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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