Beit Midrash

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Chapter Twenty-Part One

Birkat Kohanim – The Priestly Blessing


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1.The Mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim
It is a positive biblical commandment for the Kohanim to bless the nation of Israel, as it is written (Numbers 6:22-26), "Hashem spoke to Moshe, telling him to speak to Aharon and his sons saying, ‘This is how you must bless the Israelites. Say to them: May God bless you and keep watch over you. May God illuminate His face towards you and be gracious to you. May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.'"
This mitzvah is performed daily. Every Kohen who is asked to ascend the duchan (platform) to bless Israel but refuses, even though in principle he only nullifies one mitzvah, is considered to have nullified three biblical commandments. This is because the wording used in the verses implies that Hashem longs to bless Israel. Therefore, a language of command is employed three times to tell the Kohanim to bless Israel, as it is written, "This is how you must bless," "Say to them," and "Place My Name." Hence, a Kohen’s refusal to fulfill the will of the Creator and bless Israel is considered a nullification of three mitzvot from the Torah (Sotah 38b; Rambam Tefillah 15:12).
Even if a Kohen who already blessed Israel that day was summoned by another minyan to bless the nation, it is a mitzvah for him to ascend and bless again. However, if he refrains, he does not nullify a biblical commandment (Shulchan Aruch 128:3).
The Sefer Charedim (12:18) writes an important novel insight, that not only the Kohanim fulfill a mitzvah from the Torah by blessing the nation, but the Israelites who stand before them in silence with kavanah and respond Amen to their blessing also participate in the fulfillment of this biblical commandment.
In Birkat Kohanim, we learn to focus on the fundamental fact that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the One who bestows blessing upon us, and our standing each day in readiness for Birkat Kohanim instills this belief in our hearts (Guide to the Perplexed, part 3, chapter 44; HaAkedah, Sha’ar 74). The more we are aware of the fact that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the One who blesses the nation of Israel with love, the more we will be open and prepared to accept the blessing (see Sefer HaChinuch 378). Free will is the fundamental component of the world, and therefore the blessing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu bestows upon us is linked to our own efforts. Or, as expressed by the Kabbalah, the awakening of our will to accept His blessing awakens the Supreme Will to bestow blessing upon Israel in abundance. By fulfilling the mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim, the nation of Israel expresses its will to accept the Divine Influence (shefa) and draws Hashem’s blessing into the world.

2.Yisrael’s Kavanah
During Birkat Kohanim, each and every Jew must stand opposite the Kohanim and have kavanah to accept the blessing. He should not look at the Kohanim or at anything else, so as not to distract his thoughts from the berachah (Shulchan Aruch 128:23; Mishnah Berurah 89). 1
The Chachamim established that a Kohen who has an abnormality on his body that would likely cause people to stare at him, and divert their thoughts from the berachah, may not ascend to bless the people. Therefore, before the Kohanim became accustomed to covering their faces and hands with their tallitot, any Kohen who had a deformity on his face or hands, such as unusual facial freckles or crooked fingers, would not ascend the duchan to bless the nation. However, today, when all Kohanim are accustomed to covering their faces with a tallit, a defect on one’s face or hands does not prevent a Kohen from reciting the blessing. Nevertheless, even today, if the Kohen has a noticeable deformity on his leg, he should not ascend the duchan to bless the people, for it might distract the minds of the listeners. However, if he is a permanent resident of the community, such that his defect no longer makes people curious, he may ascend to bless the nation, for it most likely will not distract the listeners (Shulchan Aruch 128:30 and 31).
Similarly, a Kohen who has a strange accent, such as one who confuses the pronunciation of the letters alef and ayin, may not bless the nation, since such a thing will distract the thoughts of the listeners from the berachah. However, a person who speaks in the accepted accent, even if he does not emphasize the ayin and the chet properly, does not distract the listeners’ thoughts. Likewise, all the known accents – Ashkenazic, Yemenite, etc. – do not divert attention from the berachah because they are known and familiar. Only someone who greatly confuses or garbles the pronunciation more than is acceptable, or stutters excessively, may not bless the people (Shulchan Aruch 128:33; Mishnah Berurah there).
In summary, the Chachamim enacted that any Kohen possessing something that might distract the people from their kavanah may not ascend the platform to bless; from these laws we understand how important it is that the listeners concentrate during Birkat Kohanim.

