Question: Should those non-kohanim who are standing to the sides of the kohanim move for Birkas Kohanim so that they are standing facing the kohanim?
Short Answer: Ideally, those who are on the sides of the kohanim should move to face the kohanim directly during Birkas Kohanim. But if they cannot, or if there is not sufficient room for the entire congregation to stand directly in front of the kohanim, they are still included in the brachah.
I. The Source
The Gemara (Sotah 38a) cites the pasuk “emor lahem” and explains that the congregation should stand facing the kohanim during Birkas Kohanim, “panim el panim” – face to face. This accomplishes the meaning of the pasuk, that the kohanim are speaking directly to the congregation.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 128:23-24) codifies this halachah and rules that the kohanim face the congregation during Birkas Kohanim. Additionally, the Shulchan Aruch writes that any person who is still “in the field” is excluded from the brachah. In other words, the brachah of the kohanim does not cover any person who chooses not to go to shul.
But what about the people sitting to the sides of the kohanim? Are they included in the brachah? Must they move to a spot in the shul that directly faces the kohanim?
The Biur Halachah (ibid) writes that those people standing in front of the kohanim, but towards the side (i.e., not directly facing the kohanim), should still face eastward towards the aron kodesh during Birkas Kohanim. They are included in the brachah when standing in this fashion.
People standing directly to the sides of the kohanim should turn to face the kohanim (i.e., face northward or southward, depending on which side of the shul they are standing). If these people faced eastward, they would not fulfill the dictum of the pasuk to have a “speaking” from kohanim to the congregation, as no one speaks to his friend when standing side by side, with one facing eastward and one facing westward. However, the Biur Halachah adds that these people arguably can even face westward, as people sometimes sit side by side and face the same way when having a conversation.
Based on the above, the Mishnas Yosef (5:27:14-15) rules that women in the ezras nashim who are directly to the side of the kohanim do not need to face the kohanim and can instead face eastward during Birkas Kohanim. Since the whole reason why we face the kohanim is to simulate a person talking to his friend, a man talking to a woman is different. Since a tz’nius-observing man often will not face a woman who is not his wife when speaking with her, she is included in the brachah even if she is facing eastward and the kohen is facing westward. However, the Mishnas Yosef acknowledges that it is preferable even for women standing on the side to turn sideways and face the kohen directly.
III. Any Benefit in Facing Directly?
The Mishnas Yosef notes that it is halachically preferable to directly face the kohanim. He cites the sefer Elef K’sav (Rav Yitzchak Weiss zt”l) who noted that the minhag in Pressburg was that the entire congregation stood on the bimah while Birkas Kohanim took place. The Elef K’sav explains the minhag based on this halachah, that in order for the congregation to show their love and appreciation for the brachah, they should walk to the spot in the shul that directly faces the kohanim and stand there for Birkas Kohanim.
The Mishnas Yosef thus rules that it is certainly ideal for a person who is on the side of the kohanim to walk toward the center for Birkas Kohanim. However, if it is difficult for a person to do so, or if there is no room for everyone in the center, it is fine to remain on the side. Indeed, remaining on the side is no worse than a person who cannot attend shul because of “oneis” and thus is included in the brachah.
IV. The Rabbi and the President
But what about the Rabbi or President of the shul who sit up on a raised platform behind (and to the side) of where the kohanim perform Birkas Kohanim (such as at the Young Israel of KGH)? Do they need to also leave their spot and stand in front of the kohanim?
The Mishnas Yosef suggests a novel idea. Since the President (and other rabbis or members sitting up on the platform) do not move and sit with the congregation when the Rabbi gives his drashah, it is clear that they are considered in normal “speaking” range from the kohanim. In other words, the kohanim “speak” to the congregation in front of them, but, like the Rabbi giving his drashah, also “speak” to the people sitting behind them on the platform. Accordingly, the Rabbi and President are included in Birkas Kohanim even when remaining on the platform.
However, the Mishnas Yosef ultimately backtracks on this idea. There is a difference when a Rabbi darshans from the podium and when kohanim “speak” to the congregation during Birkas Kohanim. A Rabbi’s speech is not classic “conversation speak,” which is included in the pasuk of “emor lahem” that the kohanim are simulating. As such, while the Rabbi might speak to those on the platform behind him, a regular person speaking in conversation would not include those behind him in his conversation. The Rabbi and President should thus move off the platform during Birkas Kohanim.
Next Week’s Topic: Is the kohen allowed to start preparing for Birkas Kohanim before the chazan recites “HaKeil HaKadosh” during Chazaras HaShatz?