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Peninei Halakha > Women's Prayer > Chapter 20: Praying with a Minyan

Chapter 20: Praying with a Minyan

01. Men’s Obligation to Pray with a Minyan and in a Synagogue

The Sages ordained that men pray with a minyan (a quorum of ten adult men) in a synagogue. The Sages teach that the divine Presence dwells wherever ten Jews engage in sacred matters (devarim she-bikdusha), as Scripture states: “Elokim nitzav ba-adat Kel” (“God stands in a godly congregation”; Tehilim 82:1), and ten Jews constitute an “edah” (congregation). Although even when one Jew prays or studies Torah the Shekhina is present, there are nevertheless different gradations, the highest level of which is when ten Jews are engaged in a davar she-bikdusha, for then holiness is revealed in the world (see Berakhot 6a). Based on this, the Sages ordained that all devarim she-bikdusha, that is, enactments that express God’s sanctity publicly, shall be recited in a minyan of ten men. Devarim she-bikdusha encompasses Ĥazarat Ha-shatz, Birkat Kohanim, Barkhu, Kaddish, and Torah reading (Megilla 23b). 1

The Sages further taught that when one prays with a minyan, her prayers are accepted. Even if she lacks full kavana, her prayers are accepted because she prays with the congregation (be-tzibur) (see Berakhot 8a). Praying with a minyan is thus superior in two ways: the Shekhina is with the minyan, which makes prayer more acceptable, and in a minyan one recites all the devarim she-bikdusha that the Sages ordained for recitation specifically with a minyan of men (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 2:1-3). Since the Shekhina dwells in the midst of a minyan, it is proper for every person to try to be one of the first ten people to pray together, for it is because of them that the Shekhina appears.

When the minyan prays in a synagogue its advantages are twofold, for the prayer is conducted in a place specifically designated for devarim she-bikdusha (Berakhot 6a; 8a). A synagogue is called a “small sanctuary” (“mikdash meat,” from Yeĥezkel 11:16, which R. Yitzĥak interpreted to refer to “synagogues and study halls” [Megilla 29a]), for its holiness is a reflection of the Temple’s sanctity.

It is thus apparent that prayer with a congregation (tefila be-tzibur) is on some level a substitute for the Temple service: The Shekhina dwells in a place of ten Jews, the sanctity of the synagogue resembles the holiness of the Temple, and the communal prayers were ordained to correspond to the public sacrificial offerings.

Reish Lakish says: One who has a synagogue in his city but does not enter it to pray is called a bad neighbor. Not only that, he brings exile upon himself and his descendants. Those who come early to the synagogue for Shaĥarit and leave late after Ma’ariv merit long life (Berakhot 8a; SA 90:11).

  1. Megilla 23b and Sofrim 10:7 mention the things that must be recited with a minyan. The Sages (Megilla op. cit. and Berakhot 21b) derive from the verse “I shall be sanctified among the Israelites” (Vayikra 22:32) that a davar she-bikidusha shall not be recited among less than ten. Ran (ad loc.) and other Rishonim and Aĥaronim explain that this is a rabbinic law, since the very recitation of these words is of rabbinic origin. Nevertheless, the basic idea of minyan comes from Torah law that governs the sanctification of God’s name (Kiddush Hashem). That is, one is obligated to surrender his life rather than desecrating God’s name by performing a transgression under coercion in the presence of ten Jews (Sanhedrin 74b). It seems that for this purpose, women count toward the ten (though Devar Shmuel (Aboab) §63 and Pitĥei Teshuva YD 157:7 raise doubts about this).

02. Women are Exempt from Praying in a Synagogue and with a Minyan

As we learned (above, 11:1), a woman need not pray with a minyan or in a synagogue, because the prayer in a synagogue is time-dependent, and women are exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot. Although we learned that communal prayer (tefila be-tzibur) is of great quality, women have other roles, no less important (as explained above, in chapter 3), and therefore they need not pray in a synagogue and with a minyan.

Still, it is clear that a woman who prays with a minyan and in a synagogue earns merit, because she prays in a holy place where the Shekhina dwells and because she has the privilege of answering “amen” to Kaddish and Ĥazarat Ha-shatz, reciting Kedusha and Modim, and hearing Birkat Kohanim.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Ekev 871) relates a story about a woman who became so aged that she no longer wished to live. She came before R. Yossi b. Ĥalafta and said to him, “My master, I have grown too old. My life has become dismal; I can taste neither food nor drink, and I want to be done with this world.” He replied, “What mitzva are you careful to perform every day?” She answered, “Even if there is something dear to me, I always put it aside and go early to the synagogue every day.” He said to her, “Stay away from the synagogue for three consecutive days.” So she did, and on the third day she became ill and died. We infer from here that one’s diligence in going to the synagogue daily causes long life, and that this advantage applies to women as well.

The Sages also tell of a woman who had a synagogue in her neighborhood but who would walk every day to R. Yoĥanan’s more distant synagogue. He asked her: “My daughter, isn’t there a synagogue in your neighborhood? Why do you come all the way here?” She replied, “Master, do I not receive more reward for each stride?” (Sota 22a). We learn a law from here: when a more distant synagogue is superior, one who walks there is rewarded for each pace (MA 90:22; Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 3 n. 3). 1

Nevertheless, it is clear that the mitzva for a woman to pray with a minyan is of secondary importance to caring for her family. Whenever there is a conflict between prayer in a synagogue and care for the children and family, family comes first. However, unmarried women, girls, and women with adult children and no grandchildren at home should make an effort to attend the synagogue on Shabbat and Yom Tov. It is therefore appropriate that we study some rules and laws concerning prayer with a minyan.

