Insights into Halacha

For the week ending 19 November 2011 / 21 Heshvan 5772

Birkas Kohanim and You

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

Birkas Kohanim. Words alone cannot 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[1] is considered so great, it is as if G-d Himself is giving this blessing[2].

In Chutz La’aretz, among Ashkenazic Kehillos[3], this unique service is relegated to Mussaf on Yom Tov[4], but in most parts of Eretz Yisrael, and especially here in Yerushalayim[5] we are fortunate to be able to receive this bracha every day, and on Shabbos and Yom Tov 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[6].

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 prayer (hefsek tefillah)?

We find that one should not interrupt his tefillas Shmoneh Esrei, except for Devarim Shebkdusha (exceedingly holy prayers) such as Kedusha[7]andAmen Yehei Shmei Rabbah[8], when 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?

Birkas Kohanim is a Biblical Mitzvah: “Koh sevorchu es Bnei Yisrael - So shall the Kohanim bless Bnei Yisrael”[9]. Obviously, this mitzvah is incumbent upon the Kohanim. In fact, if a Kohen refuses to duchen, he is transgressing three mitzvos[10]! The Sefer Charedim[11] adds that this mitzvah is also incumbent upon the rest of Klal Yisrael, that they must listen to Birkas Kohanim. 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, “most Halachic authorities follow the opinion of the Ritva[12], that this mitzvah is exclusively the Kohen’s domain[13]”. That, coupled with the fact that Birkas Kohanim is not mentioned authoritatively as a one of the tefillos that one is required to stop one’s own tefilla for, is why several contemporary poskim[14] 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, most contemporary decisors[15] feel that one should definitely 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 many Halacha sefarim on tefillah conclude[16].

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach[17] 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); 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[18] 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!

[1] 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.

[2] Gemara Chullin 49a: “Kohanim Mevorchin L’Yisrael V’HaKadosh Baruch Hu Maskim L’Yadam”.

[3] However, many Sefardic congregations do Duchen every day. See Shu”t Rema M’Fano (R’ Menachem Azaria, 95, who calls the minhag not to duchen daily a “minhag garua”) and Kaf HaChaim (O.C. 128, 16).

[4] Rema O.C. 128, 44. The Rema himself gives one reason for this; many commentators offer additional reasons as well. This has since become standard Ashkenazic practice in Chutz La’aretz. 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 on a daily basis. (See Shu”t Meishiv Davar 104; Aruch Hashulchan O.C. 128, 64; Piskei Teshuvos ibid, footnote 415; and Shaarei Chaim from Rav Chaim Halpern pg. 224). 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 (Shu”t O.C. 6) 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’Rothenberg, 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.

[5] Mishna Brura ibid 164. Although the Gr”a himself was unsuccessful in his attempts to make Birkas Kohanim a daily practice in his lifetime (see above footnote), interestingly, when his students (led by R’ Yisrael of Shklov) moved to Eretz Yisrael and founded the “Ashkenazic Yishuv”, they reinstituted it as such.

[6] Rambam Hilchos Tefillah Ch. 14, 7; Tur/ Shulchan Aruch O.C. 128, 23; Kaf HaChaim (ibid 138, quoting the Zohar to Parshas Nasso 147a).

[7] Shulchan Aruch O.C. 109, 3, paskening like the Rashba (Shu”t vol. 1, 158).

[8] Tur/ Shulchan Aruch O.C. 104, 7.

[9] Bamidbar (Nasso) Ch. 6: 22-27; see Sefer HaChinuch 378.

[10] Rambam Hilchos Tefillah Ch. 15, 12; Tur/ Shulchan Aruch O.C. 128, 2; based on the statement of R’ Yehoshua ben Levi in Gemara Sota 38b.

[11] Ch. 12, 18, cited as an uncontested opinion by the Hafla’ah (Kesuvos 24b s.v. Rashi d’issur), R’ Akiva Eiger (beg. O.C. 128), the Beis Yaakov (Shu”t 123) and the Mishna Brura (Biur Halacha beg. 128). Several authorities imply this way as well including the Maharam Shick (Shu”t O.C. 52 s.v. amnam), the Shulchan Aruch HaRav (ibid, 4 & 37), the Beis Efraim (Shu”t O.C. 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.

[12] In his commentary to Sukka 35b s.v. mai lav.

[13] Parahrase of the words of the Chasam Sofer (Shu”t O.C. 167, even though he implies otherwise in Shu”t O.C. 22). These include the Noda B’Yehuda (Shu”t Kamma O.C. 6), the Mahar”I Assad (Shu”t Yehuda Yaaleh 46), and the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 128, 4); the Sefer HaChinuch (378) implies this way as well. They still hold that it is required and proper to be blessed by the Kohanim, just not part of their Biblical commandment. The Maharsham (Shu”t vol. 8, 52) writes that nevertheless, it is still a mitzvah to help the Kohanim fulfill their duty (mesaya’ah l’mitzvasam). See Shu”t Mishna Halachos (vol. 8, 16) who defends this shitta, that the congregation is not part of the Biblical Mitzvah.

[14] Including Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Cited in Shu”t Rivevos Efraim vol. 3, 73, quoting Rav Aviezer Piltz, Rosh Yeshivas Tifrach), Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (Cited in Ashrei HaIsh vol. 1, Ch.19, 40), Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos vol. 1, 77), Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Cited in Sheilas Rav 2, 8, 2), Rav Ovadia Yosef (Shu”t Yabia Omer vol. 7, O.C. 12), and the Rivevos Efraim (above).

[15] Including the Chazon Ish (Cited in Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (above) quoting the Imrei Yosher), Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu”t Igros Moshe O.C. 4, 21, end 2), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo Tefilla Ch.10, 3), the Shevet HaLevi (Shu”t Shevet HaLevi vol. 3, 15, 3), and the Az Nidbaru (Shu”t Az Nidbaru vol. 11, 48, bottom of pg. 128).

[16] Including Ishei Yisrael (new version Ch.32, 16) and Tefillah Kehichasa (Ch. 14, 51).

[17] Halichos Shlomo above - Dvar Halacha 8.

[18] See Baal HaTurim to Parshas Lech Lecha Ch. 12, verse 3 s.v. v’avorchah.

For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author:

Disclaimer: These are just a few basic guidelines and overview of the Halacha discussed in this article. This is by no means a complete comprehensive authoritative guide, but rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issue. One should not compare similar cases in order to rules in any real case, but should refer his questions to a competent Halachic authority.

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!

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