Sunday, June 05, 2016

Daily Birkat Cohanim in the Diaspora

Daily Birkat Cohanim in the Diaspora *

By Rabbi Daniel Sperber

Question: May Cohanim outside the Land of Israel give the priestly blessing (Birkat Cohanim, or Nesiat Kapayim) on weekdays and on regular Shabbatot?

Answer: The Torah explicitly requires the Cohanim to bless the people (Numbers 6:23), but does not tell us where or when they should do so. Rambam (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Mitzvat Assei 26) who gives no details, but refers us to B. Megillah 24b, Taanit  2b, and Sotah 37b, to work out the details. However, there are versions of the Rambam's text (edited by R. Hayyim Heller and R. Yosef Kefir) when there are the additional words "every day", and this, indeed, is his ruling in the heading of his Hilchot Tefillah and Birkat Cohanim; and see further ibid chapter 14, and this also is the ruling in Sefer ha-Hinuch, Mitzvah 367. However, there we find the additions that "the Mitzvah applies in all places at all times…" Hagahot Maimoniyot, to Rambam Hilchot tefillah 15:12 note 9 writes, on the basis of R. Yehoshua ha Levi's statement in B. Sotah 38b, that any Cohen who does not bless the people transgresses three commandments, splitting as it were the biblical verse in Numbers ibid. thus: "So shall you bless the children of Israel/ say unto them", adding verse 27 ibid., "And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel…" The Hagahot Mordechai modifies this by adding that if the Cohen has not been summoned to bless the people, he does not transgress by not doing so, referring to the Yerushalmi text, and this view is accepted by the Beit Yosef, Orah Hayyim 128. There is also a minority view, rejected by mainstream authorities, that of Rabbenu Manoah, that even if the Cohen was not called, if he did not bless the people, he transgresses at least one commandment.

Outside Israel it is the practice for the Cohanim not to give the priestly blessing, even though the mitzvah clearly applies abroad (see R. Hayyim Hezkel Medini, Sdei Hemed vol.3, p.271, vol.8 pp.177 and 381), and for the congregation not to request that they do so, - this with the exception of musaf on the foot-festivals and Yom Kippur – even during Neilah. The Beit Yosef was very perturbed by this practice. He writes (Orah Hayyim 128):

The Agur wrote that Mahari Kolin [the Maharil] was asked why the Cohanim do not give the priestly blessing every day, since it is a positive commandment. And he answered that it was the custom of the priests to make a ritual ablution [in the Mikvah] before blessing,

* This is an expanded version of an article published under this title in Conversations 20, 2014, pp.150-155.

as is recorded in Hagahot Mordechai, and to do so every day in the winter would be very difficult for them.

Hence, the custom evolved to do so only on the festivals. Furthermore, [doing so] would curtail the business activities (mi-taam bitul melachah), and in any case if the Cohen is not summoned he does not transgress.

However, the Beit Yosef continues:

He forced himself to justify his local custom; but the reasoning is insufficient. For that which he said that they were accustomed to make a ritual oblution every day, this is a stringency – i.e. it is not really required – which leads to leniency… Since ritual ablution as a requirement for the priestly blessing is not mentioned in the Talmud. And even if they took upon themselves this stringency, why would they cancel three commanments, even if they were not transgressing since they had not been summoned. Surely it would be better that they carry out these three commandments clearly and not make the ritual ablutions, since there are not required, and by not doing so they could fulfill the three commandments.

He ends by saying:

And praise be to the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael and all Egypt who give the priestly blessing every day, and do not make ritual oblutions for it.

Indeed there are some congregations that still follow the Beit Yosef's position. Thus, the Syrian community has birkat Cohanim every day, (see H.C. Dobrinsky, A treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs, Hoboken N.J., New York 1986, p.168). This too was the Amsterdam custom of the Portuguese community, (Shemtob Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, vol.1, Kédainiai 1934, pp.222-227 note 268, who also quotes Even Sapir, that this was the practice in Yemen, and possibly in some Moroccan congregations), while in Djerba they did it on Shabbatot and festivals, (R. Moshe HaCohen, Brit Kehunah, Orah Hayyim, pp.101-102, and note 30). Thus, there are several precedants for this practice.

