by R. Daniel Mann
Question: We sometimes have only one adult kohen and his son, who is under bar mitzva, doing Birkat Kohanim. In that case, should we call out “Kohanim”?
Answer: The halacha that you are assuming, that someone calls “Kohanim” before Birkat Kohanim only when there are at least two kohanim, is derived by the gemara (Sota 38a) from “say to them” (Bamidbar 6:23) in the context of Birkat Kohanim. Several Acharonim relate to your case, when there are two kohanim but only one of them is a gadol.
The Mabit (I:64), apparently the first major posek to discuss it, says that one does not call out in such a case. The first of the Mabit’s working assumptions is that the role of the katan is less than regarding most mitzvot, as a katan is not even supposed to do Birkat Kohanim by himself, just that he goes up along with adult kohanim (Tosafot, Chulin 24b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 128:34). The second assumption is that calling out is done to create an obligation for the kohen to do Birkat Kohanim (see Tosafot, Menachot 44a; Tur and Beit Yosef, OC 128). Since the katan is not going to be impacted by the call of Kohanim, there is no point in doing it due to his presence. The gadol will remain uncalled and will fulfill the mitzva of Birkat Kohanim without the standard obligation. He adds that there is also a problem of hefsek if the chazan decides to unnecessarily call out Kohanim during chazarat hashatz. Finally, he says that it is a disgrace to the tzibbur to be dependent on the katan (see Rashi, Megilla 24a).
Several Acharonim, including the Magen Avraham (128:13) accept the Mabit. The Pri Chadash (OC 128:10), though, disagrees on all his grounds and rules to call “Kohanim” in that case. First, he says that although the katan does not do Birkat Kohanim alone, when he does it, it is the fulfillment of a mitzva like any other of a katan’s actions. Once calling is appropriate, there is no problem of hefsek. Finally, he posits that calling out is not a charge to bless, but is instruction to the kohanim to turn around, and thus it does not disgrace the tzibbur. He also points out that according to the Yerushalmi (Berachot 5:4), we should call even to one kohen (with there being a machloket whether to say “Kohen” or “Kohanim”), and therefore it is unlikely that the Bavli would forbid it.
The majority of Acharonim hold like the Mabit (see Kaf Hachayim, OC 128:64, Yalkut Yosef 128:18). However several Acharonim raise the following very pertinent distinction, according to the prevalent minhag of Ashkenazim in this context. While for Sephardim, the chazan recites only the word “Kohanim” after finishing the beracha of Modim, the Rama (OC 128:10) prefers the minhag that the chazan says quietly the short prayer of “Elokeinu … barchenu babracha …,” just that he says the included word of “Kohanim” audibly. As such, the call is not a hefsek. Many, including the Pri Megadim (Eshel Avraham 128:13), Mishna Berura(128:38), and the Kaf Hachayim (ibid.) say that according to this minhag, there is no problem saying Kohanim for one adult and one minor kohen. This is all the more so according to the prevalent minhag in Israel that the chazan is not the one to call out Kohanim at all. When we recall that according to the Yerushalmi, it is always proper to call out for one kohen, the idea makes a lot of sense. (Admittedly, the Mabit himself had other reasons for not saying Kohanim other than hefsek, but apparently many Acharonim felt that the other reasons are weaker.)
One could claim that it is not just possible but important to say Kohanim even in this case, because the obligation to perform Birkat Kohanim is predicated on that invitation of the tzibbur (see our column of Ki Tavo, 5774). However, I did not see that factor raised by the poskim. That is apparently because according to most, an inappropriate call to Birkat Kohanim is inconsequential. Also, the significance of calling Kohanim and the possibility that it creates an obligation is not as great as one might think. We discussed these points in that column.