Question: May a kohen recite Birkas Kohanim during his year of aveilus?
Short Answer: While Chutz LaAretz generally follows the ruling of the Rama that a kohen aveil should refrain from performing Birkas Kohanim the entire year of aveilus, Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita rules that if the kohen really desires to do Birkas Kohanim immediately after shiv’ah concludes, he may do so.
I. The Source
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 128:43) rules that a kohen aveil may recite Birkas Kohanim immediately after the conclusion of shiv’ah. The Rama (ibid), on the contrary, rules that an aveil should not recite Birkas Kohanim until the conclusion of his year of aveilus. This machlokes is based upon the exact time that an aveil feels enough happiness to enable him to perform the mitzvah of Birkas Kohanim properly.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita (T’shuvos V’Hanhagos 3:49) notes that there is a divergence of minhagim between Eretz Yisrael and Chutz LaAretz on this issue. Eretz Yisrael, where Birkas Kohanim is performed on a daily basis, follows the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. A kohen may do Birkas Kohanim immediately after shiv’ah, as Birkas Kohanim is a common occurrence and thus does not require (or entail) much happiness. Chutz LaAretz, which only performs Birkas Kohanim sparingly on Yom Tov, follows the ruling of the Rama, that a kohen should wait until after his year of aveilus is over to resume Birkas Kohanim. Since Birkas Kohanim is a rare event, there is a significant amount of happiness required (and involved).
II. Proper Attire
Rav Sternbuch adds that even in Eretz Yisrael a kohen should not do Birkas Kohanim while still wearing his torn garments from shiv’ah. To that end, Rav Sternbuch bemoans generally the common practice in Eretz Yisrael for kohanim to wear just a shirt – without a jacket – when reciting Birkas Kohanim. Rav Sternbuch writes that Birkas Kohanim requires more than the clothes a person wears for davening; it requires clothes that are “derech kavod” – respectable. In defense of the common minhag to simply wear a shirt, Rav Sternbuch notes that perhaps these kohanim would wear just a shirt (without a jacket) when appearing before a king; thus, it becomes derech kavod.
III. Analyzing Minhag Chutz LaAretz
The ruling of the Rama needs further analysis. In the Darchei Moshe, the Rama’s commentary on the Tur, the Rama elaborates on why a kohen should wait until the end of the year of aveilus to resume Birkas Kohanim. He equates Birkas Kohanim to other happy events that the aveil refrains from during this year, such as Hoshanos on Sukkos or hakafos on Simchas Torah.
Rav Sternbuch, however, challenges such a comparison. There is no obligation, even d’Rabbanan, to circle the bimah/shulchan with the daled minim or sefer Torah. It is a custom and thus may be suspended for an aveil during the entire year of aveilus. Reciting Birkas Kohanim, on the other hand, is a d’Oraisa obligation and should not be suspended by an aveil during the year of aveilus. Indeed, the Mishnah B’rurah (Orach Chayim 128:159) writes that if there is only one other kohen aside from the aveil, the aveil in his year of aveilus should perform Birkas Kohanim, so that a Birkas Kohanim may be performed in its ideal fashion – with two kohanim.
Rav Sternbuch suggests that perhaps we suspend Birkas Kohanim for an aveil during his year of aveilus in Chutz LaAretz because we in general take a lax approach to Birkas Kohanim, and only perform it in times of real simchah, on Yom Tov. Thus, the kohen must feel an actual level of simchah before doing Birkas Kohanim, thereby precluding an aveil from Birkas Kohanim for an entire year.
Nevertheless, Rav Chaim Brisker reportedly would tell an aveil during the year of aveilus that he should do Birkas Kohanim, as it is an obligation. Accordingly, Rav Sternbuch concludes that even in Chutz LaAretz, if a kohen aveil really desires to do Birkas Kohanim during his year of aveilus, we do not prevent him from doing so.
IV. The Compromise
There is also a compromise solution, which Rav Sternbuch notes is the minhag of his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa. In Johannesburg, the kohanim aveilim would recite Birkas Kohanim on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, where there is not much happiness. On Yom Tov, in contrast, the kohanim aveilim remained following the ruling of the Rama and did not do Birkas Kohanim due to the excessive happiness of the day.
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