Birkas Kohanim, or Duchaning in Yiddish, is the topic of this week’s article. When is it recited? While kohanim in some communities administer it every day, others recite it only on Shabbos, or holidays. Why the difference in custom and how did it evolve? Seemingly, there is a third, “Galilean custom” on the matter. When did that start, and for what reason? Can a kohen who did not immerse in the mikveh lift his hands in blessing? Can a kohen choose not to recite the Priestly Blessing or is it his obligation? How was the current Ashkenazi custom reinstituted in Eretz Yisroel, and what prevented its reinstitution outside of Eretz Yisroel?
Of this and more, in the coming article.
The Priestly Blessing – Timing
In this week’s parasha we read: “Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying: ‘This is how you shall bless the children of Yisroel: ‘May the L-rd bless you and watch over you. May the L-rd cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the L-rd raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.’ They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Yisroel, so that I will bless them” (Bamidbar 6:23-27).
The Rambam (beginning of Hilchos Tefilla U’Birkas Kohanim) writes: “This includes two positive commandments: a) Serving G-d daily with prayer; b) For the priests to bless the Jewish People each day.” He mentions this again at the end of Hilchos Tefilla (chapter 15:12): “Any priest who does not ascend to the duchan (the platform, where the kohanim stand while reciting Birkas Kohanim) – even though he neglects [the performance] of [only] one commandment – is considered as if he violated three positive commandments, as the pasuk in Bamidbar [6:23-27] states: “This is how you shall bless the children of Yisroel,” “Say to them,” “And you shall set My name…”. According to the Rambam, failing to recite the Priestly Blessing on a daily basis involves failing to perform three positive commandments.
There are several customs related to the frequency of administering Birkas Kohanim. Eidot Hamizrach recite the Priestly Blessing every Shacharis and Musaf, both in Eretz Yisroel and around the world, even on weekdays. The Ashkenazi custom, though, varies: in Jerusalem and the South of Israel the blessing is recited every day like Eidot Hamizrach, while northern communities such as Haifa, Tzefas and Tiberius recite it only in the Musaf prayers of Shabbat, holidays, Rosh Chodesh or Chol HaMoed. On regular weekdays they customarily don’t recite the blessing. Outside of Eretz Yisroel, the Ashkenazi custom is to administer Birkas Kohanim only on holidays.
Why the difference in customs despite the explicit mitzva?
Not Reciting the Priestly Blessing
Various sources mention the Ashkenazi custom and list several reasons for it. Maharil (Hachadashos, 21) explains that customarily, kohanim immerse in the mikveh before ascending to the duchan. Due to the difficulty of immersing every day during the freezing winter months and out of concern for the minority who would be embarrassed to refuse to duchan without immersion or be embarrassed to immerse, it became accepted to only recite the blessing on holidays.
Another reason (to be explained at length further on) is not to cause loss of worktime.
Another interesting reason mentioned by the Maharil is because they did not want to recite Birkas Kohanim in the presence of non-Jews, which was difficult to ensure on regular weekdays.
The Agur (176) and Beis Yosef (28:44) mention only the first two reasons.
The Beis Yosef understands that the main reason is because they did not want to recite the blessing without immersing and the loss of worktime is only a side reason – not to cause people to miss worktime in an era of dire poverty.
The Beis Yosef, though, does not see these explanations as sufficient reasons enough to cancel a positive commandment. He continues with praise for the communities in Eretz Yisroel and Egypt, where Birkas Kohanim is recited every day, even without tevilat Ezra.
The Rama (Darkei Moshe, Orech Chayim 128:21) writes that this mitzva was not cancelled in order to save the congregation a few minutes in which they could earn more money. Rather, since the mitzva is to recite the blessing joyfully, due to the rampant poverty and difficulty in making a livelihood, kohanim would not be in the proper state of mind to recite it. Even on Shabbos they worry about making a living in the coming week. The blessing was therefore cancelled on regular days and it is reserved only for holidays when there is a mitzva to rejoice, as the pasuk says: “You shall rejoice in your festival” (Devarim 16:14). On these days, even a poor kohen sets aside his weekday worries. Hence, he is able to recite the blessing in the proper emotional state.
The Shulchan Aruch and Rama are divided in their ruling on the matter (Orech Chaim 128:44). While the Shulchan Aruch does not mention the Ashkenazi custom, the Rama rules that the custom is to recite Birkas Kohanim only on holidays, “Because at that time one is in a festive, joyous mood, and a good-hearted person can bless another. This is in contrast with other days, even Shabbos, when people are worried about their parnassah and loss of worktime. Even on Yom Tov, kohanim only raise their hands in blessing during the Musaf prayers when they know they will soon be leaving the synagogue and engaging in holiday rejoicing.”
