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20 – Birkat Kohanim – The Priestly Blessing

01 – The Mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim

It is a positive biblical commandment for the Kohanim to bless the nation of Israel, as it is written (Numbers 6:22-26), “Hashem spoke to Moshe, telling him to speak to Aharon and his sons saying, ‘This is how you must bless the Israelites. Say to them: May God bless you and keep watch over you. May God illuminate His face towards you and be gracious to you. May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.’”

This mitzvah is performed daily. Every Kohen who is asked to ascend the duchan (platform) to bless Israel but refuses, even though in principle he only nullifies one mitzvah, is considered to have nullified three biblical commandments. This is because the wording used in the verses implies that Hashem longs to bless Israel. Therefore, a language of command is employed three times to tell the Kohanim to bless Israel, as it is written, “This is how you must bless,” “Say to them,” and “Place My Name.” Hence, a Kohen’s refusal to fulfill the will of the Creator and bless Israel is considered a nullification of three mitzvot from the Torah (Sotah 38b; Rambam Tefillah 15:12).

Even if a Kohen who already blessed Israel that day was summoned by another minyan to bless the nation, it is a mitzvah for him to ascend and bless again. However, if he refrains, he does not nullify a biblical commandment (Shulchan Aruch 128:3).

The Sefer Charedim (12:18) writes an important novel insight, that not only the Kohanim fulfill a mitzvah from the Torah by blessing the nation, but the Israelites who stand before them in silence with kavanah and respond Amen to their blessing also participate in the fulfillment of this biblical commandment.

In Birkat Kohanim, we learn to focus on the fundamental fact that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the One who bestows blessing upon us, and our standing each day in readiness for Birkat Kohanim instills this belief in our hearts (Guide to the Perplexed, part 3, chapter 44; HaAkedah, Sha’ar 74). The more we are aware of the fact that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the One who blesses the nation of Israel with love, the more we will be open and prepared to accept the blessing (see Sefer HaChinuch 378). Free will is the fundamental component of the world, and therefore the blessing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu bestows upon us is linked to our own efforts. Or, as expressed by the Kabbalah, the awakening of our will to accept His blessing awakens the Supreme Will to bestow blessing upon Israel in abundance. By fulfilling the mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim, the nation of Israel expresses its will to accept the Divine Influence (shefa) and draws Hashem’s blessing into the world.

02 – Yisrael’s Kavanah

During Birkat Kohanim, each and every Jew must stand opposite the Kohanim and have kavanah to accept the blessing. He should not look at the Kohanim or at anything else, so as not to distract his thoughts from the berachah (Shulchan Aruch 128:23; Mishnah Berurah 89).[1]

The Chachamim established that a Kohen who has an abnormality on his body that would likely cause people to stare at him, and divert their thoughts from the berachah, may not ascend to bless the people. Therefore, before the Kohanim became accustomed to covering their faces and hands with their tallitot, any Kohen who had a deformity on his face or hands, such as unusual facial freckles or crooked fingers, would not ascend the duchan to bless the nation. However, today, when all Kohanim are accustomed to covering their faces with a tallit, a defect on one’s face or hands does not prevent a Kohen from reciting the blessing. Nevertheless, even today, if the Kohen has a noticeable deformity on his leg, he should not ascend the duchan to bless the people, for it might distract the minds of the listeners. However, if he is a permanent resident of the community, such that his defect no longer makes people curious, he may ascend to bless the nation, for it most likely will not distract the listeners (Shulchan Aruch 128:30 and 31).

Similarly, a Kohen who has a strange accent, such as one who confuses the pronunciation of the letters alef and ayin, may not bless the nation, since such a thing will distract the thoughts of the listeners from the berachah. However, a person who speaks in the accepted accent, even if he does not emphasize the ayin and the chet properly, does not distract the listeners’ thoughts. Likewise, all the known accents – Ashkenazic, Yemenite, etc. – do not divert attention from the berachah because they are known and familiar. Only someone who greatly confuses or garbles the pronunciation more than is acceptable, or stutters excessively, may not bless the people (Shulchan Aruch 128:33; Mishnah Berurah there).