However, the Ashkenazi Rema, R. Mosheh Isserles, in his Darkei Mosheh ibid. 21, seeks to justify the Ashkenazi custom. He writes:

Because [doing so] would curtail business activities for the people in these countries, for the Cohenim are struggling to support themselves in the exile, and they can barely support their families, other than the bread they gather by the sweat of their brows daily, and they are not happy. And it is for this reason that they do not carry out the priestly blessing, which leads to bitel melachah la-am. And even on Shabbat they do not do so, because they are troubled and concerned about their future…, and they are only joyful on the festivals. And thus the custom evolved only to bless the people on the festivals. So it would appear to me.

The notion that the Cohen must be joyful when blessing the congregation has its roots in the early Rishonim, (in Rash's teacher, R. Yitzhak ben Yehudah).

The Mateh Efraim, of R. Efraim Zalman Margaliot, added that this was an ancient practice, even more than five hundred years old, going back to the Tashbetz ha-Katan, a disciple of the Maharam Mi-Rothenburg, and the Kol Bo sect.128, and accepted by the Maharit, the Agur, the Darkei Mosheh etc., "and one may not stir from this custom" . He also gives additional reasons to support this custom.

R. Efraim Zalman Margaliot (1760-1811) in his response, Beit Efraim, Orah Hayyim 6, Lvov 1818, also suggested that the reason for the absence of birkat Cohanim abroad is because in our days the pedigree of Cohanim is questionable, and a Zar, non-Cohen, may not bless the people (see B. Ketubot 24b), and doing so several times every day would be making a berachah le-vatalah – an idle, that is to say, unnecessary, blessing, which is forbidden – on numerous occasions by many people. However, since birkat Cohanim is a mitzvat aseh, a positive commandment, and we rule that even in questions of uncertainty – safek -, when we are dealing with a mitzvat aseh, we rule le-humra, stringently; and certainly it is superceded by the seriousness of the mitzvah. Furthermore, if the Beit Efraim's argument were correct, how come the Cohanim abroad do bless the people on festivals during musaf[1]

The Sefardi Kaf ha-Hayyim, R. Yaakov Hayyim Sofer, on the other hand (Orah Hayyim ibid note 16), cites French R. Yaakov of Marvege, (in his Shut Min-ha-Shamayim no.38), who writes that:

In a place where there are suitable Cohanim to bless the people, and they do not do so even once a year, both the congregation that do not call them to do so, and the Cohanim themselves, who do not make the blessing, transgress, also because they seem not to be relying on their Father in Heaven.

This was cited by the Egyptian Radbaz, R. David ben Zimra, and especially  the Hesed le-Avraham of R. Avraham Azulai, who writes at length censuring those who do not bless the people, enumerating the negative effects of their flawed thinking, concluding that "it be proper to do so in every place, and not to seek out strategies to avoid doing so."

And even the Ashkenazi Hafetz Hayyim, in his Mishnah Berurah 128:12 in the Beur Halachah wrote:

It is only because of weekness that the Cohanim can go out and not go up [to bless the people. For if not so, certainly they are not acting well to needlessly nulify a positive commandment.

Indeed, there are some Ashkenazi congregations where they do carry out the priestly blessing at least once a month, as we learn from the Sefer ha-Miktzoot, or even every Shabbat, as is mentioned in the Mateh Efraim.

Finally, we may cite the words of R. Yehiel Michel Epstein, in his Aruch ha-Shulhan, Orah Hayyim 128:4, who writes:

And behold, it is certainly the case that there is no good reason to nullify the mitzvah of birkat Cohanim the whole year long, and [it is] a bad custom. And I have heard that two great authorities of former generations – probably the Gaon Eliyahu of Wilna and R. Hayyim of  Volozin – each one wished to reestablish birkat Cohanim daily in their location, and when they decided on a given day [to begin], the issue become confused and they did not succeed, and they said that from Heaven it was thus decreed.

