One would think that if the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch rule in a specific manner, that it would be obvious that all Sephardic Jews would follow their ruling. Correct? Not necessarily, and not always. Sephardic Halachah is far more complex and nuanced. A prime example of this is the variety of Sephardic practices regarding whether the Kohanim or the Chazan begins Birkat Kohanim through the recitation of the word Yevarechecha.
Universal practice among all Jews is for the Chazan to prompt the Kohanim with the words of the Birkat Kohanim. The simple explanation of this practice is that it helps the Kohanim stay on track and say the proper words (similar to the Ashkenazic practice for someone to prompt the Shofar blower with the note he is about to sound).
A Dispute between Maran and Rama
Both the Rambam (Hilchot Tefilah 14:3) and Maran Rav Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 128:13) rule that the Kohanim should recite Yevarechecha without waiting for the Chazan’s prompt. The most straightforward explanation (as noted by the Beit Yosef O.C. 128, s.v. U’Shalaih Tzibbur and Mishnah Berurah 128:48) is that the Kohanim do not need to be kept on track for the first word. A second explanation of this approach is that it enables the Kohanim to begin the recitation of Birkat Kohanim as soon as possible after they complete reciting the blessing of “Levareich Et Amo Yisrael Be’Ahavah.”
The Rama, however, notes that the Ran (Megillah 15b in the pages of the Rif, s.v. Ein HaKohanim) and the Tur (O.C. 128) disagree and rule that the Chazan should prompt even the word Yevarechecha. A beautiful mystical explanation for this opinion is presented by Rabeinu Bahayei and Kli Yakar to BeMidbar 6:23 which we summarize as follows:
The Chazan serves as an intermediary to trigger the flow of abundant heavenly blessings through the “divine pipeline”. The blessings will first rest on the Kohanim in order that they serve as a vessel filled with Hashem’s blessings. The Kohanim subsequently transfer this blessing to the congregation. The Kohanim act as a full vessel pouring out its content to an empty vessel. Were it not for the Chazan prompting the Kohanim, the Kohanim would not be blessed and they would not be able to transfer the Berachah to the assembled.
According to this approach, the Chazan must prompt the Kohanim even with the word Yevarechecha.
A Stunning Change in Practice - Ben Ish Chai
The Rama notes that the universal practice among Ashkenazic Jews is for the Chazan to prompt the Kohanim even with the word Yevarechecha. This continues to be the unchallenged and universal practice among Ashkenazic Jews. The Beit Yosef (O.C. 128 s.v. U’Shaliah Tzibbur) in turn notes that the practice throughout Eretz Yisrael and Egypt is for the Kohanim and not the Chazan to begin the word Yevarechecha.
This remained the accepted Sephardic standard until the Ben Ish Chai’s revolution regarding this issue (Parashat Tetzaveh Yr. 1:1). He argues that those who say that the Chazan begins Yevarechecha believe that it is a requirement, but those who believe that the Kohanim begin Yevarechecha, hold that it is permissible for them to begin Yevarechecha (but it is not required of them to do so). Thus, we may abandon this practice if there is a compelling reason to do so. The Ben Ish Chai follows our first explanation of this opinion that the Chazan’s prompts are merely to avoid confusion. Thus, the Chazan’s prompt of the word Yevarechecha is not necessary, since the Kohanim will not be confused at the first word of their blessing.
The Ben Ish Chai continues to note that the Kabbalah strongly supports the Chazan’s prompting the Kohanim even with the word Yevarechecha. He adds that this is the practice of the celebrated Sephardic Kabbalistic Yeshiva which exists until this day in the Old City of Jerusalem called Yeshivat Beit El. The Ben Ish Chai writes:
“A number of years ago Hashem helped me convince the community to change the practice in every Beit Kenesset in our city of Baghdad for the Chazan to prompt the Kohanim even with the word Yevarechecha. This is what should be done in every community."
The Ben Ish Chai notes a Halachic advantage to adopting this practice. When the Kohanim initiate Yevarechecha, the Kohanim often begin Yevarechecha before the Tzibbur had a chance to answer Amen to their Berachah of Levarech Et Amo Yisrael B’Ahavah.
The Kaf HaChaim (O.C. 128:82) endorses the Ben Ish Chai’s revolutionary approach. He notes that Tosafot (Berachot 34a s.v. Lo Ya’aneh) seems to endorse this view as well. In the wake of the rulings of the Ben Ish Chai and Kaf HaChaim, many Sephardic communities changed their centuries old practice of following the Rambam’s and Beit Yosef’s opinions, and began to have the Chazan prompt the Kohanim even with the word Yevarechecha.
However, many Sephardic communities continue to follow the ruling of the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch. Moroccan, Syrian and Yemenite Jews are among the Sephardic communities that retain the original practice. These communities would seem to prefer our second suggested explanation of Rambam and Maran (that we seek to minimize interruptions between the Birkat HaMitzvah and the recitation of the Birkat Kohanim). According to this approach, it is a requirement for the Kohanim to begin Yevarechecha, and therefore one does not have the option to abandon this practice.
Rav Ovadia Yosef’s Surprising Endorsement of the Ben Ish Chai
One would expect Rav Ovadia Yosef to restore the original Sephardic practice. After all, in countless situations Chacham Ovadia overturns the ruling of the Ben Ish Chai in favor of HaChazarat Atarah LeYoshenah, restoring the crown to its original luster-- in other words, following the ruling of Maran Rav Yosef Karo. For example, although many or even most Sephardic women followed the ruling of the Ben Ish Chai and Kaf HaChaim to recite the Berachah on Shabbat candles after lighting, Rav Ovadia strongly advocates the return to the ruling of the Rambam to recite the Bracha before the lighting.
