A highlight of Tefilah B’Tzibur occurs when the Kohanim bless all who are present. These blessings are known as Birkas Kohanim, and their source can be found in Bamidbar 6:22-27. While congregations in Israel are blessed by their Kohanim on a regular basis, Ashkenazic Jewish communities in Chutz La’aretz only experience Birkas Kohanim in that fashion during the Yom Tovim.2
The Yiddish word ‘Duchenen’ has become synonymous with Birkas Kohanim. Clearly, the root of the word is ‘Duchan’ – used in Halachic sources to signify a platform. When studying the laws of Birkas Kohanim, one constantly finds the expression ‘Oleh L’Duchan’ (to ascend the platform) used.3 What is the source of the word Duchan, and how did it become so closely associated with Birkas Kohanim?
In order to make sense of this, I believe one needs to examine where Birkas Kohanim was meant to be performed – the Beis Hamikdash. The Mishnah (Tamid 7:2) describes how Birkas Kohanim was performed each day in the Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim following the bringing of the Tamid offering. The Mishnah states that the Kohanim would bless Klal Yisroel while standing on the twelve steps in front of the Ulam – the entrance hall / antechamber to the Beis Hamikdash’s sanctuary. The Mishnah refers to those stairs as the Ma’alos Ha’Ulam.4
The Mishnah (Midos 2:6) also describes a three-staired platform called the Duchan. This platform spanned the entire width of the Beis Hamikdash’s courtyard.5 The Duchan separated the courtyard known as the Ezras Yisrael6 from the Ezras Kohanim7 – the larger section of the Beis Hamikdash‘s compound, where almost all the Avodah took place. Most of the time, the Ezras Kohanim was off-limits to non-Kohanim.8
Other than acting as a barrier / line of demarcation between the two courtyards, what role did the Duchan in the Beis Hamikdash serve? The Tiferes Yisroel9 explains that it was the Levi’im who made primary use of the Duchan’s steps. It was on those stairs where they would sing and offer their musical accompaniment during the Avodah. According to the Tiferes Yisroel, however, there were times when the Duchan played a role in Birkas Kohanim as well. There were occasions when so many Kohanim were present that not all were able to find room on the twelve stairs in front of the Beis Hamikdash‘s antechamber during Birkas Kohanim. When this occurred, those Kohanim stood instead on the three stairs of the Duchan – which spanned the entire width of the Beis Hamikdash’s courtyard – and participated in Birkas Kohanim10 from there.11
Thus, while the Duchan played a role in Birkas Kohanim, the primary location for those blessings was the twelve stairs which led up to the Beis Hamikdash’s antechamber. As such, how can we account for the fact that the Duchan – which only served as a secondary location for Birkas Kohanim – became so associated with those blessings?
I would propose two theories to explain this:
- Although the Avodah was meticulously carried out each and every day of the year, it was most noticed by the Jewish people during the Yom Tovim. On those special occasions, the Beis Hamikdash was filled with visitors – Yisraelim and Kohanim As Yisraelim could not normally venture into the courtyard of the Kohanim, the closest they could get to the Avodah was the Duchan – which separated their courtyard from that of the Kohanim. When it was time for Birkas Kohanim on those Yom Tovim, which group of Kohanim would have been most visible to the masses of Jews in the Ezras Yisrael? True, the primary place for Birkas Kohanim was the twelve stairs in front of the Beis Hamikdash’s antechamber. However, those stairs were deep into the Ezras Kohanim, and during the Yom Tovim when more Kohanim were certainly present in the Beis Hamikdash, during Birkas Kohanim, the three stairs of the Duchan platform would surely have been filled with Kohanim unable to find space on the steps leading to the antechamber. This ‘wall’ of Kohanim would have been standing directly in front of the masses of visitors who had gathered at the Beis Hamikdash in honor of the Yom Tovim. Additionally, when one considers that the view of the stairs to the antechamber from the Ezras Yisrael was mostly blocked by the Mizbe’ach12 and its ramp,13 it becomes understandable why Klal Yisroel would associate the Duchan with Birkas Kohanim – despite the fact that it was only the secondary location where the Kohanim would have stood during Birkas Kohanim.
- In order for Kohanim to enter the Ezras Kohanim to engage in any aspect of the Avodah, it was necessary to first ascend the Duchan by way of the Ezras Yisroel. Thus, the expression of ‘ascending the Duchan’ did not originally have any connotations of Birkas Kohanim. Initially, the phrase described what a Kohen first needed to do in order to engage in all his designated Beis Hamikdash activities – Birkas Kohanim being just one of them. With the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, however, Kohanim could only perform one of their original Beis Hamikdash duties – Birkas Kohanim. The expression ‘ascending the Duchan’ continued to be used in a post- Beis Hamikdash world, describing what a Kohen first needed to do in order to fulfill his duties. That expression, however, eventually came to be synonymous with Birkas Kohanim – as that was the only duty left for a Kohen to perform after the destruction of Beis Hamikdash.
May we merit seeing the Beis Hamikdash rebuilt in Yerushalayim speedily in our days – so the Kohanim can make full use of its Duchan once again.14
(Click on image to enlarge)
This article was written in commemoration of the first Yahrtzeit (25 Nissan) of my father-in-law, Mr. Shmuel Feintuch (Shmuel ben Moshe), z”l, of Brooklyn, NY. I thank my father – Mr. U.H. Males – for his valuable editing assistance. A similar version of this article was recently published in the Shavuos edition of Kolmus: The Journal of Torah and Jewish Thought. ↩
Rav Moshe Isserless offers an explanation of this perplexing ancient custom in his Darchei Moshe OC 128:21, and in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, OC 128:44. ↩
See for example Shulchan Aruch OC 128. ↩
Item number 30 in the accompanying diagram of the Beis Hamikdash – reprinted with permission of Koren Publishers Jerusalem from the Hebrew edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud. This diagram is also available online at: http://steinsaltz.org/Mikdash.php ↩
Item number 12 in the accompanying diagram ↩
Item number 11 in the accompanying diagram ↩
Item number 13 in the accompanying diagram ↩
See also Mishnah Torah, Hilkhos Beis Habechirah, chapter 6, as well as 7:19 ibid. ↩
See Tiferes Yisroel note 64 to Midos 2:6, as well as TiferesYisroel’s note 25 to his diagram of the Beis Hamikdash printed after his commentary to tractate Midos. ↩
This would also explain Rabbi Tarfon’s statement in Kiddushin 71a about how he once participated in Birkas Kohanim while standing upon the Beis Hamikdash’s Duchan. ↩
Since the Kohanim of the Beis Hamikdash always blessed the congregation while elevated from the courtyard’s floor, our Kohanim continue this practice when sharing those blessings nowadays as well. See Piskei Teshuvos, volume 2, page 17. ↩
Item number 26 in the accompanying diagram ↩
Item number 27 in the accompanying diagram ↩
After completing this article, I learned of another excellent resource on this topic. See Pit’chei Tefillah u-Mo’ed (2000), pages 65-91, by Dr. Yaakov Shmuel Spiegel for more material on the relationship between the Duchan and Birkas Kohanim. ↩