In summary, the Chachamim enacted that any Kohen possessing something that might distract the people from their kavanah may not ascend the platform to bless; from these laws we understand how important it is that the listeners concentrate during Birkat Kohanim.

[1]. After Birkat Kohanim some are accustomed to recite a prayer intended for communal recital, “Adir BaMarom,” although the poskim disagree as to when it is recited. The Shulchan Aruch 130:1 maintains that when the prayer to transform and rectify an ominous dream into a favorable one (hatavat chalom) is recited in Birkat Kohanim, then Adir BaMarom is recited after it, as can be inferred from Berachot 55b. Kaf HaChaim 130:9 writes, based on the Zohar that it should not be recited in Birkat Sim Shalom. The Mishnah Berurah 130:6 writes that there are those accustomed to reciting Adir BaMarom following each time the Kohanim bless the nation, and that it is said as the chazan recites Sim Shalom. The source for this opinion can be found in the Rif, Rosh, and Taz. In practice, it is best for every person to follow his own custom.

03 – The Place Where the Congregation Stands

When the Kohanim recite the blessing, the people being blessed must position themselves in front of them, as it is written (Numbers 6:23), “This is how you must bless the Israelites. Say to them.” Chazal 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 the Kohanim reciting the blessing must stand, in principle, those being blessed may sit. Nonetheless, today, the custom is that everyone stands for Birkat Kohanim. Still, an ill or weak person who has difficulty standing is permitted to sit for the blessing (Mishnah Berurah 128:51; Tzitz Eliezer 14:18).

Anyone standing behind the Kohanim is not included in the berachah, although one who is standing directly beside them can be included as long as he turns his face towards the Kohanim. People sitting in the first rows of the synagogue must measure their place in relation to the Kohanim. If they are in front of them or even directly to the side of them, they are permitted to remain in their place and turn their face towards the Kohanim. However, if their place is slightly behind the Kohanim, they must move to a different position for the recital of the blessing (Shulchan Aruch 128:24).

Anyone standing in the synagogue in front of the Kohanim is included in the berachah. Even if there are tall people standing before him, separating him from the Kohanim, or if there is a pillar between him and the Kohanim, since he is on the side that is across from their faces, he is included in the berachah. However, someone who stands in front of the Kohanim and turns his back to them is not included.

Those who do not come to synagogue due to circumstances beyond their control are still included in the berachah. For instance, someone who has to leave for work, or women and children who do not come to synagogue, are all included in the berachah, which is intended to include all of Israel. Only those who are able to go and receive the blessing, but neglect to do so, are not included in the berachah (Bei’ur Halachah 128:24 s.v. “Im”).[2]

[2]. One who is in the middle of reciting Shemoneh Esrei and is standing behind the Kohanim may not interrupt his prayer to walk and stand in front of them. This is considered as a circumstance beyond his control, and therefore he is blessed where he stands. The chazan acts similarly; even when the Kohanim are behind him he does not go stand in front of them. Even though walking is not considered a complete interruption during the Amidah, still, it is prohibited unless necessary. Therefore the chazan is treated as one who has circumstances beyond his control and is therefore blessed where he stands. (The Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim, part 5, 20:23 writes that one who is in the middle of the Amidah should walk in front of the Kohanim. Yet, in part 4, 21:2, at the end of his ruling, he writes the exact opposite.)

One who is in the middle of reciting the Amidah when the congregation reaches Birkat Kohanim should be silent and concentrate on the berachah. Regarding Kedushah and Amen yeheh Shemei rabbah, he is not obligated to stop if he does not want to. However, in this case, where some poskim maintain that the Israelites who are being blessed also fulfill a biblical mitzvah, he must stop and listen to Birkat Kohanim, although he may not respond Amen. If he is at the same part of the prayer as the chazan, he answers Amen to the three verses of blessing. Still, concerning the berachah recited before them, some say he may not respond Amen. See Mishnah Berurah 128:79, where he rules this way regarding the chazan.

