Ashkenazic Kohanim Visiting Sephardic Congregations by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


First time Ashkenazic visitors to Sephardic synagogues almost always find it astonishing that Sephardic Kohanim conduct Nesi’at Kapayim (also known as Birkat Kohaim and Duchenen, when the Kohanim bless the congregation) every day, even outside of Eretz Yisrael. In reality, it is far more astonishing that Ashkenazic Jews refrain from performing daily Birkat Kohanim outside Eretz Yisrael. The Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:9) sets forth the rule very clearly : “Any Mitzvah which is land based, “Teluyah BaAretz,” is practiced only in Eretz Yisrael, and any Mitzvah which is not land based applies both in Eretz Yisrael and outside Eretz Yisrael.” Thus, since Birkat Kohanim is not a land based Mitzvah, it is difficult to understand why Ashkenazim refrain from Nesi’at Kapayim, except for Yom Tov and Yom Kippur, outside of Eretz Yisrael.[1] The Sephardic practice (strongly endorsed by Rav Yosef Karo in the Beit Yosef at the end of chapter 128), on the other hand, stems from a straightforward reading of the Mishnah in Kiddushin.

Explaining the Ashkenazic Custom

Various explanations are offered for the Ashkenazic custom. The Beit Yosef cites the Agur, a late Rishon, who offers two explanations. One is that the Kohanim customarily immerse in a Mikveh[2] prior to blessing the congregation, and they find it difficult to immerse in a Mikveh every day during the cold winter months. On Yom Tov, however, this is not a relevant concern since the Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16b) encourages purifying oneself before the three Regalim.[3] The Agur adds that Bittul Melachah, detracting from fulfilling professional obligations, is another concern. Chazal (Megillah 21 and Berachot 45b) were very sensitive to not keep people from their work related responsibilities, and therefore, for example, limited the number of Aliyot to Torah reading on Mondays and Thursdays to three.

The Agur concludes that refraining from Birkat Kohanim is permitted for these reasons since technically a Kohein does not violate his obligation to bless the nation unless he is summoned with the call “Kohanim” to bless the nation. Indeed, Targum Onkelos (BeMidbar 6:23; see the Torat Chaim edition of Onkelos) translates the Pasuk which states, “Instruct the children of Aharon, this is how to bless the children of Israel; say to them” as “in this manner shall you bless Bnei Yisrael when they instruct you to do so.” Thus, the obligation for Kohanim to bless the Jewish People is triggered only by summoning them to bless us. Since Ashkenazic Jews do not summon the Kohanim to bless the nation except for Yom Tov, no obligation devolves upon the Kohanim to bless.[4]

The Rama (Orach Chaim 128:44) codifies the universal custom among Ashenazic Jews to refrain from Nesi’at Kapayim except for Mussaf on Yamim Tovim. He justifies the practice by noting that Kohanim should be in a pleasant mood to bless the nation (“Tov Leiv Hu Yevareich”). Rama adds that during the week and even on Shabbat[5] we are anxious about our livelihoods and even on Yom Tov Kohanim are in a proper frame of mind to bless only during Mussaf. The Mishnah Berurah (128:166) adds that this applies to Yom Kippur as well due to the joy of the forgiveness of our sins. Indeed, the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:8 and Gemara Ta’anit 30b) states that Yom Kippur is one of the two happiest days in the Jewish calendar due to its being a day of forgiveness.[6]

Aruch HaShulchan—Minhag Garu’a with a Heavenly Endorsement

The Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 128:64) expresses severe reservations about the Ashkenazic practice. We must first understand that the Aruch HaShulchan is a multi-volume work written by Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (1828-1908) and serves as a pillar of Ashkenazic practice (Hacham Ovadia Yosef also quotes it quite often). It is especially noteworthy for its defense of many Ashkenazic customs which seem to run counter to the Shulchan Aruch, such as the lenient approaches to Chadash and the use of city wide Eiruvin.[7] Thus, his evaluation of the Ashkenazic custom is utterly shocking:

