This coming week, we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the
anniversary of the Giving of the Torah. The Torah reading for Shavuot
begins with the verse (Shmot 19:1), "In the third month from the Exodus
of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of
Sinai." Our Sages say, "Why was the Torah given in a wilderness?
Because just as a wilderness is ownerless and available to everyone, so
the Torah is not the domain of an elite few but rather is available for
anyone who wishes to come and partake of it."
R' Shlomo Goldman shlita (the Zhvil-Sanz-Klausenberg Rebbe in Union City,
New Jersey) offered another reason why the Torah was given in a
wilderness. When one gives a gift, the quality of the wrapping paper and
other trappings that are required is inversely proportional to the quality
or value of the gift itself. A truly valuable gift speaks for itself.
Likewise, the amount of spice that a dish of food needs is inversely
proportional to the quality of the food itself. The Torah is the greatest
gift; thus, no trappings were needed when the Torah was given and the
Torah was given in a wilderness.
R' Goldman added: In one sense, it may be easier for us to re-accept the
Torah each Shavuot than it was for our ancestors to accept it the first
time. As anyone who has been at a Hachnassat Sefer Torah / the celebration
at which a new Torah scroll is brought into shul knows, it is customary to
take all of the Torah scrolls out of the aron kodesh and to dance with
them to meet the new Sefer Torah. Likewise, we have the ability
to "welcome" the Torah on Shavuot through the Torah that we have already
studied, whereas our ancestors did not have that ability when they
received the Torah for the first time. (Heard from R' Goldman on Rosh
Chodesh Sivan 5768).
"Speak to Aharon and his sons, saying, `So shall you bless Bnei
Yisrael, saying to them'." (6:23)
R' Moshe Isserles z"l (Rema; 1525-1572) writes that a non-Kohen who
recites Birkat Kohanim transgresses the mitzvah of this verse, which
implies that Kohanim should recite the blessing, but not others. [Ed.
Note: It is not prohibited for a non-Kohen to recite the verses of Birkat
Kohanim after the Birchot Ha'Torah in the morning. In that context, the
verses are read as a form of Torah study, not as blessings.]
R' Yisrael Meir Hakohen z"l (the Chafetz Chaim; 1838-1933) comments on the
above statement of the Rema: In this light, we have to wonder at the
widespread practice that people - whether they are Kohanim or not - bless
each other by reciting the words of Birkat Kohanim when they take leave
from travelers. How is this permitted?
The Chafetz Chaim explains: At first glance, one might argue that since
the blessings are recited outside the context of the prayers - in other
words, they are not recited the way a Kohen would recite them - there is
no prohibition. However, this cannot be correct, since it is only a
rabbinic ordinance to recite Birkat Kohanim during prayer. The Torah had
no such thing in mind. Thus, when the Torah implicitly prohibited a non-
Kohen from blessing others using this formula, it must have meant that the
prohibition should apply all of the time.
Rather, says the Chafetz Chaim, the widespread practice may be justified
as follows: There is a dispute, beginning in the Talmud and continuing in
the later authorities, about whether one fulfills a mitzvah if he does the
act of the mitzvah but has no thought of performing that mitzvah. [For
example, does one fulfill a mitzvah if he plays music on a shofar on Rosh
Hashanah and happens to emit a Tekiah-Shevarim-Teruah-Tekiah, even though
he had no thought of doing a mitzvah?] Says the Chafetz Chaim: The
existence of the widespread practice mentioned above is proof that we hold
that fulfillment of a mitzvah does require proper intentions ("mitzvot
zerichot kavanah"). Because that is that we hold, a non-Kohen would
transgress the prohibition on blessing others with the Birkat Kohanim only
if he had in mind to fulfill the mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim thereby.
Without such an intention, he is not attempting to usurp the mitzvah of
the Kohanim and thus commits no transgression.
Alternatively, the Chafetz Chaim writes, perhaps the general populace
accepts the opinion of R' Yoel Sirkes (the Bach; 1560-1640) that non-
Kohanim are prohibited from using the Birkat Kohanim only if they recite
the blessings with their two hands outstretched like the Kohanim do.