04 – Four Biblical Halachot

There are four halachot specified in the Torah concerning Birkat Kohanim: “It is only recited in the Holy Tongue, while standing, with raised hands, and in a loud voice” (Shulchan Aruch 128:14). When one of these conditions cannot be met, the Kohanim may not bless the nation.

The first halachah requires that the berachah be recited in Hebrew, the Holy Tongue. Many mitzvot are performed through speech. The Chachamim explained in the Mishnah (Sotah 32a) that the mitzvot of Keriat Shema, Amidah, and Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) can be fulfilled in foreign languages (see 1:10; 16:9). Nevertheless, Birkat Kohanim must be recited specifically in the Holy Tongue, as it is written (Numbers 6:23), “This is how you must bless,” meaning, in the language in which the Torah is written.

A possible explanation for this is that the purpose of Keriat Shema is to express the foundation of our faith, and therefore the particular language in which it is recited is less important than the understanding of what we are saying. Likewise, regarding the Amidah, the essence is that we convey our prayer in a comprehensible manner. However, Birkat Kohanim is a berachah from Hashem to us, and the language in which Hashem reveals His will in the world is the Holy Tongue. Therefore, the Kohanim are commanded to recite the Divine blessing precisely as it is written in the Torah.

The second halachah is to recite Birkat Kohanim while standing. Therefore, a weak or handicapped Kohen who must sit in a wheelchair, and cannot stand on his feet even while only reciting the blessing, may not bless the people. This is because the law of reciting Birkat Kohanim is similar to the law of the Temple service, as it is written (Deuteronomy 10:8), “To serve Him and offer blessing in His Name.” Just as the Temple service is performed while standing, so too, the berachah must be recited while standing (Sotah 38a).

A person presents himself fully in a standing position, for in that way he is seen from head to toe, expressing his complete range of abilities, both spiritual and practical. In order for the work of the Kohanim and Birkat Kohanim to be fulfilled perfectly, they must be carried out specifically while standing.

The third halachah obligates the Kohanim to raise their hands while reciting the berachah, meaning that they must spread their hands out over the people being blessed, as it is written (Leviticus 9:22), “Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them.” A Kohen whose hands tremble and are weak, and who does not have the strength to hold his hands up during the berachah, is not permitted to ascend the duchan and bless. Even if he is helped in raising his hands, it would be of no use, since the Kohen must raise his hands by himself without any assistance (Mishnah Berurah 128:52).

Rabbi Nachman of Breslav offers a spiritual explanation of this halachah, stating that the lifting of one’s hands conveys the willpower of the heart to bless Israel with love. There is a connection and relation between one’s hands and one’s heart, the proof being that a person’s hands are close to his heart. Therefore, hand motions are the heart’s instruments of expression, as it is written (Lamentations 3:41), “Let us lift up our hearts with our hands to God in Heaven.” When the Kohanim stretch their hands out to bless Israel, they are thereby expressing their heart’s great love towards Israel (Likutei Halachot Nesiat Kapayim 5:3).

Rav Kook adds that raising one’s hands forward symbolizes the future, for, indeed, the hands transcend beyond the body. Therefore the Kohanim lift their hands to convey the yearning and prayer for an ideal and rectified world (Olat Ra’ayah, part 1, 284).

The fourth halachah commands the Kohanim to recite the blessing aloud so that all the people praying in the synagogue can hear them, as it is written, “Say to them,” meaning, in the manner that a person talks to his friend (Sotah 38a). If the synagogue is small, it is sufficient for the Kohen to recite the blessing in an average tone, for that is how people normally talk. If the synagogue is large, he must recite the blessing loud enough for everyone to hear him, even if he were to recite it by himself. A Kohen who has such a faint voice that it is almost impossible to hear him does not ascend to recite the blessing (Mishnah Berurah 128:53). However, if there are other Kohanim present whose voices will be well heard, it is permissible for the Kohen with the weak voice to ascend with them and bless (see Tzitz Eliezer 15:21).