Behold there is certainly no correct explanation of our custom to fail to fulfill the Mitzvah for Kohanim to bless the nation[8] throughout the year. [Authorities] have written that this is a Minhag Garu’a (unworthy Minhag), but what can we do? It is as if a Bat Kol (heavenly voice) has proclaimed that we should not perform Nesi’at Kapayim year round. I have a tradition that two Gedolei HaDor (leading rabbinic authorities) in generations prior to ours, each one in his community, sought to institute the daily performance of Nesi’at Kapayim in their communities, and when the time came to implement this plan, the plans went awry, and each great rabbi proclaimed that they understand that Hashem has decreed as such that we should not conduct daily Birkat Kohanim.[9]

I suggest that part of the hidden heavenly reason is a reminder that those of us who unfortunately choose to live in Chutz LaAretz are not leading a full and proper Jewish life. This practice reminds Ashkenazim that a proper and joyous Jewish life is led only in Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, Ashkenazic Kohanim who have spent considerable time in Eretz Yisrael find it very depressing to refrain from Nesi’at Kapayim in Chutz LaAretz.[10] This may also be a partial explanation of Chazal’s decree (Beitzah 4b) that the second day of Yom Tov is observed in Chutz LaAretz even when there is a set calendar and no uncertainty regarding the proper date of the Yom Tov. It reminds us we are not living the full and desired Torah life as it is observed in Eretz Yisrael.[11]

Ashkenazic Kohanim Visiting a Sephardic Congregation

It has clearly emerged as a non-negotiable custom that Ashkenazic congregations refrain from daily Nesi’at Kapayim. However, what should the Ashkenazic visitor do when he visits a Sephardic congregation? It is clear that he cannot remain in the synagogue when the Shaliach Tzibbur summons the Kohanim to bless the nation if he will not perform Nesi’at Kapayim, since the summons triggers the obligation. The question remains whether he should leave the synagogue before that point or may he remain inside and join the Sephardic Kohanim in the Mitzvah to bless the Kohanim. This question depends on whether the Ashkenazic custom applies to only the community conducting Birkat Kohanim or even to the individual Ashkenazi who visits a differing community.

This question may be resolved by a story related about Rav Shalom Schwadron, the famous mid to late twentieth century Tzaddik, known as the Maggid of Yerushalayim, who was a Kohein. Rav Shalom often visited the New York area to deliver his Mussar speeches. I was told that, when possible, the Maggid would attend Shacharit at a Sephardic congregation where he would have the opportunity to perform Nesi’at Kapayim.[12] Clearly the holy Maggid felt that the custom applies only to an Ashkenazic congregation and not to individual Ashkenazim.

This approach is very compelling. The Ashkenazic custom is, as described by the Aruch HaShulchan, a Minhag Garu’a and thus should not be applied in an expansive manner. As Chazal say in many contexts,[13] “Chiddush Hu VeHavu DeLo Losif Alah,” it is a surprising approach and it should not be expanded. Indeed, as Rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, I encourage visiting Ashkenazic Kohanim to seize the opportunity to fulfill a Mitzvah they would otherwise miss and perform Nesi’at Kapayim along with their Sephardic cousins. Teshuvot Beit Avi (3:4) adopts a similar approach.

Moreover, one could argue that Ashkenazic Kohanim should try to pray Shacharit in a Sephardic congregation since one should place himself into a situation where he will fulfill Mitzvot (Tosafot Pesachim 113b s.v. V’Ein Lo Banim). This value is expressed in Sotah 14a which states that Moshe Rabbeinu passionately desired to enter Eretz Yisrael not to enjoy its fruits but rather to place himself in a situation where he can fulfill the Mitzvot HaTeluyot Ba’Aretz, land based Mitzvot. 

Conclusion—The Joy of Serving as a Kohein

Ezra Douek, a Kohein member of Congregation Shaarei Orah, once commented to me that being a Kohein is a life of Simcha. This is especially true of Sephardic Kohanim who have the opportunity to bless the Jewish People on a daily basis even if they are not in Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 15:12) concludes his presentation of the laws of Birkat Kohanim stating “Any Kohein who does not bless is not blessed and any Kohein that blesses is blessed as is written (BeReishit 12:3) “I will bless those who will bless you.”

