Birkat Kohanim at Mincha on a Fast Day
YHE-HALAKHA: TOPICS IN HALAKHA
BIRKAT KOHANIM AT MINCHA ON A FAST DAY*
Rav Shlomo Levi
I. THE DISAGREEMENT IN THE GEMARA
On an ordinary day, the kohanim may possibly have drunken wine with their midday meal, and therefore, since it is forbidden to recite the priestly blessing while intoxicated, the Sages ordained that the priestly blessing is not recited at the Mincha service. The question arises: How could the Sages void a positive Torah commandment because of such a concern?
It may be argued that we find other cases where the Sages voided a mitzva because of some similar concern. It is more likely, however, that fundamentally the obligation to recite the priestly blessing only applies when the kohanim have been called up to the duchan (the platform) where the blessing is recited, but if they were never called up, they are not obligated to ascend to the duchan on their own. Accordingly, the Sages did not void the mitzva itself, but rather they voided that which creates the obligation to fulfill the mitzva. And furthermore, it should be emphasized that in any event by Torah law the kohanim are only obligated to recite the priestly blessing once a day, and assuming that they already recited the priestly blessing at Shacharit, reciting the blessing at Mincha is merely a supplement.
On a fast day, however, there is no concern about intoxication, and therefore the question arises whether or not the Sages nevertheless decreed that the kohanim should not recite the priestly blessing at Mincha even on a fast day, lest they come to recite it then on an ordinary day as well.
The Gemara in Ta'anit 26b records a Tannaitic disagreement regarding Birkat Kohanim (= Nesi'at Kappayim = the priestly blessing) on a fast day:
At all [services, namely] at Shacharit, at Musaf, at Mincha and at Ne'ila there is Nesi'at Kappayim; these are the words of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yehuda says: At Shacharit and at Musaf there is Nesi'at Kappayim; at Mincha and at Ne'ila there is no Nesi'at Kappayim. Rabbi Yose says: At Ne'ila there is Nesi'at Kappayim; at Mincha there is no Nesi'at Kappayim.
Rabbi Meir says that such a decree was not issued, and therefore the priestly blessing is recited on a fast day, both at Mincha and at Ne'ila. Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose disagree, arguing that if the kohanim recite the priestly blessing on a fast day, they are liable to err and recite it at Mincha on an ordinary day as well. Rabbi Yehuda maintains that for this reason the priestly blessing is recited neither at Mincha nor at Ne'ila. Rabbi Yose distinguishes between the two services, arguing that the priestly blessing is not recited at Mincha, but it is recited at Ne'ila, because on an ordinary day there is no Ne'ila service.
The Gemara brings three Amoraic views that the law is in accordance with Rabbi Meir, but each ruling is at a different level:
Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: The law is in accordance with the view of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yochanan said: The people followed the view of Rabbi Meir. And Rava said: The established custom is in accordance with the view of Rabbi Meir.
The most significant difference is between the first view and the other two views, but there is also a difference between the latter two views, for an established custom ordained by the Sages has greater force than a common practice adopted by the people but not established by the rabbinic authorities.
III. "BUT NOWADAYS"
Later in the Talmudic passage, however, Rav Nachman asserts that the law is in accordance with Rabbi Yose. The Gemara rules accordingly, but adds:
But nowadays why do the kohanim raise up their hands [to bless the people] at Mincha on a fast day? Since they raise up their hands [in blessing] very near sunset it is as if this was the Ne'ila [service].
That is to say, since in the days of the Gemara the Mincha service on fast days was conducted very near sunset, it was seen as being similar to the Ne'ila service, and therefore the priestly blessing was recited. In the wake of this assertion, the Posekim disagree on three main issues:
1. Is this the law on all fast days, including Yom Kippur and other fast days on which the Ne'ila service is recited, or only on fast days which do not have Ne'ila?
2. Does this law only apply when the Mincha service is recited very near sunset, or even when it is recited earlier in the day at Mincha Gedola?
3. Does this law only apply to the four major fast days discussed in the Gemara, or also to other fast days that the community accepted upon itself, e.g., the Behab fasts (the customary fasts on the first Monday – Thursday – Monday of the months of Iyyar and Cheshvan), the 7th of Adar, and the like?
In order to answer these questions we must understand the nature of the similarity, according to the Gemara, between Mincha on a fast day and Ne'ila of Yom Kippur? It may be suggested that the similarity between the two prayers is merely technical, stemming from the fact that both services are recited near sunset. But it is also possible to say that the similarity goes deeper: Even though this is not reflected in any Halakha, there is a widespread feeling that the Ne'ila service constitutes the climax of Yom Kippur, one last opportunity to offer supplications before God.
In no small measure, when the Mincha service is recited on the other fast days at the end of the day, it too is perceived as the climax of the day, it being the final prayer offered on the fast day. The Rambam writes about the Mincha service on fast days as follows (Hilkhot Ta'anit 1:17):
During the [fourth] quarter of the day, the Mincha service is recited, supplications are made, [the people] cry out [to God] and confess according to their capability.