05 – The Connection of Birkat Kohanim to the Amidah and the Korbanot

During the time of the Temple, the Kohanim would recite the Priestly Blessing after the conclusion of the Korbanot service. The Torah writes this in reference to the eighth day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, the day the Kohanim began performing their service there. “Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. He then descended from [the altar where he] had performed the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offering” (Leviticus 9:22). From here we learn that the people were blessed at the conclusion of the sacrificial offerings. The reason for this is that after offering the sacrifices, which express our readiness to surrender ourselves and sacrifice our souls to Hashem, we are worthy of receiving His blessing.

Outside the Temple, the Chachamim established that Birkat Kohanim would be recited during the prayer service, since prayer replaced the Korbanot. There is a similarity between the Korbanot and prayer, for in both, one’s yearning for Divine closeness is expressed. Just like the Kohanim recited the blessing after the Korbanot, so it was established that towards the end of the Shemoneh Esrei the Kohanim bless the nation.

In order to greatly emphasize the relevance of Birkat Kohanim to the conclusion of the sacrificial offerings, the Chachamim established that the Kohanim are obligated to start walking in the direction of the duchan at the time of Birkat Retzeh, for that is the berachah that discusses the return of the sacrificial offerings. Any Kohen who does not head toward the duchan (“lift his feet”) at the time of Birkat Retzeh loses the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah and is prohibited from ascending to the duchan during that Amidah (Shulchan Aruch 128:8). L’chatchilah, the Kohen should lift his feet in the beginning of Birkat Retzeh. However, as long as the chazan did not reach the end of the berachah, the Kohen is still permitted to ascend towards the duchan (Mishnah Berurah 128:25).

A Kohen who arrives late and realizes that he will not complete the washing of his hands before the conclusion of Birkat Retzeh is advised to take a small step in the direction of the duchan while still standing at the sink. With this step he is considered to have started to walk towards the duchan during Birkat Retzeh. When he finishes his washing, he continues to walk to the duchan to bless the people (see Mishnah Berurah 128:27, 28; Sha’ar HaTziyun 30; Sefer Nesiat Kapayim Kehilchatah 7:2, note 8).

Because Birkat Kohanim is connected to the Korbanot, the Chachamim teach that just as the time to bring sacrificial offerings was specifically during the day, so too, Birkat Kohanim is recited during the day. Therefore, the Kohanim do not bless the nation during Ma’ariv. Although presumably there is reason to recite Birkat Kohanim during Minchah, the Chachamim decided against this since the time of the Minchah prayer is usually after a meal, and there is concern that a Kohen who drank wine at his meal will subsequently ascend the duchan to bless the people and desecrate the berachah. It is forbidden for a Kohen who is drunk to work in the Temple, and he is prohibited from blessing the people (Shulchan Aruch 128:38). However, in Ne’ilah, and during Minchah of public fast days, the blessing is recited. Since the Kohanim are fasting, there is no concern of intoxication (Shulchan Aruch 129:1). This is on condition that the Minchah of a fast day is prayed after plag haminchah (a proportional hour and a quarter before sunset), but when Minchah of a fast day is recited before plag haminchah, the Kohanim do not bless the people.[3]

[3]. Although some maintain that it is permissible to bless the nation even at Minchah Gedolah of a fast day, the majority of poskim maintain that the blessing is only recited after plag haminchah. This is because the enactment to bless the nation in the afternoon pertains to the Ne’ilah prayer and not the Minchah prayer (on Yom Kippur, the Kohanim do not bless the people at Minchah). If Birkat Kohanim in the afternoon would have been instituted for the Minchah prayer, people might think that Birkat Kohanim is recited at Minchah of a regular day as well, when it is in fact forbidden for concern of intoxication. However, on a fast day in which there is no Ne’ilah, the blessing is recited at Minchah, on condition that it is recited at the time of Ne’ilah, meaning close to the end of the day.

