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Chapter Twenty-Part Two

Four Biblical Halachot


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

4.Four Biblical Halachot
There are four halachot specified in the Torah concerning Birkat Kohanim: "It is only recited in the Holy Tongue, while standing, with raised hands, and in a loud voice" (Shulchan Aruch 128:14). When one of these conditions cannot be met, the Kohanim may not bless the nation.
The first halachah requires that the berachah be recited in Hebrew, the Holy Tongue. Many mitzvot are performed through speech. The Chachamim explained in the Mishnah (Sotah 32a) that the mitzvot of Keriat Shema, Amidah, and Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) can be fulfilled in foreign languages (see 1:10; 16:9). Nevertheless, Birkat Kohanim must be recited specifically in the Holy Tongue, as it is written (Numbers 6:23), "This is how you must bless," meaning, in the language in which the Torah is written.
A possible explanation for this is that the purpose of Keriat Shema is to express the foundation of our faith, and therefore the particular language in which it is recited is less important than the understanding of what we are saying. Likewise, regarding the Amidah, the essence is that we convey our prayer in a comprehensible manner. However, Birkat Kohanim is a berachah from Hashem to us, and the language in which Hashem reveals His will in the world is the Holy Tongue. Therefore, the Kohanim are commanded to recite the Divine blessing precisely as it is written in the Torah.
The second halachah is to recite Birkat Kohanim while standing. Therefore, a weak or handicapped Kohen who must sit in a wheelchair, and cannot stand on his feet even while only reciting the blessing, may not bless the people. This is because the law of reciting Birkat Kohanim is similar to the law of the Temple service, as it is written (Deuteronomy 10:8), "To serve Him and offer blessing in His Name." Just as the Temple service is performed while standing, so too, the berachah must be recited while standing (Sotah 38a).
A person presents himself fully in a standing position, for in that way he is seen from head to toe, expressing his complete range of abilities, both spiritual and practical. In order for the work of the Kohanim and Birkat Kohanim to be fulfilled perfectly, they must be carried out specifically while standing.
The third halachah obligates the Kohanim to raise their hands while reciting the berachah, meaning that they must spread their hands out over the people being blessed, as it is written (Leviticus 9:22), "Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them." A Kohen whose hands tremble and are weak, and who does not have the strength to hold his hands up during the berachah, is not permitted to ascend the duchan and bless. Even if he is helped in raising his hands, it would be of no use, since the Kohen must raise his hands by himself without any assistance (Mishnah Berurah 128:52).
Rabbi Nachman of Breslav offers a spiritual explanation of this halachah, stating that the lifting of one’s hands conveys the willpower of the heart to bless Israel with love. There is a connection and relation between one’s hands and one’s heart, the proof being that a person’s hands are close to his heart. Therefore, hand motions are the heart’s instruments of expression, as it is written (Lamentations 3:41), "Let us lift up our hearts with our hands to God in Heaven." When the Kohanim stretch their hands out to bless Israel, they are thereby expressing their heart’s great love towards Israel (Likutei Halachot Nesiat Kapayim 5:3).
Rav Kook adds that raising one’s hands forward symbolizes the future, for, indeed, the hands transcend beyond the body. Therefore the Kohanim lift their hands to convey the yearning and prayer for an ideal and rectified world (Olat Ra’ayah, part 1, 284).
The fourth halachah commands the Kohanim to recite the blessing aloud so that all the people praying in the synagogue can hear them, as it is written, "Say to them," meaning, in the manner that a person talks to his friend (Sotah 38a). If the synagogue is small, it is sufficient for the Kohen to recite the blessing in an average tone, for that is how people normally talk. If the synagogue is large, he must recite the blessing loud enough for everyone to hear him, even if he were to recite it by himself. A Kohen who has such a faint voice that it is almost impossible to hear him does not ascend to recite the blessing (Mishnah Berurah 128:53). However, if there are other Kohanim present whose voices will be well heard, it is permissible for the Kohen with the weak voice to ascend with them and bless (see Tzitz Eliezer 15:21).