  1. See Halikhot Beitah 6:13 and Petaĥ Ha-bayit 24-25 ad loc. Clearly, a woman praying in the women’s section accrues the merit of praying in a synagogue. Even those who maintain that the sanctity of the women’s section is not the same as the sanctity of the synagogue (Ĥokhmat Adam 86:15) would presumably agree that during prayer services the sanctity of the minyan extends to the women’s section, which is subordinate to the synagogue. AHS 154:7 rules that the women’s section is just as holy as the synagogue itself, and this is the opinion of most poskim, as cited in Tzedaka U-mishpat 12:21.

03. Kaddish

Kaddish is unique in that it deals primarily with God’s honor (kevod Shamayim), and therefore, one’s response must be with intense kavana, and one certainly should not chatter during its recitation (SA 56:1; MB 1). The Sages say that anyone who answers “Amen, Yehei Shemei Rabba Mevorakh…” (“May His great name be blessed…”) with their full powers of concentration will cause a judgment of even seventy years against him to be torn up (Shabbat 119b; Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona). They further say that when Jews enter the synagogues and recite “Yehei shemei rabba mevorakh..” aloud, harsh decrees against them are nullified (Tosafot ad loc., citing Pesikta). Additionally, they say that the answer to Kaddish arouses mercy for Jews in exile. When Jews enter synagogues and batei midrashot and respond, “Yehei shemei rabba mevorakh…,” the memory of those in exile ascends before God, and He shakes His head in pain, so to speak, and says: “Fortunate is the king who was glorified this way in his house,” and the desire to redeem Israel awakens before Him (see Berakhot 3a).

Since we sanctify God in Kaddish, it must be recited with a minyan, for God is only sanctified by an “edah” (a group) of Jewish people.

Kaddish was composed in Aramaic because that was the language spoken by all Israel during the Second Temple era, and therefore even the uneducated could understand it and have kavana in their response. The following is a translation of the prayer:

Magnified and sanctified may His great name be,

in the world which He created by His will.

May He establish His kingdom,

cultivate His salvation, and bring His messiah near,

in your lifetime and in your days,

and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel,

swiftly and soon –

and say: Amen.

The congregation then responds: “Yehei shemei rabba mevorakh le-alam u-le’almei almaya,” (“May His great bame be blessed forever and all time.”) The ĥazan continues:

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted,

raised and honored, uplifted and lauded

be the Name of the Holy One,

blessed be He,

beyond any blessings,

song, praise, and consolation

uttered in the world –

and say: Amen.

That it is the main part of the Kaddish, also called Half-Kaddish, and responding to it is of utmost importance, more important than answering Kedusha (MB 56:6). 1

  1. There are differing customs regarding the response of “Yehei shemei rabba…” According to Ashkenazic and Yemenite (Baladi) customs, we conclude with “Le-alam u-le’almei almaya.” According to Ĥasidic and Yemenite (Shami) custom, we say one additional word, “yitbarakh” (“blessed”). According to Sephardic custom, we continue until “de-amiran be-alma” (“uttered in the world”). Another difference is that after “berikh Hu” (“blessed is He”), Ashkenazim respond “berikh Hu” while Sephardim, if one has finished reciting until “de-amiran be-alma,” responds “amen” and otherwise does not respond. One should pause between “Amen” and “Yehei shemei rabba,” for the “Amen” is a response to what the ĥazan said previously, and “Yehei shemei rabba” is a praise in itself (MB 56:2).

04. The Various Kinds of Kaddish

There are four versions of Kaddish, which we will identify by name. 1) Half-Kaddish corresponds to the main section of Kaddish. It is called Half-Kaddish to distinguish it from the other Kaddishim which contain further additions. In any part of prayer in which Kaddish must be said, but there should not be prolonged interruption, Half-Kaddish is recited; 2) Kaddish Shalem (Full-Kaddish or Kaddish Yehei Shelama) is recited after saying verses from Tanakh and contains an added request for peace and good life for us and all Israel. It concludes: “Oseh shalom bi-mromav, Hu (be-raĥamav) ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve-al kol (amo) Yisrael ve-imru: Amen” (“May He Who makes peace in His high places make peace (in His mercy) for us and all of (His nation) Israel – and say: Amen”). Since this Kaddish is usually recited by mourners, it is also called Kaddish Yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish); 3) Kaddish Titkabel is recited by the ĥazan after the conclusion of the Amida. It is identical to Kaddish Shalem but for a single additional line that asks for our prayers be accepted; 4) Kaddish De-rabanan is recited after the study of rabbinic teachings. It too is identical to Kaddish Shalem but with the addition of a prayer that those who study Torah be granted long, good lives.

The Sages ordained the recitation of Kaddish at the conclusion of each section of communal prayer. Kaddish De-rabanan is recited after Korbanot,; Half-Kaddish after Pesukei De-zimra; Half-Kaddish after Taĥanun; On Mondays and Thursdays, an additional Half-Kaddish is recited after Torah reading; Kaddish Titkabal is recited after Kedusha De-sidra; Kaddish Shalem is recited after Shir shel Yom; and Kaddish De-rabanan is recited after Pitum Ha-ketoret (Shibolei Ha-leket §8). The recitation of Kaddish concludes and elevates each section of the prayer service toward the ultimate objective – God’s honor – so that we may begin the next section.