Even though there are various opinions as to how to calculate plag haminchah (a proportional hour and a quarter before sunset, or a proportional hour and a quarter before tzeit hakochavim), the main calculation is a proportional hour and a quarter before sunset, since the opinion maintaining that it is before tzeit hakochavim is calculated based on Rabbeinu Tam (meaning, 72 minutes after sunset, as explained earlier in this book, chapter 11, note 14. In other words, plag haminchah according to Rabbeinu Tam is between two to eighteen minutes before the visible sunset.) Nonetheless, it is best to start Minchah a little later than that, approximately half an hour to three quarters of an hour before sunset, closer to the time of Ne’ilah. This way, Birkat Kohanim will be recited as close as possible to sunset.

06 – Washing Hands Before the Blessing

Before the Kohanim raise their hands to bless the nation, they must wash their hands up to their wrists. There is an allusion to this in the verse (Psalms 134:2), “Lift up your hands in holiness and bless Hashem.” Any Kohen who did not wash his hands may not bless the people (Sotah 39a). Eminent Rishonim disagree regarding the reason for this hand washing. According to the Rambam (Tefillah 15:5), the obligation to wash one’s hands only exists when they are dirty. Therefore, a Kohen who washes his hands in the morning and is careful not to touch dirty parts of his body is not obligated to wash his hands again before Birkat Kohanim. However, according to Rashi and Tosafot (Sotah 39a), even clean hands must be washed and sanctified in honor of Birkat Kohanim.

In practice, we are stringent, and a Kohen whose hands are clean must also wash them before Birkat Kohanim, like the opinion of Rashi and Tosafot. However, no berachah is recited on the washing even if he touched dirty places before washing, since there is doubt whether or not the Chachamim instituted a berachah for it (Mishnah Berurah 128:24, based on the Eliyah Rabbah).

It seems from the Zohar that this washing was intended to sanctify the Kohanim, and their hands, in preparation for the berachah. In order to increase the level of sanctity, it is customary that a Levi pour the water on the hands of the Kohanim. When there is no Levi present in the synagogue, it is advisable that a firstborn, who possesses some amount of sanctity, wash the hands of the Kohanim. In the absence of a Levi and a firstborn, the Kohen washes his own hands (Shulchan Aruch 128:6; Mishnah Berurah 22).

When the Kohen is concerned that perhaps there will not be water in the synagogue with which to wash his hands before blessing the people, he washes them in his house before the prayer service and takes care to keep them clean. In that way he can recite the blessing upon the people. However, if the Kohen is not careful to keep his hands clean after the morning washing, and he does not have water to wash them before Birkat Kohanim, he may not ascend the duchan to bless the nation.

In every situation where the Kohen is forbidden to bless the people, it is advisable that he leave the synagogue before the time of Birkat Kohanim, so that the gabbai will not mistakenly call him up to ascend the duchan when he is not permitted to do so. If the Kohen remains present and he is not called, there is concern that perhaps people will think that he is an invalid Kohen.

07 – Yisrael’s Participation in Birkat Kohanim

When the time arrives to recite Birkat Kohanim, the Kohanim are not permitted to start the berachah until the chazan or the gabbai announces “Kohanim.” This is because the Torah states (Numbers 6:23), “Say to them,” denoting that Moshe, who is not a Kohen, must tell the Kohanim to bless Israel. Thus we learn that first the Kohanim must be called, and only afterward do they begin blessing. If only one Kohen ascends the platform, “Kohanim” is not declared, since it is written, “Say to them” (in plural). Thus, the word “Kohanim” is only announced when there are at least two Kohanim present (Shulchan Aruch 128:10). Some authorities conclude that the essence of Birkat Kohanim is when there are at least two Kohanim to perform the blessing (Rabbeinu Peretz brought by the Tur 128; see Aruch HaShulchan 128:9).

The blessing itself is not recited by the Kohanim on their own. Rather, the chazan recites each word and the Kohanim repeat after him. Some chazanim mistakenly recite the words in a quiet voice. That is incorrect. Instead, the chazan‘s voice must be heard clearly by the Kohanim and should be just slightly softer than theirs (see Tzitz Eliezer 14:17; Nesiat Kapayim Kehilchatah 12:3.) Following each verse, the congregation answers Amen.

