The Bracha on Nesiyas Kapayim

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

In the Ashkenazic world outside of Eretz Yisrael, Birkas Kohanim is essentially a fleeting experience, a practice exclusive to Yom Tov. And yet, while it is not a common recurrence, it is, nonetheless,  an area of great halacha and hashkafa import, as it is the last vestige of avodas hamikdash. One interesting area of analysis involves the bracha the kohanim recite prior to this mitzvah.

This Talmud (Sotah  39a) introduces the bracha:

What benediction did he (referring to the kohen) utter? — R. Zera said in the name of R. Hisda: ‘[Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe] Who hast sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron and hast commanded us to bless Thy people Israel in love’.”

The phrase that jumps out is the change from “Who has sanctified us and commanded us”, the text of every other birchas mitzvah, to “Who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon”. Why this change? Furthermore, why the reference to the kedusah of Aharon, rather than the general kedusha of all kohanim? On one level, one could explain that this differentiation reflects the fact that the obligation applies only to kohanim. Yet, there are other instances in halacha where the obligation for the action falls on a particular individual at a particular time. What makes this so unique?

  One can see a universal format in the construct of all other brachos– first, we identify how we are sanctified, and then relate that idea to the specific mitzvah to be performed. In essentially every situation, our kedusha emerges from the system of mitzvos we are commanded to follow. The flip side of the coin is, naturally, that if we did not have the system of mitzvos, this unique identity would never exist. Therefore, when reciting a bracha, there is a focus on the mechanism of how we became sanctified as a nation. This could be the reason why the text of the bracha recited by the kohanim is different. The state of kedusha in the kohen is of a dissimilar type, emerging from a different source then the system of mitzvos applicable to the nation as a whole. As the bracha relates, it is from the kedusha of Aharon that the kohen’s kedusha comes forth. The sanctity given to Aharon, and to be passed down through the generations, was not a kedusha from an external source, like the system of mitzvos. It is tied to the very identity of the kohen, a feature he is “born with”, so to speak. Clearly, this is a completely different mechanism then the “normal” kedusha, and must be identified by the kohen prior to this mitzvah.

One other issue regarding the bracha involves the point when the kohanim begin facing the tzibur. The Rambam (Hilchos Tefilah 14:12) writes that the kohanim would recite the bracha while facing the aron hakodesh, and upon completion would turn around and begin reciting birchas kohanim. The Tur (OC 138, as well as the Shulchan Aruch) indicates that the kohanim should turn around and face the tzibur, and then recite the bracha. How do we understand this debate? When looking at Birchas Kohanim, we see that it has two components to it. There is the physical performance, referred to as nesiyas kapayim, and there is the recitation of the brachos themselves, the birkas kohanim. These two components reflect a deeper idea as to the construct of this mitzvah. On the one hand, this activity was the culmination of the avodah service (see Rambam ibid 9). Since all of the avodah involved some type of physical action, the recitation of birchas kohanim should be no different – thus, the nesiyas kapayim. On the other hand, the actual recitation of the brachos takes on the form of tefilah, as seen in the “request” form of the text (ie - May God bless…). The debate between the Rambam and Tur would then revolve around which component of the activity is the focus of the bracha. According to the Rambam, the bracha is directed towards the physical action of lifting up the hands, as this action was part of the avodah. As a result, the bracha must precede the physical action, like any other birchas mitzvah. On the other hand, the Tur maintains that bracha is directed towards the enunciation of birchas kohanim, with this recitation being a type of tefilah. This being the case, the bracha needs to be recited immediately prior to the actual dibur. Therefore, the kohainm have to be facing the congregation, with their hands raised, before the bracha is recited. 

In many congregations, the common practice is for the kohanim to begin reciting the bracha while facing the aron until the words “vetzivanu”, and then turn around and face the tzibur while reciting the end of the bracha. Clearly, this is an attempt at a compromise between the two opinions. The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 128:20) did not buy it, questioning the validity of such a compromise. In a sense, to follow this logic would by definition mean you are not satisfying either opinion. However, the Mishnah Berurah (OC 128:40) does come out in support of it. A possible justification (as related by a friend) is found in the Tikun Tefilah, a commentary on prayer found in Otzar Tefilos. He explains that the bracha itself is really broken into two parts, based on the fact that nesiyas kapayim and birchas kohanim are actually two different mitzvos. The second part, which addresses the actual bracha, would definitely reflect this idea. However, how does the first part bring to light the nesiyas kapayim? He points out that Aharon himself raised his hands prior to the first time he gave the bracha to the nation. When referencing the kedusha of Aharon, the kohen is in fact alluding to this unique and novel activity performed by Aharon. Therefore, the first part relates to the actual raising of the hands. One could take this concept and apply it to the practice of turning halfway through the bracha. The rationale for this action is to demonstrate clearly the differentiation between these two separate mitzvos; without this, one would not be aware of this separation. Therefore, when the kohen turns, he should have in mind this distinction. However, this resolution is primarily based on the assumption that there indeed really are two separate mitzvos, a notion not supported by the Rambam or Tur.