by R. Gil Student
I. Ashkenazim and Birkas Kohanim
Every day, kohanim, men of the priestly families, bless the congregation with the biblical blessings (Num. 6:24-26). At least in theory. In practice, Ashkenazic communities only observe this on holidays, except in Israel, where it is observed daily. I believe that the standard understanding of how Israeli Ashkenazic practice became different from that in the Diaspora needs revision.
For over five centuries, Ashkenazim have recited the blessings of birkas kohanim only on holidays. It is not clear how this practice started but Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; Gloss to Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 128:44) justifies it as follows: the blessing requires joy but normally we are distracted by concerns over earning a living. Only on holidays are we sufficiently happy for this biblical blessing.
II. The Vilna Gaon’s Students
This explanation is not particularly compelling, and neither are the other suggestions that have been offered. For this reason, the Vilna Gaon (18th cen., Lithuania) attempted to reinstate the daily blessing in his congregation. On the day it was supposed to begin, he was arrested on false charges. Similarly, his student, Rav Chaim Volozhiner (18th-19th cen., Russia) attempted to expand birkas kohanim to daily recitation but when that was supposed to begin, there was a big fire that burned down most of Volozhin. These two sages took this as signs from heaven not to disrupt this questionable but ancient custom to recite birkas kohanim only on holidays.
However, when the Vilna Gaon’s students moved to Israel in 1810, they established daily birkas kohanim, which set the standard for Ashkenazic practice in Israel. For this reason, Ashkenazim in most of Israel (except for the Galilee and Haifa) recite daily birkas kohanim in contrast to the Ashkenazic practice in all other places in the world. At least this is the standard narrative: that the Vilna Gaon’s students changed the practice, under the influence of their great teacher, and this served as the basis of Israeli Ashkenazic practice. (See, for example, Piskei Teshuvos, vol. 2 128:90.) I believe it is incorrect.
As mentioned above, the Vilna Gaon’s students moved to Israel in 1810. An Ashkenazic community already existed in Israel. The main halakhic authority among the group, Rav Yisrael of Shklov, writes in his classic work, Pe’as Ha-Shulchan (2:16): “It is a proper custom in all the land of Israel that the priests recite birkas kohanim every weekday… and this is also the practice in all Sephardic lands.” He seems to be saying that when his group arrived, all Jews in Israel — Ashkenazic and Sephardic — recited birkas kohanim every day, which is also the standard Sephardic practice in the Diaspora. In note 23, he adds that this is consistent with the view of his teacher, the Vilna Gaon. In other words, they didn’t establish the practice among Ashkenazim but continued it in their own synagogue.
III. The Shelah’s Long Trip
Even more decisive is the letter sent by Rav Yishayahu Horowitz (Shelah; 16th-17th cen., Germany), who served as rabbi of Frankfurt and Prague before moving to Israel in 1621. He moved to Jerusalem, where he was appointed rabbi of the growing Ashkenazic community. A letter he sent to his son was included in the recently published Asifas Ge’onim Ha-Chadash (although it has been published before) which is the fourth volume of the writings of the Bach and his generation. The Shelah tells his son about his long trip from Europe to Israel. They sailed for 21 days (gematriah of tovah) until they reached Tripoli in Lebanon on Rosh Hashanah, but decided not to disembark because of a battle taking place in the city. Instead, they sailed further north into Syria, while being chased by a warship.
He reached Aleppo before Sukkos and stayed there for a few weeks. As a brilliant Torah scholar, the Shelah was treated with great respect and love by the ancient, famous Jewish community of Aleppo. The Jews there spoke Hebrew, with which the Shelah conversed with them and gave Torah lectures. The Shelah also spent time in Chamas (Hamat, mentioned in Zechariah 9:2) and Damascus. He was very impressed with the Syrian Jewish communities and particularly their Torah scholars.
IV. The Shelah in Israel
After much travel, the Shelah arrived in Tzefas (Safed) on the Wednesday of Chayei Sarah, 1621. This German Kabbalist was ecstatic to arrive in Tzefas a mere few decades after the Arizal died, where he could learn his esoteric teachings and visit the graves of prophets and sages. The Shelah was going to accept a position as the rabbi of Tzefas when a delegation of Ashkenazim from Jerusalem arrived and invited him to serve as the head of a beis din and yeshiva in Jerusalem. He could not turn down the offer of a prestigious position in the Holy City. The Shelah declined a salary and merely requested a furnished place to live in Jerusalem (and for the community to pay his head tax). Living quarters were hard to find at that time, because the growing Ashkenazic population was twice the size of that in Tzefas. Although the Sephardic community was much larger and also growing. The Shelah predicts that quickly the Ashkenazic community in Jerusalem will become large and great, as he energizes their Torah study and leadership.
The Shelah, while still in Tzefas, offers his son suggestions on how to encourage people to move to Jerusalem. He says that it is a shorter trip from Tripoli, it is easy to learn to ride a camel, the prayer experience in Israel is invaluable and the priests bless the congregation every day, during which the Shelah says that he thinks of his son. We see that in 1621, nearly 200 years before the Vilna Gaon’s students moved to Israel, the Ashkenazim in Israel said birkas kohanim every day. When the Vilna Gaon’s students arrived in Jerusalem, there was already a centuries old Ashkenazic practice to recite birkas kohanim daily.
(republished from Dec ’19)