Birkat Kohanim at Ordination Ceremony

At the end of the ordination ceremony in Colorado last month, Hazzan Jack recited the Birkat Kohanim / the priestly blessing, while facing the musmachot / ordainees with his tallit over his head and without shoes. This prompted the following series of questions from Jalda Rebling, which I will take up one at a time.

First Question: When the priestly blessing is recited by the shali’ach tzibbur, there is no special blessing that precedes it and the congregational response to each of the three individual blessings is kayn y’hi ratzon / may this be the Divine will. When the priests give the blessing, what is called duchanen, there is a blessing and the congregational response to each of the three units of the blessing is amen. Why is that?

The Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 127:2 says clearly that amen is only used when the priests themselves are reciting the blessings. The Mishnah B’rurah explains: Amen is the correct response to a blessing, which occurs when the priests are the reciters. When the shali’ach tzibbur is the one, then it isn’t actually a blessing but rather a request, a plea that this blessing should be granted us.

Two other things seem clear: One is that it is God giving the blessing through the priests, not the priests who are giving the blessing. The second is that, in the introduction to the blessings, the word “priests” and “your holy people” are not meant as “the priests who are your holy people” but rather “the priests of your holy people.” The first is relevant to our common practice of asking others for blessings. It seems right to suggest that we not respond with “I bless you…” but rather “I pray that God bless you…”

Second Question: What was it that Hazzan Jack was actually doing? Was it duchanen, the bestowal of Divine blessing through the agency of a kohen? Or was it closer to what the shali’ach tzibbur is doing in making a request for a blessing?

Hazzan Jack is a kohen and therefore entitled to give this blessing. Yes, he did have his tallit over his head and his hands in the correct position and he wasn’t wearing shoes. However, since Hazzan Jack followed me into the room and I watched how he took his place in the front row, I saw that he immediately removed his shoes, obviously for his personal comfort, an assumption which he confirmed when I asked him. This implies that he did not adopt the full posture for a formal duchanen. Further, were this a formal duchanen, it would be appropriate  to offer everyone the opportunity to receive it by placing himself on the other side of the musmachot so that he faced the entire community. So it is correct to assume that he was offering the blessing to the musmachot on behalf of all their teachers and assembled guests.

Third Question: Given the responses to the two questions above, what would be the “correct” response from the musmachot and from the community?

My sense is that the musmachot could respond with “amen,” while the community would respond with “kayn y’hi ratzon,” may it indeed be the divine will that these newly ordained klei kodesh receive this blessing which we join in hoping for them. I should also point out that the lack of experience with duchanen for most of us leads to an automatic response of “kayn y’hi ratzon” whenever we hear this blessing. I would urge us, for reasons to follow in the next paragraph, to learn this distinction.

When Hazzan Jack and I talked, he said that the fact that he is a “genetic” kohen was not particularly relevant in that moment and that, from his perspective, all the teachers of the musmachot could also join in giving this blessing or offering it as a hope for them. Nine years ago, Rabbi Shalom Schachter wrote his senior t’shuvah on the question of duchanen and whether it can be reclaimed in the context of Jewish Renewal, which clearly (along with other liberal Jewish movements) does not favour maintaining distinctions which are hereditary. He suggested the following:

First, even though individuals have family traditions which claim that they are kohanim, there is really no way to know for certain who is and who isn’t. Second, our practice is to allow people to make their own choices in such matters, most particularly by theming aliyot and inviting all those who feel connected to that theme to come up to the Torah. This works as long as at least one person stays seated to answer amen to the collective blessing. The same would apply if an invitation was extended to everyone who wished to channel blessing to come up for duchanen.

Adoption of Rabbi Schachter’s suggestions would allow us to reinstate duchanen with its links to our past, its hopes for our present, and the beauty and awe of standing in shul to receive this amazing blessing.

Daniel Siegel, February 2014, Adar I 5774