Birkas Kohanim On the Battlefield

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by R. Gil Student

I. Shoes Off

In the Diaspora, Ashkenazim perform Birkas Kohanim (the priestly blessings) only on holidays. However, in most places in Israel, it is done every day, albeit without the lengthy singing. This is a biblical requirement, which raises the question why it is not done everywhere. Be that as it may, soldiers who are kohanim (from the priestly families) perform Birkas Kohanim whenever they can pray with a minyan in the morning. Even in the battlefield or while occupying enemy territory, if there is no active fighting then the soldiers pray with a minyan in a safe place. However, this often raises a question about how the kohanim act.

R. Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the great Jewish leader after the destruction of the Second Temple, instituted many enactments. One is that kohanim must remove their shoes for Birkas Kohanim (Rosh Hashanah 31b). The Gemara (Sotah 40a) offers two possible reasons for this enactment: 1) out of respect for the community, 2) in case the shoelace becomes untied and the kohen will stop to tie it and miss Birkas Kohanim, which will raise suspicion in the eyes of the congregation who note his absence. When a soldier recites Birkas Kohanim, does he have to remove his shoes? Often, this will cause him to get very uncomfortable and dirty.

Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Tefillah 14:6) writes that the kohanim may not ascend to the dukhen, the raised platform near the ark, wearing shoes but rather must be barefoot. Rambam clearly says that kohanim must be barefoot but Rav Yosef Karo (Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 128) quotes R. Mano’ach who says that Rambam only says barefoot to exclude shoes because those were the only options in his time. Nowadays, when people wear socks,
kohanim may ascend the dukhen while wear socks. Hagahos Maimoniyos (ad loc., 4) quotes Ra’avyah as explicitly permitting socks. (I use the modern term “socks” for batei shokayim, which were a form of cloth or leather covering of the feet and the leg up to the knee, sometimes with laces that are tied at the knee.)

II. Blessing From the Ground

Rav Yishmael Ha-Kohen (19th cen., Italy) was asked whether kohanim may say Birkas Kohanim while wearing cloth shoes. He did not allow it in his synagogue but he learned that most other synagogues near him permitted the practice. Rav Ha-Kohen reviews the sources and concludes that leather shoes are forbidden with or without laces but cloth shoes are forbidden only with laces (Zera Emes, Orach Chaim, no. 14). In the case of cloth shoes, because they have shoelaces they must be removed before reciting Birkas Kohanim. More recently, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (20th cen., Israel) says that technically kohanim may recite Birkas Kohanim while wearing cloth (or canvas) shoes but they should not do so because people will become confused and permit all shoes (Halikhos Shlomo, Tefillah 10:11). Rav Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen (18th cen., Germany) also addresses the question of reciting Birkas Kohanim while wearing cloth shoes with laces. He rules that it is forbidden but then suggests that it is only forbidden to ascend to the dukhen and recite Birkas Kohanim while wearing such shoes. When they stand on an elevated platform and then lift their arms, their shoes are revealed to the congregation. However, if the kohanim remain on the floor, the enactment does not apply to them (Kenesses Yechezkel, no. 11).

Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (20th cen., Israel) served as the rabbi of the Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital. He often had patients wearing slippers attend services who wanted to say Birkas Kohanim but would not or could not take off the slippers due to the cold (Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 14, no. 11). Rav Waldenburg quotes other authorities who rule like Rav Katzenellenbogen, that the enactment to remove shoes is limited to those who ascend to the dukhen. While this minority view should not become common practice, the hospital patients may say Birkas Kohanim on the ground while wearing their hospital slippers. Similarly, Rav Ovadiah Yosef (21st cen., Israel) was asked about kohanim who refused to say Birkas Kohanim without shoes. He also permits the practice of the kohanim remain on the floor for those who otherwise would not recite the blessings. At the same time, he encourages kohanim to remove their shoes in the traditional way for Birkas Kohanim (Yechaveh Da’as, vol. 2, no. 13). Rav Simcha Rabinowitz (cont., Israel) rules likewise for the elderly and infirm (Piskei Teshuvos 128:15).

Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon (cont., Israel) writes that when he was a soldier, he personally asked Rav Ovadiah Yosef whether soldiers in the field may recite Birkas Kohanim while wearing their shoes. Rav Yosef sent him a written response permitting this practice as long as the soldiers do not ascend to the dukhen. Since, in the field, there generally is no dukhen, this poses no difficulty. Just like we can be lenient for kohanim who are sick or who refuse to perform this mitzvah without shoes, we can also be lenient for soldiers (Halakhah Mi-Mkorah, vol. 1, p. 125). Rav Zechariah Shlomo (cont., Israel) similarly rules leniently for soldiers during field exercises or military actions, for whom removing their shoes would pose great difficulty, to recite Birkas Kohanim on the floor and not the dukhen (Hilkhos Tzava 21:6). Rav Nachum Rabinovitch (21st cen., Israel) adds that in most situations in the field, a soldier can find a plank or something else clean on which he can comfortably stand in socks after removing his shoes (Melumedei Milchamah, no. 24).

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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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