The general practice is that mourners recite Kaddish Shalem after the recitation of verses from Tanakh and Kaddish De-rabanan after studying rabbinic works, since the departed souls benefits from Kaddish recited for the purpose of its elevation (see below, sections 18-19). When no mourner is present, one who lost a parent recites the Kaddish. If nobody present has lost a parent, the common custom is to refrain from reciting those Kaddishim (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, 23:8 n. 9).

05. Barkhu

Before Birkhot Keri’at Shema, the ĥazan says, “Barkhu et Hashem ha-mevorakh” (“Bless God, the blessed One”), and the congregation responds, “Barukh Hashem ha-mevorakh le-olam va’ed” (“Blessed is God, the blessed one, forever and all time”), and the ĥazan repeats, “Barukh Hashem ha-mevorakh le-olam va’ed” (SA 57:1).

When the ĥazan says “Barkhu,” he bows a bit, and when saying “Hashem” he straightens up. Regarding the congregation, there are different customs. Some customarily bow down completely, others bow slightly, and still others do not bow at all. Everyone should follow family custom. When people with different customs pray together, it is proper for everyone to bow slightly (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 17 n. 3).

The primary purpose of Barkhu is to introduce Birkhot Keri’at Shema, for by declaring “Barkhu,” the ĥazan invites the congregation to recite Birkhot Keri’at Shema. Likewise, those called up to the Torah recite Barkhu as an introduction to Birkhot Ha-Torah.

It is customary to repeat Barkhu at the end of the prayer service so that latecomers who missed the first Barkhu have the opportunity to respond to it (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, 16:3 n. 2; 23:9).

There are different customs of standing when responding to Kaddish and Barkhu. According to the custom of most Sephardim, there is no need to stand while responding to devarim she-bikdusha, though but one who is already standing must remain standing for Kaddish and Barkhu (Maharil, Kaf Ha-ĥayim 56:20; 146:20-21; Yeĥaveh Da’at 3:4). Most Ashkenazim customarily stand while responding to Kaddish and Barkhu (MB 56:7-8; 146:18). However, concerning Barkhu, which requires a short answer, many Ashkenazim have a practice that if they are already sitting, such as during Torah reading or before Ma’ariv, they do not completely stand up. Rather, they rise slightly from their seats while bending their heads forward chairs, this rising and bowing a bit while answering. Many have a similar custom when answering a zimun of ten men, for although it is a davar she-bikdusha for which it is proper to stand according to Ashkenazic custom, since its recitation is short, it is sufficient to slightly rise instead of completely stand.

06. Ĥazarat Ha-shatz

The Men of the Great Assembly ordained that after individuals finish reciting the silent Shemoneh Esrei, the shali’aĥ tzibur (abbreviated to “shatz” an meaning “envoy of the community”; it refers to the ĥazan) repeats the Amida out loud in order to fulfill the obligation on behalf of those who do not know how to pray on their own (RH 34b). This repetition is known as Ĥazarat Ha-shatz. However, for Ma’ariv, they did not institute an Amida repetition since, technically, Ma’ariv is voluntary and consequently there is no need to fulfill the mitzva on behalf of those who are not well-versed in the prayer service.

The Sages ordained that the ĥazan also prays the silent Amida in order to prepare for his repetition. They also instructed that even those who know how to pray on their own listen to Ĥazarat Ha-shatz and answer “amen” after every berakha.

Because Ĥazarat Ha-shatz was ordained by the Sages, it must be recited even where the congregants know how to pray on their own. Even now that it is permissible to put the Oral Torah, including the prayers, in writing, and even now that siddurim are so ubiquitous that it is rare to find a minyan where someone needs Ĥazarat Ha-shatz to fulfill his obligation, the Sages’ enactment remains in force. The principle in play is that once the Sages enact a law, they do not distinguish between individual cases (SA 124:3, based on Responsa Rambam). Moreover, the Sages instituted Kedusha and Birkat Kohanim in Ĥazarat Ha-shatz, and if the Amida is not repeated, they will be abolished altogether (Tur).

Kabbalistic literature explains that in addition to the simple explanation – that it allows the uneducated to fulfill their obligation – there is another, esoteric reason. It is necessary for there to be a silent Amida as well as Ĥazarat Ha-shatz because through both of them together, prayer is most effective. Therefore, even where there is no need to fulfill the obligation on behalf of one who is not well-versed though Ĥazarat Ha-shatz, we must recite it, for the esoteric reason remains. Ĥazarat Ha-shatz is of even greater value than the silent Amida as it is collective and the congregation answers Amen to its berakhot. Hence, although the Amida is intense and sublime, and in order to preserve its exaltedness one recites it silently, the ĥazan recites Ĥazarat Ha-shatz aloud, for due to its even greater value no concern that the kelipot (“husks”; a kabbalistic term for the forces of evil) will take hold of it (see SA 124:7; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 124:2 and 16).