As we learned (in halachah 1) the awakening of our will to accept Hashem’s blessing awakens the Supreme Will to abundantly bestow blessing upon Israel. In other words, when HaKadosh Baruch Hu created the world, He established that free will was to be a key component. Therefore only after we awaken from below the desire for something positive, a parallel desire from Above awakens to aid us in achieving that thing. Hence, it is necessary that one of the Yisraelim being blessed first declares “Kohanim,” thereby expressing in words our desire to accept Hashem’s blessing, and only then the Kohanim begin to bless. Afterwards as well, the chazan must read every word first, and in doing so, express our desire for every detail of the berachah, following which the Kohanim repeat that word, and HaKadosh Baruch Hu abundantly bestows His blessing upon us (Likutei Halachot LaMaharan, Nesiat Kapayim 3:4).

08 – The Kohen’s Obligation to Remove His Shoes Before the Blessing

One of the nine enactments instituted by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai (who lived at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple) pertains to the law of Birkat Kohanim. He decreed that the Kohanim must not ascend the duchan to bless the nation while wearing sandals or shoes. There are a number of reasons for this enactment, one being out of respect for the congregation, for it is not appropriate for the Kohanim to bless the nation with mud on their shoes. Likewise, the Temple services were performed by the Kohanim without shoes, due to the sanctity of the site. The halachic reason for this enactment is that the laces of the Kohen’s shoes might become loose, causing him to feel uncomfortable standing on the duchan, which is a high place, where he can be seen by the whole nation. To hide his embarrassment, he would have to bend down and tie his laces, and the people might misinterpret his bending and not reciting Birkat Kohanim as his admission of not actually being a Kohen (Sotah 40a).

Based on these reasons, a Kohen may not ascend the duchan with shoes or sandals, nor with slippers that have laces. Regarding slippers, if they are made of leather, even without laces, it is prohibited to ascend the duchan in them as well, since ordinary shoes are generally made of leather, and all leather shoes are included in the enactment of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. However, it is permissible to ascend the duchan in non-leather slippers that do not have laces.

In a place where it is not customary to appear barefoot, or in sandals without socks, before respectable people, it is proper that the Kohanim ascend the platform with socks on their feet (Mishnah Berurah 128:18). In a place where it is customary to walk in sandals without socks, even in front of respectable people, it is permissible for Kohanim to bless the people while barefooted (Olat Tamid 128:11).

At times, the question arises: what does a handicapped Kohen do if he is unable to take off his shoes, and likewise, what does a Kohen in the army do when he does not have time to remove his army boots? In cases of extenuating circumstances like these, some poskim are lenient and allow a Kohen to bless the people while standing on the floor of the synagogue, not ascending the duchan, where, because of its elevation, their feet and shoes can be seen, and this would bring disgrace to the blessing. If however, the Kohen is standing on the ground at the same level as the congregation, there is no prohibition to recite the blessing while wearing shoes. In extenuating circumstances, the Kohanim can rely on these poskim and bless Israel on the floor in shoes, provided that their shoes are clean (see Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 2, 32, regarding a handicapped person; concerning the issue of extenuating circumstances, see Tzitz Eliezer 14:11 and Yechaveh Da’at 2:13).

09 – The Role of the Kohanim

The Kohanim had two main tasks: the first was to educate and teach halachah in Israel, as it is written (Malachi 2:7), “For the kohen’s lips safeguard knowledge, and Torah is sought from his mouth.” The second was to be messengers of chesed and peace, like Aharon HaKohen, whose disciples were taught to “love peace and pursue peace, love thy fellow creatures and bring them closer to Torah” (Avot 1:12). Regarding Aharon HaKohen, Chazal relate that he knew how to make peace between friends, and between husbands and wives, and that in his merit thousands of couples remained together. Consequently, children were born to them, and they named their sons “Aharon” after him.

