Birkas Kohanim and You
Parshas Korach depicts the terrible tragedy that occurred when members of Bnei Levi caused a machlokes shelo l'sheim Shomayaim. However, this week's article explains several halachos pertaining to when Kohanim accomplish their appointed mission: blessing Klal Yisrael with their incomparable threefold bracha.
The Power of the Blessing
Birkas Kohanim. Words alone can not possibly do justice to this incredible blessing, especially for those privileged to have been a part of the semi-annual Birkas Kohanim at the Kosel on Chol HaMoed Sukkos and Pesach, featuring hundreds of Blessers (Kohanim) and tens of thousands of Blessees. This powerful ritual of the Kohanim blessing Klal Yisrael with this exceptional threefold bracha which includes physical blessing and protection that we receive in the merit of our forefathers, spiritual enlightenment through the medium of Torah, and the quintessence of freedom, peace and perfection is considered so great, it is as if Hashem Himself is giving this blessing. In fact, according to the Gemara (Chullin 49a): “Kohanim Mevorchin L’Yisrael V’HaKadosh Baruch Hu Maskim L’Yadam”.
Unsuccessful in Chu”l
In Chutz La’aretz, although many Sefardic congregations do indeed Duchen every day, on the other hand, among Ashkenazic Kehillos, this unique service is relegated to Mussaf on Yom Tov as per the Rema’s ruling (Orach Chaim 128, 44).
It is well known that many Gedolim including the Vilna Gaon, the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, the Netziv, and Rav Nosson Adler tried unsuccessfully to reinstate the minhag to perform Birkas Kohanim in Ashkenazic Kehillos on a daily basis. The Aruch Hashulchan states that it is as if a Heavenly voice proclaimed not to do Birkas Kohanim on a daily basis outside of Eretz Yisrael and considers it a Decree from Above. In fact, the Beis Efraim vigorously defends the common practice in Chutz La’aretz not to duchen daily, and maintains that it is an ancient custom as well, dating back to the Maharam m’Rottenberg, and is a minhag kavua that can not be changed. He cites many proofs to this and questions the validity of duchening daily, even in Eretz Yisrael. He adds an interesting note from Rav Yaakov Sasportas that one of the minhagim that the followers of the false messiah Shabtai Zvi practiced was to duchen daily. Come what may, not duchening in Chutz La’aretz on a daily basis has since become standard Ashkenazic practice.
On the other hand, in most parts of Eretz Yisrael, and especially in Yerushalayim, we (Ashkenazim included!) are fortunate to be able to receive this unique bracha every day, and on Shabbos and Yom Tov (and on fast days!) even more than once.
Halacha dictates what one is supposed to do when hearing and accepting this bracha from the Kohanim: to stand quietly with eyes facing downward and concentrating on receiving this Divine gift.
Yet, a question arises: What should one do if he is still in the middle of his silent Shmoneh Esrei when the Chazan reaches Birkas Kohanim during Chazaras HaShatz? Is it proper to continue davening while the Kohanim are blessing the congregation? Or is it preferable to stop and listen to receive the blessing, thereby receiving the blessing, but possibly making an interruption in his own personal prayer (hefsek tefillah)?
The halacha mandates (see Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 104: 7) that one should not interrupt his tefillas Shmoneh Esrei, except for Devarim Shebkdusha (exceedingly holy prayers) such as KedushaandAmen Yehei Shmei Rabbah. In these instances, one is required to stop his own tefillah, concentrate, and listen to the congregational prayer. Does Birkas Kohanim fit this criterion, or is one’s own personal tefilla considered more important for our intents and purpose?
Whose Mitzvah Is It?
Birkas Kohanim is a Biblical Mitzvah, as the passuk states (Nasso Ch. 6: 22- 27): “Koh Sevorchu Es Bnei Yisrael - So shall the Kohanim bless Bnei Yisrael”. Obviously, this mitzvah is incumbent upon the Kohanim. In fact, if a Kohen refuses to duchen, he transgresses three mitzvos!
