5756 - #18


Chinuch, mitzvah 378 states that the reason only kohanim are uniquely commanded to bless the Jewish people is because G-d wished "to bless His people through the ministering servants who stay constantly in the Temple of the Lord, whose every thought is attached to His service...[1] The difficulty with this reason is its application today; kohanim, unfortunately, do not serve in the Temple or, in fact, function communally in any way differently than the rest of the nation. The question is not: why should only kohanim give this bracha today. The halachic formulation is eternal. The question is: what is the significance today of specifically kohanim giving the bracha.[2] Interestingly, Rabbeinu Bachya[3] actually states that this bracha in galut, when we have no Temple, assumes greater importance.

The unique status of the kohain itself is actually inherently an issue. The modern Western individual finds it difficult to accept a special status for individuals, in this case kohanim, simply because of birth. It is an important value, for us, to distinguish individuals solely on the basis of personal merit, not family ties; to do otherwise suggests discrimination. The special privileges afforded the kohain, including the special responsibility and right to pronounce this bracha, thus present a question. The Chinuch's explanation presented above actually incorporates an aspect of merit. The bracha is to be given by individuals involved in the service of G-d; there is a tie between individual behaviour and this unique right and responsibility. But why is the kohain singled out for this service in the first place? And why is this distinct status determined solely by birth? Should it not be the greatest of tzaddikim, the greatest of talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars, that constitute this unique group?

A perusal of the halachot connected to birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, if anything, actually points further to the opposite. Merit would seem not to be a consideration at all in determining who can perform this blessing. While it is true that certain transgressions do preclude a kohain from giving the bracha, in general, a violation of halacha does not prevent a kohain from performing this function.[4] In fact, it even seems that those offenses that do bar a kohain from presenting the bracha do so, not because of any meritorious consideration, but rather because of specific derivations from verses. As Rabbeinu Gershom stresses, the blessing is from Hashem, not from the kohain.[5] The exact merit of the kohain is therefore essentially not an issue. In a way, it seems that the kohain, as an individual, is almost irrelevant; this is the antithesis of achievement based on the merit system. The problem is not simply that the kohain status is determined by birth and, as such, challenges our views of selection by merit. The further difficulty is that in the determination of the members of this important rank within the nation, we are actually unconcerned with merit.[6]

Even as our society stresses merit as the essential factor of determination, we also recognize that there are certain groupings that are not to be defined through this consideration -- and rightfully so. Even though our family connections will effect our lives, no-one would suggest that the determination of family love and connections should be based on merit and not birth.[7] Similarly, in the case of citizenship, we accept that being born in one country will have an effect on the grouping of this individual even though this will effect status and opportunity. Is it fair that a child has more opportunity if born on one side of the Rio Grande rather than the other? Yet, we respect citizenship determined by birth. Is it fair that one child has more possibilities, let us say in the world of show business, because they are born to a famous actor? Perhaps we are somewhat uncomfortable with this reality especially if it approaches nepotism, but we also respect that this is part of being a family and would be more disturbed by a parent that does not help. There are indeed groupings -- that we accept -- that are defined not by merit even though they may yield greater opportunities to one and not the other.

Merit marks the individual. When we evaluate on merit, we focus on the attributes and abilities of the person. Discrimination is deemed to occur when factors that are not tied to these personal attributes and abilities, specifically factors that connect this person to a group, are applied in situations when the individual alone should be considered. Inversely, when we do accept groupings not tied to merit, we are, in fact, placing group factors above the individual. Citizenship is based on birth. We evaluate not on merit but on birth because we are placing the group value -- what the group represents -- above the person. Citizenship by birth places the concept of country above the individual. This value of the identity of the country is beyond the individual; the identity with the group, and what it represents, is paramount.

It is not the individual who deserves to be a kohain; the individual kohain represents the group ideal, the group value. When we see the kohain, we are not to see the individual but the value that the kohain represents as part of this group. They are a symbol of our collective connection to G-d. And, as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch[8] states, today, without the Temple, they alone represent this idea.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] Translation by R. Charles Wengrov.

[2] Further to this general topic, see also Spark of the Week, 5754 - #28.

[3] Kad HaKemach, Bracha quoting a midrash.

[4] See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 129:35-42.

[5] Quoted in Tur, Orach Chaim c. 129. See also Rashbam, Bamidbar 6:23.

[6] A further example is the son of the union of a kohain and a divorcee. As a chalul, this son loses his status as a kohain even though his father is a kohain and he has done nothing wrong. The father who actually transgressed, though, still remains a kohain. See, although, Shulchan Aruch, supra. See also, interestingly, T.B. Makkot 2a.

[7] As space is a concern, family status situations that may involve a factor of merit in its determination, such as adoption, will not be considered. Defining the role of merit in these situations actually presents a most interesting, and complicated, issue. For example, in regard to choosing a spouse, see Nishma Study Materials on Love and Marriage.

[8] Horeb 112:717. See further, especially the note, on the exact nature of this group value.

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