Duchening - The Basics

by Neil Cohen

I have duchened more times than I care to remember, and I must confess that sometimes it becomes a bit of a rote exercise.

So I thought it would be interesting to find out a bit more about why we do it and how we do it.
 

So, why do we duchen?

In the Torah, in sefer Bamidbar parshat Nasso Chapter 6 verses 22 to 27 there is a commandment to bless the Jewish people with a specific, three-part blessing, known as Birkat Kohanim.

 

The commandment is as follows:

וַיְדַבֵּ< [Hashem], אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תְבָרְכוּ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אָמוֹר, לָהֶם: Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying: In this way you shall bless the children of Israel; you shall say to them

 

יְבָרֶכְךָ [Hashem], וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ: The LORD bless you, and keep you

 

יָאֵר [Hashem] פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ: The LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you

 

יִשָּׂא [Hashem] פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם: The LORD lift up His countenance to you, and give you peace

 

וְשָׂמוּ אֶת-שְׁמִי, עַל-ינֵבְּ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַאֲנִי, אֲבָרְכֵם: So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them

 

Inside and outside the Beit Mikdash

The original place for the duchening was in the Mishkan in the desert, and then in the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple). The Torah relates (in sefer Vayikra parshat Shemini Chapter 9 verse 22) that on the eighth day of the Mishkan's dedication, Aharon blessed the people:

 

וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-יָדָו אֶל-הָעָם, וַיְבָרְכֵם; וַיֵּרֶד, מֵעֲשֹׂת הַחַטָּאת וְהָעֹלָה--וְהַשְּׁלָמִים: And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people, and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin-offering, and the burnt-offering, and the peace-offerings.

 

Based on this verse, which is the first mention of the priestly blessings in the Torah, the ceremony of Birkat Kohanim is sometimes referred to as Nesi'at Kapayim "Raising one's hands".

 

So that's the reason why the Kohanim raise their hands when duchening. I will come back to that in a minute.

 

But we don't have a Temple at the moment, so where can we duchen?

 

The Sifrei (two works of Midrashic halachah, based on Bamidbar and Devarim) in the commentary on parshat Re'eh rules, by comparing verses in Devarim, Bamidbar and Shemot all of which refer to Hashem's name, that Birkat Kohanim can be read outside the Beit HaMikdash; and the Gemara (in Sotah 38a) reaches a similar conclusion.

 

It is interesting, however, that the duchening is performed just after Retzeh, which petitions for the restoration of the Temple service. So there's clearly a yearning for the Birkat Kohanim to return to its rightful place - in the Beit HaMikdash.

 

The mitzvah of duchening - do you have to do it?

The Rambam (Moses Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages) in his Sefer HaMitzvot (a listing of all the commandments of the Torah, with a brief description for each) states that a Kohen who refuses to duchen violates a single positive commandment.

 

But the Talmud (in Sotah 38b) teaches that this is a transgression of three positive commandments, as follows:

 

Firstly - דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תְבָרְכוּ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying: In this way you shall bless the children of Israel

 

Second - אָמוֹר, לָהֶם: you shall say to them

 

And third - וְשָׂמוּ אֶת-שְׁמִי: So shall they put My name

 

You will recognise all of the above from the original commandment to duchen, which I have already mentioned.

 

But if you have already duchened earlier in the day, there's no need to do it again even if you are present when other Kohanim duchen. This is confirmed in the Shulchan Aruch (widely recognised as the most authoritative legal code of Judaism, written in Tzefat by R. Yosef Karo in the sixteenth century CE).

 

Preparing to duchen 

Washing of the hands

All Kohanim at one time or another can be seen rushing out of shul to wash their hands because they haven't been concentrating!

 

The washing of the hands is taught in the Talmud (Sotah 39a) by R. Yehoshua ben Levi from the verse in Tehillim (Chapter 34 verse 2) Lift up your hands in holiness and bless Hashem.

 

If a Kohen has washed his hands before Shacharit, and they haven't got dirty since, it is arguable that he doesn't have to wash again before duchening, but it's safest to do so. R. Yosef Karo rules in the Shulchan Aruch (at Orach Chayim 125:6, being the laws of tefillah and shul, Shabbat and Yom Tov) in accordance with Rashi and the Tosafot (which are medieval commentaries on the Talmud) that the Kohanim should wash their hands again before the duchening.

