A Blessing Upon You

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Common practice often teaches us about halakhah. When authorities debate an issue and common practice follows one opinion, this teaches us that the Jewish people ruled like that view. This decision-making method has halakhic force in deciding between existing positions.

A kohen is obligated to recite the priestly blessings, birkas kohanim, on his fellow Jews every day. While Ashkenazim outside of Israel generally only recite it on holidays, a non-kohen may never perform that mitzvah. Yet there are many non-kohanim who recite the blessings as an enthusiastic farewell or bestowal of good wishes. Are they behaving improperly?

The Mishnah Berurah (178:3 and Bi’ur Halakhah sv. de-zar) connects this practice to two debates. The Bach rules that a non-kohen only violates this prohibition if he recites the blessings while raising his hands like the kohanim. However, the Pri Megadim disagrees and forbids any recitation even with lowered hands. While one might have thought that this prohibition only applies to reciting the blessings as part of a prayer service, the Mishnah Berurah rejects such a notion. The prayer service, and according to some even the obligation to pray, is only rabbinic while the mitzvah of the priestly blessings and its attendant prohibition on non-kohanim are biblical.

A long-running debate that the Talmud fails to conclusively resolve is whether you must have proper intent to fulfill a mitzvah. If you do it without realizing you are performing a mitzvah, do you have to repeat it? If you hold mitzvos tzerikhos kavanah then you must and if not, then not. Similarly, if you need to have intent in order to fulfill the mitzvah, then your lacking that intent successfully avoids the prohibition of a non-kohen reciting the priestly blessings. Because you did not have the proper intent to fulfill the mitzvah (if you could), then you also do not violate the prohibition.

Perhaps, the Mishnah Berurah suggests, the common practice proves that we follow the view that you need to have proper intent to fulfill a mitzvah. While this position normally leads to stringencies, in this case it creates a leniency because it allows people to recite the priestly blessings because they lack the intent to fulfill a mitzvah. Or, perhaps, common practice demonstrates that we follow the Bach‘s view that the prohibition only applies to a recitation while raising your ands like the kohanim.

The observant community should be assumed to follow halakhah and the practices of the pious maintain a presumption of propriety. When a questionable practice can be explained by a pre-existing view, we must assume this as a basis for normative behavior. In this specific case, though, other explanations can resolve the questions.

The Mishnah Berurah offers a more complex possibility. Since the Sages formally connected the priestly blessings to the prayer service, someone who recites the blessings outside of that framework is considered as if he specifically intends not to fulfill the mitzvah. Therefore, even if we hold that the prohibition applies even when you do not raise your hands and that you do not need to have proper intent to fulfill the mitzvah, in this situation it is as if you specifically intended to not fulfill the mitzvah and therefore you avoid the prohibition.

R. Avraham Erlanger (Birkas Avraham, Kesubos 24b sv. nesi’as) takes this last approach in a slightly different direction. Since a non-kohen reciting the blessings in a way that would otherwise fulfill the mitzvah is forbidden, we can assume that he has intent not to fulfill the mitzvah. Unless a non-kohen explicitly recites the blessings for the sake of the mitzvah, halakhah assumes he intends not to.

See also these posts: Everyone Does It, Facing The Kohanim

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

26 comments

  1. Tangentially: Has anyone done any deep halachic thinking about the implications of the Y-DNA testing that can now determine whether one is even a match to the two possible DNA signatures of Aharon’s descendents?

    “More recent research, using a larger number of Y-STR markers to gain higher resolution more specific genetic signatures, has indicated that about half of contemporary Jewish Kohanim, who share Y-chromosomal haplogroup J1c3 (also called J-P58), do indeed appear to be very closely related. A further approximately 15% of Kohanim fall into a second distinct group, sharing a different but similarly tightly related ancestry. This second group fall under haplogroup J2a (J-M410). A number of other smaller lineage groups are also observed. Only one of these haplogroups could indicate ancestry from Aaron.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y-chromosomal_Aaron

  2. “). A number of other smaller lineage groups are also observed. Only one of these haplogroups could indicate ancestry from Aaron”

    Who cares about lineage?

  3. On the halachik issue-in general students of the Rav who are not kohanim do not use the language of the priestly blessing- ko tevarchu-the rest of the Orthodox world is in general not makpid like the Rav.

  4. IH, when it comes to Jewish lineage, you really don’t want to start using DNA. Halakhic authorities wisely made up their minds about this a long time ago. To a great extent, they’re following a decision human society made millennia ago to follow what we would call “chazakot.”

    Of course, since Judaism is wonderful, DNA is certainly used in contexts such as, say, freeing agunot.

  5. Mycroft- I beleive that that is the position of the Gaon.

  6. When authorities debate an issue and common practice follows one opinion, this teaches us that the Jewish people ruled like that view. This decision-making method has halakhic force in deciding between existing positions.

    That cannot be a universal principle, or else the Chazon Ish shiur (and many other practices) would not have taken off.

    However, the Pri Megadim disagrees and forbids any recitation even with lowered hands.

