The Kohanim’s Blessing

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Naso

We pretty much all know the basic routine for the priestly blessing (which we often call duchanen, I think because it usually involved kohanim ascending to a platform in front of the congregation; it is also called nesi’at kappayim, lifting of the hands, because they raise their hands over their heads when saying it), and it all seems to be de-oraita. Let’s review it without sources first, then see what Rambam, Sefer HaChinukh, and Arukh HaShulchan add. First, the verses come from this week’s parsha, Bamidbar 6;22-27, and tell us koh tevarakhu, this is how you shall bless, the Jewish people (teaching the Gemara in Sota the blessing must be in the original lashon kodesh, the words of the Torah).

Amor lahem, say to them, teaches other rules, such as for someone to read it to them word by word, with the kohanim repeating it, and for them to say it facing the people.

So the kohanim go up to the front of the congregation at Retzei, the blessing asking God to restore the Temple service, and after the blessing of hoda’ah, thanks, leading into the blessing of shalom, peace.

Arukh HaShulchan Orach Chayyim 128;1-2 relates the placement to both the Beit HaMikdash and our prayers. In the Beit HaMikdash, the kohanim would say the brakha after the offering of the incense, the completion of the sacrificial service, and in prayer, the end of the petitions, Shema koleinu, is the end of the prayer part of the service. So after the brakha completing that, the kohanim make their way to the front of the venue, then recite the blessing close to the one of peace, because their priestly blessing also ends with hopes for peace.

Next paragraph, Arukh HaShulchan says the Torah uses three terms for this one obligation (to show a sense of the significance of the ceremony), koh tevarekhu, thus shall you bless, amor lahem, say to them, and ve-samu et shemi, they shall place My Name. A kohen who willfully refrains from giving the blessing loses a trifold opportunity.

It’s Daily, With a Minyan

Rambam teaches us a detail in Obligation 26 that Israelis and Sepharadim already know, that it applies daily. Ashkenazic custom outside of Israel restricted the blessing to the major holidays [for reasons Arukh HaShulchan, par. 6, finds largely unconvincing, but is unwilling to oppose a longstanding custom], but that’s not the mitzvah. Sefer HaChinukh 378 points out it is not restricted to Shacharit or Mussaf, either (as we see on Yom Kippur in Israel, where kohanim duchan at Ne’ilah).

Usually, beyond Mussaf, we assume kohanim have drunk wine and are therefore not able to perform any sort of service (including administering a blessing). On fast days, we theoretically should have duchanen at Mincha, but tradition feared people drawing the conclusion it was allowed on regular days as well.

Sefer HaChinukh tells us the ceremony requires a minyan, a quorum of ten men, though the kohanim do count towards the minyan. Arukh HaShulchan wonders why, when it is not obviously a davar she-bikedusha, a matter of declaring God in some way. He answers that since God promises to bless us Himself, as it were, it becomes very much like a davar she-bi-kedusha, needing a minyan.

(To me, one of the very interesting aspects of the ceremony is the prescription for when a congregation has only kohanim. With fewer than eleven kohanim—ten to hear and one to deliver it– they all deliver it, the women and children serving as the representative audience to answer amen, the berakha extending to all Jews who were unable to come hear it in person.)

He says everyone answers amen after each line of the blessing, other than in the Beit HaMikdash, where amen was not said, and the entire blessing was said as one.  For the final of his halakhot I am putting here, he says their custom was not for the kohanim to ascend to the dukhan. Rather, they just stood before the Aron.

Why the Kohanim?

For his shorshei ha-mitzvah, reason for the mitzvah, Sefer HaChinukh puts kohanim on a pedestal I am not sure accurately reflects their reality. He says Hashem wanted to bless His nation through His attendants, who reside always at God’s House, all of whose thoughts focus on God’s service, whose souls are entirely tied up with fear/awe of God. Their merits will be a reason for the blessing to take effect.

Of course, Hashem could theoretically just bless us at will, but Sefer HaChinukh reminds us of a principle he has recorded multiple times, human actions affect how and where Hashem impacts the world (that’s how Hashem decided the world should work). The more ready people are to receive God’s blessing, the more they will receive it [by ready, he means worthy, not just waiting for it, in his view a central reason for mitzvot, to make us readier for the blessings Hashem waits to shower on us].

