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From the Desk - The Priestly Blessing in the Diaspora

Shalom Friends! I hope that you are well and enjoying what seems to be the beginning of Summer! This week, we had a fantastic start to the Beth Ora BBQ series with a wonderful event in which the quality of the delicious food was matched by the wonderful community spirit! I hope you can join us for the next one on July 5th. We look forward to the publicity of several great Beth Ora events which will be coming your way very soon! Wishing you a fantastic Shabbat, Rabbi Anthony and Carly Knopf Dovid, Rachelli, Yehuda and Avrami

What’s the Deal with the Priestly Blessing in the Diaspora? This question was asked by Steven Davidovicz. In Israel, the Kohanim bless the community every day (“duchanning”). So why is it the practice in Ashkenazi communities outside Israel for the Kohanim not to do the blessing, except for during Mussaf on festivals? The mitzvah clearly applies abroad so why do we neglect to do it every day? Indeed, Sephardi communities too are not uniform with regard to this. In London, Sephardim only say the priestly blessing on Yom Tov and in Italy and Amsterdam it is said every Shabbat. Similarly, the Jews of Algeria said this blessing at Shabbat Mussaf. On the other hand, in Syria, Yemen and Egypt, Sephardic Kohanim did the blessing everyday. So let’s get back to the question – why do Ashkenazim and many Sephardim fail to do the Priestly Blessing every day in the Diaspora? One reason given by the Maharil (15th century) is that it was the custom for Kohanim to dip in the mikveh before the priestly blessing and to do so in the Winter would be very difficult. This reason was rejected by Rabbi Yosef Karo (15th-16th century) who notes that immersing in the mikveh before the blessing is only a stringency and is not really required. Another reason, recorded by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century) is that duchanning every day would curtail business activities which would hinder the effort of Jewish families to make a living – an endeavor which was already extremely difficult. Rabbi Isserles explains that, even on Shabbat, we do not duchan because the Jews were concerned about their future. Only on festivals, when there is a mitzvah to rejoice, is the priestly blessing said. One can certainly question whether the considerations mentioned by Rabbi Isserles still apply. For this reason, there are some scholars who have proposed the recitation of the Priestly Blessing on a daily basis. Nevertheless, the accepted consensus in the Ashkenazi communities is that we only say the blessing on the major holidays in order that the blessing can be conferred with a joyful heart. Furthermore, the blessing is only done during the Musaf prayer, when the crowd is happily anticipating their impending ‘dismissal’ from synagogue, when they will be free to go home and celebrate the holiday. Two more historical details should be noted for an understanding of this topic. In the 1700s, the outstanding rabbis of the generation, the Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, wanted to institute daily recitation of the priestly blessing. The day before it happened, the Vilna Gaon was imprisoned and half the town of Volozhin burnt down. The two rabbis believed this was a sign that the daily priestly blessing cannot be said outside of Israel. Even more interesting is that the 17th century false Messiah, Shabbatai Zvi, also wanted to introduce the priestly blessing into the daily prayers. Shabbatai Zvi eventually converted to Islam and it may have been that there was a strong aversion on the part of the leading Sephardic rabbis of the day away from anything that may be associated with the false Messiah.

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