Can or should an Avel perform Bircas Cohanim?

The laws of mourning are those which one customarily does not teach their child in respect of the Torah command to teach Torah to one’s children. It is not part of a School curriculum, and is normally the domain of a Rabbinic curriculum, as these laws often need instant answers with unfortunately little warning.

God should make sure that all those who know nothing about the laws of mourning remain clueless and  בלע המוות לנצח—may death be disposed of from our world, for ever. Indeed, let me take this opportunity to wish all those in need of a רפואה שלמה that therapeutic redress be imminent and complete.

In my personal situation, after the passing of my dear father הכ’’מ, I was in the somewhat unusual situation of needing to lead the congregation on Yomim Tovim. This is permitted by the Poskim in certain situations. In my case, there were at different times three separate reasons to permit it. I did not find leading services on Pesach or Shavuous as difficult as Rosh Hashono/Yom Kippur. Some of this was due to my state of mind. Specific piyyutim, not limited to בראש השנה יכתבון and אדם יסודו מאפר, represented a challenge in terms of me maintaining a controlled comportment. On the other hand, I have been less in control of my emotions during Tefillos during years when I was not a mourner, so it wasn’t anything too unexpected. It is not contraindicated, and if anything, perhaps, just perhaps, God, above, may consider me a worthy representative of the congregation whose prayers I led and lead.

A sad fact about our congregation is that those Cohanim, for whom the opportunity to bless the people באהבה with love was something they would never miss, have now departed this world, especially of late. My father was one of these. Apart from the Rabbi who is also a Cohen, and one or two others, the Duchan for Cohanim was an expansive area. I remember where, pardon the pun, it was “standing room only”. In the early days, I’d snuggle between my father, Mr Blass ע’ה and Mr Erdi ע’ה. Later, my sons, Tzvi Yehuda and Yossi would do likewise. These days, there is easily enough room for another 50 Cohanim to stand on the Duchan and bless the people, as per the Torah command (some say that it’s 3 Torah commands, corresponding to each specific formulaic blessing that should not be said in another language, and should not be changed one iota). I reiterate that many Poskim contend that it’s a Torah command to bless the people (הגר”י עמדין, במור וקציעה סי’ קכ”ח, כתב שנשיאת כפיים בזמן הזה היא מדרבנן). Indeed it is important that the volume of the Bracha be something that binds the Cohanim with the people. A large crowd with few Cohanim means they really should “belt out” the Bircas Cohanim (according to the Beis Halevi if I’m not mistaken, when discussung a pilpul of Shomea K’Oneh and Bikurim and Duchening). Originally, the Beracha was said after the bringing of the Korbanos on the Shmini LaMiluim; today we daven instead of bringing Korbanos).

Outside of Israel, many/most Ashkenazi communities only do so on Yomim Tovim. Some Sephardim also do so each Shabbos. When I used to visit Bombay, I was the celebrity Cohen. None of the native Bene Yisrael were Cohanim, and the remaining elderly Jews of Iraqi descent were also not from B’nei Levi, let alone Cohanim. Similarly, when I was in Singapore for Shabbos, the custom was to perform Bircas Cohanim on Shabbos as well. In Singapore, the Ashkenazi Cohanim performed the Priestly Blessings, even though it was a Sephardi Custom. We were, after all, in a Sephardi Shule. One could cogently argue that this was also the “custom of the place” מנהג המקום. Singapore (like Amsterdam, for example) has always had the custom to Duchen on Shabbos as well as Yom Tov.

It would be an interesting question whether a new Shule made up of those of Ashkenazic descent, should continue Minhag Singapore or refrain from Duchening on Shabbos.

Getting back to me leading the davening as a Cohen, there is a disagreement among the Poskim whether a Cohen leading the service should stay silent or whether he should join the other Cohanim and utter the priestly blessings during the repetition of the Amida. One can find both opinions, and much has to do whether the Cohen will get mixed up switching roles. In our Shule, the Cohen does Duchen, and in fact, I find it an opportune moment to actually catch my breath. On Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur, I’m exhausted at that stage, and having a regular Yisrael leading the calling of the special blessings, and only having to answer, is something I find quite easy. The Rabbi of our Shule does likewise, and he is a Cohen. This seems to be even more important now, where there is a veritable dearth of Cohanim.