The Magen Avraham (128:70) writes that customarily, kohanim immerse in the mikvah on the day before Yom Tov and practice celibacy on Yom Tov evenings. He mentions another custom not to recite Birkas Kohanim on Yom Tov that falls on Shabbos – so kohanim would not refrain from engaging with their wives on Friday evenings. The Taz (127:37-38) and other poskim including the Mishna Beruro reject this custom. He adds, though, that it is appropriate for kohanim to immerse on erev Yom Tov [and for those who customarily immerse on Yom Tov, to do so on Yom Tov morning before services] but this should not interfere in the mitzva, and when no other option is available, even a kohen who did not immerse should administer the blessing. According to these sources, the reason the blessing is not recited during the year is because of kohanim’s emotional state, not purity.
Biur Hagra mentions that the source for the Rama’s ruling not to administer the blessing in in a distracted joyless state of mind is rooted in the Zohar on this week’s parasha (Naso, 145b): “The Shechinah does not rest upon one who is not married [because he lacks joy], and kohanim require the Shechinah’s presence more than the rest of the nation. When the Shechinah rests upon them, they possess the virtue of chessed, and they are called ‘Chassidim’. Then they can bless the nation. This explains the pasuk: “This is how you shall bless the children of Yisroel”” – i.e. they should bless the nation just as Aharon did, who was the personification of the virtue of chessed. The Zohar adds that Birkas Kohanim must follow the same formula used by Aharon Hakohen – in Lashon Hakodesh, in awe and humility.
The Aruch Hashulchan (128:49) reads in the Zohar that if possible, a kohen should fulfill the mitzva just as Aharon did– in a state of total joy.
This is linked to the custom regarding unmarried kohanim. While the Shulchan Aruch writes (128:44) that even unmarried kohanim recite the blessing, the Rama mentions that an unmarried kohen who refuses to duchan should not be chastised in light of the above Zohar.
The Chasam Sofer (Orech Chaim 23) writes that the first Birkas Kohanim was part of the service in the Mikdash as it appears in Parashas Shemini (Vayikra 9:22) “And Aaron lifted up his hands towards the people and blessed them”. The mitzva of Birkas Kohanim as we know today is derived from this first blessing, and should be performed in a similar manner. Therefore, the blessing has the status of service and has similar halachos – just as a faulty thought can disqualify the sacrifice, so too, improper thoughts during the blessing can disqualify the blessing i.e. it will not be fulfilled. Since during the week people are worried about making a living and many prayers are mumbled without thought, there is no value in this kind of blessing. Only on Yom Tov, when people are free of all the distractions and able to fully concentrate, do kohanim ascend to bless the congregation.
The Chasam Sofer quotes the Perush Hamachzor that this is the reason for the custom for parents to bless children on Shabbos and Yom Tov evenings – every blessing must come from a loving heart and with full intention. On weekdays people are busy, worried, and distracted. Therefore, this blessing was instituted on Shabbos and Yom Tov when people are more relaxed.
Rabbi Aryeh Tzvi Frumer, one of the roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin (Eretz Tzvi, volume 1 chapter 30), writes that Birkas Kohanim, which cannot be recited when a kohen is under the influence of alcohol, is recited only when they are completely free of worry and can concentrate on the blessing properly.
Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Moadim U’Zmanim volume I, chapter 31) writes that Birkas Kohanim was instituted only in public prayers during the chazzan’s repetition of the Shemoe Esrei. Therefore, it has the status of service in the Mikdash. Today, as most people drown in thoughts about their parnassah and there are often not even a minyan of people who concentrate fully on Chazaras Hashatz, it is not complete and Birkas Kohanim is not recited. Only on Yom Tov, when the congregation is relaxed and nobody is running anywhere, they listen to the Chazarat Hashatz properly and Birkas Kohanim can be recited. Rav Moshe Sternbuch adds that this should serve as a lesson for Eretz Yisroel locals — to concentrate during Chazaras Hashatz so Birkas Kohanim will be administrated properly.
Ya’avetz (Mor U’Ketzia 128) opines that outside of Eretz Yisroel the blessing is a rabbinic mitzva not a biblical one, and therefore they were lenient with it. The Mishna Brura, however, argues with this opinion, claiming it is a mistake and the obligation is biblical.
Daily Birkas Kohanim Outside of Eretz Yisroel
The Netziv (Meshiv Davar, volume II chapter 104) writes that his father-in-law, Rabbi Itzale of Volozhin (Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin and son of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin] told him that the Gra wished to reinstitute the daily recitation of Birkas Kohanim but was prevented by heavenly intervention – the Gra was imprisoned just then. When his student, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, similarly tried to reinstitute it in his congregation, a fire broke out burning down half of Volozhin along with the synagogue. They understood that they were being prevented from doing so and understood that this contains a secret in the channels of blessing as it is materialized outside of Eretz Yisroel. The Netziv ends his recount with the words: “and we don’t know the reason for this.”
