May 18, 2024
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The Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 128:64) expresses severe reservations about the Ashkenazic practice to restrict Birkat Kohanim to Yamim Tovim and Yamim Nora’im. First we must provide some perspective about the Aruch HaShulchan. This multi-volume work was written by Rav Yehiel Michel Epstein (1828–1908) and serves as a pillar of Ashkenazic practice (Hacham Ovadia Yosef also quotes it quite often). It is especially noteworthy for its defense of many Ashkenazic customs that seem to run counter to the Shulchan Aruch, such as the lenient approaches to Hadash and the use of city-wide Eruvin. Thus, his evaluation of the Ashkenazic custom regarding Birkat Kohainim is utterly shocking.

“Behold there is certainly no correct explanation of our custom to fail to fulfill the Mitzvah for Kohanim to bless the nation throughout the year. [Authorities] have written that this is a Minhag Garu’a (Unworthy Minhag) but what can we do? It is if a Bat Kol (heavenly voice) has proclaimed that we should not perform Nesiat Kapa’im year round. I have a tradition that two Gedolei HaDor (leading rabbinic authorities) in generations prior to ours, each one in his community sought to institute the daily performance of Nesi’at Kapa’im in their communities and when the time came to implement this plan, the plans went awry and each great rabbi proclaimed that they understand that Hashem has decreed as such that we should not conduct daily Birkat Kohanim.”

I suggest that part of the hidden heavenly reason is a reminder that those of us who unfortunately choose to live in Chutz La’Aretz are not leading a full and proper Jewish life. This practice reminds Ashkenazim that a proper and joyous Jewish life is led only in Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, Ashkenazic Kohanim who have spent considerable time in Eretz Yisrael find it very depressing to refrain from Nesi’at Kapa’im in Chutz La’Aretz. This may also be a partial explanation of Hazal’s decree (Beitzah 4b) that the second day of Yom Tov is observed in Chutz La’Aretz even when there is a set calendar and no uncertainty regarding the proper date of the Yom Tov. It reminds us we are not living the full and desired Torah life as it is observed in Eretz Yisrael.

Ashkenazic Kohanim Visiting a Sephardic Congregation

It has clearly emerged as a non-negotiable custom that Ashkenazic congregations refrain from daily Nesi’at Kapa’im. However, what should the Ashkenazic visitor do when he visits a Sephardic Congregation? It is clear that he cannot remain in the synagogue when the Shaliah Tzibur summons the Kohanim to bless the nation if he will not perform Nesi’at Kapa’im, since the summons triggers the obligation. The question remains whether he should leave the synagogue before that point or may he remain inside and join the Sephardic Kohanim in the Mitzvah to bless the Kohanim. The question is whether the Ashkenazic custom applies to only the community conducting Birkat Kohanim or even to the individual Ashkenazi who visits a differing community.

This question may be resolved by a story I heard about Rav Shalom Schwadron, the famous mid- to late-twentieth-century Tzaddik, known as the Maggid of Yerushalayim, who was a Kohein. Rav Shalom often visited the New York area to deliver his Mussar speeches. I was told that when possible the Maggid would attend Shaharit at a Sephardic congregation where he would have the opportunity to perform Nesi’at Kapa’im. Clearly the holy Maggid felt that the custom applies only to an Ashkenazic congregation and not to individual Ashkenazim.

This approach is very compelling. The Ashkenazic custom is, as described by the Aruch Hashulchan, a Minhag Garu’a and thus should not be applied in an expansive manner. As Hazal say in many contexts, “Hiddush Hoo V’Havu D’lo Losif Alah,” it is a surprising approach and it should not be expanded. Indeed, as Rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, I encourage visiting Ashkenazic Kohanim to seize the opportunity to fulfill a Mitzvah they would otherwise miss and perform Nesi’at Kapayim along with their Sephardic cousins. Teshuvot Beit Avi (3:4) adopts a similar approach to that we have outlined.

In fact, one could argue that Ashkenazic Kohanim should try to pray in a Sephardic congregation for Shaharit since one should place himself into a situation where he will fulfill Mitzvot (Tosafot Pesahim 113b s.v. V’Ein Lo Banim). This value is expressed in Sotah 14a, which states that Moshe Rabbeinu passionately desired to enter Eretz Yisrael not to enjoy its fruits but rather to place himself in a position where he can fulfill the Mitzvot HaTeluyot Ba’Aretz, land-based Mitzvot.

The Joy of Serving as a Kohein

A leading Kohein member of Congregation Shaarei Orah, Ezra Douek, once commented to me that being a Kohein is living a life of simcha. This is especially true of Sephardic Kohanim who have the opportunity to bless the Jewish People on a daily basis even if they are not in Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 15:12) concludes his presentation of the laws of Birkat Kohanim stating “Any Kohein who does not bless is not blessed and any Kohein that blesses is blessed as is written (Bereishit 12:3) “I will bless those who will bless you.”

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

Rabbi, Congregation Shaarei Orah

the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck

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