07. Some Laws of Ĥazarat Ha-shatz and Responding “Amen”

Three conditions must be present for an individual to fulfill his obligation by hearing Ĥazarat Ha-shatz: 1) the individual must not be proficient in prayer; one who knows how to pray must pray and beg for mercy on his own. She is unable to fulfill his obligation by hearing the ĥazan; 2) there must be a minyan, because the Sages instituted that individuals may only fulfill their obligation by hearing the ĥazan in the presence of a minyan; 3) the listener must understand the ĥazan’s words; one who does not understand Hebrew is unable to fulfill his obligation with Ĥazarat Ha-shatz.

The audience, even those who prayed individually, must take care to answer “amen” after every berakha of Ĥazarat Ha-shatz, as the Sages teach (Berakhot 53b): ‘One who responds “amen” is greater than the one who recites the blessing.’

One must respond “amen” with the utmost solemnity and have kavana that the content of the berakha is true. For instance, if one hears Ha-Kel Ha-Kadosh, she must have in mind: “It is true that the Lord is the holy God.” When the berakha includes a request, she should also think, “if only the request would be accepted.” For example, one who hears Ĥonen Ha-da’at should have two things in mind: 1) it is true that God grants knowledge; 2) “if only God would grant us knowledge” (SA 124:6; MB 25).

Here is the place to expand a bit on the laws of answering “amen” to the berakhot of Ĥazarat Ha-shatz and to all berakhot in general. “Amen” should be recited in a pleasant tone, and one’s voice should not be raised above that of the person reciting the berakha (SA 124:12). One must not shorten the “amen,” but extend it for the amount of time it takes to say “Kel Melekh Ne’eman,” although it should not be overly extended.

One may not recite “amen” too early, that is, before the berakha is completed; this is called an Amen Ĥatufa. Nor may one shorten the “amen” by slurring its syllables or tailing off before fully articulating it; this is called an Amen Ketufa. Nor may one delay saying “amen” for too long once the berakha has been concluded; this is called an Amen Yetoma (an orphaned Amen) (see Berakhot 47a; SA 124:8).

The way one responds “amen” corresponds to one’s faith in God. Because our lives depend on God, a defect in one’s faith produces a defect in his life. This is the meaning of Ben Azai’s statement: “Whoever responds with an Amen Yetoma – his children will be orphans; an Amen Ĥatufa – his days will be snatched from him; an Amen Ketufa – his days will be abbreviated. However, if one prolongs the recitation of “amen” – his days and years are lengthened” (Berakhot 47a).

The greatest Rishonim customarily said “barukh Hu u-varukh shemo” (“blessed is He, and blessed is His name”) when God’s name was mentioned in a berakha. This practice became widespread throughout Jewry, but it applies only berakhot that do not constitute the fulfillment of one’s personal obligation, such as Ĥazarat Ha-shatz for one who has already prayed silently. However, berakhot through which one fulfills a personal obligation, such as the berakhot on kiddush and blowing the shofar, the common practice is not to recite “barukh Hu u-varukh shemo,” so as not to interrupt the berakha with words not ordained by the Sages. Nevertheless, be-di’avad, if one responded “barukh Hu u-varukh shemo” in a berakha that she was obligated to recite, she has still fulfilled her obligation, since her response did not distract her from the berakha (MB 124: 21; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 26; some North African communities customarily respond even during berakhot through which one fulfills an obligation, whereas Yemenite custom is never to recite it at all).

08. Kedusha and Modim

Kedusha is recited in the third berakha of Ĥazarat Ha-shatz. The essence of the Kedusha is the congregation’s response with the verses: “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Hashem Tzevakot, melo kol ha-aretz kevodo” (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole world is filled with His glory”; Yeshayahu 6:3), “Barukh kevod Hashem mi-mkomo” (“Blessed be the Lord’s glory from His place”), and “Yimlokh Hashem Le-olam…” (“The Lord shall reign forever…; Tehilim 146:10). The custom today, based on Arizal, is for the congregation to recite the connecting passages as well. The ĥazan then repeats them aloud, and the congregation responds with the verses of the Kedusha (MB 125:2; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 2).

It is best to stand with one’s feet together for Kedusha, since we recite this Kedusha like the angels whose legs are so close together that they resemble one leg (SA 125:2). There are those who beautify the practice by remaining with their legs together until the end of Ha-Kel Ha-Kadosh (Eliya Rabba 125:6); however, this is not an obligation.

It is customary to raise one’s heels slightly and turn one’s closed eyes upward when reciting the words “Kadosh” (all three times), “Barukh,” and “Yimlokh,” thereby expressing the desire to transcend and soar upward (Beit Yosef and Rema 125:2; MB 6; and Kaf Ha-ĥayim 2 and 9, which state that some people keep their eyes open).

When the ĥazan reaches Modim, the whole congregation bows with him and recites Modim De-rabanan, whose nusaĥ differs from that of the Modim in the Amida, as clarified in the Talmud (Sota 40a). This bow must be in accordance with the laws of Modim in the silent Amida (MB 127:2; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 1; see above, 12:5).

