Talmud Tips

For the week ending 4 July 2020 / 12 Tammuz 5780

Shabbat 114-120

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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To Bless Or Not To Bless?

Rabbi Yossi said, “In all my days, I never went against the words of my friends. I know that I am not a kohen, but if they (my friends) would tell me to go up to duchen (for the birkat kohanim priestly blessing during the prayer service), I would go up to do so.”

The birkat kohanim Rabbi Yossi refers to is the mitzvah for the kohanim to say specific verses of blessing to the Jewish People. The Torah states that Hashem told Moshe to say to Aharon, “This is how you shall bless the Children of Israel, saying to them:

“May Hashem bless you and guard you.
May Hashem shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you.
May Hashem turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.” (Bamidbar 6:23-26)

Regarding Rabbi Yossi’s agreement to go up to duchen despite not being a kohen, Tosefot states the following: “The Ri (one of the famous ba’alei Tosafot) did not know what prohibition exists if a non-kohen goes up to duchen, if not for the matter of a ‘blessing in vain’ — since the Torah said for the kohanim to bless the Jewish People.” It seems at first glance that the Ri found it difficult to state what exact prohibition is transgressed by a non-kohen blessing the congregation with these three verses. And, it also seems that the only possible prohibition that might be involved is that of the non-kohen saying a blessing in vain.

However, the Tur and others ask what appears to be a very strong question on Tosefot. We know from elsewhere in Shas (Ketuvot 24a) that a non-kohen who “usurps” the priestly blessing transgresses a positive commandment of the Torah. The Torah states: “You will bless,” which is a mitzvah for the kohanim only. “You and not a non-kohen” is the way our Sages explain this prohibition. Therefore, it would appear that Rabbi Yossi would be transgressing a mitzvat aseh by going up to duchen. So, what in the world did the Ri mean in his “not knowing the prohibition” ?

One approach to explain the words of Tosefot and the Ri’s apparent dilemma is to explain the scenario in a manner that is different than how we may have understood it at first glance. And, in doing so, the words of Tosefot and of the Ri will take on a new and different meaning, and will solve the “riddle” of the strong question asked by the Tur.

Who said that Rabbi Yossi would actually go up to duchen and say the blessings? Of course he would not, since in doing so he would be saying blessings in vain and also be

transgressing a mitzvat aseh. Rather, the meaning of Rabbi Yossi’s willingness to honor the words of his friends “to go up to duchen” is, in fact, joining the kohanim where they stood, but without saying the blessings along with them. Is there any prohibition for a non-kohen to stand in the midst of the kohanim? Of course not!

In other words, Rabbi Yossi’s statement about “duchen” did not refer to the blessings of the kohanim, but rather to the elevated place where the kohanim would stand to bless the people. And now, based on this explanation of what Rabbi Yossi said he would do — and not do — we should be able to correctly understand the words of Tosefot and the Ri. “The Ri did not know what prohibitionexists if a non-kohen goes up to duchen” does not refer to a non-kohen who is saying the blessings. The transgressions in that case are clear and known. Rather, Tosefot is saying that the Ri did not know why Rabbi Yossi needed to teach us that he would do as his friends requested, since there seems to be no prohibition for him to go up to the place of the kohanim to silently join them. (See the Maharsha in his Chiddushei Halachot to Shabbat 118b, which he refers to in his Chiddushei Aggadot there. Also see Aruch Hashulchan to Orach Chaim 128:6.)

Other answers are offered to explain why Rabbi Yossi would not be violating Torah Law in “going up to duchen” — even if he would say the three verses of blessings that the kohanim normally say. Perhaps most notable is the suggestion made by the Rema that there is a distinction in halacha between a non-kohen going up to join kohanim and saying the three verses of blessing — which would be permitted — and a non-kohen going up alone, which would be prohibited. Rabbi Yossi would be willing to join kohanim if his friends told him to do so, but would not go up to duchen if no kohanim were present. (See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 128:1 and Aruch Hashulchan 128:7 for a detailed explanation regarding this distinction.)

  • Shabbat 118b

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