Question: Should a Levi wash a kohen’s hands for Birkas Kohanim where the Levi will miss part of Chazaras HaShatz in the process? What about where the Levi needs to walk in front of a person who is in the middle of his Sh’moneh Esrei?

Short Answer: The Mishnas Yosef rules that only a few L’viim should wash the kohanim’s hands where the L’viim would need to miss part of Chazaras HaShatz to go wash the hands. The Levi should not walk past a person in the middle of Sh’moneh Esrei.


I. Importance of the Levi

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 128:6) rules that a Levi should wash the hands of the kohanim before Birkas Kohanim. The source of this halachah is the Zohar, which is clear that the Levi washes the kohen’s hands because the Levi himself is “shaleim” (i.e., complete) to serve in the Beis HaMikdash and thus is worthy of assisting the kohanim.

But how important is this halachah? In other words, does this halachah get trumped by other considerations?

II. Saying Amein to Chazaras HaShatz

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 124:4) writes that a person should be quiet and should listen to every word of Chazaras HaShatz. He must also answer Amein, so that at least nine people are answering Amein to the brachos of the chazan. Each person must consider himself one of the answering nine men, regardless of how many people are in attendance.

The Mishnas Yosef (5:27:10), therefore, suggests that a Levi should not wash the hands of a kohen if that means that the Levi misses Chazaras HaShatz. Since having a Levi wash the kohen’s hands is simply a minhag – even if sourced in the Zohar – it is much preferable that the Levi not miss answering to Chazaras HaShatz. Indeed, we view the Levi as if he is not there, and the kohen would wash his own hands under the circumstances. This fits with the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, that the Levi’s role in washing the kohen’s hands is simply a custom and not a rule.

On the other hand, the Mishnas Yosef wonders whether the halachah should be the opposite or at least limited in its application. A person in general often misses hearing and answering to Chazaras HaShatz when he davens a long Sh’moneh Esrei. Since there are anyway nine other men listening, perhaps it is preferable that the Levi fulfill the words of the Zohar and wash the hands of the kohen.

The Mishnas Yosef concludes that if there are multiple L’viim in the shul, then only a few should wash the kohanim’s hands. The other L’viim should remain in shul so that they may answer to Chazaras HaShatz.

III. Difficult Path Out

However, what should the Levi do if he needs to pass by a person in the middle of Sh’moneh Esrei in order to reach the sink where he would wash the kohen’s hands? Should he walk past the person, or just give up washing the kohen’s hands for this particular Birkas Kohanim?

The Gemara (B’rachos 27a) states that it is forbidden to walk in front of a person who is in the middle of Sh’moneh Esrei. This halachah is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 102:4). The Mishnah B’rurah (15) explains that it is prohibited to walk in front of such a person because it (i) will disturb his concentration; and (ii) it is improper to walk in between a person and the Sh’chinah (Divine presence).

The Mishnas Yosef (5:27:9) explains that there is an obvious difference between a kohen and Levi with respect to Birkas Kohanim and this halachah. A kohen is a necessity for Birkas Kohanim. Accordingly, the kohen may always walk out of shul to wash his hands, even if that entails walking pass someone in the middle of Sh’moneh Esrei. A Levi, in contrast, is certainly part of Birkas Kohanim according to the above-mentioned Zohar, but his role is not required. If there is no Levi, the kohen washes his own hands. Thus, the Levi should not walk past a person still davening Sh’moneh Esrei in order to wash the kohen’s hands. The kohen should instead wash his own hands in this situation.

 Next Week’s Topic: May a kohen perform Birkas Kohanim where there are only nine other men in shul and some of the men are talking and not listening to Birkas Kohanim?

Rabbi Ephraim Glatt, Esq. is Associate Rabbi at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills and a practicing litigation attorney. Questions? Comments? Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..