[1] Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak (8:1) discusses at length and strongly endorses the Ashkenazic custom to perform Nesi’at Kapayim only on Shabbat in Haifa and the Galil. Chacham Ovadia Yosef (Yalkut Yosef 128:17) recommends to Ashkenazim that it is proper to change this Minhag and recite Birkat Kohanim every day even in the Galil. The Gesher HaChaim (2:18-2-3) agrees and calls for Chazarat Atarah LeYoshenah, to restore the original practice to recite Birkat Kohanim daily even in the Galil.

[2] In order not to be Ba’al Keri when they perform Nesi’at Kapayim.

[3] The Rambam (Hilchot Tum’at Ohalim 16:10) explains that the purification is so that we will be prepared to enter the Beit HaMikdash. Those who do not immerse before the three Regalim assume that this obligation applies only when the Beit HaMikdash is functioning. Immersion before Yom Kippur is strongly encouraged (see Rosh, Yoma 8:24) as preparation for the day that Hashem purifies us (VaYikra 16:30 and the conclusion of Mishnah Yoma 8:9) .

[4] Of course, this justification does not apply to an Ashkenazic Jew who prays in a Sephardic congregation which summons the Kohanim to bless the nation, as we shall discuss later.

On the other hand, Yalkut Yosef’s instruction to Sephardic Kohanim to leave an Ashkenazic service before the Shaliach Tzibbur reaches Birkat Kohanim seems difficult. Yalkut Yosef is concerned for the Kohein failing to fulfill his obligation to bless the Kahal in an Ashkenazic service. However, since Ashkenazim do not summon Kohanim to bless, this should not be a concern since the obligation to bless is bypassed. It seems that common practice among Sephardic Jews is not to leave the Beit Kenesset when praying in an Ashkenazic congregation.

[5] This is not the proper mind frame for Shabbat, as Rashi (Shemot 20:9 s.v. VeAsita Kol Melachtecha) notes that on Shabbat we should feel that all our work is done. Our weekday worries and concerns should be shunted aside as we usher in Shabbat with its Neshamah Yeteira (added soul).

[6] This Gemara also explains the joyful melodies sung by Sephardic congregations on Yom Kippur.

[7] Rav Gedalia Schwartz, the well-respected Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, once commented that when he studies the Aruch HaShulchan he feels as if he is sitting before one of the greatest old time European rabbis guiding a younger rabbi as to how to conduct himself as a community rabbi.

[8] The Sefer Chareidim (cited by Be’ur Halachah 128:1 s.v. Katav BeSefer Chareidim) argues that not only is it a Mitzvah for the Kohanim to bless but also a Mitzvah for the non-Kohanim to be blessed. Be’ur Halachah notes that many Acharonim cite this opinion as a viable approach. Yalkut Yosef 128:5 also cites this opinion but he notes that some disagree. Thus, according to the Sefer Chareidim one who attends a Sephardic Minyan has the opportunity to fulfill a Mitzvah even if he is not a Kohein.

[9] The Netziv (Teshuvot Meishiv Davar 2:104) relates:

I recall hearing, I believe, from my father-in-law Rabbi Yitzchak of Volozhin (the son of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin who was the leading student of the Vilna Gaon) that the Vilna Gaon decided to introduce daily Birkat Kohanim in his Beit Midrash. However, he was prevented from doing so from heaven since he was arrested during the terrible dispute that emerged in Vilna. Afterwards, my father-in-law’s father Rav Chaim of Volozhin decided to begin daily recital of Birkat Kohanim the next morning. That night a huge fire erupted and burnt half of the city including the local Beit HaKenesset (Lo Aleinu). They saw this and understood that there is a secret mystical factor regarding the effect of Berachot caused by the introduction of Birkat Kohanim in Chutz La’Aretz.

[10] I recall an Ashkenazic Kohein commenting about his return to the United States in 1999 from his sabbatical year in Israel complaining that the three saddest words in his life are the words “Kein Yehi Ratzon”  the customary response to the Shaliach Tzibbur’s request that Hashem bless us with the Kohanim blessings, recited when Birkat Kohanim is not performed.

[11] See Yerushalmi Eiruvin 3:9 which may be understood as expressing this idea.

[12] Rav Paysach Krohn, who was particularly close with the Maggid (his family hosted him during his visits in the New York area) confirmed this story in a phone conversation on July 14, 2014.

[13] Such as Sanhedrin 27a

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