09. When is it Permissible to Interrupt in Order to Respond to Matters of Sanctity?

We already learned that it is forbidden to interrupt by speaking in the middle of Pesukei De-zimra and Shema and its berakhot. However, for an urgent matter, such as to prevent damage or insult, it is permissible to interrupt (see above, 16:14; 15:6). Thus, just as one may interrupt for an important matter, so too one may interrupt to respond to devarim she-bikdusha. Therefore, if one is reciting Pesukei De-zimra or Shema and its berakhot and hears Kaddish, Barkhu, Kedusha, or Modim may answer. However, she is not obligated to stop and respond, as one who is reciting Pesukei De-zimra is already occupied with devarim she-bikdusha, and there is no affront to God’s honor if she continues her prayer. However, if she is surrounded by women who are responding to Kedusha and Modim, it is proper that she stop and answer together with them, because those responses are accompanied by an act (standing with feet together and bowing), and if she would continue sitting, she would appear to be separating herself from the congregation. Once she must interrupt her prayer to stand or bow with them, it is preferable that she answer with them.

The permissibility of interrupting one’s prayer to respond to Kaddish applies only to the central part of Kaddish (that which is recited in the Half-Kaddish). She does not respond to the later additions, for they are not the essence of Kaddish. Likewise, clearly one must not interrupt to respond “Barukh Hu u-varukh shemo,” as this response is mere custom.

Regarding answering “amen” to berakhot, such as the berakhot of Ĥazarat Ha-shatz: While reciting Pesukei De-zimra one may answer, but not while reciting Shema and its berakhot (see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, 14:4 n. 7; 16:5 n. 4). 1

  1. According to Ashkenazic custom, one may answer “amen” to Ha-Kel Ha-kadosh and Shome’a Tefila while reciting Birkhot Keri’at Shema, for they are on a higher level because they conclude the berakhot of praise and the berakhot of request. According to Sephardic custom, those particular berakhot have the same status as other berakhot, and one does not respond to them. Likewise, Sephardic custom is that one who finishes one of the Birkhot Keri’at Shema before the ĥazan does not answer “amen,” just as he does not respond “amen” to any berakha. Ashkenazic custom is to answer because since it is one of the Birkhot Keri’at Shema, responding to it is not considered an interruption (MB 59: 24-25; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 26, 28).

10. Places where it is Forbidden to Interrupt

In cases where one may respond in the middle of Birkhot Keri’at Shema, she may only respond while reciting the main part of it, from the beginning until just before the conclusion. However, once one says “Barukh Atta Hashem” at the conclusion, she may not interrupt at all, for such an interruption truncates the berakha (BHL 66:3).

Similarly, when reciting the verses “Shema Yisrael…” and “Barukh Shem kevod…,” in which one accepts the yoke of heaven, one may not interrupt for anything, for they have the same status as the Amida, in which we do not interrupt at all (SA 66:1).

In any case of uncertainty in the middle of Birkhot Keri’at Shema or Pesukei De-zimra, it is best not to respond, for according to many poskim, even if it is permissible to respond, there is no obligation to do so (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 16 n. 4).

In the middle of the Amida it is forbidden to respond to any davar she-bikdusha, including Kaddish and Kedusha. However, one may remain silent and be attentive to the ĥazan’s Kaddish and Kedusha, for listening with kavana is considered like actually responding. However if interrupting the Amida to listen to ĥazan disturbs her kavana, it is better that she continue her silent Amida (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 17:15).

On weekdays, one must not interrupt between Ga’al Yisrael and the Amida for any davar she-bikdusha, for adjoining redemption to prayer helps save people from distress. However, on Shabbat, which is not considered a day of distress, there is less of a necessity to adjoin redemption to prayer, and according to most poskim one may interrupt to respond to devarim she-bikdusha. On festivals, which are days of judgment (on Sukkot, we are judged regarding water, on Pesaĥ regarding the harvest, and on Shavuot regarding tree fruits – see RH 16a), one may not interrupt between redemption and prayer (SA 66:9; Rema 111:1; Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 16 n. 7).

11. Birkat Kohanim


There is a positive biblical commandment for kohanim to bless the nation of Israel, as it is written: “God spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the Israelites. Say to them: May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn His face toward you and grant you peace” (Bamidbar 6:22-26).

In this blessing, called Birkat Kohanim, we learn to notice the basic fact that God is the bestower of blessing upon us, and our daily receptivity to Birkat Kohanim implants this faith in our hearts (Moreh Nevukhim 3:44; Ha-akeida §74). The blessing bestowed on us by God is linked to our own efforts, or, in kabbalistic terminology, to the “awakening” of the nether worlds (“itaruta de-letata”), which in turn causes the awakening of the upper realms (“itaruta de-le’eila”). By fulfilling the mitzva of Birkat Kohanim, God’s desire to bestow blessing upon Israel is awakened.

During Temple times, Birkat Kohanim would take place after the daily sacrificial offerings were completed. The Torah recounts that on the eighth day of the Mishkan’s dedication, the day that the kohanim were inaugurated in their service: “Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. He then descended from [the altar where he] had prepared sin offering, burnt offering, and peace offering” (Vayikra 9:22). It is from here that we derive that Birkat Kohanim (also called “Nesi’at Kapayim” – “the lifting of the hands” – after this verse) took place at the conclusion of the sacrificial offerings. The reason for this is that after offering the sacrifices, which express our willingness to surrender and sacrifice ourselves for God, we are worthy of receiving His blessing.

Outside of the Temple, the Sages ordained that Birkat Kohanim is recited at the time of prayer, since prayer corresponds to offerings and is designed for the same purpose: coming closer to God. Thus, just as Birkat Kohanim takes place after the korbanot, so too it was instituted toward the end of Ĥazarat Ha-shatz of Shemoneh.