In view of all the above we may state that Birkat Cohanim does not require ritual oblution, and in present day diaspora countries, blessing the people will not effect or curtail any business activities, and people in the diaspora are not downtrodden nor do they live in permament misery, so that they cannot be joyful enough to bless the congregation. And according to some opinions (e.g. the Pri Hadash) even if they are not called to give the blessing, they may/should do so, (see e.g. Piskei Maharitz, Orah Hayyim vol.1, Bnei Brak 1987, pp.259-260, with the note of R. Yitzhak Ratzabi ibid. Note 7, ibid. Beerot Yitzhak). Thus, the reasons given for avoiding giving the priestly blessing are for the main part largely irrelevant in present-day diaspora conditions.

On the other hand, not doing so means not carrying out three positive biblical commandments, and according to some ,albeit minority, opinions this is also the case when the congregation does not summon the Cohanim. Some, somewhat mystical sources also stress the great spiritual benefits of the priestly blessing, and the considerable negative effect of their absence. Furthermore, we have seen evidence that in some Ashkenazi communities Birkat Cohanim was practiced on Shabbatot or monthly, and not merely on the festivals.

Taking into account all of the above, I would think that nowadays, there is little justification for not carrying out the priestly blessing daily in our diaspora congregations.

I would like again to refer to the Hesed le-Avraham:

מי שאינו מברך מאבד טובה הרבה ומראה שאינו חפץ במצות ולא חפץ בברכה, ובז לדבר יחבל לו, לכן הכהן הירא את דבר ד' ובמצותיו חפץ, לא יעבור מלברך לעשות נחת רוח ליוצרו, כי טוב בעיני ד' לברך את ישראל ומה טוב ומה נעים מנהג איזה מקומות, שהכהנים נושאים כפיהם בכל יום וכן ראוי לנהוג בכל מקום, שלא לבקש תחבולות לבטל מ"ע מן התורה.

To summarize:

This is a biblical commandment obligating the Cohanim to bless the people.

Not doing so means not fulfilling that biblical commandment, and, according to some authorities, even transgressing three biblical commandments.

Here we may add yet another element to our discussion. There is a well-known opinion of R. Eliezer Azikri, in his Sefer Haredim chapter 4 (with the commentary of R. Yitzhak Leib Schwarz, Kunszentmiklos 1935, p.19), that "those who stand before the Cohanim in silence and direct their hearts to receive the benedictions as the words of God, they too are included in the mitzvah as parts of the 613 [mitzvot]".

The commentator, ad loc. (note 18-19) discusses this opinion, printing out that it is a subject of considerable controversy among the greatest of authorities, but he quotes the author of the Haflaah, R. Pinhas ha-Levi Horowitz, (in his notes to Ketubot 24b and Rashi ibid.), that just as there is a commandment to the Cohanim to bless Israel, so too is there a commandment to Israel to be blessed by the Cohanim. He states that there are other examples where the torah, explicitly commands only the active partner and not the passive recipient, but nonetheless both are obligated. He brings as one example to mitzvah of yibum which devolves both on the levir (yavam) as well as the sister-in law (yevamah), even though the Torah commandment is directed towards the levir alone. The Haredim's novum was widely accepted, even though his source remained to many unclear.

Furthermore, the Gemara in B. Sotah 38b states in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi, that God Himself yearns to hear Birkat Cohanim, basing himself on the verse in Numbers 6:27, "And they shall put My name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them", further adding that "Every Cohen who blesses [the people] is blessed", and he that does not do so is not blessed", as it is written, "And I will bless them that bless thee" (Genesis 12:3).

This view is already found in a statement of the Tosafist R. Yaakov of Mervege, Sheelot u-Teshuvot min ha-Shamayim (ed. R. Reuven Margaliot, Jerusalem 1957, no.37, p.69), already briefly  cited above, who writes as follows:

I was also uncertain as to those places where there are Cohanim who are suitable to carry out birkat cohanim and were accustomed not to do so even once a year. And I asked [advice] concerning this issue, whether [in their not doing so] there is a transgression, or whether one can rely upon R. Yaakov who said that the Cohanim are not obligated to bless other than when the people tell them to do so.

And they [i.e. from Heaven] replied: Both these and these transgress; namely, the people (literally: Israel who do not tell  them [to bless], and appear not to be  fearful of [the requirement to receive] the blessing of  Father in Heaven, and the Cohanim, who do not bless on their own accord the nesiat kapayim, for is it not written, "And I will bless those that bless thee" (Genesis 12:3), and from the positive [statement] we may deduce the negative, (i.e. that from the positive statement that God will bless the blessers, we may deduce that he will curse them that do not bless).