It seems that according to the Rambam the Mincha service on a fast day is different than the Mincha service recited on an ordinary day. It may be suggested that on a fast day not only does the Mincha service correspond to the daily afternoon offering, but it also constitutes an inseparable element of the essence of the day as a fast day. According to this understanding, the similarity between Mincha and Ne'ila of Yom Kippur is an essential and fundamental similarity.
If we explain that the similarity between Mincha and Ne'ila follows merely from the fact that they are both recited near sunset, it is possible that the priestly blessing should also be recited during the Mincha service of Yom Kippur, provided that it is conducted late in the day. But if the similarity between the two services is deeper, on Yom Kippur and other fast days when there is Ne'ila, we cannot say that Mincha is like Ne'ila, for it is not the final prayer of the day.
The Gemara's statement – "But nowadays…" – can also be understood in two ways. First, that indeed a change took place between the time of Rabbi Yose and the time of the Gemara: during the days of Rabbi Yose, even on fast days, the Mincha service was recited early in the day, whereas in the time of the Gemara the common practice changed and the Mincha service was recited late in the day. As the Ramban writes (ad loc.):
Since they raise up their hands [in blessing] very near sunset, owing to the length of the Mincha prayer on fast days, and the time of Ne'ila has already arrived, even though they will still recite Ne'ila afterwards, in both of them they raise up their hands [in blessing], because Mincha at that time is not an everyday occurrence.
The second possibility is that the words of the Gemara do not reflect a change, but rather they complete the words of Rabbi Yose, for he was merely talking about Yom Kippur on which there is Ne'ila, whereas the Gemara establishes that on the other fast days, when there is no Ne'ila, Rabbi Yose agrees that the priestly blessing is recited even at Mincha.
III. THE TIME OF MINCHA
The plain sense of the rulings of the Posekim suggests that the Birkat Kohanim is only recited when the Mincha service is conducted at the end of the day. As the Shulchan Arukh writes:
But on fast days, when there is no Ne'ila, since the Mincha prayer is recited very near sunset, it is similar to the Ne'ila prayer, and it will not be confused with the Mincha prayer recited on other days – therefore the priestly blessing is recited. (Orach Chayyim 129:1)
Most Posekim understood that conducting the Mincha service near sunset is a necessary condition for reciting the priestly blessing, and if the Mincha service is conducted earlier in the day there is no priestly blessing. This is also the common practice in our Yeshiva, that even on fast days, Mincha is conducted at 3:00 in the afternoon, and therefore Birkat Kohanim is not recited.
The Chazon Ish (Orach Chayyim, no. 20), however, raised doubts about the matter, arguing that according to the plain sense of the Shulchan Arukh's ruling, the enactment was made because it was customary to recite Mincha near sunset, but once the enactment came into force, it may have general application that does not depend upon the reason, and therefore it may remain in force in later generations even when the reason is no longer valid. Proof to this may be brought from the words of the Shulchan Arukh in Hilkhot Ta'anit:
The priestly blessing is recited at the Mincha service on every communal fast day except Yom Kippur. (566:8)
The Shulchan Arukh makes no distinction between Mincha recited at Mincha Gedola and Mincha recited near sunset, and indeed in the Chazon Ish's bet midrash, the priestly blessing was recited on fast days even at Mincha Gedola.
The Kehilot Ya'akov (Berakhot, no. 20) explains the Chazon Ish's position at length, offering examples of cases where the parameters of an enactment do not precisely parallel its reason. The Chazon Ish's position can also be understood against the background of what was said above that the Mincha service on a fast day has a special character that is different than an ordinary Mincha, since it is the last prayer of the day, even when it is conducted earlier in the day.
Among other things, the Chazon Ish says that if we do not see the enactment as having general force, but rather as dependent on circumstances, it is possible that the priestly blessing should not be recited nowadays at Mincha on fast days even when the Mincha service is conducted very near sunset, because today even on ordinary days Mincha is recited at that time. This indeed is the position of Maharam Chaviv in Responsa Kol Gadol. Today there are those who rule in accordance with the Chazon Ish that the priestly blessing is always recited at Mincha on fast days, but the prevalent practice is that it is only recited when the Mincha service is conducted near sunset.
IV. DIFFERENT TYPES OF FAST DAYS
Since we rule that the priestly blessing is recited at Mincha on fast days, the question arises: to which fast days does this ruling apply.
Generally speaking, there are three types of fast days:
1. The four major fast days – Tzom Gedalya, 10th of Tevet, 17th of Tamuz, and 9th of Av.
2. Fast days that the community accepts upon itself, some of which are observed even today, e.g., the Behab fasts, fasts for rain, and the like.