In summary then, during the year of Aveylus after my father, I had already duchened on Pesach, Shavuos, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Over the last few weeks I’ve endured a stubborn virus (at least that’s what I think it was) which thankfully only affected my voice in a minor way on Yom Kippur. I didn’t fancy the longer trek to where I normally davened, and instead attended services at a closer Shule which follows Minhag Chabad. I daven Sefard anyway, and have a seat there, and am certainly no stranger to that Shule. Well before Retzeh, as is the custom among some fellow Mispallelim at this Shule, I am asked “have me in my mind please” and so on. In fact, the revered Rabbi Groner ז’ל always asked me to remember יצחק דוד בן מנוחה רחל and I had the merit of being the last Cohen to give him ברכת כהנים before he passed away from our world. I mention this, because there is and was already an expectation that I was to Duchen, well before uprooting myself prior to Retzeh, let alone upon hearing the clarion call “Cohanim”.

So, up I went on Day one of Succos. Even though this was the major Chabad Shule in Melbourne, there were only a paltry four Cohanim, of which I was one. I didn’t think twice about it. It is one of the joys of my life to be chosen, al pi chazaka as a Cohen, to use those specific words to bless everyone באהבה with love. Furthermore, I was one of a number; I wasn’t the only Cohen. In fact on Simchas Torah, I also give Bircas Cohanim to anyone who has missed it (although the Dayan once told me that it was B’aal Tosif, which after checking  I could not understand in any form). It’s Ba’aal Tosif is you add a new ברכה, not if you repeat the same formula, but I digress.

Normally, when I descend, there is the usual cacophonous יישר כח כהן and this extends to Rabbinic authorities in the Shule whom I pass on the way back to my seat. This time, however, it was different. The Dayan of the Shule, instead chose to alert me to his view as was “an open din in Shulchan Aruch” that an Avel shouldn’t Duchan on Yom Tov. I asked how it was possible for me to have already duchened on earlier Yom Tovim and been expected to duchen only to now bow out in a manner which could only be described as a דבר בולט, or in other words, an explicit אבילות דפרהסיה, לכאורה. He said that was another Shule.

The so-called “open din” in Shulchan Aruch או’’ח קכח didn’t appear that way to me, when I looked at it at lunch time. Instead, it looked as if the Mechaber was describing the Minhag in Israel (which obviously also affected Sephardim on Shabbos outside of Israel) whereas the Ramoh described the custom במקומות אלו, which one presumes to be the Minhag that the Ramoh experienced in Ashkenaz. What was the reason for the Minhag in Ashkenaz, as also paskened in the Mishna Brura and of course the Shulchan Aruch HoRav (with just a very slight difference)? I will leave side-reasons of immersion before Duchaning to one side. Of course, Chabadniks immerse every day (or ought to). Others, such as בעל כנסת יחזקאל םי׳ י״ב (see also (ליסא) דרך החיים)) disagree with the Ramoh.

The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch was more emphatic

אבל תוך שנים עשר חודש על אביו ואמו או תוך שלשים על שאר קרובים אינו נושא את כפיו, וצריך לצאת מבית הכנסת קודם רצה עד אחר נשיאת כפים. ואם אין בבית הכנסת שני כהנים אחרים, מותר לאבל לישא את כפיו תוך שנים עשר חודש על אביו ואמו ותוך שלשים על שאר קרובים, אבל תוך שבעה, כגון הקובר מתו ברגל, אפילו אם אין שם שני כהנים אחרים אינו נושא את כפיו.

The primary reason for not allowing the Cohen to Duchan, was because as an Avel I’m not considered שרוי בשמחה (steeped in שמחת יום טוב see מטה משה סי’ קצ”ח) to the extent that I would be able to effectively make a Brocha באהבה and repeat the Bircas Cohanim together with the three other Cohanim.

