In this week’s Sedra God tells Moshe to instruct Aaron and his sons to bless the Children of Israel with what is now called the Priestly Blessing (duchening) and is undertaken by the Cohanim (Bamidbar 6:25-27). In Israel the virtually universal custom is that Cohanim bless the congregation every day during Shacharit and when there is Musaf. Outside Israel Safardim have the same custom but Ashkenazim don’t, only making the blessing on Yom Tov. Why the difference?
The Maharil (15c) said that it had been the custom for the priests to go the Mikvah before making the blessing. As Cohanim are unlikely to do that every day (particularly in the cold Eastern European winters) they should not give the blessing. Others disagreed, stating that there was no obligation to go to the Mikvah every day.
The Rema (Rav Moshe Isserles, 16c) suggested that it is necessary for the Cohanim to be happy when they give the blessing. The hard grind of daily life meant that it was likely that this condition could not be met with certainty. Even on Shabbat they could be worrying about the future and are only truly joyful on Yom Tov.
Rabbi Efraim Zalman Margaliot (1760 -1811) thought that the reason might be because of the questionable pedigree of Cohanim. If the blessing was given by someone who wasn’t a Cohen it would be a berachah le-vatalah, an unnecessary blessing, which is forbidden. Why then can the same Cohanim recite the blessing on Yom Tov?
The Aruch Ha-Shulhan, Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein (1829 -1908) understood that great Ashkenazi Rabbis of earlier generations had been preparing to move to daily duchening. The day before it was due to begin bad things happened, possibly the Vilna Gaon being imprisoned. It was taken as a sign from God and the change was abandoned.
In my own life time I have seen change in the United Synagogue! We went from no duchening when it was Shabbat combined with Yom Tov to introducing it as part of the Musaf service. I appreciate that it might add a minute of two to the service but I, for one, would welcome our Rabbonim making the decision to move in line with the Israeli practice. Anyone willing to sign my petition? Shabbat Shalom.
(With assistance from R. Gabe Greenberg and R. Daniel Sperber)