Blessing Every Day
Despite the opposing opinions, many poskim voice their opposition to the cancellation of the mitzva. The Magen Avraham (128:70) quotes the Megale Amukos in criticizing this custom as “horrible”. Ba’al HaTanya writes (Orech Chaim 128:57): “All these are in order to settle the custom although they are not enough to cancel a positive biblical commandment. But when they don’t call out ‘Kohanim’ the priests do not sin at all. However, praiseworthy are the dwellers of the Holy Land and its surroundings who raise their hands in blessing every day as instituted by our sages and perform three positive commandments every day, without being dismayed by immersion.” The Mishna Brura (128:164) writes: “And in Eretz Yisroel and Egypt the custom is to raise their hands in blessing every day and the poskim praise this custom.” The Aruch Hashulchan (Orech Chaim 128:64) writes that all the reasons stated are insufficient to cancel a positive commandment, but nothing can be done if seemingly heavenly intervention prevents reciting the blessing during the year.” He notes that two leaders of communities in two separate communities wanted to reinstitute the daily priestly blessing and on the appointed day they were unable to do so. We see here that there seems to be a heavenly decree preventing it.
Cancelling a Positive Commandment
How can secondary reasons prevent the fulfillment of a positive mitzva? According to the Rambam, failing to recite the blessing on a daily basis involves failing to fulfill three positive commands. What can justify it? The answer is mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 1228:2): a kohen who was not called up to duchan is not obligated to do so, and if he didn’t recite the blessing, he didn’t not fail to perform the positive mitzvos.
The Pri Megadim (128:37) is unsatisfied with this reason since according to the Taz (128:3) if there is only one Kohen present he is obligated to duchan despite not having been summoned, and if he does not, he would seem to violate a positive commandment. How, then, can a custom, prevalent as it may be, prevent fulfillment of a positive commandment? He answers that the obligation is not the kohen’s obligation to Hashem but the kohen’s obligation to the community. If the community prefers to forgo the blessing, they are free to do so, and the kohen has no further obligation. As kohanim are not usually in a state of happiness, the community customarily releases them of their obligation to bless them.
Reinstituting the Daily Blessing in Eretz Yisroel
Chut Hameshulash (p. 20) recounts that Rabbi Nosson Adler, a kohen, would recite the Priestly Blessing every day in his own synagogue in Frankfurt.
The Gra and his student wished to reinstitute the daily priestly blessing in Vilna and Volozhin but were unsuccessful. However, when the Gra’s students, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shkolv, settled in the Holy Land — first in Tveria and Tzafas, then in Jerusalem — they reinstituted the daily Priestly Blessing, following the Gra’s ruling. Rabbi Yisroel of Shklov in Pe’at Hashulchan writes: “A beautiful custom we have here in Eretz Yisroel — the kohanim raise their hands in blessing every weekday… and it is a true tradition and accepted by the earlier sources and according to the hidden Torah. And in our kollel (the Prushim community), ever since we merited settling in the holy land and in Jerusalem the holy city, our custom is for the kohanim to raise their hands in blessing every day and on Shabbos and Yom Tov, as is proper. This follows the opinion of our great leader (the Gra).”
Pe’at Hashulchan fails to mention the custom in the Galilee which was to only recite the blessing during Musaf, but Rabbi Michel Tukachinsky (Ir Hakodesh V’Hamikdash, volume III, chapter 25:6) notes this custom, writing that it is unclear how it evolved. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch shlita (Hilchos HaGra Uminhagav, 109) writes that this was a compromise between the Chassidic communities that came to the Galilee about 30 years before the Gra’s students and the Gra’s students. In Jerusalem, however, since the Gra’s disciples were the first to establish an Ashkenazi community, many of the prevalent Ashkenazi customs follow the minhagim of the Gra. Legend tells that when the Ridvaz served as rabbi in Tzefas he instituted that the blessing would be administrated every day in his synagogue, although the prevalent custom was to recite it only in the Musaf prayers. The Minchas Yitzchok (volume VIII 1-2) writes that it is an early custom that should not be changed. Today there are some communities in the Galilee where Birkas Kohanim is administered every day while others only recite it during Musaf.
According to Eidot Hamitzrach, Birkas Kohanim is recited daily both in Eretz Yisroel and outside. Ashkenazim outside of Eretz Yisroel recite the blessing only on Yom Tov with the main reason being that that is the only time when they are free of worry and infused in joy. This is in line with the mitzva — to recite the blessing while in a joyful, worry-free state of mind. Many poskim mention that this is a “horrible” custom and should be recited every day, but when the Gra and his student Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin tried to change it, they were miraculously prevented from doing so. Ashkenazim in Eretz Yisroel reinstituted the ancient custom and recite the Priestly Blessing every day. The Galilean cities of Tzfas, Haifa and Tveria have an old custom of reacting Birkas Kohanim only during Musaf. Opinions are split regarding upkeeping of this custom.
This halachic discussion teaches us how important it is for a kohen to offer his blessing in a worry-free, joyful state of mind. Every kohen should take this point to heart, and try as much as possible to adopt the proper mindset when ascending the duchan, even if it is every single day.