12. Some Laws of Birkat Kohanim

Birkat Kohanim must be recited aloud and in Hebrew. The kohanim must stand and lift their hands toward the congregation. A kohen who cannot meet these conditions may not perform Birkat Kohanim (SA 128:14; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 20:4).

Before the kohanim lift their hands, they must wash them. There is an allusion to this in the verse: “Lift up your hands in holiness and bless God” (Tehilim 134:2). Any kohen who did not wash his hands may not bless the congregation (Sota 39a).

  1. Yoĥanan b. Zakai enacted that kohanim not perform Birkat Kohanim while wearing sandals or shoes (as explained in Peninei Halakha: Prayer 20:8).

This is the protocol of Birkat Kohanim: The ĥazan or the gabbai declares “kohanim,” but if only one kohen goes up before the ark, “kohanim” is not declared. This is derived from the verse “Say to them” (Bamidbar 6:23), which is in the plural and indicates that the word “kohanim” is only declared when there are at least two kohanim present (SA 128:10). Birkat Kohanim is not recited by the kohanim on their own. Rather, the ĥazan recites each word and the kohanim repeat after him. At the completion of each verse, the congregation answers “amen.”

13. The Audience of Birkat Kohanim

Sefer Ĥaredim (12:18) states that not only the kohanim fulfill a mitzva by blessing the congregation, but the Jews who stand before them in intent silence and respond “amen” also participate in the fulfillment of this biblical commandment.

When the kohanim perform Birkat Kohanim, the congregation must stand in front of them, as it is written: “This is how you shall bless the Israelites. Say to them” (Bamidbar 6:23). The Sages interpret this to mean that Birkat Kohanim must be performed in the same way that people talk to their friends – by standing face to face and speaking aloud so that all those receiving the blessing can hear them. Although technically the audience may sit, it has become customary that all stand for Birkat Kohanim. Still, an ill or weak person who has difficulty standing may sit (MB 128:51; Tzitz Eliezer 14:18).

One who cannot come to the synagogue due to matters out of his control – for instance, one who must go to work – is still included in the berakha. Similarly, women and children who are not required to come to the synagogue are included in the berakha. Only men who can go to the synagogue but neglect to do so are excluded from the berakha.

One who comes to the synagogue but stands behind the kohanim during Birkat Kohanim is not included in the berakha. If he is standing directly alongside them, he must turn toward them to be included in the berakha. Those sitting in the first pews of the synagogue must measure where they are in relation to the kohanim. If they are in front of them or even directly to the side of them, they may remain in place and turn toward the kohanim. However, if they are slightly behind the kohanim, they must move elsewhere for Birkat Kohanim. The same ruling applies to women in the women’s section at the sides of the synagogue (SA 128:24).

Anyone standing in the synagogue facing the kohanim is included in the berakha. Even if there are taller people or pillars in front blocking the kohanim from view, she is indeed included in the berakha since she is on the side that faces the kohanim. However, one who turns her back to the kohanim is not included.

If one is in the middle of the Amida when the kohanim start to bless, she waits a bit and listens to Birkat Kohanim, which is a biblical commandment, and then she continues praying. However, she must take care not to answer “amen” to Birkat Kohanim, so as not to interrupt her Amida (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 20 n. 2).

14. Those Eligible and Ineligible to Perform Birkat Kohanim

The kohanim were commanded to perform Birkat Kohanim, but the blessing itself comes from God and does not depend on the righteousness of the kohanim. Therefore, even a kohen eats forbidden foods, has forbidden sexual relations, or commits other sins must perform Birkat Kohanim. If he does not perform it, he compounds his sin, as Rambam writes: “Do not tell an evil person, ‘Do more evil and refrain from performing mitzvot’” (MT, Laws of Prayer 15:6).

However, a kohen who has committed sins that mar his priestly status, such as marrying a divorcee or becoming contaminated by a corpse, is penalized by the Sages and forbidden him to perform Birkat Kohanim. Likewise, a kohen who worshipped idols or publicly desecrated Shabbat out of spite is deemed ineligible to perform Birkat Kohanim. However, if the kohanim who committed these sins repent completely, they may resume their priestly duties and perform the berakha (SA 128:37, 40-41; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 20:10).

A kohen who has killed may not perform Birkat Kohanim, as it is written: “When you spread your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you… your hands are full of blood” (Yeshayahu 1:15; Berakhot 32b). The kohen’s job is to increase kindness and life, like Aharon, who loved and pursued peace. A kohen who has killed has damaged the core of his priesthood. Thus, a kohen who unintentionally ran someone over with his car may not perform Birkat Kohanim. The poskim disagree about whether he may repent by fasting, tzedaka, and resolving not to sin again would enable him to once again perform Birkat Kohanim. In practice, a kohen who undergoes such a terrible experience must go to his rabbi to receive personal instruction about what to do (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 20:11).

15. The Institution of Torah Reading

There is an ancient enactment, from the time of Moshe, that the Torah is read in public on Shabbat day, Monday, and Thursdays from a scroll written with ink on parchment, so that three days never pass without the study of Torah. The Sages teach that this enactment was instituted based on the verse, “They traveled for three days in the desert without finding any water” (Shemot 15:22). Moshe and his disciples, the elders and the prophets, understood that the thirst for water was a result of three consecutive days in which Israel did not engage publicly in Torah (BK 82a). Torah is likened to water, for just as water sustains all animal and plant life, so too Torah sustains the soul. When the people disconnected themselves from the Torah even slightly, water sources also ceased to flow. Although the Torah scholars of that generation presumably studied Torah during those three days, the meaning here is that for three days the people of Israel did not engage in Torah publicly. Therefore, it was established that the Torah would be read every Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat, so that never again will more than three days pass without Israel publicly reading from the Torah.

