• Rav Michael Siev


Introduction to the Study of Talmud
by Rav Michael Siev

Megilla:20 - 24b

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Last week, we began to discuss the problem of gazing at the hands of the kohanim during birkat kohanim. We gave two different explanations of why there is such a prohibition, and practical differences between them. This issue has also given rise to customs relating to proper birkat kohanim protocol. The Rama notes two different customs that developed in order to ensure that people would not stare at the hands of the kohanim. One custom was that the kohanim would cover their heads with their talitot, leaving their hands outside of the talit. The congregation would also cover their heads with their own talitot. This would ensure that neither the kohanim nor the congregation would be able to see the hands of the kohanim. The other practice was that the kohanim would cover even their hands with their talitot, ensuring that the congregation could not see their hands. This custom does not necessitate the other members of the congregation covering their heads with their talitot, but it also does not shield the kohanim themselves from looking at their hands. Despite the fact that the Mishna Berura prefers the first method, the common custom nowadays is that the kohanim cover even their hands with their talitot.

Some non-kohanim are careful to totally cover their heads and even the heads of their children with their talitot during birkat kohanim. Presumably, this custom either developed in places where the kohanim kept their hands outside of their talitot, or is meant to prevent people from looking around and being distracted during birkat kohanim.

There is one practice that a small minority of people have which seems to be a misguided attempt to be careful about this issue. They are so concerned about not seeing the hands of the kohanim that they actually turn around such that their backs face the kohanim during birkat kohanim. While this does ensure that they will not look at the kohanim, it is problematic in that birkat kohanim should be performed with the kohanim and congregation facing each other. Turning one's back on the kohanim implies that one is not interested in receiving their beracha.

The gemara

We learned the mishna on 24b last week. The mishna states that a kohen with blemishes on his hands should not perform birkat kohanim so that people don't stare at his hands. The gemara picks up on this theme. We are currently on the fourth of the wide lines on 24b.

It was taught (in a b'raita): The blemishes that were said - on his face, hands and feet.

R' Yehoshua ben Levi said: If his hands are spotted, he should not 'raise his hands.'

Similarly it was taught (in a b'raita): If his hands are spotted he should not 'raise his hands.' Curled or bent - he should not 'raise his hands.'

תנא: מומין שאמרו - בפניו, ידיו ורגליו.

אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: ידיו בוהקניות - לא ישא את כפיו.

תניא נמי הכי: ידיו בוהקניות - לא ישא את כפיו. עקומות, עקושות - לא ישא את כפיו.   

The gemara here gives further detail regarding the types of blemishes that disqualify a kohen from performing birkat kohanim. If the kohen's hands are in any way unusual in appearance, we are concerned that the novelty will attract people's attention, and they will look at his hands during birkat kohanim.

The first b'raita quoted by the gemara significantly broadens the scope of this halacha. The mishna says only that one with blemishes on his hands may not perform birkat kohanim. The b'raita extends this even to blemishes on one's hands or feet. 

What is the reason for this extension? If the problem is only staring at the kohen's hands, shouldn't his face and feet be irrelevant? Think of this question in light of the disagreement between Rashi and Tosafot that we discussed at the end of last week's shiur!  

As we learned last week, Tosafot argue that the reason one cannot stare at the hands of the kohanim is that one should be concentrating on the berachot one is receiving. Based on this reasoning, there is no real difference between the kohen's hands, any other part of his body, or in fact anything else. One should be concentrating only on the berachot. Therefore, we understand well that if a kohen has a blemish on any visible part of his body, he should not perform birkat kohanim. Any added distraction to the congregation is to be avoided.

According to Rashi, though, there is a special prohibition against staring at the hands of the kohen because the shechina rests (or at least rested in the time of the beit hamikdash) on them. Why then should we assume that the halacha is concerned with his face and feet?

Rashi (s.v. panav, 18th short line of Rashi on 24b) explains:

On his face, hands and feet - one who 'raises his hands' takes off his shoes, as we learned in a b'raita (in Masechet Sota), and if he has a blemish, they will look at it, and through that they will see his hands.

Essentially, Rashi explains that any blemish the kohen has may attract attention. Once people are staring at the kohen, they may end up staring at his hands. It is not inherently problematic to look at the kohen's face and feet; it is merely a secondary precaution so that people do not end up looking at the kohen's hands.

