The Mitzvah of “Duchening” – Birchas Kohanim
In Parshas Naso, the Torah teaches us 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 the 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 that one should not immediately enter the Kodesh.
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 as a sign of respect that one should not immediately each the Aron Kodesh.
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 for them 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 shmoneh esray. When the chazan completes the brochah of modim and the congregation answers “amen” to his brocha, someone (either the chazan of a member of congregation, depending on minhag) then calls out “kohanim” to inform the kohanim that it is time for them to begin the brochah. 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. After each of the three brochahs are recited, the congregation responds “amen” to the brochah. Finally, after the last brochah of the birchas kohanim is completed by the kohanim, the chazan returns to the repetition of the shmoneh esray by reciting the brochah of sim shalom.
The Gemara and poskim teach us 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 brochah; the kohanim should be careful not to recite the words of the brochah before the chazan has completed saying the word “kohanim”; the chazan may not call out “yivarechecha” before the congregation has completed saying “amen” to the brochah 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 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 tells us 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 performed the service in the Beis HaMikdash barefoot, the actual reason for this takkanah is more practical. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was concerned that a kohen’s shoelace would tear while he was on the way to the duchen. While stopping to retie his shoelace, the kohen would miss the duchening. However, people who saw that he missed the duchening would rumor that he is not a valid kohen and that is why he did not duchen! For this reason, chazal instituted that every kohen simply removes his shoes before duchening.
Wbat 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 shmoneh esray. 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. 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 (128:20). Chazal instituted this even when we are certain that the chazan will not become confused, such as today when he has a siddur in front of him (Mishneh Berurah 128:72).
However, the Pri Chodosh rules that he may duchen, and that the concern referred to by Shulchan Aruch was only when the chazan might become confused (such as 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 actually walks up in the middle of the shmoneh esray he is reciting as chazan in order to walk up to the duchen. After completing the duchening, he returns to his place as chazan and completes the repetition of the shmoneh esray.
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 (Biyur Halachah 128:1 s.v. bipachus).
What Happens if a Kohen Who Does Not Want to Duchen?
A kohen who does not want to duchen for some reason 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. Rema explains that a person can only confer blessing 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 (Rema 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, that the people living there did not have true simcha. However, they were able to achieve enough simcha on Shabbos to be able to duchen. This reason does not explain why the other communities in the Galil duchen only on Shabbos.
It should be noted that the Sefardim in Tzfas duchen every day, not only on Shabbos.
Taking off Shoes
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 kovod to leave the shoes lying about (Mishneh Berurah 128:15)
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 to the duchen. In Tosafos’ opinion, washing further from the duchen constitutes an interruption, a hefsek, similar to talking between washing netilas yodayim 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. Magen Avrohom rules like this Tosafos. Magen Avrohom adds that, according to Tosafos, since the kohanim wash their hands before retzay, the chazan should recite the brochah of retzay 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, retzay must be recited in less time than it takes to walk twenty-two amos. Biyur 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, but does know whether the dream bodes well, should recite a prayer at the time of the duchening (Berachos 55b; Shulchan Aruch 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 know what it is- 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 like Moshe healed the bitters waters of Marah and as Miriam was healed from her tzaraas and as Chizkiyahu was healed from his illness and as the waters on Yericho were healed by Elisha. Just as you changed the curse of Bilaam to a blessing, so to change all my dreams for goodness.” 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 (Mishneh Berurah 130:5).
One should complete the prayer at the moment that the congregation answers Amen to the blessings of Birkas 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 (Mishneh 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 since there is a likelihood that since the last Yom Tov one had a dream that requires interpretation (Mishneh Berurah 130:1). This prayer is not recited on Shabbos unless one had a bad dream that night (Mishneh 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. The custom is that the kohanim chant the last word of the brochah on these days of on these days of Yom Tov to allow people sufficient time to recite these prayers.
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 mitzvohs. We are indeed so fortunate to have a commandment to bless the our fellow Jews, the children of Our Creator. The nusach of the bracha 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.