3.The Place Where the Congregation Stands
When the Kohanim recite the blessing, the people being blessed must position themselves in front of them, as it is written (Numbers 6:23), "This is how you must bless the Israelites. Say to them." Chazal interpret this to mean that Birkat Kohanim must be performed in the same way that people talk to their friends – by standing face to face and speaking aloud – so that all those receiving the blessing can hear them.
Although the Kohanim reciting the blessing must stand, in principle, those being blessed may sit. Nonetheless, today, the custom is that everyone stands for Birkat Kohanim. Still, an ill or weak person who has difficulty standing is permitted to sit for the blessing (Mishnah Berurah 128:51; Tzitz Eliezer 14:18).
Anyone standing behind the Kohanim is not included in the berachah, although one who is standing directly beside them can be included as long as he turns his face towards the Kohanim. People sitting in the first rows of the synagogue must measure their place in relation to the Kohanim. If they are in front of them or even directly to the side of them, they are permitted to remain in their place and turn their face towards the Kohanim. However, if their place is slightly behind the Kohanim, they must move to a different position for the recital of the blessing (Shulchan Aruch 128:24).
Anyone standing in the synagogue in front of the Kohanim is included in the berachah. Even if there are tall people standing before him, separating him from the Kohanim, or if there is a pillar between him and the Kohanim, since he is on the side that is across from their faces, he is included in the berachah. However, someone who stands in front of the Kohanim and turns his back to them is not included.
Those who do not come to synagogue due to circumstances beyond their control are still included in the berachah. For instance, someone who has to leave for work, or women and children who do not come to synagogue, are all included in the berachah, which is intended to include all of Israel. Only those who are able to go and receive the blessing, but neglect to do so, are not included in the berachah (Bei’ur Halachah 128:24 s.v. "Im"). 2

^ 1.After Birkat Kohanim some are accustomed to recite a prayer intended for communal recital, "Adir BaMarom," although the poskim disagree as to when it is recited. The Shulchan Aruch 130:1 maintains that when the prayer to transform and rectify an ominous dream into a favorable one (hatavat chalom) is recited in Birkat Kohanim, then Adir BaMarom is recited after it, as can be inferred from Berachot 55b. Kaf HaChaim 130:9 writes, based on the Zohar that it should not be recited in Birkat Sim Shalom. The Mishnah Berurah 130:6 writes that there are those accustomed to reciting Adir BaMarom following each time the Kohanim bless the nation, and that it is said as the chazan recites Sim Shalom. The source for this opinion can be found in the Rif, Rosh, and Taz. In practice, it is best for every person to follow his own custom.
^ 2.One who is in the middle of reciting Shemoneh Esrei and is standing behind the Kohanim may not interrupt his prayer to walk and stand in front of them. This is considered as a circumstance beyond his control, and therefore he is blessed where he stands. The chazan acts similarly; even when the Kohanim are behind him he does not go stand in front of them. Even though walking is not considered a complete interruption during the Amidah, still, it is prohibited unless necessary. Therefore the chazan is treated as one who has circumstances beyond his control and is therefore blessed where he stands. (The Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim, part 5, 20:23 writes that one who is in the middle of the Amidah should walk in front of the Kohanim. Yet, in part 4, 21:2, at the end of his ruling, he writes the exact opposite.)
One who is in the middle of reciting the Amidah when the congregation reaches Birkat Kohanim should be silent and concentrate on the berachah. Regarding Kedushah and Amen yeheh Shemei rabbah, he is not obligated to stop if he does not want to. However, in this case, where some poskim maintain that the Israelites who are being blessed also fulfill a biblical mitzvah, he must stop and listen to Birkat Kohanim, although he may not respond Amen. If he is at the same part of the prayer as the chazan, he answers Amen to the three verses of blessing. Still, concerning the berachah recited before them, some say he may not respond Amen. See Mishnah Berurah 128:79, where he rules this way regarding the chazan.
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