Beit Midrash

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Chapter Twenty-Part Four

The Role of the Kohanim


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed


9.The Role of the Kohanim
The Kohanim had two main tasks: the first was to educate and teach halachah in Israel, as it is written (Malachi 2:7), "For the kohen’s lips safeguard knowledge, and Torah is sought from his mouth." The second was to be messengers of chesed and peace, like Aharon HaKohen, whose disciples were taught to "love peace and pursue peace, love thy fellow creatures and bring them closer to Torah" (Avot 1:12). Regarding Aharon HaKohen, Chazal relate that he knew how to make peace between friends, and between husbands and wives, and that in his merit thousands of couples remained together. Consequently, children were born to them, and they named their sons "Aharon" after him.
In order to enable the Kohanim to develop these two basic qualities, wisdom and kindness, the Torah established that Kohanim would not receive a portion of land in Israel, and that their livelihood would depend on the produce offerings and priestly gifts of the Israelites. In that way, the Kohanim would be free to learn Torah, educate the people, and guide them. Since the Yisraelim provide them with sustenance, all the people of Israel become partners in the spiritual work of the Kohanim. Due to the fact that they do not own land, and do not partake in the competition involved in earning a livelihood, they can more easily develop their love and chesed towards the entire nation.
Ahavah (love) is also the basis for Birkat Kohanim. Out of their love to the nation, the Kohanim become worthy emissaries to bless Israel in the name of Hashem. The wording of the berachah is as follows: "Who sanctified us with the holiness of Aharon and commanded us to bless His people, Israel, with love." The poskim write that any Kohen who is hated by the congregation, or who hates the congregation, or even just one person in it, is forbidden to recite Birkat Kohanim. If he says the words out of enmity, he will bring danger upon himself. Instead, he must eliminate the animosity from his heart, or leave the synagogue before Birkat Kohanim, since its main purpose is to bless Israel with love (Mishnah Berurah 128:37; HaRav Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen, Olat Ra’ayah 2:413).

10.An Evil Kohen
The mitzvah to bless the nation applies to all Kohanim, righteous or evil. Therefore, even a Kohen who sins by eating forbidden foods, having forbidden relations, or committing other sins (excluding those to be outlined in the following paragraphs) is obligated to ascend the duchan to recite the blessing. If he refrains from blessing, he only adds insult to injury. As the Rambam writes (Hilchot Tefillah 15:6), "Do not tell an evil person, ‘Do more evil and refrain from performing mitzvot.’"
It is not surprising how an evil Kohen can bless Israel, because in truth, it is Hashem Who blesses His nation of Israel with love. In order for the blessing to be revealed in the world, the Kohanim are commanded to utter the prayer with their lips. Consequently, Israel will strengthen its awareness that Hashem is the source of blessing in the world. Since the Kohanim in general are the group granted the holiest tasks from among the Jewish people, they were chosen to express the Divine Will to bless the nation of Israel. Yet, the berachah is not dependent on the personal righteousness of the Kohen who blesses, but on God’s desire to bless His people (Rambam ibid., 7; and see Olat Ra’ayah, part 1, p. 283).
However, if the Kohen commits sins which mar his priesthood, the Chachamim penalize him and forbid his ascent to the duchan. For instance, a Kohen who marries a divorcee is prohibited from reciting Birkat Kohanim. Similarly, a Kohen who is not careful to avoid becoming contaminated by the impurity of the dead is forbidden to bless the people. The reason is that since these prohibitions were intended to preserve the special sanctity of the Kohanim, one who transgresses them damages his priesthood, and therefore the Chachamim penalize him by forbidding him to ascend the duchan. Likewise, he is not called up to the Torah for the special aliyah of the Kohanim.
If he decides to repent, he must first divorce his forbidden wife and vow in public not to marry women who are prohibited to him again. Only after that may he resume his priestly task of blessing the people. Likewise, if he was accustomed to becoming contaminated by the dead, he must accept upon himself not to do so again (Shulchan Aruch 128:40-41).
A Kohen who worshiped idols is disqualified from reciting Birkat Kohanim. We learn this from the law of the Temple service; just as a Kohen who worships idols is ineligible to perform the Temple service, so too, he is unfit to bless the people (Menachot 109a and Tosafot there). However, if he repents completely, he may resume his priestly duties and bless the nation (Shulchan Aruch 128:37).
There are poskim who equate the law concerning one who publicly (meaning in front of ten Jews) desecrates the Shabbat, to the law of a person who worships idols, and they maintain that a Kohen who does so is forbidden to ascend the duchan. That is how the Mishnah Berurah rules (128:134). However, according to a number of eminent Acharonim, even a Kohen who desecrates the Shabbat is permitted to ascend the duchan, for a number of reasons. First, it is not clear that the law concerning one who desecrates the Shabbat is, indeed, like that of an idol worshiper. Secondly, a distinction must be made between those who desecrate the Shabbat nowadays and those who did so in the past. In the past, it was clear that anyone who desecrated the Shabbat publicly did so partly in defiance of the Torah and the mitzvot. However, today, those who desecrate the Shabbat do not intend to purposely incite God’s wrath. Even if they publicly violate the laws of Shabbat, it is due to a lack of faith and learning, and not from an intention to arouse anger and to antagonize. Therefore, a Kohen who desecrates the Shabbat without intending to desecrate Hashem’s Name and offend the Torah is permitted to ascend the duchan, according to the lenient opinion. 4
However, the law regarding a Kohen who desecrates the Shabbat in order to purposely incite God’s wrath is different. This includes a Kohen who participates in organizing communal desecration of the Shabbat. This includes organizing bus rides on Shabbat, partaking in a demonstration in favor of opening businesses and movie theaters on Shabbat. As long as he does not repent, he is like an idol worshiper and is deemed unfit to ascend the duchan.