Yet, the Sefer Charedim writes that this mitzvah is also incumbent upon the rest of Klal Yis rael, that they must listen to Birkas Kohanim. In fact, this shitta is cited as an uncontested opinion by many authorities, including the Hafla’ah, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Beis Yaakov, and the Mishna Berura. Accordingly, it would seem that one must stop his own Shmoneh Esrei and listen to Birkas Kohanim.
However, in the words of the Chasam Sofer (Shu”t Orach Chaim 167), “most Halachic authorities follow the opinion of the Ritva (Sukka 35b s.v. mai lav), that this mitzvah is exclusively the Kohen’s domain”. This understanding is followed by many decisors, as well, including the Noda B’Yehuda, the Mahar”i Assad, and the Aruch Hashulchan; the Sefer HaChinuch implies this way as well. The Maharsham adds that even according to this shitta, nevertheless, it is still a mitzvah to help the Kohanim fulfill their duty (mesaya’ah l’mitzvasam). All these authorities still maintain that it is proper and required to be blessed by the Kohanim, just not actually part of their Biblical commandment.
Contemporary Kohanic Custom
This understanding, coupled with the fact that Birkas Kohanim is not mentioned authoritatively as one of the tefillos that one is required to stop one’s own tefilla for, is why several contemporary poskim, including Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank zt”l , Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l , Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l , the Rivevos Efraim zt”l, and Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlit”a, rule that one is not required to stop his own tefillah to listen to Birkas Kohanim. Still, they maintain that one is allowed to do so and it would not be considered a hefsek tefillah.
On the other hand, many other contemporary decisors, including the Chazon Ish zt”l, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l, Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner shlit”a and Rav Binyamin Zilber zt”l, aver that one should indeed stop his own davening to listen to Birkas Kohanim. They maintain that since many authorities count the congregation as part of the Biblical mitzvah, and even those who do not agree still hold that it is required and proper to be blessed by the Kohanim; as such, its status is also considered Devarim Shebkedusha. This is in fact how several Halacha sefarim on tefillah conclude.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l  takes this approach a step further, writing that in his opinion Birkas Kohanim is considered superior to Kedusha, as during Kedusha we are talking to and praising the King (G-d); conversely, in Birkas Kohanim, the King is “talking” to us.
Birchas Kohanim was alluded to by Hashem all the way back in the time of Avraham Avinu and is the conduit to receive countless Divine blessings. Especially during these trying times, when we face danger and uncertainty on a constant basis, it behooves us all to try and take advantage of this incredible opportunity, every chance we get!
This article was written L’Refuah Sheleimah R’ Chaim Baruch Yehuda ben Hinda Sarah and R’ Shlomo Yoel ben Chaya Leah and l’zechus Yaacov Tzvi ben Rivka and Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam v’chol yotzei chalatzeha for a yeshua sheleimah!
For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Sho’el U' Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim. He also currently writes a contemporary halacha column for the Ohr Somayach website titled “Insights Into Halacha”. http://ohr.edu/this_week/insights_into_halacha/.
Paraphrased from Rabbi Zev Leff’s excellent recent book “Shemoneh Esrei” pg. 508. See Otzar HaMidrashim to Bamidbar (Nasso) Ch.6: 22 - 27 citing different Midrashic interpretations of these verses.
See Shu”t Rema M’Fano (Rav Menachem Azaria; 95, who calls the minhag not to duchen daily a “minhag garua”), Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Parshas Tetzaveh 22; where it is abundantly obvious from his lashon that he mandates Birkas Kohanim daily), Kaf HaChaim (Orach Chaim 128, 16), and Yalkut Yosef (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch ad loc. 17). It is worthwhile to note that several Ashkenazic Gedolei Eretz Yisrael, including Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg zt”l and yblch”t Rav Aharon Leib Steinman shlit”a, when traveling to Chutz La’aretz, would make it a point to daven with Sefardic minyanim to not miss out on receiving Birkas Kohanim daily.
The Rema himself gives one reason for this, that only on Yom Tov are people in the proper state of mind: filled with Simchas Yom Tov and unencumbered by the many trials and tribulations of eking out parnossa. Many commentators offer additional reasons as well.