בתשובת מהר”ם מינץ כתב: “וכן ראיתי בחנוכה, בלילה הראשונה מתפלל האבל, אך להדלקת הנרות שיש בהן ברכת שהחיינו שראוי לברך מתוך שמחה, יש מהנזהין ואמרין דאחר דלאו אבל ידליק הנרות, וכן זכרוני בהיותי במענץ שהיה מהר”ר זוילין ז”ל אבל על אביו והתפלל בערב חנוכה, והיינו נושאים ונותנים בדבר אם האבל ידליק ג”כ הנרות או אחר שאינו אבל, ונשאר המסקנא שראוי ונכון שאחר ידליק הנרות, וכן נהגתי אח”כ בכל מקום מתוך אגודת חבריי ורבותיי”. ועיי”ש שדימיהו לאבל באמירת הלל בר”ח. ולפי”ז הרי הוא הדין בכל מקום שמוציא אחרים ידי חובתם וכגון במקרא מגילה.

This Mahari Mintz on which the Magen Avraham סימן תקנ”א ס”ק מב  appears to be  based, restricted his view to when the Cohen was a Sh’liach Tzibbur who alone was מוציא אחרים, as opposed to the Magen Avraham in Hilchos Nesius Kapaim, as referred to in Shulchan Aruch HoRav and the Mishne Brura.

בשו”ת מנחת אלעזר (ח”ב סימן לב) כותב בתו”ד “ורק לענין הדלקת נרות בבית הכנסת בחנוכה שזה אינו חיוב כלל על עצמו של כל אחד ואחד, רק משום פרסומי הנס בצבור נהגו כן, והמצוה העיקר להדליק בביתו, על כן כיון שברכת שהחיינו בנר חנוכה בביכ”נ הוא רק בעד הציבור לשמחה ולזכר הנס, הנהיגו שיברך אחר שהוא בשמחה, משא”כ האבל שאינו בשמחה, אבל בקריאת המגילה שהוא חיוב על כל אחד ואחד לקרות בציבור דוווקא, והברכת שהחיינו על המגילה בצבור גם האבל מחוייב בה בביהכ”נ בקריאת המגילה, והוי כמו הדלקת הנרות בביתו דלכולי עלמא מברך האבל בביתו כמבואר בשו”ע שם, וגם יוצאים בני ביתו בברכת שהחיינו שיברך בביתו בנר חנוכה, וכן הכא [במגילה] אם אחר יברך והוא האבל שומע כעונה ועונה אמן , הוי הוא גם כן המברך, וכיון שהאבל מחוייב בעצמו לברך הברכה בביהכ”נ במגילה, גם האחרים יוכלו לצאת בתורת שומע כעונה, ודו”ק”, ומסיים בענין שאלתו אודות זה “שהוא רגיל ומוחזק לקרוא את המגילה בצבור בביהמד”ר דקהלתו, ועתה שהוא תוך י”ב חודש על אביו ע”ה ונפשו בשאלתו כדת מה לעשות, ואם יברך שהחיינו”, ע”ז מסיים בהמשך להנ”ל, “ע”כ הבו דלא להוסיף עלה במה שמצינו בט”ז סי’ תרעא לענין ברכת שהחיינו רק בחנוכה, ולא לענין פורים כנזכר, ובפרט שהוא קורא תמיד בכל שנה ושנה”, ועיי”ש מה שכתב עוד שגבי הרגיל בקריאת המגילה בכל שנה, הרי כשלא יקרא הוה אבילות בפרהסיא דיש לחוש ע”ז מדינא.

I was to learn that a number of Chabadniks in חו’’ל had duchened while they were in Aveylus, and that was according to Piskei Din of Chashuvei Rabonnei Chabad. I tried to remember what Rabbi Groner ז’ל had paskened for my father, and I do recall him being uncomfortable with my father standing alone during Hakofos, and suggested that someone go around with him in a type of Mechitza so that he wouldn’t technically be part of the Hoshanos Parade. To the best of my ability, I cannot, however,  recall what my father  have did for Duchening. Certainly the Rav of my father’s Shule, who was also a Cohen, and his own children, who were also Rabonim, duchened during their Aveylus.