[I am currently in a running conversation with someone who emphasizes how the kohanim’s personal qualities play less of a role in their duchanen than Sefer HaChinukh makes it seem. In addition, I think he exaggerates how Temple-connected the kohanim were; by turns, each kohen would serve two to three days a year in the Mikdash. I would love it if he were correct about kohanim dedicating their lives as a whole to God’s service, making them in fact more focused on Hashem than the rest of us, but I am not sure it was guaranteed enough for that to be the underlying reason for the mitzvah.

It seems to me he could have covered much the same ground by saying the kohanim have been designated to serve as representatives of Hashem. To make the point to us about Hashem’s goodwill toward us, Hashem has the representatives articulate it, daily. This formulation avoids the claims about the kohanim’s personal qualities.]

Clothing and Physical Abnormality Disqualifications

Sefer HaChinukh lists without further detail six factors that would prevent a kohen from participating in the priestly blessing: speech, physical oddities, sin, uncleanliness of hands, age, and wine.

Before I get to those, Arukh HaShulchan, paragraphs 11-12, points out we often overstate the problem with shoes for a kohen while giving the blessing. R. Yochanan b. Zakkai said not to wear sandalim for fear a lace would break as the kohen was going up, he would stop to fix it, and people would assume he had lineage issues invalidating him from being a kohen [itself worthy of discussion, which fears of what people will think we let shape our practice, and to what extent].

Materials that were not made into sandalim, certainly without laces, he is sure would be fine to wear up on the duchan. [I think we don’t today, but it’s important to remember when we do what and why.]

In paragraph 42, Arukh HaShulchan gets to reasons Chazal said a kohen would not be allowed to duchan. First, they barred a kohen with a physical issue on his face or hands, for fear it would distract people. [Heartbreakingly, a kohen with diabetes once asked me whether he would be allowed to duchan if he needed to have toes amputated. I asked a posek, who said that since people today generally duchan with socks, it would be ok. I don’t know if he ended up in fact having those toes removed.]

The distraction element led to an unusual halacha regarding disfigurements, that a kohen well-known in his community would duchan despite any such issues, because people have acclimated to it, and would not be distracted. In paragraph 43, Arukh HaShulchan also argues that since kohanim have their hands covered by their tallit while they duchan, hand issues should also no longer be a problem.

Sin Disqualifications

Most of the rest of Sefer HaChinukh’s list is fairly straightforward: the kohen must be able to articulate the blessings properly, stand while saying them, and may not have drunk wine (as we saw earlier, the reason we do not have duchanen beyond Mussaf). The one category left, sin, is quite complicated, and I do not pretend to do it justice here.

By and large, sin does not prevent a kohen from reciting the blessing, because the kohen is not the one giving the blessing, God is, the kohen just the vehicle. Magen Avraham thought the kohen had to have already repented before he could return to reciting the blessing, but Arukh HaShulchan par. 56 rejects the idea.

Two big exceptions are murder and worshipping a power other than God. R. Yochanan, Berakhot 32b, inferred from Yeshayahu 1;11 the unfitness of a murderous kohen, an halakha that has led to all sorts of conversations in our times, such as Israeli soldiers who are kohanim (I believe poskim allow them to duchan even after an army service in which they killed people) or those who have been at fault in a fatal car accident. There is further conversation—dispute among rishonim and acharonim—about whether repentance helps.

Finally, a Jew who worshipped a power other than God (and according to some opinions, even if he joined another monotheistic religion, such as Islam) cannot duchan as well, again perhaps only while he is still actively involved in that other worship, but perhaps never again.

This last is a topic of its own, particularly in a time when the Jewish people have chosen not to respond to abandonment of observance as we once did, making the question of which sinners do or don’t duchan more complicated even than it once was.

But we don’t come here for practical rulings on live questions, we come for review of basic ideas of Biblical commandments, and here’s the one for this week, Hashem’s demanding of His representatives that they regularly convey Hashem’s good wishes to the people, so we know what Hashem would like, if only we leave room for Hashem to bring that blessing into our lives.

About Gidon Rothstein

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