See Shu”t Meishiv Davar (104); Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 128, 64); Piskei Teshuvos (ad loc. footnote 415), and Shaarei Chaim from Rav Chaim Halpern (pg. 224).
Shu”t Beis Efraim (Orach Chaim 6).
Mishna Berura (128, 164). See also Yalkut Yosef (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch ad loc. 17). Although the Gr”a himself was unsuccessful in his attempts to establish Birkas Kohanim as daily practice (in Chutz La’aretz) in his lifetime, nevertheless, his students (led by Rav Yisrael of Shklov) who moved to Eretz Yisrael and founded the “Ashkenazic Yishuv”, were indeed successful in instituting Birkas Kohanim on a daily basis for Ashkenazim in Eretz Yisrael.
Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah Ch. 14, 7), Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 128, 23) and Kaf HaChaim (ad loc. 138; quoting the Zohar to Parshas Nasso 147a).
Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 109, 3, paskening like the Rashba - Shu”t vol. 1, 158).
See Sefer HaChinuch (378).
Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah Ch. 15, 12) and Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 128, 2; based on the statement of R’ Yehoshua ben Levi in Gemara Sota 38b).
Sefer Chareidim (Ch. 12, 18), Hafla’ah (Kesuvos 24b s.v. Rashi d’issur), Rabbi Akiva Eiger (beg. Orach Chaim 128), Shu”t Beis Yaakov (123), and Mishna Berura (Biur Halacha beg. 128). Several other authorities imply this way as well, including the Maharam Shick (Shu”t Orach Chaim 52 s.v. amnam), the Shulchan Aruch HaRav (ibid, 4 & 37), the Beis Efraim (Shu”t Orach Chaim 6), and the Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Tetzaveh 19). See Shu”t Levush Mordechai (1, 4, s.v. al kol panim) who defends this shitta. See also Shu”t Yabia Omer (vol. 7, Orach Chaim 12).
Parahrase of the words of the Chasam Sofer (Shu”t Orach Chaim 167, even though he implies otherwise in Shu”t Orach Chaim22). Thos who write similarly include the Noda B’Yehud a (Shu”t Kamma Orach Chaim 6), the Mahar”I Assad (Shu”t Yehuda Yaaleh 46), and the A ruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 128, 4); the Sefer HaChinuch (378) implies this way as well. See Shu”t Maharsham (vol. 8, 52). See Shu”t Mishna Halachos (vol. 8, 16) who defends this shitta, that the congregation is not part of the Biblical Mitzvah. See also Shu”t Yabia Omer (vol. 7, Orach Chaim 12).
Cited in Shu”t Rivevos Efraim (vol. 3, 73, quoting Rav Aviezer Piltz, Rosh Yeshivas Tifrach).
Cited in Ashrei HaIsh (Orach Chaim vol. 1, Ch.19, 40). Rav Elyashiv equates one in the middle of Shmoneh Esrei to the workers in the field, who are exempt from leaving their work to come hear Birchas Kohanim and are still considered part of the bracha.
Shu”t Yabia Omer (vol. 7, Orach Chaim 12).
Shu”t Rivevos Efraim (vol. 3, 73).
Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (vol. 1, 77).
Chazon Ish (cited in Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos ibid; quoting the Imrei Yosher),Shu”t Igros Moshe (Orach Chaim vol. 4, 21, end 2 & Orach Chaim vol. 5, 20, 23),Halichos Shlomo (Tefilla Ch. 10, 3),Shu”t Shevet HaLevi (vol. 3, 15, 3), and Shu”t Az Nidbaru (vol. 11, 48, bottom of pg. 128).
Including Ishei Yisrael (new version Ch.32, 16) and Tefillah Kehichasa (Ch. 14, 51).
Halichos Shlomo (ibid. - Dvar Halacha 8).
See Baal HaTurim to Parshas Lech Lecha (Ch. 12, verse 3 s.v. v’avorchah).
Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.
L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!