Thus, when friends Part along the road, they may bless each other with the
Birkat Kohanim. (Be'ur Halachah 128:1)
According to the foregoing, the questions arises: When one blesses his
children on Shabbat night using the verses of the Birkat Kohanim, may one
place two hands on each child's head or should one stretch out only one
R' Eliezer David Gruenwald z"l (died 1928; rabbi of Oyber-Visheve, Hungary
and other towns) writes that one should not use two hands. Besides the
reason just mentioned, R' Gruenwald states that the custom of the Arizal
was to use only one hand. (She'eilot U'teshuvot Keren Le'David No. 24)
The sefer Ma'avar Yabok notes that the fingers of one hand have 15 joints,
just as Birkat Kohahim has 15 words. This is another reason to use only
one hand when blessing one's child with the words of Birkat Kohanim.
(Quoted in Minhag Yisrael Torah)
R' Yaakov Emden z"l (died 1776) strongly defends the custom of using two
hands to bless one's children. He writes that this is how one blesses
another generously, and the fact that this is what the Kohanim do is proof
that it is the right way to bless another. Likewise, Moshe Rabbeinu
wanted to bless Yehoshua generously, so he used two hands (see Bemidbar
27:23). When Yaakov Avinu blessed Yosef's children, he used two hands.
(Had there been only one grandchild to bless, Yaakov Avinu would have
placed both of his hands on that one grandchild, R' Emden asserts.) It is
absolutely clear, therefore, that one should use two hands, R' Emden
concludes. [Ed. note: R' Emden does not address the fact that in none of
the cases he mentions did the individual use two hands while reciting
Birkat Kohanim. Thus, there is no proof that a non-Kohen may bless his
child with the Birkat Kohanim on Friday night while placing two hands on
his or her head.] (Siddur Bet Yaakov: Hanhagat Leil Shabbat)
When the Kohanim bless the congregation, their hands are outstretched and
they hold their fingers in such a way that there are three air spaces
between the fingers of the two hands. What does this represent?
R' Pinchas Zelig Hakohen Schwartz z"l (pre-WWII Hungarian rabbi) explains:
The Midrash says that Bnei Yisrael complained to Hashem, "We do not want
the blessing of the Kohanim. We want Your blessing."
Hashem responded: "When they bless you, I am looking over their
shoulders." In the words of Shir Hashirim (2:9), "He is standing behind
our wall, observing through the windows, peering through the lattices."
"He handed her parched grain, and she ate and was satisfied, and had
some left over." (Ruth 2:14)
The midrash says, "If Boaz had known that the prophet would record that
`she ate and was satisfied, and had some left over,' he would have fed her
fattened calves." Many commentators ask: Is the midrash suggesting that
the tzaddik Boaz was motivated by a desire for honor? R' Shmuel Guntzler
z"l (1834-1911; rabbi of Oyber-Visheve, Hungary) explains:
The Gemara (Berachot 20b) teaches that one of the reasons that G-d loves
the Jewish People so much is that they recite Birkat Hamazon even when
they have eaten only a small quantity of food. According to strict Torah
law, one is not obligated to "bentsch" unless he has eating a quantity of
food that satisfies him.
Why did Boaz give Ruth a miserly meal of only a few parched grains? R'
Guntzler explains that he wanted to test her - was she so pious as
to "bentsch" over a small meal, or was she interested only in fulfilling
the literal law of the Torah?
However, Boaz's plan failed, since Ruth actually was satisfied with the
few grains and therefore was obligated by Torah law to recite Birkat
Hamazon. The midrash is informing us that, had Boaz known that his test
would fail, he would not have acted in a miserly way and instead would
have generously offered Ruth the meat of fattened calves. (Meishiv Nefesh)
"Formerly this was done in Yisrael in cases of redemption and exchange
transactions to validate all matters - one would take off his shoe and
give it to the other. This was the process of ratification in Yisrael."
Why did this practice exist? R' Eliezer David Gruenwald z"l (1867-1928;
rabbi and rosh yeshiva of Oyber Visheve and other Hungarian towns)
The nature of a Jew is [or should be] that he does not go back on his
word. Even if he sees that a business deal that he made will cause him to
go bankrupt, he should not renege.
Our Sages say (Shabbat 129a) that, if necessary, one should sell all of
his belongings in order to buy shoes. Shoes, then, are a symbol of
poverty. When one takes off his shoe to seal a business transaction, one
is in effect saying, "I will never renege on this deal even if I have
nothing to my name except a pair of shoes." (Keren Le'Dovid)
The editors hope these brief 'snippets' will engender further study
and discussion of Torah topics ('lehagdil Torah u'leha'adirah'), and
your letters are appreciated. Web archives at Torah.org start with 5758 (1997) and
may be retrieved from the Hamaayan page.
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