Selected Halachos Related to Parshas Netzavim-Vayeilech
By Rabbi Doniel Neustadt
A discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the
week. For final rulings, consult your Rav.
PREPARING FOR YOM TOV: THE MITZVAH OF BIRKAS KOHANIM
With Rosh Hashanah, followed closely by Yom Kippur and Sukkos, just around
the corner, it is time to review a mitzvah which is practiced only on Yomim
Tovim. Even today when the Beis ha-Mikdash is no longer standing, the
Biblical(1) mitzvah of nesias kapayim - the obligation of the kohanim to
lift up their hands and bless the Jewish people with the three verses
recorded in Parashas Naso(2) -- remains. Although this mitzvah applies at
all times and in all places(3), it has become customary in most
congregations, especially outside of Eretz Yisrael, to perform it only
during the Mussaf service of Yom Tov(4). The poskim suggest several reasons
for the curtailment of nesias kapayim:
1. It is proper for kohanim to immerse themselves in a mikveh before nesias
kapayim, and it is difficult for them to do so on a daily or even a weekly
2. Nesias kapayim should be performed when people are relaxed and not in a
hurry to go to work. Even on Shabbos, people are preoccupied with concerns
about their livelihood. Only at the end of Mussaf on Yom Tov, when people
are in an elevated mood and are ready to leave shul and partake of the
simchas Yom Tov, is the time conducive for nesias kapayim(6).
3. It was common in the olden days for non-Jews to barge into shuls at will,
and birkas kohanim may be said in the presence of Jews only(7).
4. With the passage of time, the lineage and yichus of the kohanim have
become blurred. We nevertheless allow them to bless the people on Yom Tov so
that this mitzvah will not be completely forsaken and forgotten(8).
In the past, many poskim disputed and refuted the above-stated reasons(9),
and some even sought to change the long-standing practice and reinstate
birkas kohanim on a daily basis(10). Ultimately, all these attempts failed -
almost as if a bas kol min ha-shamayim decreed that nesias kapayim must be
relegated to Yom Tov Mussaf alone(11) - and the vast majority of
congregations outside of Eretz Yisrael recite birkas kohanim on Yom Tov
Regrettably, the discussion involving the proper time and occasion for
performing nesias kapayim led to some confusion. Some congregations have the
custom not to recite birkas kohanim on a Yom Tov which falls on Shabbos, as
it does this year. Although several poskim have attempted to explain the
reason behind this practice(12) and many prominent congregations practice
this custom even today, the consensus of the poskim is that it has "no ta'am
or rei'ach"(13), it has no basis in halachah(14), it is not a minhag tov(15)
and it should be discontinued(16), provided that there will not be any
strife or discord within the congregation if the practice is abandoned.
UPOM WHOM DOES THE OBLIGATION REST?
Many authorities maintain that in addition to the mitzvah of the kohanim to
bless the Jewish people, there is also a separate mitzvah for every Jew to
be blessed by the kohanim(17). Women, too, are included in this mitzvah(18).
Let us clarify, then, the halachos which pertain to the members of the
congregation, to the yisraelim and leviyim who are awaiting the blessings
from the kohanim:
WHAT THE CONGREGATION IS SUPPOSED TO DO:
The custom is for the entire congregation to stand(19) - with awe and
seriousness - during the birkas kohanim(20). A weak or sick person, however,
Every person present must answer amen to each of the three verses that the
kohanim recite. One who is in shul and does not answer amen excludes himself
from the blessing and does not fulfill the mitzvah(22).
The poskim debate whether it is proper to recite Baruch hu u'varuch shemo
when the name of Hashem is mentioned during the blessings. One may follow
his customary practice, but he should do so quietly(23).
The congregants must give their undivided attention to the words of the
blessings. Their eyes should be lowered as if they are davening Shemoneh
Esrei(24). In order to fulfill the mitzvah properly, they must hear every
single letter of every single word(25).
WHAT THE CONGREGATION IS *NOT* SUPPOSED TO DO:
Since complete concentration is required while listening to the blessings,
it is forbidden to look around the shul or to stare at the kohanim while
birkas kohanim is being recited(26). The custom is not to look at them at all,
neither at their faces nor at their hands(27). For this reason, many have
the custom of covering their face with a tallis during birkas kohanim(28).
