Birkat Kohanim in a Shiva House

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by R. Daniel Mann

Question: I was surprised to find, in a shiva minyan, an avel who did Birkat Kohanim. I didn’t know whether to tell him that I had never seen this before. Was it okay that he did so? 

Answer: Generally, an avel is obligated in all the mitzvot, with a prominent exception being not wearing tefillin on the first day of aveilut because he is not fit to connect with the grandeur of tefillin (Berachot 11a). So, ostensibly there would have to be a good reason to deprive an avel who is a kohen from doing Birkat Kohanim, and there is no explicit source in Chazal that this is the case. 

The Mordechai (Megilla 817), in discussing that a kohen who will not do Birkat Kohanim must not be in shul when the kohanim are called, which obligates him to go up, mentions an avel during the 12 months for his parents as one who does not duchen, according to the minhag. The Beit Yosef (Orach Chayim 128) wonders what the logic of the minhag could be, but he cites a Shibolei Haleket that there is a need for a kohen to be in a state of simcha in order to do Birkat Kohanim. This is also the logic behind the Ashkenazi minhag to do Birkat Kohanim only on Yom Tov (Rama, OC 128:44; see more on the topic in Living the Halachic Process III, A-17). There is even a related Ashkenazi minhag that single men do not duchen because they do not “dwell in happiness” (see ibid.) The Shulchan Aruch (ad loc.) does not accept either of these minhagim (Ashkenazim accept the former), but regarding shiva, he does instruct the avel to leave the place of davening before the kohanim are called (i.e., before they start R’tzei – Be’ur Halacha ad loc.). 

The Shiyarei Knesset Hagedola compares the avel during shiva to the situation of all on Tisha B’av, where according to some (including minhag Yerushalayim) there is no Birkat Kohanim in Shacharit, because the first part of Tisha B’av is the antithesis of happiness (not all agree; see opinions in Eliya Rabba 559:13; R. Akiva Eiger to Magen Avraham 131:10). Some distinguish because on Tisha B’av the mitzva is only delayed until the afternoon and because the entire congregation is in aveilut (see Yabia Omer IV, Yoreh Deah 32). The Radbaz (I:1) does not see any reason for the avel to give up his mitzva.

Based on the idea that the avel sets the tone for the entire minyan¸ the minhag in many places is that no one does Birkat Kohanim and, according to some, the chazan does not recite Elokeinu vei’lokei….in a shiva house (Ishei Yisrael 24:50). However, many refer to a minhag Yerushalayim to do Birkat Kohanim there (ibid.; Gesher Hachayim, vol. I, p. 205). According to this minhag, even the avel can and likely should do so himself. After all, since it is only a minhag for a kohen to refrain and it is a Torah-level obligation for a kohen to duchen, it is problematic for a kohen/avel to not take part. We have seen that the kohen should walk out before R’tzei, but this tension makes it understandable if he takes part himself. (It is not clear why he must walk out considering that our minhag is to not call kohanim until right before the Birkat Kohanim, which is too late for them to go up (see Shulchan Aruch ibid. 8), but this is apparently the minhag). Therefore, whether the shiva house in question was in Yerushalayim¸ so that the avel may have been right, or elsewhere, since fundamentally he did nothing wrong, there is no need to get involved. (If you feared that he will be embarrassed if “corrected” on another day, you could have mentioned to him after davening that there are different opinions and asked whether he received a ruling.)

If the avel follows the standard minhag (i.e., does not do Birkat Kohanim), what does he do about walking out if he is the chazan? There is a major question (which we wrote about in this column, Vayeira 5780) whether a kohen who is a chazan should ever do Birkat Kohanim; he certainly should not if he might get confused (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 128:20 with commentators). Therefore, the avel/chazan need not leave whether or not other kohanim are reciting Birkat 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.

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