5.The Connection of Birkat Kohanim to the Amidah and the Korbanot
During the time of the Temple, the Kohanim would recite the Priestly Blessing after the conclusion of the Korbanot service. The Torah writes this in reference to the eighth day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, the day the Kohanim began performing their service there. "Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. He then descended from [the altar where he] had performed the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offering" (Leviticus 9:22). From here we learn that the people were blessed at the conclusion of the sacrificial offerings. The reason for this is that after offering the sacrifices, which express our readiness to surrender ourselves and sacrifice our souls to Hashem, we are worthy of receiving His blessing.
Outside the Temple, the Chachamim established that Birkat Kohanim would be recited during the prayer service, since prayer replaced the Korbanot. There is a similarity between the Korbanot and prayer, for in both, one’s yearning for Divine closeness is expressed. Just like the Kohanim recited the blessing after the Korbanot, so it was established that towards the end of the Shemoneh Esrei the Kohanim bless the nation.
In order to greatly emphasize the relevance of Birkat Kohanim to the conclusion of the sacrificial offerings, the Chachamim established that the Kohanim are obligated to start walking in the direction of the duchan at the time of Birkat Retzeh, for that is the berachah that discusses the return of the sacrificial offerings. Any Kohen who does not head toward the duchan ("lift his feet") at the time of Birkat Retzeh loses the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah and is prohibited from ascending to the duchan during that Amidah (Shulchan Aruch 128:8). L’chatchilah, the Kohen should lift his feet in the beginning of Birkat Retzeh. However, as long as the chazan did not reach the end of the berachah, the Kohen is still permitted to ascend towards the duchan (Mishnah Berurah 128:25).
A Kohen who arrives late and realizes that he will not complete the washing of his hands before the conclusion of Birkat Retzeh is advised to take a small step in the direction of the duchan while still standing at the sink. With this step he is considered to have started to walk towards the duchan during Birkat Retzeh. When he finishes his washing, he continues to walk to the duchan to bless the people (see Mishnah Berurah 128:27, 28; Sha’ar HaTziyun 30; Sefer Nesiat Kapayim Kehilchatah 7:2, note 8).
Because Birkat Kohanim is connected to the Korbanot, the Chachamim teach that just as the time to bring sacrificial offerings was specifically during the day, so too, Birkat Kohanim is recited during the day. Therefore, the Kohanim do not bless the nation during Ma’ariv. Although presumably there is reason to recite Birkat Kohanim during Minchah, the Chachamim decided against this since the time of the Minchah prayer is usually after a meal, and there is concern that a Kohen who drank wine at his meal will subsequently ascend the duchan to bless the people and desecrate the berachah. It is forbidden for a Kohen who is drunk to work in the Temple, and he is prohibited from blessing the people (Shulchan Aruch 128:38). However, in Ne’ilah, and during Minchah of public fast days, the blessing is recited. Since the Kohanim are fasting, there is no concern of intoxication (Shulchan Aruch 129:1). This is on condition that the Minchah of a fast day is prayed after plag haminchah (a proportional hour and a quarter before sunset), but when Minchah of a fast day is recited before plag haminchah, the Kohanim do not bless the people. 3

a class="footnote" name="3b" href="#3a">^ 3.Although some maintain that it is permissible to bless the nation even at Minchah Gedolah of a fast day, the majority of poskim maintain that the blessing is only recited after plag haminchah. This is because the enactment to bless the nation in the afternoon pertains to the Ne’ilah prayer and not the Minchah prayer (on Yom Kippur, the Kohanim do not bless the people at Minchah). If Birkat Kohanim in the afternoon would have been instituted for the Minchah prayer, people might think that Birkat Kohanim is recited at Minchah of a regular day as well, when it is in fact forbidden for concern of intoxication. However, on a fast day in which there is no Ne’ilah, the blessing is recited at Minchah, on condition that it is recited at the time of Ne’ilah, meaning close to the end of the day.
Even though there are various opinions as to how to calculate plag haminchah (a proportional hour and a quarter before sunset, or a proportional hour and a quarter before tzeit hakochavim), the main calculation is a proportional hour and a quarter before sunset, since the opinion maintaining that it is before tzeit hakochavim is calculated based on Rabbeinu Tam (meaning, 72 minutes after sunset, as explained earlier in this book, chapter 11, note 14. In other words, plag haminchah according to Rabbeinu Tam is between two to eighteen minutes before the visible sunset.) Nonetheless, it is best to start Minchah a little later than that, approximately half an hour to three quarters of an hour before sunset, closer to the time of Ne’ilah. This way, Birkat Kohanim will be recited as close as possible to sunset.
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