In order to enable the Kohanim to develop these two basic qualities, wisdom and kindness, the Torah established that Kohanim would not receive a portion of land in Israel, and that their livelihood would depend on the produce offerings and priestly gifts of the Israelites. In that way, the Kohanim would be free to learn Torah, educate the people, and guide them. Since the Yisraelim provide them with sustenance, all the people of Israel become partners in the spiritual work of the Kohanim. Due to the fact that they do not own land, and do not partake in the competition involved in earning a livelihood, they can more easily develop their love and chesed towards the entire nation.

Ahavah (love) is also the basis for Birkat Kohanim. Out of their love to the nation, the Kohanim become worthy emissaries to bless Israel in the name of Hashem. The wording of the berachah is as follows: “Who sanctified us with the holiness of Aharon and commanded us to bless His people, Israel, with love.” The poskim write that any Kohen who is hated by the congregation, or who hates the congregation, or even just one person in it, is forbidden to recite Birkat Kohanim. If he says the words out of enmity, he will bring danger upon himself. Instead, he must eliminate the animosity from his heart, or leave the synagogue before Birkat Kohanim, since its main purpose is to bless Israel with love (Mishnah Berurah 128:37; HaRav Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen, Olat Ra’ayah 2:413).

10 – An Evil Kohen

The mitzvah to bless the nation applies to all Kohanim, righteous or evil. Therefore, even a Kohen who sins by eating forbidden foods, having forbidden relations, or committing other sins (excluding those to be outlined in the following paragraphs) is obligated to ascend the duchan to recite the blessing. If he refrains from blessing, he only adds insult to injury. As the Rambam writes (Hilchot Tefillah 15:6), “Do not tell an evil person, ‘Do more evil and refrain from performing mitzvot.’”

It is not surprising how an evil Kohen can bless Israel, because in truth, it is Hashem Who blesses His nation of Israel with love. In order for the blessing to be revealed in the world, the Kohanim are commanded to utter the prayer with their lips. Consequently, Israel will strengthen its awareness that Hashem is the source of blessing in the world. Since the Kohanim in general are the group granted the holiest tasks from among the Jewish people, they were chosen to express the Divine Will to bless the nation of Israel. Yet, the berachah is not dependent on the personal righteousness of the Kohen who blesses, but on God’s desire to bless His people (Rambam ibid., 7; and see Olat Ra’ayah, part 1, p. 283).

However, if the Kohen commits sins which mar his priesthood, the Chachamim penalize him and forbid his ascent to the duchan. For instance, a Kohen who marries a divorcee is prohibited from reciting Birkat Kohanim. Similarly, a Kohen who is not careful to avoid becoming contaminated by the impurity of the dead is forbidden to bless the people. The reason is that since these prohibitions were intended to preserve the special sanctity of the Kohanim, one who transgresses them damages his priesthood, and therefore the Chachamim penalize him by forbidding him to ascend the duchan. Likewise, he is not called up to the Torah for the special aliyah of the Kohanim.

If he decides to repent, he must first divorce his forbidden wife and vow in public not to marry women who are prohibited to him again. Only after that may he resume his priestly task of blessing the people. Likewise, if he was accustomed to becoming contaminated by the dead, he must accept upon himself not to do so again (Shulchan Aruch 128:40-41).

A Kohen who worshiped idols is disqualified from reciting Birkat Kohanim. We learn this from the law of the Temple service; just as a Kohen who worships idols is ineligible to perform the Temple service, so too, he is unfit to bless the people (Menachot 109a and Tosafot there). However, if he repents completely, he may resume his priestly duties and bless the nation (Shulchan Aruch 128:37).