 

There is some discussion about whether one should say the berachah, al netilat yadaim, over washing the hands. But no clear ruling emerges.

 

R. Yosef Karo also rules (at Orach Chaim 613:2), based on the Rambam, that one should wash up to one's wrist, as the Kohanim would do this in the Temple (see Talmud Chullin 1036b). This even applies on Yom Kippur when otherwise washing for tefillah is allowed only to the tips of one's fingers (see the Mishnah Berura 613:7, a commentary on Orach Chaim by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Poland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries CE, also known as the Chofetz Chaim).

 

The present custom is for the Levi'im to wash the hands of the Kohanim. Why is this? R. Yosef Karo had heard of this in Spain, and codified it in the Shulchan Aruch (at 128:6). He adds that the Levi'im should wash their own hands before doing this, although the Rema (R. Moshe Isserles, a prominent sixteenth century CE Rabbi and posek) adds that the custom is for the Levi'im to rely on their washing before Shacharit. So far as I'm aware, our custom is that the Levi'im do not themselves wash their hands before washing the hands of the Kohanim.

 

What if there are no Levi'im?

R. Yoel Sirkis (a sixteenth and seventeenth century CE Rabbi, known as the Bach) relates that he found an old machzor, in the name of the Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague one of the great thinkers in the post-medieval period) that in such circumstances a first-born male should do the washing.

 

Removing one's shoes

The Talmud (Sotah 40a) teaches that this is one of the 10 ordinances that Rabban Yocahnan Ben Zakai instituted (he was one of the tannaim (those sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah) an important Jewish sage in the era of the Second Temple). R. Ashi (a Babylonian amora, being one of the scholars who "said" or "told over" the teachings of the Oral law), explains (you will need to concentrate here!) that this is because (i) a shoelace may become untied (ii) the Kohen will then tie it, and (iii) people may say he is the son of a divorcee and thereby forbidden to duchen (the tying of the shoelaces being a delaying action).

 

A more straightforward reason, given in the Gemara, is that when the arms are raised, this lifts the hem of the Kohen's garment, and if his shoes are muddy this is disrespectful of the chazan.

 

What about socks?

R. Yosef Karo rules (in the Shulchan Aruch 128:5) that socks are permissible. Indeed, the Mishnah Berura writes that going up barefoot is not allowed because one wouldn't normally walk barefoot before important people.

 

Approaching the duchen (the platform)

The Kohanim must approach the platform during the chazan's repetition of the Amidah, before the end of Retzeh at the latest, definitely before the chazan has begun Modim. As already mentioned, Retzeh petitions for the restoration of the Temple service.

 

The duchening itself must take place between Modim (known as the Thanksgiving), and Sim Shalom (which focuses on peace).

 

Why is this? The Gemara (at Megillah 18b) explains this. As we have seen, it says in sefer Vayikra parshat Shemini Chapter 9 verse 22:

 

וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-יָדָו אֶל-הָעָם, וַיְבָרְכֵם; וַיֵּרֶד, מֵעֲשֹׂת הַחַטָּאת וְהָעֹלָה--וְהַשְּׁלָמִים: And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people, and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin-offering, and the burnt-offering, and the peace-offerings.

 

"Calling" the Kohanim

The Talmud (at Sotah 38a) teaches:

 

Abbaye [also a Babylonian amora] said: we have a tradition that he exclaims "Kohanim!" when [at least] two [Kohanim] are present, but he does not exclaim "Kohen!" when only one is there; as it is said [in sefer Bamidbar parshat Nasso Chapter 6 verse 23]: אָמוֹר, לָהֶם - "You shall say to THEM" - that is, [at least] two.

 

The halachah is in accordance with this teaching.

When to summon the Kohanim?

There is some discussion about this by the Rishonim (the leading Rabbis and poskim who lived during the eleventh to fifteenth centuries CE). Some say before Retzeh, and others say just before the Birkat Kohanim. Our custom is the latter.

 

Who should call the Kohanim?

Again, the Rishonim differ on this point. Some say it should be the chazan, other say it should be the gabaim (really, I'm not just saying that!) - naturally, we follow the former ruling in Woodside Park at the present time!

 

What if the chazan is a Kohen?

The Talmud (at Berachot 34a) states that when there is only one Kohen in shul, and he is the chazan, then he may (and should) duchen. In this instance, the chazan will remove his shoes and wash his hands prior to beginning the repetition of the Amidah.

