June 25, 2024
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Does one Levi suffice for the washing of the hands of the Kohanim or should all Levi’im in the synagogue help the Kohanim prepare for Birkat Kohanim (Kohanim blessing the congregation)? This question was raised in a shiur at Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. For Sephardic Jews, this question is quite important as Birkat Kohanim is a highlight of the daily tefillah even in Hutz LaAretz (outside our beloved Eretz Yisrael).

We thought that this question hinges on the reason for the minhag (custom) of the Levi’im washing the hands of the Kohanim. The Zohar explains that the Levi’im fortify the Kohanim with added sanctity in preparation for their blessing the special and holy Jewish people. The Chumash records that Hashem sanctified not only the Kohanim but the Levi’im as well. Thus, we wish to infuse the Kohanim with an additional boost of kedushah (holiness) of the Levi’im before they bless the holy assembly of Jews.

The Aruch HaShulhan, though, offers a different reason. He writes that the inclusion of the Levi’im serves as a zeicher l’Mikdash, a reminder of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where the Levi’im served in a supporting role to the Kohanim. One may ask why the Aruch Hashulhan, written in the late 19th century and early 20th century, offers an explanation for the Levi custom, when the Zohar, an ancient source, already presents an authoritative reason. The Aruch HaShulhan is consistent, though, with a fundamental principle he articulates elsewhere. He asserts that whenever Hazal (the rabbis of Talmudic times) issued an edict or decree, there are manifold reasons for their rules even beyond the formal stated explanation. Similarly, classic Jewish minhagim have multiple reasons, not only the reason offered in classic sources such as the Zohar.

Accordingly, we answered our original query by positing that according to the Zohar’s reason, one Levi suffices to add the dimension of Kedushat Levi to Birkat Kohanim. However, if we wish to recreate the scene of the Beit HaMikdash, as explained by the Aruch HaShulhan, the multitudes of Levi congregants participating in washing the hands of the Kohanim are necessary to recreate the many Levi’im playing a supporting role in the Beit HaMikdash.

However one resolves our quandary, one thing is certain. Birkat Kohanim is a precious mitzvah in which Levi’im should be eager to join. Hashem promised Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham) “VaAvarecha Mevarachecha,” I will bless those who bless the Jewish people. Not only are Kohanim beneficiaries of this promise, but Levi as well for playing a supportive role in the blessing of the children of Avraham Avinu.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

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