Admittedly this is an opinion of a Kabbalistic nature, and we do not necessarily rule accordingly when there is an opposing view of the niglah (the rationalist position), as is well known. However, this same view was also indicated in the commentary attributed to the Raavad to Tamid 33b, [2] but which is actually by the rationalist Tosafist R. Baruch be-R. Yitzhak Vermaiza, [3]  the  author of Sefer ha-Terumah. This commentary in this instance bases itself on (the largely lost) Sefer Miktzoot. [4]  The editor of this commentary pointed out (in note 48) that this was the view of the Haredim, adding that it was also noted by R. Zeev Pomeranchik, in his Emek Berachah, Jerusalem 1948, sect.7, further cited by R. Pinhas Horowitz, in his Sefer Haflaah (to Ketubot 24b), and so also in Hagahot R. Akiva Eiger to Shulhan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 128:1, and similarly in the Beur Halachah ibid.

It should however not be overlooked that this point of view was not accepted by all authorities. Thus, it was questioned by R. Yosef Babad, in his Minhat Hinuch, Mitzvah 378, (ed. Machon Yerushalayim, vol.3, Jerusalem 1991, p.66)  [5], basing himself on the Ritba to Sukkot 31b,  [6]  who writes explicitly that there is no obligation on the part of "Yisrael to be blessed. [7]

Nonetheless, considering the gravity of the iussue, [8] we should surely take servious account of the Haredim's view, appearing as it does in a number of significant rishonim and aharonim, and not deprive Am Yisrael in the diaspora from having opportunity to participate in this important mitzvah.

The reasons given by the various authorities for not fulfilling this mitzvah regularly in the diaspora, are, of themselves problematic, but in any case quite irrelevant to present day diaspora communities. There exist precedents in different congregations, even outside Eretz-Israel, for daily, weekly or monthly priestly blessings. [9]

In Jerusalem and in some parts of Eretz Yisrael the priestly blessing is carried out daily.

This being the case, why should we deprive Am Yisrael in the diaspora and its Cohanim, and even, as it were, God Himself, from the opportunity to participate in this all important mitzvah?

In view of all of the above, I see no reason why the daily, or at least weekly, blessing on the part of the Cohanim not be reinstated in diaspora communities.

[1]  R. Shaar Yishuv Cohen, Shai Cohen vol.1, Jerusalem 1997, pp.54, discusses this issue in detail, showing that the view of that a Zar is forbidden to bless was not mentioned in the Rambam, the Rif and the Rosh, and that there is no issue of a berachah le-vatalah, etc. We shall not repeat his detailed argumentation, which is beyond the scope of this study.
[2] Ed. Yair Goldstoff, Jerusalem 1989, p.131.
[3] See E. E. Urbach, Baalei ha-Tosafot: Toldotehem, Hibburehem, Shitatam, 2nd edition, Jerusalem 1980, vol.1, pp.346-361, on this personality. He was a disciple of Rabbenu Tam (ibid. p. 347 note 13), and definitely of the rationalist school.