3. Personal fasts that the individual accepts upon himself.
The Shulchan Arukh discusses whether Anenu is recited and Vayechal is read on fast days that a community accepts upon itself:
When the community decrees a fast for a trouble that should not befall it, and so too on the Behab fasts… it was customary among the earlier generations that the prayer leader would recite Anenu and that Vayechal would be read. (Orach Chayyim 566:2)
And later (566:8) the Shulchan Arukh rules:
The priestly blessing is recited at the Mincha service on every communal fast day except Yom Kippur.
It would seem reasonable to conclude that just as the Shulchan Arukh rules that on fast days of the second type, Anenu is recited and Vayechal is read, as on the four major fasts, so too regarding the priestly blessing. The Sha'ar ha-Tziyyun on Hilkhot Nesi'at Kappayim, however, rules otherwise:
On fast days of this type, there is no priestly blessing at Mincha by law, and even bedi'eved, as during the rest of the year, for here we cannot say that it is well known that there is no drunkenness… Many Acharonim also say that in such a case, reciting the priestly blessing is forbidden at Mincha by law, and even bedi'eved, and because of concern about drunkenness as during the rest of the year, and [the Sages] only issued an allowance on a full-fledged communal fast. (129, no. 5)
That is to say, the Mishna Berura says that only on a fast day observed by the entire community is the priestly blessing recited at Mincha, for if only part of the community is fasting, even if it is the majority, the concern arises that perhaps one of the kohanim is not fasting, and he drank wine, and therefore there is no priestly blessing at all.
In contrast, the Keneset ha-Gedola (no. 566) and other Posekim equate the recitation of Anenu and reading of Vayechal to the recitation of Birkat Kohanim. They maintain that whenever there is a quorum of ten people fasting, and therefore Anenu is recited and Vayechal is read, there is also the priestly blessing. According to them, such a Mincha service has the special character of a fast day, and therefore the Birkat Kohanim is recited as at Ne'ila on Yom Kippur.
V. THE LAW IN PRACTICE
Regarding Yom Kippur, the commonly accepted practice is not to recite the priestly blessing at Mincha. If a kohen went up to the duchan to recite the blessing, he is not told to go down, but lekhatchila he should not go up.
As for reciting Birkat Kohanim at Mincha on other fast days when the Mincha service is conducted at Mincha Gedola - which is very common today and also the preferred time for Mincha – this is subject to a dispute among recent Posekim:
The Chazon Ish maintains that lekhatchila it is preferable to recite Mincha near sunset, but even if the Mincha service is conducted earlier, the priestly blessing is still recited. So too rules the author of "Mo'adim u-Zemanim" and others. Most halakhic authorities, however, disagree and say that Birkat Kohanim is only recited when the Mincha service is conducted near sunset, which among Ashkenazim usually means from pelag ha-mincha and on, whereas for Sefardim this means half an hour before sunset.
As for the type of fasts on which Birkat Kohanim is recited, most contemporary authorities incline toward the Mishna Berura who rules that it is only recited on the four major fast days, but not on the Behab fasts and the like. There are, however, some Posekim, e.g., Rav Seraya Devlitzki (Otzarot Yerushalayim, no. 29), who maintain that whenever there is a quorum of ten people fasting, the priestly blessing is recited.
(Translated by David Strauss)
* This is a summary of a shiur delivered on Motzaei Shabbat, Parashat Vayigash, 5770, on the eve of the fast of the 10th of Tevet. It was summarized by Itzik Forer, and the summary was reviewed by Rav Levi.
 It is important to emphasize that in those days it was common practice to drink wine at every meal, which is not the case in our time.
 E.g., blowing the shofar when Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbat.
 The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 628:3) even rules that if a kohen already recited the priestly blessing once that day, and he was called up again but did not go up to recite the blessing, he is not regarded as one who has voided a positive precept.
 According to the third opinion, the Sages effectively ruled that there is no priestly blessing even on a fast day, but if a priest ascended the duchan to recite the blessing, he is not told to go down.
 It should be noted that in those days they would conduct the Mincha service early because they wanted to conduct the service before eating their meal, and therefore the fact that on Yom Kippur, the Mincha service was conducted late in the day was significant and created a connection between it and the Ne'ila service.
 And it once happened in the Yeshiva that the 10th of Tevet fell out on Friday and the Mincha service was conducted near sunset, and the gabbai did not call the kohanim up to the duchan, but when the sheli'ach tzibbur reached Modim, HaRav Lichtenstein stepped backwards in anticipation of the priestly blessing.
 As in the case of lighting Chanuka candles, which the Sages decreed should be lit indoors owing to the danger of lighting outside, and many Posekim rule that even today when such danger no longer exists, people should continue lighting indoors and not outside.
 There is a disagreement regarding the definition of "near sunset" – does this include any Mincha service conducted after pelag ha-mincha, or only when it is conducted during the half hour before sunset. This, however, is not a fundamental disagreement regarding the laws governing the priestly blessing.
 Ta'anit Esther enjoys the same status.