The Beit Ha-levi (Chanukah section) advances the theory that a kohen cannot fulfill his obligation of birkat kohanim – to bless the congregation – by listening to another kohen’s recitation. Normally, when Halakha requires reciting a certain text, one is able to satisfy his requirement through the mechanism of shomei’a ke-oneh, which means that listening is akin to reciting. As long as both the one reciting the text and the listener have in mind that the recitation should count even for the listener, he can fulfill his obligation in his manner. However, the Beit Ha-levi asserts that birkat kohanim marks an exception to this rule. The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (38a) establishes that a kohen must recite the blessing “be-kol ram” – in a loud, audible voice. The Beit Ha-levi asserts that although the concept of shomei’a ke-oneh allows one to be considered as having recited a text which he heard, it does not suffice to meet the condition of “be-kol ram.” The listener can fulfill a halakhic requirement to recite a certain text, but the requirement to speak audibly can only be fulfilled if he himself recites the text in a loud voice. Shomei’a ke-oneh can “transfer” the actual recitation from the speaker to the listener, but it cannot “transfer” the volume.
A number of Acharonim questioned the Beit Ha-levi’s assertion, noting instances in which Halakha imposes external conditions on a recitation requirement, yet allows for fulfilling the requirement through shomei’a ke-oneh. For example, kiddush must be recited specifically over a cup of wine, and one can fulfill his obligation by hearing another person recite the kiddush text over a cup of wine, even though the listener does not have a cup of wine. Likewise, we fulfill the obligation of keri’at ha-Torah by hearing someone read from the Torah, even though we only hear the reading and do not have a Sefer Torah in front of us.
The Tolna Rebbe suggested upholding the Beit Ha-levi’s ruling by noting the unique nature of the mitzva of birkat kohanim. In the berakha recited by the kohanim before conferring the priestly blessing, they give praise to God who commanded them “le-vareikh et amo Yisrael be-ahava” – “to bless His nation, Israel, with love.” As we noted yesterday, citing the Mishna Berura (128:37), a kohen does not recite birkat kohanim if there is tension between him and the congregation. As the blessing must be recited “be-ahava,” the obligation cannot be fulfilled in the absence of genuine feelings of affection towards the people. And for this reason, the Tolna Rebbe explained, it stands to reason that a kohen cannot discharge his duty by listening to the recitation of birkat kohanim by another kohen. Even if we concede that the mechanism of shomei’a ke-oneh can “transfer” external conditions to the listener, and not merely the actual recitation, it would still stand to reason that this does not extend to the kohen’s emotional state. Emotions are intangible and personal, and thus, presumably, cannot be experienced by proxy, even in the strictly formal, halakhic sense. A kohen must therefore personally recite birkat kohanim, because even if he can be halakhically considered “reciting” through listening, he does not fulfill in this manner the obligation to bless with sincere feelings of love and concern for his fellow Jews.