When do kohanim not step up to offer priestly blessing?

Three rabbis from different diasporas, representing diverse schools, sought to counter the practice they encountered.

 Rabbi Hamtzi retorted this was not the first time he had used a chair as a makeshift priestly blessing platform (photo credit: Scott Webb/Unsplash)
Rabbi Hamtzi retorted this was not the first time he had used a chair as a makeshift priestly blessing platform
(photo credit: Scott Webb/Unsplash)

When kohanim step up to offer the priestly blessing, they do just that: step up.

All the sources that discuss the priestly blessing describe the kohanim as “going up to the duchan” – a raised platform.

Surprisingly, there is no clear halachic statement that requires a duchan for the priestly blessing.

Going up for the priestly blessing: Halachic views

In his commentary on the Shulhan Aruch, Rabbi Avraham David Wahrmann of Buczacz (1771-1840) noticed this anomaly and concluded that there is no height requirement for such a platform: it could be less than 10 handbreadths (approximately 80 cm.), perhaps even less than three handbreadths (approximately 24 cm.).

 Priestly Blessing ceremony on April 20, 2022 (credit: WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION) Priestly Blessing ceremony on April 20, 2022 (credit: WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)

“As long as there is some ascension there, it serves as a memorial for the stairs in the Temple – may it be built and restored speedily in our days, amen – for the priests and the Levites.”

Buczaczer Rav

The Buczaczer Rav therefore ruled: “As long as there is some ascension there, it serves as a memorial for the stairs in the Temple – may it be built and restored speedily in our days, amen – for the priests and the Levites.” The role of the priestly podium was to mimic the Temple structure. For this purpose, any type of raised platform sufficed, since it was a symbolic act rather than a prerequisite for the priestly blessing.

Rabbi Avraham David continued with a fascinating vignette: “And here,” referring to Buczacz, “in the holy beit midrash [house of study], it was their simple practice, for a number of years before I arrived here, that [the kohanim] just stand before the holy ark on the ground, and there is no step.”

He added that this situation was not unique to Buczacz: “And it appears that it is thus in a number of holy communities, in small houses of study, and in particular where 10 [men] gather together in some home, that there is no step at all to ascend; [kohanim] just stand on the ground.”

The Buczaczer Rav concluded his discussion by stating the rule: While standing on a podium is not necessary, ideally the kohanim should place themselves on a raised platform that is at least three handbreadths above ground level. This is the optimal way to perform the mitzvah of offering the priestly blessing.

It is likely that, as a loyal adherent of Hassidism, the Buczaczer Rav was describing hassidic prayer gatherings. Hassidim who sought to pray according to a different rite, at a later time, or in a livelier manner, were often not welcome in the main communal synagogue. In some communities, they were allowed to pray in the beit midrash; in other cases, they gathered in private homes to form prayer quorums. These shtieblach were not constructed as synagogues and likely did not have a raised platform for the kohanim.

It is tempting, therefore, to view the Buczaczer Rav’s halachic discussion as evidence of Hassidism’s cavalier attitude toward Jewish law and traditional practice: In their desire to form their own prayer quorums, hassidim were willing to neglect the ideal synagogue structure.

Alas, this would be an inaccurate reading because it was not just in Buczacz and the surrounding area that kohanim recited the blessing from ground level.

RABBI HAYIM Yehoshua Elazar Hakohen Hamtzi (1795-1881) was born and raised in Izmir. Around 1860 he realized the age-old Jewish dream and moved to the Land of Israel. In Ottoman Palestine, Hamtzi settled in Haifa, where he was appointed as rabbi and rabbinical judge.

Hamtzi was a prolific writer, though most of his writings were published posthumously. His first published work deals with the laws of priestly blessings, and it was printed in Salonika in the same year that he died.

Hamtzi felt that kohanim must offer the blessing from a raised platform, but he deferred to the mainstream opinion that saw this as a preference rather than a prerequisite. Notwithstanding, he advised his readers to do some type of structural renovation so that the kohanim would stand above the congregation. He then added a note about an encounter he had in Haifa.

On a certain Shabbat, he prayed in a synagogue that did not have a raised platform for the kohanim. True to his principled position, Hamtzi wanted to stand tall: “And in order not to bless the priestly blessing at the same level that the congregation is standing, I took a chair and I stood on the chair.”

Hamtzi recorded that he was criticized for his actions, as a learned person pointed out that there is no way that Rabbi Hamtzi could have been focusing on the blessings as he was balanced precariously on a chair. Hamtzi retorted that he was confident that he was able to concentrate, since this was not the first time he had used a chair as a makeshift platform for the priestly blessing!

IN HIS seminal Ben Ish Hai (Jerusalem, 1898), Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad (1835-1909) described the stage where the kohanim were to stand as being on the western wall of the synagogue, facing the people who had come to pray. Indeed, synagogues in Baghdad face west toward the Holy Land. Rabbi Yosef Hayim continued with harsh words for kohanim who chose to stand on the floor rather than on the step, noting that they were flouting the words of the sages who consistently described the kohanim going up to offer the priestly blessing.

After delineating the rule, Rabbi Yosef Hayim added a valuable testimony: “And here in our city – may the One on high establish it, amen – it was their custom for the kohanim to stand on the floor of the sanctuary and bless the priestly blessing, and they do not stand on the raised ledge at the end of the sanctuary.”

Rabbi Yosef Hayim was not satisfied with the situation: “And, praises to God, I made the custom that they should go up and they should stand on the raised ledge at the end of the sanctuary, and there they will bless.”

“And, praises to God, I made the custom that they should go up and they should stand on the raised ledge at the end of the sanctuary, and there they will bless.”

Rabbi Yosef Haim

After testifying to the change that he succeeded in implementing, Rabbi Yosef Hayim offered counsel for others: “And thus, it is appropriate to be meticulous about this in each and every place.”

Thus, in three unrelated locations, kohanim did not ascend a platform to offer the priestly blessings. Such practices could be found in the hassidic heartland of Eastern Europe in the early 19th century, in the Holy Land in the middle of that century, and further to the east in Baghdad at the end of the century. Three rabbis from different diasporas, representing diverse schools, sought to counter the practice they encountered.

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.