Siman 128-129 Birkat Kohanim continued

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #72: Simanim 128 - 129


by Rav Asher Meir







The Mordekhai quote the opinion of Rav Yitzchak bar Yehuda (a teacher of Rashi) who ruled that an unmarried kohen should not bless BK.  He based this ruling on the statement of our sages that a single man has no joy (Yevamot 62b), whereas one giving a blessing must be in a state of joy, as we learn from the fact that Yitzchak gave Yaakov (whom he thought was Esav) a blessing only after he ate (Bereshit 27:7).


The Rashba (Responsa I:85) expresses amazement at this ruling which is not hinted at anywhere in the Talmud.


The Beit Yosef concludes that while it is hard to exempt a single kohen from the mitzva of BK due to a ruling with no basis in the Talmud, we can not disregard entirely the ruling of Rav Yitzchak bar Yehuda.  Therefore, we should not prevent a single kohen from leaving the synagogue before the kohanim are summoned if he wants to exempt himself from saying BK.  However, if  there are other kohanim present, he has no reason to excuse himself, since even a boy may bless together with other kohanim (as we learned last week).


Surprisingly, the reasoning of the Beit Yosef is brought down only in the Rema.


The ruling of R. Yitzchak bar Yehuda was actually adopted in some communities.  Rav Ovadia (Yechaveh Da'at II 12) replies to a question from an oleh from Gerba, in Tunisia, who asks if their custom that single men do not ascend the dukhan is proper.  Rav Ovadia, after quoting scores of authorities on the subject, does not challenge the custom per se but rules that those who are in Israel should adopt the custom of Eretz Yisrael that even single men should say BK.  (Rav Ovadiah even cites a responsum of the Geonim which explains that the custom of Bavel is that single men do not say BK but the custom of Eretz Yisrael is that they do.)


(One may surmise that the originators of this custom did not agree with the Beit Yosef and the Rema in Darkhei Moshe who say that with other kohanim there is no reason to refrain.  This conclusion follows from the fact that almost all of the residents of Gerba were kohanim and consequently the custom for single men to refrain almost certainly included the case where there were married kohanim in Beit Knesset.)


We should mention that Rav Ovadia in general tends to advocate that olim adopt the customs of Eretz Yisrael in lieu of customs from their communities abroad.


In assessing Rav Yitzchak bar Yehuda's ruling, we should note that he, in effect, makes two assertions:

1. A kohen who is distressed should not say BK;

2. A single man is in a state of distress.


Although BOTH of these assertions lack a clear source, as the Rashba points out, we see from the previous se'if that the FIRST assertion IS accepted - for we exempt a mourner from BK. We reject the SECOND assumption though - see MB s.k. 162.




The Rema in this se'if records a truly remarkable custom common to all Ashkenazic communities outside of Israel: that birkhat kohanim is done only on Yom Tov!  I don't know precisely how old this custom is, but it was already well established some 600 years ago when the Maharil was asked the reason for the custom.  The Maharil offers several suggestions, the first in the name of his father-in-law, who was a kohen.

1. Since the custom is to immerse in a mikveh before dukhaning (this is cited in the name of Hagahot Maimoniot, and according to the Tur Shalem is found in manuscripts of that work), and it's hard to go to the mikveh every day.

2. "Idleness from work."  That is, we do not want to lengthen the prayer service too much, just as we do not add aliyot except on Shabbat so as not to lengthen services.

3. "Because of the gentiles."  There were some communities who did not allow non-Jews into Beit Knesset when the kohanim were blessing BK.  Presumably, they were reluctant to have to keep non-Jews away and therefore refrained from saying BK all the time.


The Beit Yosef relates to the first reason only, pointing out that immersing is a mere stringency regarding BK, and is certainly not a reason to abolish BK itself.  We could apply the same reasoning in response to the third explanation; we could add that this reason does not explain why BK WAS said on Yom Tov.  The second reason, while logical enough, does not explain why BK was not said on Shabbat, when aliyot are added and the congregation is accustomed to lengthy prayers.


The Rema in Darkhei Moshe innovates a fascinating explanation combining the second explanation of the Maharil and the explanation of Rav Yitzchak bar Yehuda in the previous se'if.  The fact that people will be late for work is not a justification per se to omit part of the prayer service on a regular basis.  But the fact that people are concerned about the delay is itself a reason that the kohanim are not in a joyful state.


Of course, this reason also should not exempt the congregation on Shabbat.  So the Rema adds that livelihood difficulties rob the kohanim of joy all year long.  Only on Yom Tov, when there is a special state and even a special commandment, of simcha are the kohanim in the proper frame of mind.


