The Mitzvah of Duchening (Birchas Kohanim)
In Parshas Naso, the Torah teaches about the beautiful mitzvah of Birchas Kohanim, wherein the kohanim are commanded to bless the people of Israel. This mitzvah is usually referred to by Ashkenazic Jews as “duchening” and by Sefardic Jews as Birchat Kohanim, or occasionally as Nesiyat Kapayim, which refers to the raising of hands that the kohanim do in order to recite the blessings.
Why Is This Mitzvah Called Duchening?
Duchen is the Aramaic word for the platform that is in front of the Aron Kodesh. The duchen exists to remind us of the ulam, the antechamber that stood in front of the Kodesh and the Kodshei HaKodoshim, the holy chambers in the Beis HaMikdash. The Kodshei HaKodoshim was entered on only one day of the year, on Yom Kippur, and then only by the Kohen Gadol. The Kodesh was entered a few times daily, but only to perform the mitzvos of the Menorah, the Golden Mizbayach (altar), and the Shulchan (the Holy Table that held the Lechem HaPanim). Before entering the Kodesh, one ascended into the Ulam as a sign of respect, so as not to enter the Kodesh immediately.
Similarly, in our shuls the Aron Kodesh represents the Kodesh, since we are permitted to open it and to remove the Sifrei Torah when we need to. But, before entering the Kodesh, one ascends the duchen, in this case, also, to show respect by approaching the Aron Kodesh after a preliminary stage.
The duchen also serves other functions, one of which is that the kohanim stand upon it when they recite the blessings of Birchas Kohanim. For this reason, this mitzvah is called duchening (duchenen in Yiddish). In the absence of a duchen, or if there are more kohanim in the shul than there is room on the duchen, the kohanim “duchen” while standing on the floor in the front of the shul.
Basics of Duchening
There is a basic order to the duchening that occurs during the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai. When the chazan completes the brachah of modim and the congregation answers “amen” to his brocha, someone (either the chazan or a member of the congregation, depending on minhag) calls out “kohanim” to inform the kohanim that it is time for them to begin the brachah. After the kohanim recite the brachah on the mitzvah, the chazan then reads each word of the Birchas Kohanim that is recorded in the Torah (Bamidbar 6:24-26) for the kohanim to recite, and the kohanim respond. The congregation responds “amen” after each of the three brochos. After the last brachah of Birchas Kohanim is completed by the kohanim, the chazan returns to the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai by reciting the brachah “sim shalom“.
The Gemara and poskim teach that at each of these stages, one must be careful not to recite one’s part before the previous step has been completed. Thus, the person who calls out “kohanim” must be careful not to do so before the congregation has finished answering “amen” to the chazan’s brachah; the kohanim should be careful not to recite the words of the brachah before the chazan has completed saying the word “kohanim”; the chazan may not call out “yevarechecha” before the congregation has completed saying “amen” to the brachah of the kohanim, etc. It is important to be mindful of these halachos and allow each stage to be completed before beginning the next. Unfortunately, even well-learned people are sometimes not sufficiently careful and patient to wait until it is time for their part to be recited.
Wearing Shoes During Duchening
A kohen may not duchen while wearing shoes. The Gemara teaches that this was one of the nine takkanos that were instituted by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai (Sotah 40a). Although there would seem to be an obvious association with the halacha that the kohanim were barefoot when they performed the service in the Beis HaMikdash, the actual reason for this takkanah is unrelated. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was concerned that a kohen’s shoelace would tear while he was on the way to the duchen and, while stopping to retie his shoelace, he would miss the duchening. However, people who saw that he missed the duchening would not realize what happened. They might start a rumor that he did not duchen because he is not a valid kohen! For this reason, Chazal instituted that every kohen simply removes his shoes before duchening.
What if the Chazan is a Kohen?
The mishnah states that when there is only one kohen in shul, and he is the chazan, then he may (and should) duchen (Berachos 34a). In this instance, the kohen will remove his shoes and wash his hands prior to beginning repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai. There is a dispute among poskim whether a kohen may duchen when he is the chazan and there are other kohanim who will be duchening. The Shulchan Aruch rules that he should not duchen under these circumstances, because of a concern that he will become confused where he is up to in the davening and have difficulty resuming his role as chazan (Orach Chayim 128:20). Chazal instituted this prohibition even when we are certain that the chazan will not become confused, such as today, when he has a siddur in front of him (Mishnah Berurah 128:72).
However, the Pri Chodosh rules that he may duchen, and that the concern referred to by the Shulchan Aruch was only when the chazan might become confused (such as when he does not have a siddur to daven from). In most communities in Eretz Yisrael, the custom is to follow the Pri Chodosh’s ruling allowing a kohen who is the chazan to duchen. However, in chutz la’aretz the practice is to follow the Shulchan Aruch, and the chazan does not duchen (unless he is the only kohen).
In a situation where the chazan is the only kohen and there is a platform (the “duchen”) in front of the aron kodesh, there is a very interesting halacha that results. Since the duchening should take place on the platform, the kohen walks up to the duchen in the middle of his repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai. After completing the duchening, he returns to his place as chazan and completes the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrai.
The Minyan Disappeared
What do you do if you started davening with a minyan, but in the middle of davening, some men left, leaving you with less than a minyan? Can you still duchen?
If the minyan started the duchening with ten men or more, and then some men left in the middle of the duchening, they should complete the duchening (Biur Halachah 128:1 s.v. bipachus).
What Happens if a Kohen Does Not Want to Duchen?
A kohen who does not want to duchen should stand outside the shul from before the time that the word “kohanim” is called out, until the duchening is completed.