Despite this expectation, Rav Ovadia strongly advocates for the ruling of the Ben Ish Chai and Kaf HaChaim. In fact, he even records (Teshuvot Yehaveh Da’at 4:10 and Yalkut Yosef O.C. 128:42) that he convinced the Kehillah he led while serving as the Rav Ha’ir (municipal rabbi) of Tel Aviv to change their Minhag to that of the Ben Ish Chai and Kaf HaChaim.
Three reasons may be offered for why Chacham Ovadia did not restore the ruling of the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch regarding who begins Yevarechecha. One reason might be that the practice of the Yeshivat Beit El became the dominant practice in the synagogues of Yerushalayim. Minhag Yerushalayim plays a major role in Rav Ovadia’s rulings. Second, is the Halachic disadvantage of the Kohanim rushing to say Yevarechecha before the congregation responds Amen to the Berachah of L’Varech Et Amo Yisrael B’Ahavah. Third, is the argument that Rambam and Rav Karo permit but do not insist that the Kohanim begin Yevarechecha.
If Only One Kohein is Present
The Rambam and Shulchan Aruch do not distinguish whether one Kohein or more than one Kohein is present. It seems that they believe that the Kohein begins Yevarechecha even if only one Kohein is present. This is the practice of Yemenite Jews until today, as reported by Shaarei Orah member Josh Hosseinoff, who made Aliyah to Zichron Yaakov where he prays in a Yemenite synagogue. Teshuvot Pirhei Kohanim (O.C. 27, cited in the Yalkut Yosef) notes that this is the custom in Algeria.
However, both the Kaf HaChaim and the Yalkut Yosef cite Teshuvot Maharam Mintz (No. 12) who rules that even the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch would agree that if only one Kohein is present that the Chazan should first recite Yevarechecha. The explanation is that only when more than one Kohein is present does the Chazan declare “Kohanim”, a fulfillment of the requirement of “Amor Lahem”, that the Chazan (on behalf of the community) initiates the Birkat Kohanim. However, when only one Kohein is present, the word Kohanim is not recited (Sotah 38a). Thus, when only one Kohein is present, the Chazan must say Yevarechecha in order to initiate Birkat Kohanim in the absence of the “Kohanim” declaration. The Kaf HaChaim concludes that the consensus of Acharonim concurs with the ruling of the Maharam Mintz (see, for example, Mishnah Berurah 128:47). Yalkut Yosef rules in accordance with this view as well.
However, there are some Sephardic communities where the Chazan first recites Yevarechecha when two or more Kohanim are present and the Kohein begins Yevarechecha when only one Kohein is present. Shaarei Orah member Cesare Pinto reports that he saw this practiced in his Sephardic congregation when he lived in Milan, Italy. Shaarei Orah member Alberto Atar reports that this is the practice in Sephardic synagogues of Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires as well. Shaarei Orah member Shlomo Mizrahi reports that this is the custom in Egyptian Kehillot in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Shmuel Khoshkermann ruled that a Sephardic Kehillah that has such a practice is permitted to retain it.
There might be two explanations for this approach. First, it constitutes a gesture of respect to and reminder of the original practice of Sephardic Jews for the Kohein to begin Yevarechecha. Second, as noted by the Beit Yosef (O.C. 128 s.v. VeGam Kan) since the Pasuk states Amor Lahem, say to them, the practice to prompt the Kohanim word by word essentially applies only when there are two or more Kohanim. While, as the Beit Yosef notes, the practice has emerged to prompt even one Kohein word by word, the original practice applies only to two or more Kohanim. Thus, prompting the Kohanim with the word Yevarechecha when there are Kohanim, and not doing so when only one Kohein is present, serves to remind us of the original practice to prompt the Kohanim word by word only when two or more Kohanim are present.
The universal Ashkenazic practice is for the Chazan to always prompt the Kohanim with the word Yevarechecha. The original Sephardic practice was that the Kohanim always begin Yevarechecha. A few communities retain this practice in all circumstances. Syrian and Moroccan Jews retain this practice when there are two or more Kohanim. Some communities retain this practice when there is only one Kohein. The Ben Ish Chai, Kaf HaChaim and Rav Ovadia Yosef advocate that even Sephardic Jews should instruct the Chazan to prompt the Kohanim with the word Yevarechecha in all circumstances.
 The Beit Yosef O.C. 128 s.v. V’Ha D’Amrinan insists that this is a custom and not a Torah requirement. The source of this Minhag, the Beit Yosef explains, is that the Torah instructs (Bemidbar 6:23) “Amor Lahem”, tell the Kohanim to bless. The Beit Yosef explains that, on a Torah level, the words Amor Lahem teach that we prompt the Kohanim to bless by the pre-Birkat Kohanim announcement “Kohanim." This triggers the obligation for the Kohanim to recite their Bracha. The Minhag is that, in addition, the Chazan prompts the Kohanim with their blessing word by word.
 As explained by the Beit Yosef O.C. 128 s.v. U’Shalaiah Tzibbur.
 However, according to our second explanation of this view, to minimize interruption between the Birkat HaMitzvah and the recitation of Birkat Kohanim it would seem to be a requirement and may not be abandoned.
 Kabbalistic thought exerts a profound influence on the Ben Ish Chai.
 Shaarei Orach member Chaim Tawil, who is of Syrian background, reports that the Syrian Rabbanim often repeat instructions to the Kohanim to pause and allow the Kahal to respond Amen before the Kohanim begin saying Yevarechecha.
 Most Yemenite Jews, maintain a very strong fidelity to the rulings of the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch.
 Shaarei Orach Algerian members Laurent Cohen and Gavriel Gozland were not sure if this remains the practice among Algerian Jews.