On the next morning, the second day of Succos, I approached the Dayan of the Shule, and asked him whether it was true that he paskened that Chassidiei Chabad could attend Farbrengens for Simchas Beis HaShoeva during their year of Aveylus, and whether he agreed that it was incongruous for Simchas Beish Hashoeva Farbrengens, with the singing, merriment and drink (and Toras Hachassidus) there was no impediment for a Chasid who was an Avel, and yet for the Avel who felt that he had absolutely no problem expressing אהבה through the Bracha, and for which the זכות resulting from Hashem was ואני אברכם he would theoretically deny me the opportunity to perform Bircas Cohanim. I asked him, that despite the Minhag quoted by the Ramoh, whether there was  actually an established Minhag in the Shule Itself where the Rav would make it his business to inform Avelim that they should disappear early enough before so that they would not have to be in the Shule for Duchening. He was not happy with my line of questioning, and gave vociferous voice thereto. In the end, he passed on a message through a Gabbay that he would “prefer I would not Duchen”.

At that point, I decided to do what my father would have done—run away from Machlokes, and leave early enough so that people wouldn’t even mention “have me in mind”. I know that many were disappointed and that they felt that, like הושענות and many dinim of Aveylus, this was a personal הרגשה, and that it was not quite right to tell someone effectively, your level of שמחה (even with בשר ודגים and ביום שמחתחם) wasn’t enough to effect Brachos as an agent of Hashem.

I did find that the Aruch Hashem of Navardok seemed to be equally troubled by the concept of being מבטל an עשה or three over such a matter, and to paraphrase him, he could not understand what was wrong. Perhaps this is a Litvishe thing. The Biur HaGro (who also saw the “open Shulchan Aruch”) as did the פרי חדש and others also felt that one should not interfere with the Avel and let him go his way depending on how he felt. According to the encyclopaedic Rav Gavriel Tzinner, this is also the practice of “all” chassidim and the view of the Griz, although he doesn’t bring a specific Mekor for those assertions. When he is next in Melbourne to examine the Eruv here under his Hashgacha I may well seek him out for sources for these statements.

I was unable to unearth a specific מנהג חבד on this matter, save the Shulchan Aruch HoRav quoting the Ramoh and then Magen Avraham in his usual manner. That per se, however, doesn’t mean it is  מנהג חב’’ד as is well know from later glosses in his Siddur and elsewhere (or the later comments of the last Rebbe זי’’ע on issues of Minhag Chabad)

I do not know whether Rabbi Groner ז’ל would have gone up to an אבל after the act, and said, “don’t duchen tomorrow”. The Dayan finally said it was his “preference” that Aveylim not Duchan in the central Chabad Shule of Melbourne.

I will have opportunity to Duchen on Shmini Atzeres, and in sobriety during Shachris on Simchas Torah, before my year of aveylus ends. I think it prudent to avoid Machlokes and being too evocative with the Dayan by davening there on these days (even I have done so for at least 40 years).

I have absolutely no hard feelings. It’s Torah, and we need to learn and understand and follow it. I just don’t understand how I’m considered unable to bless באהבה. If anything, and I think this is mentioned by Acharonim, the אבל is more sensitised to the needs of others and able to express genuine blessing to all (despite מדת הדין hanging around an אבל during the year). I thought that the pre-requisite (כלי המקבל) for Kabolas Brachos was HaSholom, Peace!

נשיאת הכפיים קדימה מבטאת את העתיד, שהרי הידיים מתקדמות אל מעבר למקום שאליו הגיע הגוף. ועל-כן הכהנים נושאים את כפיהם, לבטא את הכמיהה והתפילה המובעות בברכת כהנים, אל עולם שלם ומתוקן  –– עולת ראיה ח”א רפד).

Postscript: I just received this from a good friend with excellent access to מנהגי חב’’ד who quoted

Minhag Chabad Avelylus Bircas Cohanim

Author: pitputim

I've enjoyed being a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia, as well as band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel and later in life at Machon L'Hora'ah, Yeshivas Halichos Olam.

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