December 12, 2004

Ashkenazi Custom

Does anyone know the history and reason that Ashkenazim do not doe Bircat Kohanim outside of the Land of Israel except on certain holidays? Please post and let us know.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found the following from

"R' Moshe Isserles z"l ("Rema"; 16th century) notes that the custom in the diaspora is that the mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim is performed only on Yom Tov. In contrast, in most communities in Israel, Birkat Kohanim is performed daily. The reason for this distinction, explains Rema, is that the Jews of the diaspora find it too difficult to concentrate on the performance of this Mitzvah. (Mapah, O.C. 128)

This explanation is astonishing, writes R' Moshe Sternbuch shlita. Since when can we excuse ourselves from performing a mitzvah by saying that we can't concentrate? Besides, don't we want G-d's blessing?

He explains: Birkat Kohanim was part of the daily service that the kohanim performed in the Temple. Today, when the Bet Hamikdash does not stand, our prayers take the place of the Temple service. This is why Birkat Kohanim is recited as part of the chazan's Shemoneh Esrei.

However, not all prayers are equal. In fact, there are three categories of prayer. The lowest is "tefilat yachid" / the prayer of an individual. The second is "tefilah betzibbur" / prayer with a congregation. The third and highest level is "tefilat hatzibbur" / the prayer of the congregation. What is the difference between the second and the third types of prayer? The former is found when ten individuals pray together as a minyan, each reciting his own prayer silently; the latter occurs when one person prays and the others stand silently and listen.

Only the last type of prayer truly parallels the Temple service, for not every person brought the "korban tamid" / daily offering to the Temple. Rather, the kohanim, as agents of the nation, brought one sacrifice on behalf of all Jews.

It follows, therefore, that only in the context of "tefilat hatzibur" (the third type of prayer) can Birkat Kohanim be recited, for only then does the blessing parallel the blessing which was recited in the Bet Hamikdash. However, says Rema, we in the diaspora, being unable to concentrate on our prayers, never attain the level of "tefilat hatzibbur" on a weekday. While the chazzan is repeating the Shemoneh Esrei, each member of the congregation is off in a world of his own. One is reading from a sefer, another is talking to his friend, a third is dozing, and so on. Only on Yom Tov, when the shul is full, are we sure to have at least a minyan that is paying attention to the chazzan. Then, having achieved the level of "tefilat hatzibbur," we can perform Birkat Kohanim.

The situation in Israel is different for several reasons. Before the last century, the Jewish community in Israel consisted of two groups: Sephardim, whose ancestors were in Israel long before the practice arose for every member of the congregation to pray silently (they had only "tefilat hatzibbur"), and Ashkenazim, whose ancestors had arrived with one of the aliyot (e.g. the students of the Vilna Gaon or the Ba'al Shem Tov) that abandoned all material concerns and established communities in the Holy Land that adhered to the highest standards of observance. Both of these groups had no difficultyhnnnn maintaining a sufficient level of concentration to allow for "tefilat hatzibbur" and Birkat Kohanim. (Mo'adim U'zmanim: Yom Tov, ch. 31)"

I had actually heard that when the custom was ended in the Ashkenazic communities fights broke out. Has anyone sle heard about this?