If you look at the standard page of gemara, you will note that before the first word of this section of text, right after the mishna, there is a letter aleph in Rashi script in parenthesis. This refers the reader to the Hagahot haBach, located on the left side of the page towards the bottom. The Bach, R' Yoel Sirkis, wrote glosses on the gemara, in which he often dealt with issues relating to textual variants. Here, he notes that the editions of gemara that some early authorities used did not have the first statement of our b'raita, namely that blemishes on the face and feet also disqualify a kohen from performing birkat kohanim. Most editions do have it, however, and the accepted halacha does take this statement into account. Nevertheless, there is a different reason that this halacha has limited applicability nowadays. It is understood that the kohen with unusual appearance is essentially allowed to perform birkat kohanim if not for the technical matter that his appearance will attract attention. Therefore, the Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 128:30-31) that in places where kohanim say the berachot while wearing socks rather than barefoot, blemishes on the feet are not a problem. Similarly, in places where the custom is that the kohanim cover their heads and hands with their talitot, blemishes on the face and hands do not disqualify. Since that is the prevailing custom nowadays, this halacha is generally not applicable. The principle, however, still applies. Thus, for example, since the custom is for kohanim to uses a talit for birkat kohanim, if a kohen cannot find a talit, many authorities rule that he should not perform birkat kohanim without it but should rather exit the room before birkat kohanim. Performing birkat kohanim without a talit would be unusual, and would likely attract attention.

Back to the gemara

The gemara now moves on to discuss other cases in which a kohen may be disqualified from performing birkat kohanim. We are on the 6th wide line of 24b.

Rav Asi said: A person from Haifa (or Beit She'an) should not 'raise his hands.'

It was similarly taught (in a b'raita): We do not send down before the ark (to serve as chazan) people from Beit She'an or people from Haifa or people from Tivonin, because they pronounce alephs as ayins and ayins as alephs.

R' Hiyya said to R' Shimon the son of Rebbi: If you were a Levite, you would be unfit for the platform, because your voice is thick.

He (R' Shimon) went and told his father. He (Rebbi) said to him: Go and tell him, when you come to, "And I hope to God," are you not found to be a reviler and a blasphemer?

אמר רב אסי: חיפני (ובשיני) לא ישא את כפיו.

תניא נמי הכי: אין מורידין לפני התיבה לא אנשי בית שאן, ולא אנשי בית חיפה, ולא אנשי טבעונין, מפני שקורין לאלפין עיינין ולעיינין אלפין.

אמר ליה רבי חייא לרבי שמעון בר רבי: אלמלי אתה לוי פסול אתה מן הדוכן משום דעבי קלך.

אתא אמר ליה לאבוה. אמר ליה: זיל אימא ליה: כשאתה מגיע אצל (ישעיהו ח') וחכיתי לה', לא נמצאת מחרף ומגדף?

The gemara here introduces another disqualifying factor for kohanim - inability to pronounce the words of birkat kohanim properly. The initial b'raita is rather cryptic; it says only that people from Haifa and Beit She'an are disqualified. Before we go further, we should note another issue regarding the text. The word ובשיני is in parenthesis, and in standard editions of the gemara there is an asterisk at the beginning of the word. Asterisks always refer the reader to the side of the page, in this case the left side margin, where we have the Mesorat haShas (identified at the top of that column). Across from our line of gemara, it notes that the correct reading (צ"ל stands for צריך לומר, "it should say") is ובישני, which means a person from Beit She'an.

The gemara compares this cryptic ruling with a b'raita that states a different halacha, but in greater detail. The second b'raita states that people from three municipalities were disqualified from serving as chazan because they were unable to pronounce the words correctly; they would not properly differentiate between alephs and ayins. This explains our halacha as well - one who cannot properly pronounce the words is unfit for birkat kohanim.

On a practical level, the poskim (See Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berura Orach Chaim 128:31) explain that the confusion of alephs and ayins is just one example, but the rule would be the same if one cannot pronounce the words properly for any reason. Nevertheless, it is only a problem if the individual kohen has difficulty with pronunciations. Nowadays, when most people do not differentiate between alephs and ayins, it is not a problem for a kohen who does not differentiate between them to perform birkat kohanim.

NOTE: The mishna implies that there is a difference between the pronunciation of an aleph and an ayin. This is maintained today in most Sefardic communities, where the ayin is pronounced gutturally. In Ashkenazi communities, this distinction has been generally obliterated.

