By Shlomo Riskin
“Speak to Aaron and his sons saying so shall you bless the children of Israel, say to them: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord cause His Face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord forgive you and grant you peace…. And I (the Lord) shall bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27)
In this stirring Biblical passage, the Kohen-Priest, descendants of Aaron the first High Priest are instructed to raise their hands, spread out their fingers in a manner to form the Hebrew letter “shin” for the Divine Name Sha-ddai (Almighty God) and so to bless the congregation of praying Israelites. Here in Israel, the Kohen-Priests rise to fulfill this function every day and in Ashkenazi congregations in the diaspora, every festival service (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, sixteenth century Polish decisor rules that in the Diaspora it is only possible for Jews to feel joy on the Festivals, when the Bible commands us to be joyous, and since the Divine Presence can only be felt in places of joy, the Priestly benediction is limited in the Diaspora to festival prayer services).
As a Kohen-Priest myself, whenever I join my fellow Kohanim to bestow the blessing (and especially when I am joined by some of my children or grandchildren), I am filled with emotions of sanctity and privilege to be participating in a four thousand year old tradition expressing an unbroken DNA lineage which extends backwards to the very first Sanctuary (Mishkan) service in the desert and will hopefully continue forwards to the Messiah and the long awaited period of world redemption.
But what if a Kohen-Priest has a bodily blemish, caused by a birth defect or the result of an accident or war injury? It would seem from our Torah reading of about a month ago (Emor, Lev.21:15-25), that this would disqualify the Kohen-Priest from officiating in the Sanctuary, which would logically include disqualification from the priestly benediction. Is this fair? Is the Kohen to be punished because he is blind or club-footed?
The Talmud and the Code of Jewish Law explain that the people receiving the blessing must understand that it is God and not the Kohen who is giving the blessing. God’s “presence” is alongside the Kohen, who merely expresses what God is doing, so the people must be focused on God and not on the individual Kohen (see Avishai David, Rav Soloveitchik on the weekly portion of Naso). Hence, if the blemish of the Kohen-Priest will distract people from concentrating on God, the Kohen-priest must abdicate his function.
At the same time, however, the halakhah (Orah Haim 128:30) maintains that if the Kohen is known in the community, if the people are used to seeing people with blemishes, or if the Kohen’s blemish is covered with a prayer shawl, the Kohen would certainly be allowed to give the benediction. And this means that in modern times, when our society is endeavoring to integrate people with blemishes and we have become much more accustomed to them, blemished kohanim would not disqualified.
Many years ago, when I was the young rabbi of a fledgling apartment-synagogue in the Lincoln Center area of Manhattan, a very tall gentleman named Adolph Katz and his two tall sons came for our Passover morning service. Since the last name Katz is usually derived from the two Hebrew words “Kohen tzedek“, Righteous Kohen-priest, we offered him the Kohen aliyah, which he accepted with alacrity. But when I then asked him to join us in giving the congregation the Priestly benediction during the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah, he sadly responded that that would be impossible.
“When I first came to America as a very young man, I began my career making and selling toilet bowls”, he explained. “As a result of a soldering accident, I lost two fingers. My rabbi at the time told me that I could no longer bless the congregation…” He showed me his hand which was missing the two central fingers. When I explained to him that since he would be covering his fingers with the prayer shawl, he was obligated to join with me in granting the Priestly benediction, he smiled broadly, but then his eyes welled up with tears. “When I left Czechoslovakia, and saw my father for what I knew would be the last time, he gave me a final blessing. ‘Remember, you are a Kohen-priest’, he reminded me, ‘and you are entrusted with asking God to bless Israel with peace. To truly be worthy of such a privilege, you must always keep the Sabbath holy’. And so I was careful never to work on the Sabbath day. But once I was told that I could no longer give the benediction invoking God, I began to work on the Sabbath – so in my father’s eyes, I’m no long worthy to participate in the benediction'”.
I stood up on my tip-toes and hugged him. “Of course you are worthy. You will join me in the blessing and from now on you will keep the Sabbath day holy”. We shook hands and for the next eighteen years Adolph Katz served as the “Kohen Gadol” of our congregation.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.