That this commentary is by R. Baruch be.R. Yitzhak was demonstrated by A. Epstein, in his pamphlet on Sefer Yihusei Tannaim ve-Amoraim p.16; Poznansky, Anshei Kairuwan, (Harkavy Festschrift , Petersburg 1909), p.22; Hayyim Michel, Or ha-Hayyim 2nd edition, Jerusalem 1965, p.28; M.M. Kasher and Y. Mandelbaum, Sarei ha-Elef 2nd edition, Jerusalem 1979, vol.1, p.330 no.4; vol.2, p.629, referring also to Eliav Schochetman, Alei Sefer 3, 1979, p.83. Goldstoff, in his introduction seems to have been quite unaware of all of the above.
[4]  Ed. Simhah Assaf, Jerusalem 1947, pp.39-40, no.47. In his note at the end of the passage, he brings a wealth of bibliographic references, which supplements that which was cited in the preceding note.
[5]  For some reason that sentence is bracketed in that edition.
[6]  Ed. Eliyahu Lichtenstein, Jerusalem 1975, p.97. And see editor's note 319 ibid.
[7]  The editor also refers us to R. Avraham Dov Shapira, Dvar Avraham, vol.1, Warsaw-Pietrokow 1906, sect.31, basing himself on Yerushalmi Megillah 4:8, and cited by the Tosafot in Hagigah 16a, s.v. be-Cohanim, and the Shiyarei Korban to Nazir 7:1, R. Reuven Margaliot, in his note ibid., also refers to the Rashba to Sukkah ibid. However, here I think his albeit (prodigious) memory failed him, since there is no Rashba to Sukkah, and no doubt he really meant the Ritba. And perhaps his mistake came about because the Ritba to Sukkah was first published in Sheva Shitot la-Rashba, Berlin 1757, so that many authorities mistakenly attributed it to the Rashba. See Lichtenstein's introduction, ad init and his note 1.
[8]  We may further note that this has a lively current discussion in Habad circles. See, for example, Hearot Ha-Temimim ve-Anash, published by Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim Lubawitz ha-Merkazit, Kfar Habad, issues 219-221, 224, 233, 239, and in Pardes Habad 15-18. There the discussion is primarily directed to Eretz Yisrael. And the case for Eretz Yisrael was argued very persuasively and in great detail by R. Shaar Yashuv Cohen, in his Shai Cohen, vol.1, Jerusalem 1997, pp.3-79. And on p.24 he brings a letter from the Lubawitch Rebbe, in which he mentions that the Baal ha-Tanya expressed his desire to reinstitute the daily birkat Cohanim, especially since in his words this blessing "is rapidly drawn throughout all the worlds, without prevention or hiderance and with no examination of the forces of stringency" (Likkutei Torah, Korah ad fin.).  However, despite this, he did not do so for some unknown reason. And it was for this reason that the Rebbe preferred to let the existing situation be, rather than reactivating the daily blessing. Very recently this subject has also been discussed in Mosheh Rahamim Shayo's Mehkerei Aretz: Hilchot Birkat Cohanim Jerusalem 2015, chapter 10, pp.128-129, who, however, makes no significant novum to the whole issue.

A more comprehensive discussion may be found in Eitan Shoshan, Minhat Eitan, vol.1, Bnei Brak 2003, sect. 7 note 1, pp.141-144. He refers us to Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim sect.22, who seems to find support for this view from the Tosafot to Rosh ha-Shanah 16b, s.v. ve-Tokin; but he notes that in a different responsum, (sect. 167), he wrote that most decisors are of the opinion that there is no obligation upon the Yisrael to be blessed. The problem of this apparent contradiction is left unsolved. The Maharsham, R. Shalom Mordechai Schwadron, vol.8, Satmar 1910, sect.25, cites the view of the Ritba, but concludes that, nonetheless, there is an obligation on the part of the Yisrael, since he is assisting the Cohen to carry out the mitzvah. (See Bentzion A. Rabinowitz, Piskei Teshuvot, vol.2, Jerusalem 2002, p.2, note 4.) Shoshan brings a number of additional sources supporting this view, but also the opposing position, e.g. Mahari Assad (R. Yehudah Assad) Yehudah Yaaleh, Lvov-Petersburg 1873-1880, sect.46, Aruch ha-Shulhan, Orah Hayyim 128:4; and that this was apparently the view of the Hazon Ish, according to R. Hayyim Kanievsky, (referring to R. Shalom Yuda Gross, Nesiat Kapayim ke-Hilchata p.14). (Incidentally, his references are not altogether reliable, and his attributions likewise.) Finally, he examines the implications (nakfa mina) of these two opposing views. And see his summarizing remarks on p.611.
[9]  Indeed, this is exactly what R. Y.M. Tycocynsky wrote concerning Eretz Yisrael…"for the reasons given by the Poskin for abolishing a positive mitzvah outside Israel every day, and the reasons… because of the need for ritual ablution and also the problems of livelihood that cause them to be without being joyful, and birkat Cohanim has to be [carried out] with joy and good will, since we end the blessing 'be-ahavah', 'with love' – [these reasons] were not sufficient for the greatest of Poskim to abolish a great mitzvah that [actually] comprises three mitzvot, and [consequently] they praised the people of Eretz Yisrael who keep this positive commandment…, (cited by Shaar Yiashuv Cohen, ibid. pp.16-17).

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