A Question of Jewish Law

March 11, 2012

A Sabbath Blessing

Filed under: Festivals,Prayers and Blessings,Shabbat — chaimweiner @ 6:26 pm

Question: Should the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim) be recited on a festival that falls on Shabbat?

Answer:  The obligation to recite the Priestly Blessing is found in the Torah. “Speak to the sons of Aaron: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them …” [Num. 6:22-23]. Of all of the positive commandments directed at the priests, it is the only one that is not dependent on the existence of the Temple – and therefore the only one that is still practised today.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, [OC 128] the Priestly Blessing is recited daily during the repetition of the Amidah in the morning service – corresponding to the time it was recited in the Temple. It is also said during the Musaf prayers on the Sabbath and Festivals.

However, amongst the Ashkenzi communities in the Diaspora, it is a long established custom to limit this observance exclusively to the Musaf prayers of the festivals. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis [Poland, 16th century], the major codifier of Ashkenazi practice, writes:   “It is the custom in these countries to only recite the Priestly Blessing on festivals, for that is when one is immersed in the joy of the festival. … and they recite it in the Musaf prayer, before they leave the synagogue engrossed in the joy of the festival.”

Isserlis connects the Priestly Blessing to the concept of joy. There is a special joy on festivals which is different from weekdays and Shabbat. In the Shabbat Amidah, Shabbat is described as a time of love – in the equivalent Amidah for the festivals they are described as a time of joy. The Birkat Kohanim is recited at the end of Musaf, because the joy of Yom Tov is greatest at the end of the service – when one is about to go home to partake in the festive meal.

There are other explanations for the Ashkenazi custom. Some commentators connect the recitation of the Priestly Blessing to the service of the Priests in the Temple. Although the Priests no longer serve in the Temple – the closest we come to Temple service are the Musaf prayers which recount the offerings on the altar, so this is the most appropriate time for reciting the blessing.

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein [Aruch Hashulchan, 128] [Lithuania, 19th century] rejected this custom. He writes: In our countries we do not recite the Birkat Hakohanim [daily] but there is no good reason for this. He goes on to say that ‘it is a bad custom’. מנהג גרוע הוא There is anecdotal evidence that Rabbi Elijah of Vilna [the Vilna Gaon] wished to reintroduce the daily recitation of the Priestly Blessing – but was prevented from doing so.

Although the custom in the Diaspora is to only recite the blessing on festivals, the custom in Israel is to recite it daily. The reason is probably historical. Amongst the earliest settlers in Israel in the modern period were the students of the Vilna Gaon. They probably brought the Gaon’s practice with them when they came to Israel, and it has remained the custom there to this day.

Many communities refrain from reciting the blessing when a Yom Tov falls on the Sabbath. Rabbi J. Soloveichik challenged the custom. It is reported that when he was a young Rabbi, he sought to introduce it in his synagogue and was subsequently dismissed from his pulpit. [Nefesh Harav]

In summary, although the Ashkenazi custom is to limit the recitation of the Priestly Blessing in the diaspora to Yom Tov, there is no good reason not to recite it when a festival lands on Shabbat. If an Ashkenazi community wishes to reintroduce it, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

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2 Comments »

  1. The reasoning is impeccable. But the synagogue that I attend has usually followed the preferences of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, whose enthusiasm for Minhag Anglia was well-known. That minhag seems to favour omitting the Priestly Blessing when Yom Tov falls on Shabbat. So if the community wished to “reinstate” the recital of the Priestly Blessing on Shabbat which is also a Yomtov, they would, presumably be inhibited by reference to the Minhag Hamakom. But perhaps your omission of all reference to Minhag Hamakom in this article indicates your view that the very idea of Minhag Hamakon is out of place in our contemporary, ultra-mobile world?

    Comment by Elkan — March 11, 2012 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

    • The question of the authority of customs is more complicated than one would think. There is a strong tradition, especially amongst the Ashkenzi communities, that customs are immutable, and have the force of law.

      But not all customs are the same. Some customs reflects ancient traditions of communities. Some customs were established because of known reasons or a local understanding of a text. But there are also customs that arose because of misunderstanding or mistakes – these are known as ‘minhag Taut’. There are also customs that don’t have a sensible explanation at all. These are known as minhag shtut. While it is important to respect serious customs – there have been many calls to uproot the latter kind.

      In this example, the most sensible practise is the Sefardi practice of reciting the Priestly Blessing at the same times and frequency as it was formally done in the Temple. The Ashkenazi custom of limiting this to Yom Tov is an ancient custom – which also has a reasonable explanation. Therefore, this is a custom that should be respected and maintained. The custom of not saying it when Yom Tov falls on Shabbat makes no sense at all – and no good explanation has been put forth for it. I didn’t want to go so far as to call it a mistaken custom, but I understand those who would say that this is the case. And if it is a mistaken custom, it would be justified to abolish it.

      Comment by chaimweiner — March 12, 2012 @ 12:40 am | Reply


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