    What about blessing the kids on erev shabbat?

  7. Nahum,
    which of course brings us to efshar lvarrer issues (fortunately I’m at the pay grade where I can just phiosophise)
    KT

  8. Nachum, et al. Of ocurse, I understand that we don’t use DNA to (dis)prove Kehuna. But, nor, perhaps, should people be looking to be machmir on issues such as the one presented here. I was being too indirect.

    As a result of architectural evidence, as well, we know now that Birkat Cohanim was used in an amuletic form by Jews circa 600 BCE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ketef_Hinnom. This seems congruent with its contemporary use by non-Kohanim

  9. Oh dear. Not enought coffee! That should be “archeological” not “architectural” of course (not ocurse)…

  10. Solomon Shechter’s “Catholic Israel”!

    Seriously though, this is a well established principle articulated by Chazal as ‘Phuk chazei”: אמר ליה רבא בר רב חנן לאביי, ואמרי לה לרב יוסף: הלכתא מאי? – אמר ליה: פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר. הדרן עלך כיצד מברכין.

    There is also the principle אלא, הנח להן לישראל אם אין נביאים הן – בני נביאים הן.

    Which is the basis for the limud zechut, that if a holy community is acting in a way that appears as if to be inconsistent with halachah, then we trip over ourselves to find a limud zehuct since it is inconceivalbe that a holy community errs.

    Of course, this only applies to a holy community. If an unholy community appears as if to err, then it is evidence of their perfidy.

    And a holy community is one whose avodah is sincere. And we know they are sincere beceause they are a holy community. As opposed to an unholy community whom we know to be insincere in their ovodah because they are not a holy community!

    But yes, absolutely normative practice can shape halachah.

  11. R’ Melech,
    Well summarized!
    KT

  12. OK, so let me get this straight. I’m a 100%, gold-plated non-Kohen. So next Rosh Hashanah, when it’s time to duchen, I go up to the bimah, put my tallis over my head, stretch out my arms, make with the fingers, and recite the Priestly Blessing with my “fellow” Kohanim.

    On the way down, an irate fellow confronts me. “How dare you do that?” he says. “You know that you’re not a Kohen.”

    “No problem,” I reply. “I had kavanah not to be yotze.”

  13. “Has anyone done any deep halachic thinking about the implications of the Y-DNA testing that can now determine whether one is even a match to the two possible DNA signatures of Aharon’s descendents?”

    Only one of the two groups can be found by all ancient communities AND dates to more than 3000 years (CMH). Most of the Kohanim today belong to that group. The whole “Pinchas lineage” theory for J2 Kohanim is a bad joke.

    BTW all the families of kohanim from Djerba in possession of ancient family trees did test for CMH.

  14. Where “most” equals ~50%?

  15. “Where “most” equals ~50%?”

    Yes. “Most” (Rov) equals majority, even a small one. The next largest group is cca 15% (J2).

  16. By the way, the citation is incorrect. It’s siman 128, not 178.

    A fruitful mode of analysis would be to ask why a non-Kohen is prohibited from giving the Priestly Blessing. Depending on how one answers this question, one may be able to spell out the circumstances in which it is permitted.

  17. Scott, I think having intent not to be yotzei gets out of being chayav in bal tosif.

  18. “However, the Pri Megadim disagrees and forbids any recitation even with lowered hands.

    What about blessing the kids on erev shabbat?”

    That is exactly the kind of scenario the CC deals with in that Biur Halochoh.

  19. What is the source for the minhag of a Kohen reciting Birchas Kohanim with his hands on the head of the baby boy after his Bris Milah?

  20. “While Ashkenazim outside of Israel generally only recite it on holidays”

    Shearith Israel in New York is not Ashkenazic and there was no birkat kohanim when I attended a recent Monday morning service.

  21. I’m glad I included the word “generally”. There are exceptions to every rule.

  22. A non cohen, as described by Scott, is performing an issur of Gneyvas Daas by going up with Cohanim. The Kehilla exercises a Tziruf between themselves and the Cohanim. They have no expectation that a non Cohain, sane or otherwise, would infiltrate. I suggest the non Cohain find an egalitarian temple to perform their blessings; they might even use a lottery to see who goes up. Failing that, perhaps stand in front of the mirror and bless himself?

  23. Issac — what does your logic then tell you about the estimated 50% of Kohanim who do not have the Cohen-Modal-Haplotype DNA signature?

  24. It tells me that they don’t have it 🙂

  25. MiMedinat HaYam

    1. since charlie is asking about exceptions to the rule, how about lubavitchers doing birkat kohanim at evening (assume before nightfall, but …) weddings in front of their holy shrine building where all lubavitch weddings in ny are performed? (i dont think its a meshichist thing, but …)

    ditto syrians doing it at lifecycle events (even weddings, which by definition do not start before 11pm) even when wine and liquor is served.

    2. how about a discussion / post on why we do not (or do) say birkat koshanim today.

    3. and can we get r angel or other rep to comment on charlie’s issue? would be interesting.

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