim in the service of the Mikdash. It is therefore fitting that even in blessing the people, which remains today of the Kohanim’s role in the Beis Hamikdash, the Levi’im should play a supporting role.

Washing Levi’im’s Hands

Citing Safra de’Tzniusa, the Zohar states further that before washing the hands of the Kohanim, the Levi’im should wash their own hands. This halacha is noted by the Shulchan Aruch. 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 Levi’im do not wash their own hands before washing the Kohanim’s hands, and today it seems that the practice of Levi’im washing their own hands is not widespread.

Nonetheless, the Mishnah Berurah (23, based on Magen Avraham and Bach) writes that if the Levi’im were distracted from guarding their hands (from anything unclean) since the last time they washed their hands, and certainly if they touched something unclean (such as a covered part of the body), they should wash their own hands first.

Moreover, the Kenesses Hagedolah (glosses to Beis Yosef 128) writes that the simple custom is for Levi’im to wash their own hands. This ruling is cited by the Kaf Hachaim (128:42), who concludes that “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, when it is generally forbidden to wash one’s hands, Levi’im who wash their hands throughout the year should wash their own hands before washing those of the Kohanim (Maharash Halevi 9). Yet, unlike the Kohanim’s hands, on these days the Levi’im should wash their own hands only up to the knuckles (Mateh Efraim 621:17; see, however, Mo’ed Lekol Chai, Customs of Yom Kippur).

Leaving the Shul

The Shevet Halevy (8, 47) rules that  Levi’im should  wash the hands of the Kohanim, even if this involves leaving the Shul and missing a part chazaras hashatz (and they will be unable to answer amen to some of the brachos).

However, he should not leave the Shul if he is needed to maintain the Minyan (quorum) of people answering (see Shut Shevet Halevi Vol 8, no. 47; Shut Teshuvot V’hanhagos Vol. 3, no. 48). For chazaras hashatz a minimum of six people must remain in shul (Orach Chaim 55:2; see Biur Halacha), and Levi’im must ensure that sufficient numbers remain in Shul before leaving to wash 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 be part of the minyan (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 55:14; see Mishnah Berurah 55:18 and 55:52).

Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch adds that if less than ten men will remain in shul, a Levi should not exit the shul to wash the Kohanim’s hands. This is because the principal mitzvah of repeating the Amidah prayer was enacted for a quorum of ten, and this mitzvah takes preference over the lesser obligation of washing the Kohanim’s hands.

Moreover, where there are other Levi’im available to wash the Kohanim’s hands, Rabbi Sternbuch writes that it is better for a Levi to stay in shul (and answer amen to the blessings of the shaliach tzibbur) than to leave to wash hands. In his words, “the mitzvah of answering amen is very great indeed,” and it should not be missed where other Levites are available to wash the Kohanim’s hands.

However, on festival days Rabbi Sternbuch concedes that all Levi’im should try to wash the Kohanim’s hands, for in doing so they assert their status as part of the tribe of Levi. Rabbi Sternbuch says that this was the practice of the Brisker Rav (who was a Levi), who was careful to wash the Kohanim’s hands on festival days, and certainly outside of Israel it is common for Levi’im to be very particular about washing Kohanim’s hands on festivals.

Walking in Front of Somebody Praying

In previous generations some had the custom of washing the Kohanim’s hands in the Shul itself. The Mekor Chaim (128:6) describes how three Levi’im 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 Levi’im thus catered to all the Kohen’s hand-washing needs (see also Eliyah Rabbah 128:4; Mordechai, Megillah 817).

Today, it is normal for Levi’im to wash the Kohanim’s hands outside the main shul, raising the question of passing in front of those still praying. As a general rule “it is forbidden to pass in front of those who are praying” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 102). Is this rule waived for the purpose of washing hands?

Concerning the Kohen himself, Poskim write that it is permitted for a Kohen to pass in front of somebody praying in order to wash his own hands, since this is done for performing a mitzvah (Eishel Avraham 102). This is particularly true since for the Kohen the very departure from his place for the sake of giving the blessing is a mitzvah (see Shut 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, concerning 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 and not a full obligation (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: that is, the Kohen is obligated 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 in front of somebody in prayer.

Yet, where the Levi will not be passing directly in front of somebody praying, but only crossing the area at a diagonal, there is room for leniency. Authorities dispute the halacha of passing 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. This is especially true when there is no other Levi to do it.

Should a Torah Scholar Wash Hands?

If a Levi is a Torah scholar, and the Kohen whose hands must be washed is not, some authorities write that the Levi may refrain from washing the Kohen’s hands (Magen Avraham 128:7; Maharash Halevi 9) but it is better in general that he should wash the Kohen’s hands. Indeed, the Peri Chadash is particularly stringent in this matter, writing that it is forbidden for a Levi Torah scholar to wash the hands of non-scholar Kohen, since he thereby degrades the honor of the Torah.

However, even according to this opinion, if a group of Kohanim includes Torah scholars, the Levi 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 if there are no Kohanim who are Torah scholars, a Levi 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 while there is no obligation upon a scholarly Levi to wash the non-scholar Kohen’s hands (explaining that the potential for dispute over this matter is slight), it is nevertheless permitted for the Levi to do so, since he is not so much serving the Kohanim as adding sanctity to the process. Others add that this is a worthy practice, even if not obligatory (Maharash Halevi). The Mishnah Berurah (128:22), writes that a Levi should be stringent in this matter. Rabbi Sternbuch notes that certainly on festival days, even a Levi Torah scholar should ensure that he washes the Kohanim’s hands.

Several Levites Together

Where a Levi Torah scholar is present among other Levi’im, Rabbi Sternbuch writes that the other Levi’im 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 Levi’im join together (holding the washing-cup together) in washing a Kohen’s hands, stating that it is preferable for a single Levite to do the washing. Rav Eliashev also is said (Shevet Hakehosi 2, 57) to have ruled that only one Levi should pour, since that is the usual way people pour water.

However, the common custom, particularly in Ashkenazi communities, is for several Levi’im 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 Levi’im wanted to join in the infrequent mitzvah of washing hands. Indeed, the Leket Kemach Hachadash (128:45) writes that the custom of several Levi’im washing the hands of a single Kohen is only practiced among Ashkenazi communities. (He notes that in some Ashkenazi communities, such as Frankfurt, a particular Levite family was appointed for washing hands.)

No Levites?

Several authorities write that where no Levi’im are present, a firstborn (from his mother) should wash the hands of the Kohanim (Bach in the name of Maharil ; 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 Levi washes the Kohen’s hands. If there is no Levi, 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 (Yisrael) should not wash the Kohanim’s hands, and where there are no Levites or firstborns present, 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.

Conclusion

We have seen that although the Shulchan Aruch rules that a Levi must wash the Kohen’s hands, the fact that this obligation is sourced in the Zohar rather than in classical halachic sources has several ramifications.

While Levi’im should certainly be careful not to neglect their duties in washing the Kohanim’s hands (Iggros Moshe 4, 127), considerations of leaving enough people in Shul, or answering amen to the shaliach tzibbur (in particular to the beracha of Shome’a Tefilla), or walking in front of somebody still davening, should be taken into account.

The concept of the mitzvah, moreover, is for the enhancement of the Kohen’s blessing by the Levi joining in his purification. If there is already a Levi to wash the Kohen’s hand, there is much less of a duty for other Levi’im to leave Shul in order to join him. Nonetheless, on festival days, all Levi’im are particular to participate in the customary washing.

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