Halachot and minhagim for birchat kohanim

Although there are various differences between sefardim and ashkenazim, by and large the main facets of this great mizvah remain the same.

Congregation faces the kohanim

It is important that all members of the congregation face the kohanim during the blessing, among sources depicting this requirement is the Targum to Shir HaShirim (7;8), where a vivid description of birchat kohanim is relayed as follows;

“At the time that the kohanim spread their hand in prayer and bless their brothers the house of Israel, their hands are out-stretched like the lulav of the date-palm, and they stand upright like a palm tree, and your congregation is there face-to-face, and their faces are looking down like a cluster of grapes”

Fingers apart or spread?

The famed rishon Rabbi Elazar of Worms (recently published, to vayikra, p. 21. Bamidbar p. 21 and 25)brings a few reasons implying that the kohen form “windows” with his fingers – this implies that there is a connection of sorts between fingers, Yet, the zohar hakadosh states the opposite (vol. 3 p. 146b, Writes בעי דלא יתחברון אצבען דא בדא בגין דיתברכון כתרין קדישין כל חד וחד בלחודוי “It is required that the fingers not connect with each other in order that the holy crowns be blessed – each one individually”).

The Siftei Kohen on the Chumash brings a kabbalah that when performing the blessing during weekdays, the kohen is to form the windows with his fingers yet when blessing on Shabbat, Yom Tov, and mussaf of Rosh Chodesh, all fingers should be fully spread. (Siftei Kohen, vol. 2 p. 260: ויש לנו קבלה בענין זקיפת האצבעות בחול מחבר אצבעו עם האמה..שש כנגד ששת ימי המעשה אבל בשבת ויו”ט וכן במוסף של ר”ח זוקף העשר להורות שכולם הם מאירים ומשפיעים).

 

Some customs for Birchat Kohanim

  • The kohen Loosens his laces before the levi washes his hands (if no Levi present then this is done prior to washing your own hands).
  • Pouring should be done up to the wrist (including on Yom Kippur – see our Yom Kippur minhagim for Kohanim article)
  • The kohen must ascend to duchan before the shliach tzibur begins “Retzei”. If he finishes the blessing, the kohen must not go up, but if he has gone up he should not go down.
  • The kohen does not say עם קדושיך כאמור (Am Kdoshecha K’amor) at the beginning (Mishna Berura 128:38).
  • When making the blessing אשר קדשנו בקדושתו של אהרן the kohen is to face the ark and at its completion turn to his right to face the congregation (see “When does the Kohen turn around?“).
  • The kohen is not to look at his own hands when pronouncing the blessing.
  • The kohen swings his hands only on words that end in “chah” (eg. yivorechicha, v’yishmerecha, vi’chunekah, etc.) as well as the word Shalom.
  • The kohen swing his hands from left to right.
  • If the mechitza is on the side please make sure you swing your hands to cover the women as well. People standing behind the Kohanim, even if they are not directly behind, but behind them toward the side, are not included in the blessing. This is often neglected.
  • The kohen keeps his hands outstretched until turning around.
  • The kohen stays on the duchan until Kaddish is completed.
  • If people say Yashar Koach the kohen does not respond ברוך תהיה (Shulchan Aruch 128:17, Rema and Mishnah Berura).

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