There are poskim who equate the law concerning one who publicly (meaning in front of ten Jews) desecrates the Shabbat, to the law of a person who worships idols, and they maintain that a Kohen who does so is forbidden to ascend the duchan. That is how the Mishnah Berurah rules (128:134). However, according to a number of eminent Acharonim, even a Kohen who desecrates the Shabbat is permitted to ascend the duchan, for a number of reasons. First, it is not clear that the law concerning one who desecrates the Shabbat is, indeed, like that of an idol worshiper. Secondly, a distinction must be made between those who desecrate the Shabbat nowadays and those who did so in the past. In the past, it was clear that anyone who desecrated the Shabbat publicly did so partly in defiance of the Torah and the mitzvot. However, today, those who desecrate the Shabbat do not intend to purposely incite God’s wrath. Even if they publicly violate the laws of Shabbat, it is due to a lack of faith and learning, and not from an intention to arouse anger and to antagonize. Therefore, a Kohen who desecrates the Shabbat without intending to desecrate Hashem’s Name and offend the Torah is permitted to ascend the duchan, according to the lenient opinion.[4]

However, the law regarding a Kohen who desecrates the Shabbat in order to purposely incite God’s wrath is different. This includes a Kohen who participates in organizing communal desecration of the Shabbat. This includes organizing bus rides on Shabbat, partaking in a demonstration in favor of opening businesses and movie theaters on Shabbat. As long as he does not repent, he is like an idol worshiper and is deemed unfit to ascend the duchan.

[4]. Some are lenient so that the children of these Kohanim will not be mistaken for not being Kohanim and subsequently marry women who are forbidden to all Kohanim. So writes Achiezer, part 4, 3, and what is brought in the name of the Aderet. The Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:33 writes that, in principle, one who desecrates the Shabbat is permitted to bless the nation. There, in part 2, 4 he writes that the Levushei Mordechai is also lenient regarding this. See earlier in this book, chapter 2, note 10, that some Acharonim allow one who desecrates the Shabbat to join a minyan, since today such a person does not sin intentionally to arouse anger.

11 – A Kohen Who Has Killed Is Ineligible to Ascend the Duchan

A Kohen who has taken a life may not bless the nation, as it is written (Isaiah 1:15), “When you spread your hands [in prayer], I will turn My eyes away from you… [for] your hands are full of blood” (Berachot 32b). This means that only hands clean of blood are kosher for reciting Birkat Kohanim. This is similar to a sacrificial altar, whose stones are forbidden to be shaped using iron, since iron shortens human life, whereas the altar is intended to make peace and lengthen human life. Similarly, a Kohen whose hands have been contaminated by blood may not bless the people and bestow abundant blessing and peace upon Israel. The task of the Kohen is to augment kindness and life, like Aharon HaKohen, who was a lover and pursuer of peace, and a Kohen who has killed has damaged the core of his priesthood.

According to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 128:35), no repentance can help a Kohen who has committed murder. Even if he killed accidentally, repentance will not do him any good, since a prosecutor cannot become a defender, and hands that have committed murder are forever ineligible to bestow Birkat Kohanim upon the nation.

However, according to the Rama, if the Kohen fully repents and goes to a sage who will arrange a process consisting of fasting, giving tzedakah, and accepting upon himself not to sin again in the future, then after concluding the process of repentance, he may resume blessing the people. Someone who repents becomes a new person, and therefore, even if he committed murder intentionally, if he completely repents, he may resume blessing the people.

There is an intermediate opinion which maintains that a Kohen who murdered accidentally and repented may bless the people. However, a Kohen who intentionally murdered someone may not bless the nation even after he repents (Pri Chadash; Eliyah Rabbah; Bei’ur Halachah 128:35). A Kohen who experiences such a serious incident must go to his rabbi to receive personal advice regarding how to practice.

Similarly, a Kohen who has unintentionally run over and killed someone with his car may not ascend the duchan for Birkat Kohanim. As mentioned previously, the poskim disagree as to whether repentance would be effective. However, if there was no negligence on his part while driving – for example, a child suddenly jumped under the wheels of his car and he could not prevent the accident – then in such a case, he is not even considered one who kills unintentionally. Rather, he is seen as a person who killed due to circumstances beyond his control, and according to all opinions, if he repents according to the instructions of his rabbi, he is permitted afterwards to resume blessing the nation (Yechaveh Da’at 5:16).

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