11.A Kohen Who Has Killed Is Ineligible to Ascend the Duchan
A Kohen who has taken a life may not bless the nation, as it is written (Isaiah 1:15), "When you spread your hands [in prayer], I will turn My eyes away from you… [for] your hands are full of blood" (Berachot 32b). This means that only hands clean of blood are kosher for reciting Birkat Kohanim. This is similar to a sacrificial altar, whose stones are forbidden to be shaped using iron, since iron shortens human life, whereas the altar is intended to make peace and lengthen human life. Similarly, a Kohen whose hands have been contaminated by blood may not bless the people and bestow abundant blessing and peace upon Israel. The task of the Kohen is to augment kindness and life, like Aharon HaKohen, who was a lover and pursuer of peace, and a Kohen who has killed has damaged the core of his priesthood.
According to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 128:35), no repentance can help a Kohen who has committed murder. Even if he killed accidentally, repentance will not do him any good, since a prosecutor cannot become a defender, and hands that have committed murder are forever ineligible to bestow Birkat Kohanim upon the nation.
However, according to the Rama, if the Kohen fully repents and goes to a sage who will arrange a process consisting of fasting, giving tzedakah, and accepting upon himself not to sin again in the future, then after concluding the process of repentance, he may resume blessing the people. Someone who repents becomes a new person, and therefore, even if he committed murder intentionally, if he completely repents, he may resume blessing the people.
There is an intermediate opinion which maintains that a Kohen who murdered accidentally and repented may bless the people. However, a Kohen who intentionally murdered someone may not bless the nation even after he repents (Pri Chadash; Eliyah Rabbah; Bei’ur Halachah 128:35). A Kohen who experiences such a serious incident must go to his rabbi to receive personal advice regarding how to practice.
Similarly, a Kohen who has unintentionally run over and killed someone with his car may not ascend the duchan for Birkat Kohanim. As mentioned previously, the poskim disagree as to whether repentance would be effective. However, if there was no negligence on his part while driving – for example, a child suddenly jumped under the wheels of his car and he could not prevent the accident – then in such a case, he is not even considered one who kills unintentionally. Rather, he is seen as a person who killed due to circumstances beyond his control, and according to all opinions, if he repents according to the instructions of his rabbi, he is permitted afterwards to resume blessing the nation (Yechaveh Da’at 5:16).

^ 4.Some are lenient so that the children of these Kohanim will not be mistaken for not being Kohanim and subsequently marry women who are forbidden to all Kohanim. So writes Achiezer, part 4, 3, and what is brought in the name of the Aderet. The Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:33 writes that, in principle, one who desecrates the Shabbat is permitted to bless the nation. There, in part 2, 4 he writes that the Levushei Mordechai is also lenient regarding this. See earlier in this book, chapter 2, note 10, that some Acharonim allow one who desecrates the Shabbat to join a minyan, since today such a person does not sin intentionally to arouse anger.

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