Dr. Ephraim Schach

The Priestly Blessing is a Torah-based commandment (Mitzvah d'Orayta) commanding the Priestly tribe, the Kohanim, to bless the people of Israel with love. It can therefore be concluded that there is no commandment for Israel to be blessed by the priests. However, many poskim quote the "Haredim"'s method who wrote: "And Israel, silently standing face-to-face with the Kohanim and turning to them to receive their blessing, are actually the essence of the mitzvah." From this the author of the "Hafla'ah" concludes that there is in fact a positive commandment incumbent upon Israel, namely, to be blessed by the Kohanim. There are, on the other hand, several poskim who claim that there is no mitzvah incumbent upon Israel to be blessed, but it is, rather, a right given to those interested in being blessed by the kohen with his blessing.

Does the blessing with which the Kohanim bless the congregation apply only to those worshippers present in the synagogue? An answer can be found in a discussion in the Gemara dealing with a situation where the congregation is composed entirely of Kohanim. Who, then, will they bless? And the Gemara concludes: They all go up to the duchan (the platform) and bless their brothers in the fields - those who cannot come to the synagogue at the time - and on them does the Priestly Blessing apply.

Rabbi Eliyahu Pinchas HaKohen, who served as Rosh Yeshivah in Vilna, wrote in his book (Chessed La'Alaphim VI) that even Diaspora Jews (where it is not customary to recite the Priestly Blessing daily) are included in the Priestly Blessing recited in Eretz Yisrael, since they are being forced to live in the Diaspora against their will, and are therefore similar to the farmers in the field [in Eretz Yisrael] on whom the Blessing applies as well.

Despite the fact that physical presence in the synagogue is not a pre-condition for receiving the Blessing, there are specific instructions for how those present in the synagogue must behave while the Blessing is being given. The Halacha states that the Blessing applies only to those standing in front of the Kohanim and not behind them. This Halacha of "face to face" is learned from the text, "אמור להם" ("say to them"), as a man speaks [face to face] to his friend (Sotah:38).

An interesting discussion is found concerning the honored congregants who sit along the synagogue's Eastern wall: Are they to go down and stand in front of the Kohanim? The B"ACH wrote that they must indeed go down and stand in front of the Kohanim, while the T'"AZ claimed that since the Holy Ark is attached to the Eastern wall, it is considered as if the Kohanim are standing immediately against that wall and, therefore, those standing along the Eastern wall are considered as standing alongside the Kohanim. However, the majority of poskim have ruled like the B"ACH, namely, that these honored congregants must descend from the Eastern wall and stand In front of the Kohanim (Mishna Brura 128:95).

Looking at the Kohanim

During the Temple Period, looking at the Kohanim while they stood on the duchan blessing Israel, stating the Divine Name, was dangerous, as CHA"ZAL stated: "The eyesight of anyone who looks upon three things will weaken: A rainbow, the president and the Kohanim." (Hagiga 16). Even in our time it is forbidden to look upon the Kohanim during the Blessing, also so that those being blessed will not be distracted from listening to the Blessing. The author of "Kaf Hachayim" quotes the Zohar as stating that even in their time, after the Hurban, was it forbidden to look upon the Kohanim, out of respect for the Shechinah. Thus, some added that this prohibition against looking upon the Kohanim during the Priestly Blessing applies even in our day. And when Rabbi Akiva's pupils asked him how he merited such great wisdom, he replied, "I did not look upon the Kohanim while they spread their hands [for the Priestly Blessing]." (RA"AVAD, Midot VI)

The Magen Avraham wrote that while, according to Halacha, watching the Kohanim for an extended period is strictly forbidden lest it cause distractions, a casual or momentarily glance is permitted in our day. However, the minhag (custom) still remains not to look upon the Kohanim at all during the Blessing, as a reminder of the Temple, where it had been strictly forbidden to look at the Kohanim during the Blessing.

Now we turn to the custom, practiced in ancient Ashkenaz, of the congregants covering their eyes with their prayer shawls so as not to accidentally look upon the Kohanim. This custom is mentioned in the RAM"AH's "Darkei Moshe," and also by the T"AZ and SH"UA. In "Yosef Ometz," which lists customs of the Jews of Frankfurt, it is written: "It is the custom of the elders to lower the prayer shawl over their eyes." Rabbi Yaakov Emden opposed this custom, however, claiming that "It is improper for someone receiving a Blessing to hide his face from the blesser while he is being blessed."