It is prohibited to speak, learn, or say Tehillim during birkas kohanim(29),
nor is it proper to recite any other verses [even those verses which appear
alongside in many siddurim and machzorim] or prayers while birkas kohanim is
When answering amen, it is important to make sure that the kohanim have
completely finished the word that they are reciting(31).
At the conclusion of birkas kohanim, the custom is for the congregation to
thank the kohanim for their blessing(32). While some kohanim have the custom
of responding with beruchim tihiyu'(33), others advise the kohanim against
responding in those words in order to avoid a halachic dispute as to whether
their response constitutes an additional blessing over and beyond what is
mandated by the Torah(34).
WHERE SHOULD THE PEOPLE LISTENING TO THE BLESSINGS BE?
Since the kohanim must face the congregants during birkas kohanim(35),
anyone standing behind the kohanim must leave his seat and face the
kohanim(36). The people who are standing to the side of the kohanim should
turn their faces so that they face the kohanim(37).
It is preferable that the congregation not be standing on a surface higher
than the kohanim. Consequently, one should not stand on the bimah during
Some have the custom of moving up to the front of the shul so that nothing
intervenes between them and the kohanim. There are valid sources and reasons
for this custom(39).
WHEN BIRKAS KOHANIM INTERFERES WITH OTHER MITZVOS:
One who is reciting Kerias Shema [or its blessings] when the congregation
is reciting birkas kohanim, should stop and listen to the blessings. He must
answer amen to the blessings of the kohanim but not to the blessing of
Levareich es amo Yisrael(40).
One who is reciting Shemoneh Esrei when the sheliach tzibbur is about to
recite birkas kohanim should stop and listen(41). He may not, however, leave
his place to face the kohanim nor may he answer amen to the blessings of the
kohanim. In view of this potential conflict, one should not start Shemoneh
Esrei unless he is sure to finish before birkas kohanim(42).
1 Footnote to Sha'ar ha-Tziyun 128:133, who flatly rejects the minority
opinion which maintains that it is merely a rabbinical mitzvah. See Kol Bo
(Tefillah 11) who says that Shlomo ha-Melech instituted birkas kohanim
outside the Beis ha-Mikdash.
2 Bamidbar 6:24-27.
3 Chinuch 378.
4 In certain parts of Eretz Yisrael, nesias kapayim is performed only on
5 Sefer Chasidim 1613, quoted by Beis Yosef O.C. 128, who rejects this
argument for several reasons.
6 Rama 128:44, Mishnah Berurah 167. Yom Kippur, too, is a day of happiness,
since Hashem forgives our sins; ibid. 166.
9 See Responsa Rama Mi'pano 95 and Beis Yosef O.C. 128.
10 The Gr"a and his disciple Reb Chayim of Volozin repeatedly attempted to
change the custom. Reb Nosson Adler, in his own beis medrash, performed
birkas kohanim daily.
11 Language of the Aruch ha-Shulchan 128:64. See similar idea in Meishiv
12 There are several possible theories as to how this custom developed: 1.
The Ribbono shel olam prayer is not said on Shabbos (Magen Avraham 128:70);
2. Birkas kohanim is not said unless the kohanim have immersed themselves,
which is not done on Shabbos (ibid.); 3. Shabbos itself serves as a shemirah
and no additional blessing is needed (Da'as Torah 128:44); 4. To avoid
inadvertently transgressing the prohibition of carrying water which is
needed to wash the hands of the kohanim (Eishel Avraham 128). 5. So that
presents for the kohanim would not be carried on Shabbos (Mor Veahalos).
17 This is the view of Sefer Chareidim 12:18 [and other Rishonim], and it is
quoted as halachah by many later authorities, including the Beiur Halachah
(beginning of 128) and Igros Moshe O.C. 4:21 . There are also dissenting
opinions. See Responsa Chasam Sofer 22 and 167 and Devar Avraham 1:31 for a
review of this issue.
41 Chazon Ish (Dinim v'Hanhagos 4:29); Igros Moshe O.C. 4:21; Shevet ha-Levi
3:15. A dissenting opinion maintains that he need not do so; Harav S.Y.
Elyashiv (Avnei Yashfei on Tefillah, pg. 205); Teshuvos v'Hanhagos 2:77.
42 Igros Moshe O.C. 4:21. See, however, Igros Moshe O.C. 5:20-23 where he
rules that even during Shemoneh Esrei one should leave his place to face the