The gemara continues by relating a discussion that also centered on pronunciations. In the time of the beit hamikdash, the levi'im would stand on a platform and sing as musical accompaniment to the sacrificial service. R' Hiyya told R' Shimon the son of Rebbi that were he a levi, he would be disqualified from serving in this capacity because his voice was thick and thus would not blend with the voices of other levi'im. Rebbi told his son R' Shimon to respond that R' Hiyya himself did not properly pronounce his words, in that he would say the letter chet as a hei. Thus, the word v'chikiti, as in the verse "And I hope (v'chikiti) to God," (Yeshaya 8:17), could be read v'hikiti, which means "I strike," a term that would be very inappropriate if applied to a person's relationship with God!

(In regard to this puzzling exchange, Chatam Sofer suggests that the sages were debating an issue of practical importance. The disqualifications of a Levite may apply as well to members of the sanhedrin and to it's head, the nasi. Rebbi (R' Yehuda HaNasi) was a nasi, and R' Hiyya was suggesting that his son, R' Shimon, was technically unfit to succeed his father. Rebbi responded that since R' Hiyya himself was fit for the sanhedrin (as indicated by a different incident that had occurred) despite being unable to properly pronounce a chet, it was clear that the disqualifications of a levi do not apply to members of the sanhedrin.)

Back to the gemara

We continue with the gemara, which now introduces new factors that may attract attention and that therefore disqualify a kohen from birkat kohanim, but also limits the application of this whole halacha. We are on the 11th wide line of 24b.

Rav Huna said: One whose eyes flow with tears should not 'raise his hands.'

But there was one (such kohen) in the neighborhood of Rav Huna, and he would 'spread his hands (to perform birkat kohanim, without Rav Huna objecting)!' That one was familiar in his city.

It was similarly taught (in a b'raita): One whose eyes flow with tears should not 'raise his hands,' and if he was familiar in his city - it is permitted.

R' Yochanan said: One who is blind in one of his eyes should not 'raise his hands.' But there was one in the neighborhood of R' Yochanan who would spread his hands! That one was familiar in his city. It was similarly taught (in a b'raita): One who is blind in one of his eyes should not 'raise his hands,' and if he was familiar in his city - it is permitted.

R' Yehuda says: One whose hands were colored should not 'raise his hands.' It was taught (in a b'raita): If most people of the city worked in this (their occupation caused them to stain their hands) - it is permitted.

אמר רב הונא: זבלגן לא ישא את כפיו. 

והא ההוא דהוה בשיבבותיה דרב הונא, והוה פריס ידיה!  ההוא דש בעירו הוה.

תניא נמי הכי: זבלגן לא ישא את כפיו, ואם היה דש בעירו - מותר.

אמר רבי יוחנן: סומא באחת מעיניו לא ישא את כפיו. והא ההוא דהוה בשיבבותיה דרבי יוחנן, דהוה פריס ידיה! ההוא דש בעירו הוה. תניא נמי הכי: סומא באחת מעיניו לא ישא את כפיו, ואם היה דש בעירו - מותר.

רבי יהודה אומר מי שהיו ידיו צבועות לא ישא את כפיו. תנא: אם רוב אנשי העיר מלאכתן בכך - מותר.  

This section of gemara discusses three additional applications of the halacha that a kohen whose appearance attracts attention may not perform birkat kohanim: one whose eyes flow with tears, one who is blind, even if only in one of his eyes (and only if his eyes are of unusual appearance) and one whose hands are stained (this last case is a quote from the end of the mishna). There is a dispensation that applies across the board; if for some reason this will not attract attention, there is no reason the kohen should be disqualified from birkat kohanim. Thus, if the members of a particular community are used to seeing the kohen whose eyes tear or who is blind, they will not stare at him, and he can participate in birkat kohanim in that area. Similarly, if most residents of a town have a job that causes their hands to become stained, it will not be unusual to them if this kohen's hands are stained, and he is not disqualified from birkat kohanim.

We have now arrived at the next mishna - with which we will continue, God willing, in our next shiur. Due to the rapidly approaching holiday of Pesach, we will be taking a break in our shiurim until the conclusion of the holiday. Until then, it would be wise to review what we have learned these last few months. I highly recommend using the shiurim (all of which are available online at www.vbm-torah.org/talmud66.html) to practice reading from a regular gemara. This is the best way to improve one's ability to read gemarot on one's own.

Best wishes for a chag kasher v'same'ach,

Michael Siev