The Jews of Tunisia and Jerba have a custom that during the Blessing the father spreads his prayer shawl over his sons and after the Blessing the children kiss his hands. ("Or Torah").

Even if one cannot see the face and hands of the Kohanim, it may still be appropriate to cover one's face with the prayer shawl so as not to be distracted during the blessing, as the "Magen Avraham" understands the Halacha. The custom of closing one's eyes during the blessing is mentioned in "Kaf HaChayim" where it is said that while it is improper to cover one's face with the prayer shawl, it is at least customary to close one's eyes in order to avoid distraction.

Receiving the Priestly Blessing while Standing

According to the "Magen Avraham," it is permissible to sit while hearing the blessing, as can be deduced from the Zohar's comments on Parshat "Naso" where it states that "while the Kohanim are spreading their hands, the congregation should sit in awe and fear."

However, the Mishna Brurah writes that the custom is for the entire congregation to stand during the giving of the Priestly Blessing, as is heard also from the Rishonim (early commentaries). The Meiri states that even when there are no Kohanim present and the cantor says the blessing on his own, the custom in most places is that the entire congregation stands. The "Eshkol" states clearly that everyone is required to stand respectfully before the Kohanim.

In the blessing recited by the Kohanim before they recite the Priestly Blessing it says: "... and who has commanded us to bless His people with love." What is the meaning of reciting the Priestly Blessing, specifically, in love? The Zohar says that if there is a kohen who does not love the people, or if there is a kohen who is not loved by the people, that kohen should not bless the people.

The "Magen Avraham" explains, based on the Zohar's words and the specific wording of the mitzvah blessing, and the Mishna Brurah brings down as Halacha, also basing itself on the Zohar, that a kohen who does not feel love between himself and the people should not go up to bless the people, for it is a danger to him, and he should instead leave the synagogue.

"Yeyasher Koach!"

A widespread custom existed that as the Kohanim left the duchan after concluding the Priestly Blessing, the entire congregation would greet them with "Yeyasher Kochachem!" ("Well done!")

The "Mateh Ephraim" (TAK'"TZAV) brings forth this custom, and in so doing we also learn the meaning of the phrase, "Yeyasher Ko'ach:" "And they say to them, 'yeyasher ko'ach' to the Kohanim returning to their seats, thanking them for the benefits of the blessing and the prayer and the intensity of the general mitzvah relating to the congregation. At the same time, the congregation desires to be blessed which will in turn give them additional strength to serve G-d, and thus the wording of the greeting offering courage and fortitude, as is said, 'ashrei chamutz.'

"And some say 'ye'asher ko'ach' which has a similar meaning. However, those who say to the recipient, 'asher ko'ach' and those who say 'ye'asher' are stating it in code, as in foreign languages when one speaks to honored people in code."

The "Aruch Hashulchan" discusses another custom, whereby the Kohanim respond to these greeters, "and so you shall be blessed" ("bruchim tihyu"). However, Rabbi Zvi Pessach Frank z"l introduces the idea that the Kohanim should avoid replying "bruchim tihyu" which has within it the fear of "bal tosif" (excessiveness) on the three-pronged blessing that is stated in the Torah. ("Har Tzvi" 1:62)

There are those who objected to saying '"yeyasher ko'ach," explaining that it was inappropriate to thank the Kohanim for their blessing, since they have been commanded to do so, and are thus merely observing the mitzvah, and therefore there is no need to thank someone for fulfilling his obligation.

The Mishnah Brurah adds that because of this custom of greeting the Kohanim with "yeyasher ko'ach" they should not come down from the duchan until after the recitation of Kaddish (on Shabbat and holidays), so that the congregants will not interrupt the recitation of Kaddish with talking.

Translated by Adina Mishkoff

This article, in its Hebrew version, and many others, are available from our publication, Kovetz Tzionut HaDatit - Relgious Zionism in Action Essays, in memory of Dr. Yosef Burg z"l, available for purchase online