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Of Prisons and Fires

According to the Zohar, Birkas Kohanim is meant to be recited each time with the same joy that Aharon felt on the final day of the inauguration of the Mishkan (as cited in the Aruch Hashulchan 128,49). Some opinions say that an unmarried man may not participate in Birkas Kohanim, since without a wife he cannot experience true joy. Although halacha ultimately permits a single man to say Birkas Kohanim, he is permitted to abstain from reciting the blessing (Rema 128,34).

During the time of the Rishonim, a group of prominent Ashkenazic rabbis decreed that Birkas Kohanim should be recited only during Yamim Tovim (Responsa Beis Ephraim 6). The exact reasons for this decision are not known, but it is likely that it was connected to the intense hardships that their communities were experiencing at that time, which did not allow for them to feel joy. This ruling is upheld until this day and, outside of Israel, Ashkenazim recite Birkas Kohanim only on Yom Tov (Rema 128,44).

The Vilna Gaon and his students tried very hard to reinstate the daily Birkas Kohanim, but many obstacles blocked their efforts. In one instance the Vilna Gaon was arrested on false charges the day before a public Birkas Kohanim was planned. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the Gaon’s closest disciple, once tried as well. The night before the planned event, fire razed half the town of Volozhin, including the shul where Birkas Kohanim was planned (as cited in Responsa Mashiv Davar 2,104 and Aruch Hashulchan 128,64). Eventually these attempts were abandoned.

Jews will often travel great distances and spend a long time waiting in order to receive blessings from a tzaddik. While a bracha from a Gadol is very special, Birkas Kohanim offers us something greater and more powerful – a bracha directly from Hashem Himself. Whether we are able to hear it every day or only on the Yamim Tovim, Birkas Kohanim is a unique opportunity, and we should try to make the most of it.

During Birkas Kohanim Hashem gazes at us through the five windows created by the hands of the kohanim. By concentrating on this blessing we express our mutual longing during this moment of closeness.

Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and



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