The Days that We Duchen
The prevalent custom among Sefardim and other Edot Hamizrach is to duchen every day. There are many Ashkenazic poskim who contend that Ashkenazim should also duchen every day. However, the standard practice in chutz la’aretz is that Ashkenazim duchen only on Yomim Tovim. In most of Eretz Yisroel, the prevalent practice is that Ashkenazim duchen every day. However, in Tzfas and much of the Galil, the custom is that the kohanim duchen only on Shabbos and Yom Tov.
Why do Ashkenazim duchen in Eretz Yisrael every day, and in chutz la’aretz only on Yom Tov?
Several reasons are cited to explain this practice. Rama explains that a person can confer blessing only when he is fully happy. Unfortunately, except for the Yomim Tovim, the kohanim are distracted from true happiness by the difficulties involved in obtaining basic daily needs. However, on Yomim Tovim, the kohanim are in a mood of celebration. Thus, they forget their difficulties and can bless people with a complete heart (Rama 128:44; cf. Be’er Heiteiv ad loc.). Thus, only on Yom Tov do the kohanim duchen.
In Eretz Yisroel, the practice is to duchen daily, because the Ashkenazim there followed the ruling of the Vilna Gaon. He contended that Ashkenazim everywhere should duchen every day.
Why do the kohanim in Tzfas duchen only on Shabbos and Yom Tov?
The reason for this custom is unclear. I was once told in the name of Rav Kaplan, the Rav of Tzfas for many decades, that since Tzfas had many tzoros over the years, including many serious earthquakes and frequent attacks by bandits, the people living there did not have true simcha. However, they were able to achieve enough simcha on Shabbos and Yom Tov to be able to duchen. This reason does not explain why the other communities in the Galil duchen only on Shabbos and Yom Tov.
It should be noted that the Sefardim in Tzfas duchen every day, not only on Shabbos.
Placement of Shoes
As I mentioned before, Chazal instituted that a kohen should remove his shoes before duchening. Unfortunately, some kohanim leave their shoes lying around in the front of the shul when they go up to duchen. This practice is incorrect. The kohanim are required to place their shoes under the benches or in some other inconspicuous place when they go up to duchen. It shows a lack of respect to leave the shoes lying about (Mishnah Berurah 128:15)
Prior to duchening, there is a requirement that the kohanim wash their hands. In some shuls, the Kohanim wash their hands in the front of the shul before they go up to duchen. What is the reason for this practice?
This custom has a source in Rishonim and Poskim and should definitely be encouraged. Tosafos (Sotah 39a s.v. kol) rules that one should wash one’s hands relatively near the duchen, whereas washing further away and then walking to the duchen constitutes an interruption, a hefsek, similar to talking between washing netilas yadayim and making hamotzi on eating bread. (His actual ruling is that one should wash one’s hands within twenty-two amos of the duchen, which is a distance of less than forty feet.) Thus, according to Tosafos, we are required to place a sink within that distance of the duchen where the kohanim stand to duchen. The Magen Avrohom rules according to this Tosafos and adds that since the kohanim wash their hands before Retzei, the chazan should recite the brachah of Retzei speedily. In his opinion, the time that transpires after the kohen washes his hands should be less time than it takes to walk twenty-two amos (128:9). Thus, Retzei must be recited in less time than it takes to walk twenty-two amos. The Biur Halachah adds that the kohanim should not converse between the washing of their hands and the duchening, because this, also, constitutes a hefsek.
Duchening and Dreams
A person who had a dream that requires interpretation and does know whether the dream bodes well should recite a prayer at the time of the duchening (Berachos 55b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 130:1). It should be noted that the text of the prayer quoted by the Gemara is different from that quoted in the majority of siddurim. The Gemara cites the following text for this prayer:
“Master of the World, I am yours and my dreams are yours. I dreamed a dream that I do not understand its meaning — whether it is something I have dreamt about myself or it is something that my friends dreamt about me or whether it is something that I dreamt about them. If these dreams are indeed good, strengthen them like the dreams of Yosef. However, if the dreams need to be healed, heal them as Moshe healed the bitters waters of Marah, as Miriam was healed of her tzaraas, as Chizkiyahu was healed of his illness and as the waters of Yericho were healed by Elisha. Just as You changed the curse of Bilaam to a blessing, so, too, change all my dreams for the good.” According to the opinion of the Vilna Gaon, this prayer should be recited at the end of all three blessings, rather than reciting the “Yehi Ratzon” that is printed in most siddurim (Mishnah Berurah 130:5).
One should complete the prayer at the moment that the congregation answers Amen to the blessings of Birchas Kohanim. This prayer can be recited not only when one is uncertain of the interpretation of the dream, but even when one knows that the dream bodes evil (Mishnah Berurah 130:4).
Among Ashkenazim in chutz la’aretz, where the practice is to duchen only on Yom Tov, the custom is to recite this prayer every time one hears the duchening, because there is a likelihood that since the last Yom Tov one had a dream that requires interpretation (Mishnah Berurah 130:1). This prayer is not recited on Shabbos, unless one had a bad dream that night (Mishnah Berurah 130:4). In Eretz Yisrael, where the custom is to duchen daily, the practice among Ashkenazim is to recite the prayer for dreams at the last of the three berachos of the duchening at musaf on Yom Tov, when it does not fall on a Shabbos. The custom is that the kohanim chant the last word of the brachah on these Yom Tov days to allow people sufficient time to recite this prayer.
In all places, the custom among Sefardim is not to recite the prayer unless the person had such a dream.
As a kohen, myself, I find duchening to be the most beautiful of mitzvos. We are, indeed, so fortunate to have a commandment to bless our fellow Jews, the children of Our Creator. The nusach of the brachah is also worth noting. “Levarach es amo Yisrael b’ahava” — to bless His nation Israel with love. The blessings of a kohen must flow from a heart full of love for the Jews that he is privileged to bless.