 

There is a dispute among poskim whether a Kohen may duchen when he is the chazan and there are other Kohanim who will be duchening.

 

The Shulchan Aruch (at 128:20) rules that he should not to do, because of a concern that he will become confused where he is up to in the davening and have difficulty resuming his role as chazan. Our Sages instituted this even when we are certain that the chazan will not become confused, such as today when he has a siddur in front of him (see Mishnah Berura 128:72).

 

However, the Peri Chadash (a commentary on the Yoreh De'ah by Hezekiah da Silva in the seventeenth century CE; the Yoreh De'ah being a section of the Arba'ah Turim (also known as the Tur), Rabbi Jacob ben Asher's compilation of halachah, at around 1300 CE) rules that he may duchen, and that the concern just referred to by Shulchan Aruch was only when the chazan might become confused (such as when he does not have a siddur from which to daven).

 

In most communities in Israel, the custom is to follow the Peri Chadash. However, in the diaspora the practice is to follow the Shulchan Aruch (unless the chazan is the only Kohen).

 

Reciting the Birkat Kohanim

The Birkat Kohanim must be recited in Hebrew, standing, and loudly. Why is this? Firstly, in Hebrew, as the Gemara teaches (at Sotah 38a) In this way shall you bless (already mentioned, from sefer Bamidbar parshat Nasso Chapter 6 verses 23), means in Hebrew; also from These shall stand to bless the people (from sefer Devarim parshat Ki Tavo 27:12) - which also means Hebrew. In this way shall you bless (from sefer Bamidbar parshat Nasso Chapter 6 verses 23) also connotes standing.

 

The Gemara mentions (at Sotah 39a) that a beraita (these are teachings "outside" of the six orders of the Mishnah - beraita in Aramaic means "outside" or "external") says, In this way shall you bless (from sefer Bamidbar parshat Nasso Chapter 6 verses 23), connotes in a loud voice, although the Torah states (also from sefer Bamidbar parshat Nasso Chapter 6 verses 23) You shall say to them which means like a man who talks to his companion.

 

Raising the hands

The Gemara (at Sotah 39a) continues, In this way shall you bless (from sefer Bamidbar parshat Nasso Chapter 6 verses 23) also connotes raising one's hands, and this is confirmed in sefer Vayikra parshat Shemini Chapter 9 verse 22 where it says:

 

וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-יָדָו אֶל-הָעָם, וַיְבָרְכֵם : And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people, and blessed them.

 

Positioning

Once on the Bimah, according to the Rishonim, the Kohanim face the Aron Kodesh. But the Rishonim differ as to when the berachah should be said and when the Kohanim turn towards the chazan.

 

Should the berachah be said before or after turning round?

Our custom is according to the Rambam (at Hilchot Tefillah (The Laws of Prayer) 14:12) and Eliyyah Rabbah (one part of a midrash, consisting of two parts, written at the end of the tenth century CE, at 128:25) - that is, we say the berachah and then turn around just before reciting be'ahavah at the end of the berachah.

 

How high should the hands be raised?

Some commentators say to the shoulder, others to above the head (as was done in the Temple). Personally, I raise to shoulder level.

 

What about the fingers?

I was taught to spread then like this [SHOW BOTH HANDS]. When I was small, I just knew that this was the Kohanim's G-d given super power!! Definitely no one else could do this with their fingers!!

 

However, now I'm grown up, I realise that this derives from a Midrash (Shir Ha'Shirim Rabbah 2:2) based on the verse in Shir Ha'Shirim: My beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart; Behold, he stands behind our wall; he looks through the windows; he peers through the lattice. The Midrash describes how G-d looks in through the windows - that is, between the shoulders of the Kohanim; he peers though the lattice - that is, between the fingers of the Kohanim.

 

I think that's a beautiful image...

 

Anyhow, a failure to do this does not invalidate the performance of the mitzvah.

 

R Yosef Karo states that the Kohanim must turn their faces and hands from side to side, which the Mishnah Berura (at 168) explains as symbolically "spreading" the blessing over the people.

 

In the Beit Yosef (128, a commentary on the Arba'ah Turim by R. Yosef Caro), the custom is recited of the Kohanim in Egypt to extend their tallits over their heads and hands, in order that the Kohanim and the chazan will not gaze at each other. The Rema, in his commentary on the Arba'ah Turim, Darkhei Moshe, writes that it is also customary for the congregation to cover their faces with their tallits in order to avoid being distracted.