In a recent shiur we pointed out that there may be a difference between the REASON for a rabbinic decree and the RATIONALE for a decree - WHY the law was instituted and HOW the law works.  Perhaps we can say the same for a custom.  The Ashkenazi authorities were particularly reluctant to overturn custom, as we see from the responsum of the Maharil.  Unlike the Rashba in Spain who disapproves of the exemption of single kohanim, the Maharil exerts himself to educe a halakhic basis for the custom.  Still, it may be that the ORIGIN of the custom was different from the halakhic rationales marshalled to justify it.


Perhaps the lesser emphasis on BK in the diaspora relates to the fact that the special role of the kohen is primarily expressed in Eretz Yisrael.  The kohen's responsibilities include performing the Temple service - which is done only in Jerusalem - and eating teruma (which is considered a "minor service" in itself - Pesachim 72b) and challa - which are obligatory only in Israel; a kohen is in fact forbidden from leaving Eretz Yisrael at all, because of the tum'a of the gentile lands (see SA YD 369 - but compare the views of the Acharonim).  Of course, a kohen IS commanded to bless BK abroad, and others are still obligated to sanctify him (by giving him precedence in being called to the Torah, in saying the grace after meals, and so on).  However, we could venture to say that at the time of the exile the fall in the special status of the kohen was keenly felt, and for this reason communities more readily weighed against it considerations like the length of the service and the presence of non-Jews.





Abba bar bar Chana and Rav Chuna were sitting and eating, and Rav Zeira was standing and serving them.  Rav Zeira came in bringing both of their portions in one hand.  Rav Abba bar Bar Chana said to him, what, is your other hand amputated?!  His father [Bar Chana] got angry at him - he said to him, it's not enough that you recline while he must stand and serve?  Furthermore, he is a kohen, and Shmuel said anyone who lets a kohen serve him is guilty of me'ila [benefit from sanctified property] - and you make light of him?  I decree that he should recline and you should serve him!


Whence do we learn that one who lets a kohen serve him is guilty of me'ila?  R. Acha said in the name of Shemuel, [as it is written] (Ezra 8:28) "And I said to them, You [kohanim] are holy to HaShem and the [Temple] vessels are holy to HaShem" - just as one who uses the vessels has committed me'ila, so one who uses a kohen has committed me'ila  (Yerushalmi Berakhot 8:5).


Once a kohen poured water on Rabbeinu Tam's hands, and a student objected that we learn from the Yerushalmi that one who lets a kohen serve him is guilty of me'ila ... Rabbeinu Peter replied that even though they still have holiness, they may waive [the honor due them]  (Hagahot Mordekhai Gittin siman 461).


            Actually, there is a dispute among the commentators if a kohen may indeed waive his honor; several authorities proved Rabbeinu Peter's ruling from the very passage in the Yerushalmi, since after all Rav Zeira did indeed serve others, and Bar Chana objected to this only when his son slighted Rav Zeira.


Another leniency mentioned in several sources is that a student may serve his Rebbe even if the student is a kohen, as this is a very important part of a student's education (see Ketubot 96a).


Rav Ovadia discusses this issue in his usual encyclopedic fashion in Yabi'a Omer VI OC siman 22.


A similar halakha is found in Megilla 28b: "One who exploits the crown [of Torah] passes away (Avot I:13) - this refers to one who makes service from one who knows halakhot [by heart]."  With regard to this halakha also, many authorities make an exception for a student serving his Rebbe.


An unrelated halakha is found in Even HaEzer 21:5 - that a man may not be served by a woman (who is not his wife).  There the reason is not because of degradation but on the contrary relates to the potential for immodesty since the kind of service discussed may be viewed as a sign of affection.


There is a parallel halakha to prevent immodesty with one's wife, in Even HaEzer 22:16.






We do not say BK at Mincha since it is customary to drink wine at lunch.  But we do say it during musaf since in general we do not eat beforehand.  What about musaf of Rosh HaShana, when it is customary to make kiddush beforehand so that people will not be famished as they listen to the shofar?  Or Simchat Torah when it is customary to make kiddush before musaf since musaf is so late?


The Mishna Berura 669:17 brings two opinions regarding BK during musaf of Simchat Torah and concludes that each congregation should keep its own custom.  (It seems that the same situation exists on Rosh HaShana.)  But in those places where BK IS said, the kohanim must be careful not to drink.  (Of course, the non-kohanim need to be careful to the same extent, since the amount of drink which prevents saying BK (SA 128:38) is the same which keeps us from saying tefilla (SA 99:1)).