Ezra the Scribe further instituted that the Torah be read at Minĥa on Shabbat because of  “yoshvei keranot” (BK 82a). Some say that yoshvei keranot are merchants and craftsmen who are unable to hear the reading on Mondays and Thursdays, and so the Shabbat Minĥa reading was added as a make-up opportunity for them. Others maintain that yoshvei keranot are frivolous individuals. There was concern that after they finish Shaĥarit on Shabbat they would turn to drink and idleness, and so Torah reading was instituted at Minĥa (see Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 5:8). The Sages further enacted that relevant Torah portions are read on all festivals and Rosh Ĥodesh.

On Mondays and Thursdays three people are called up (“olim”) to the Torah; four on Rosh Ĥodesh and Ĥol Ha-mo’ed; five on Yom Tov; six on Yom Kippur; and seven on Shabbat (Megilla 21a). Initially, it was customary that each person called up to the Torah would read that section, but as time went on, most congregations designated a Torah reader (ba’al koreh) who would read the Torah for everyone. This is so those who do not know how to read the Torah are not insulted and so the reading itself is especially accurate (Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays I 4:6; II p. 227)

Technically, it is permissible to add aliyot on Shabbat and call up more than seven people to the Torah, as long as each person called up for an aliya reads at least three verses. However, for several reasons, it is preferable not to add aliyot. Only when there is a pressing need, such as for a joyous occasion with celebrants who will be insulted if they are not called up, may aliyot be added to the standard seven (SA 282:1-2; MB 4-5; see Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 5:6).

The reading must be done from a kosher scroll, written with the proper intent, in ink, on parchment, just as the first Torah scroll was written by Moshe at God’s dictate. The reading must be in the presence of a minyan, as it is davar she-bikdusha (see above, 2:10, which states that women are exempt from Torah reading, and below, 22:4-6, regarding Torah reading on Shabbat. See also Peninei Halakha: Collected Essays I ch. 4 and Prayer ch. 22).

16. The Ĥazan

The ĥazan leads the prayer service. At times, the whole congregation says the prayers together with him while he sets the pace, and at other times (such as Ĥazarat Ha-shatz and Kaddish), he alone recites the prayers, with the congregation responding “amen.” The ĥazan must be honest, well-regarded, modest, and amiable, have a nice voice, and regularly read from the Torah, Prophets, and Holy Scripture (Ta’anit 16a; SA 53:4). We are especially strict about this on the Days of Awe and on fast days, when we pray to God and beg Him to forgive us for our sins, save us from our troubles, and bring our redemption closer. If there is flaw in the ĥazan, the congregation’s prayer will not ascend properly (Rema 581:1).

During the time of the Sages, it was forbidden to write siddurim because only the written Torah, meaning Tanakh, was permitted to be written. Anything that was transmitted orally, including the prayers and blessings instituted by the Sages, was forbidden to be put into writing (Temura 14b). At that time, the ĥazan’s task was very important, because he had to know all the prayers by heart and recite them aloud, for the audience fulfilled their obligations through him. Therefore, the congregation chose a permanent ĥazan for this honorable task, and all the particular laws that apply to appointing the ĥazan on fast days also pertained to the regular ĥazan. Originally, each and every member of the congregation would have to agree to the appointment of the ĥazan, since the ĥazan was the one who fulfilled the obligation on everyone’s behalf. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sages recognized the necessity of permitting the writing of the Oral Torah so that it would not be forgotten by the Jewish people. Included in that was the permission to write down the prayers. With time, siddurim became increasingly common, and today there is no need for the ĥazan to fulfill the obligation on the congregation’s behalf because all congregants pray with siddurim. Hence, there is less of a need to be meticulous in choosing a ĥazan, and it is not customary to select a permanent ĥazan for the whole year. Instead, each day a different person leads the prayer service (SA 53:19; MB 53:53).

Even so, the gabba’im, must try to choose as ĥazanim decent people who abide by the Torah and observe the mitzvot. They should be people who the congregation agrees to appoint as its emissaries, for the ĥazanim are the ones who repeat the Amida and recite Kaddish on its behalf (see Kaf Ha-ĥayim 53:86). Additionally, on Shabbat and festivals, when it is customary for ĥazanim to sing and chant part of the service, the appointed ĥazanim should be musically gifted with pleasant voices.

17. Ĥazanut for the Sake of Heaven

Ĥazanim must have kavana that their singing is the sake of heaven. If they prolong their ĥazanut (cantorial virtuosity) with the sole purpose of showing off their beautiful voices, the Torah states about them, “They have raised their voice against Me, so I hated them” (Yirmiyahu 12:8). They are using the holy prayer service to self-aggrandize. Even one whose sole intent is for the sake of heaven should not prolong his singing, so as not to burden the congregation (Rashba; SA 53:11).