 

The Shulchan Aruch (at 128:16) teaches that the Kohanim should not turn around and face the Aron Kodesh until the chazan begins to recite Sim Shalom, and should not descend until the chazan has finished the berachah and the congregation has said Amen.

 

On concluding the Birkat Kohanim, it is customary for congregants to wish the Kohanim yeyasher kochakhem (meaning "may your strength be straight") as a sign of appreciation, and the Mishnah Berura (at 60) writes that the Kohanim should not descend until after Kaddish, so as to ensure that all respond properly to it.

 

The Aruch HaShulchan (a restatement of the Shulchan Aruch written by Rabbi Yechiel Michael Epstein (1829-1908)) at 128:24 notes that it is customary for the Kohanim to respond baruch tihyeh ("May you be blessed").

 

The congregation's behaviour during Birkat Kohanim

All congregants should stand in front of the Kohanim. This derives from the Gemara (concentrate again!) in which Abba (the son of R. Minyanim bar Chiyya) taught: the people who are behind the Kohanim do not come within the scope of the berachah. This in turn derives from the fact that if there are only Kohanim in the shul, they all ascend, and the berachah is for those working in the fields - but they are compelled to be absent; those in shul are not compelled to be behind the Kohanim and so if they are, they are not included.

 

Interestingly, the Gemara teaches that you can stand to the side of the Kohanim - this derives from the sprinkling of the water of the Red Cow, which although done "in front", also includes the sides.

 

Why can't the congregation look at the Kohanim during Birkat HaKohanim?

 

When I was a child I was taught that terrible things would happen if I looked at the Kohanim during the duchening.

 

But again, I'm grown up now, and so I have found two reasons for this, one rather more spiritual than the other. The less spiritual is that one should look at the ground and concentrate on the blessing. Looking at the Kohanim could be distracting. The other reason, which I prefer, is that when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Divine Presence would shine on the fingers of the Kohanim as they would bless the Jews, and no one was allowed to look out of respect for G-d. So today we continue this practice as a reminder of what duchening was like in the past.

 

And finally, some other duchening facts

Did you know, the word duchen comes from the Yiddish word dukhan - platform - because the blessing is given from a raised place? I didn't know that...

 

Duchening and Dreams

On a more serious note, a person who has had a dream that requires interpretation, but does not know whether the dream bodes well, should recite a prayer at the time of the duchening (this is taught in the Talmud at Berachot 55b; and in the Shulchan Aruch at 130:1). It should be noted that the text of the prayer quoted by the Gemara is different from that quoted in the majority of machzorim. The Gemara cites the following text for this prayer:

 

Master of the World, I am yours and my dreams are yours. I dreamed a dream that I do not know what it is, whether it is something I have dreamt about myself or it is something that my friends dreamt about me or whether it is something that I dreamt about them. If these dreams are indeed good, strengthen them like the dreams of Yosef. However, if the dreams need to be healed, heal them like Moshe healed the bitters waters of Marah and as Miriam was healed from her tzara'as and as Chizkiyahu was healed from his illness and as the waters on Jericho were healed by Elisha. Just as you changed the curse of Bilaam to a blessing, so to change all my dreams for goodness.

 

One should complete the prayer at the moment that the congregation answers Amen to the blessings of Birkat Kohanim. This prayer can be recited not only when one is uncertain of the interpretation of the dream but even when one knows that the dream bodes evil (this is taught in the Mishnah Berura at 130:4).

 

The Star Trek connection

Did you know that the spreading of the fingers like this [SHOW BOTH HANDS] is included in Star Trek as the Vulcan ritual of greeting? The ritual consists of [SHOW BOTH HANDS] accompanied by a blessing: Live long and prosper, which of course is an abbreviation of the Birkat Kohanim!

 

Apparently, Leonard Nimoy (who we all know as Mr Spock), got his first acting jobs in Yiddish theatre, and has leyned at his synagogue.

 

My son knew all of this of course!!

 

And the modern Hebrew greeting (Shalom) is an even shorter version of the Birkat Kohanim.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, I hope you have found this interesting and that it will in the future enrich your appreciation of this wonderful Mitzvah.

 

Chag sameach!!

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