Ĥazanim may not repeat the words of berakhot and Kaddish because doing so changes the formula that the Sages established. If repeating the words alters the meaning of the berakha, those words are considered a hefsek, and the ĥazan must recite the berakha again from the beginning. However, if there is no change in the meaning, be-di’avad he does not need to recite the berakha again, because he did not interrupt its recitation with an extraneous matter (see Igrot Moshe OĤ 2:22; Yabi’a Omer 6:7).

The poskim disagree about whether one may use melodies of profane songs for prayers and liturgy. In practice, when the congregation is not familiar with the crude lyrics of the song, it is customary to be lenient and fit the melody to the prayer. However, if the congregation recognizes the song, one may not use that tune for prayer, because when the people sing it, they remember the crude theme of the song and their kavana is likely to be disrupted (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 4 n. 1). It is forbidden to appoint a singer who normally sings songs with vulgar content to be ĥazan (Rema 53:25).

It is not fitting for one to desire to be ĥazan. Therefore, when the gabbai asks someone in the congregation to lead the service, proper protocol is do refuse at first, though he should not decline excessively (see SA 53:16; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 4:3). If one is capable of leading the prayers but refuses, he indeed insults the honor of the prayer service as well as God’s honor. In particular, one who God endowed with a talent for singing and a pleasant voice should not decline on Shabbat and festivals, since the prayers on those days are rich with song and melody. If he refuses to pray out of stubbornness or laziness, and does not praise God with his voice, it would have been better had he not come into this world (Sefer Ĥasidim 768). The Sages say about Navot of Jezreel that he had an exceptionally pleasant voice and would ascend to the Temple in Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals, where all Israel would gather to hear him. The one time he stayed home to guard his vineyard, he was punished; lawless people testified that he rebelled against the king and he was put to death (Pesikta Rabbati §25).

18. The Mourner’s Prayer and the Recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish

One who is mourning a parent recites Kaddish during that first year after the death, and it helps save the deceased from harsh judgment; since the deceased left progeny who sanctify God’s name in the world, clearly the deceased’s life was of enduring value. If a son knows how to lead the services and the congregation agrees to his appointment, it is best for him to be the ĥazan on weekdays, since this benefits the deceased even more. It is also customary for mourners to say Kaddish and lead the prayers on the day of yahrtzeit. When there are several mourners in the synagogue, it is customary that everyone recites Kaddish together. Concerning leading the prayer service, there is an order of precedence; for example, someone who is in his first thirty days of mourning takes priority over one who is in his year of mourning (as explained in Peninei Halakha: Prayer 4:5-7).

A minor whose mother or father died says Kaddish even though he is not yet a bar mitzva. It is for this purpose that Kaddish Yatom was instituted. It is preferable for an adult to lead the prayers and thereby benefit the deceased’s soul, but for a minor who cannot be ĥazan, the Sages instituted Kaddish (Rema YD 376:4). Even if the minor has not yet reached the age of education, the Kaddish is dictated to him, the young orphan repeats the Kaddish word for word, and the congregation answers “amen.”

It is proper to recite Kaddish on behalf of adoptive parents, especially if they do not have another son (Yalkut Yosef 7:23:13). A convert should recite Kaddish on behalf of his gentile parents (Responsa Zekan Aharon YD 87).

19. When there is No Adult Son to Recite Kaddish

If one was not privileged to leave behind a son or whose son is not God-fearing and does not come to the synagogue to recite Kaddish for them, a God-fearing grandson may say Kaddish for the whole year. A grandson from a son takes precedence over a grandson from a daughter. If the deceased does not have a grandson yet, but has a son-in-law, the son-in-law should say Kaddish. The grandson and son-in-law may recite Kaddish for their grandparent or parent in-law only after receiving permission from their own parents if they are still living. If the deceased does not have a son-in-law, the father recites Kaddish for his child. If his father is also dead, a brother or nephew says Kaddish.

When there is no relative to recite Kaddish for the deceased, part of the inheritance money should be used to hire a God-fearing person to recite Kaddish. It is good to hire someone who is engrossed in Torah. If someone in the family who is engrossed in Torah, he takes precedence over a stranger. Monetary compensation for reciting Kaddish is important to ensure its recitation. Furthermore, if they employ someone who is involved in Torah or a poor person who has children to support, the deceased will thereby accrue more merit.

The common ruling nowadays is that a man should be hired to recite Kaddish even if the deceased left a daughter. 1

  1. Although there have been places through the years where, if the deceased left only daughters, a daughter would recite Kaddish in her home or in a room adjacent to the synagogue, and some ruled that a daughter not yet bat mitzva should recite Kaddish in the synagogue. However, Ĥavot Ya’ir §222 states that it is proper to object to the recitation of Kaddish by women, so that the power of custom is not undermined, and the accepted custom is that daughters do not recite Kaddish (Yalkut Yosef 7:23:11; Pnei Barukh 34:20; Piskei Teshuvot 132:33).

    However, where there is demand for this practice, and there is no concern that it will undermine customary practice – whether because they have already been eroded or because the congregation is God-fearing and meticulous about mitzva observance – and there is no concern that it will cause dissent, the local rabbi may rule that they should recite Kaddish from the women’s section and under the conditions he specified. After all, as noted, there were places that had this custom in the past.

    This and similar halakhot demonstrate the importance of a local or congregational rabbi who is responsible for imbuing it with Torah, mitzvot, and their values. It is therefore important that every congregation has a designated rabbi who understands the congregants intimately. It is also important that the congregation rally around him and not instigate disputes when he decides in favor of one side or the other.

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