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     I. Who May Duchen?

    The Torah commands kohanim, male descendants of the priestly families, to bless other Jews while raising their hands and reciting a specific formula, i.e. to duchen, to do Nesi’as Kapayim. “Speak with Aharon and with his sons, saying: In this way you shall bless the children of Israel; you shall say to them…” (Num. 6:23). For reasons that are not completely clear, Ashkenazim outside of Israel only do this on holidays. It seems from this verse that only kohanim may duchen. We see this explicitly from a Gemara about lineage.

    How much proof does a kohen need to possess to be considered a verified descendant of Aharon (a blue-check kohen)? Even in the times of the Mishnah, over a thousand years after Aharon died, it could not have been easy to have a family tree going back that far. The Gemara (Kesubos 24b) suggests different options. If you can trace your lineage to a kohen who served in the Temple, that is sufficient. If you can trace your lineage to someone who ate terumah, that also works. And if you can trace your lineage to someone who did Nesi’as Kapayim, that verifies you as a kohen. Why? The Gemara explains that it is a violation of a positive commandment for a non-kohen to duchen. Rashi (ad loc., s.v. de-isur) explains that the positive commandment is from the verse above (Num. 6:23), that the kohanim should do the blessing and not anyone else.

    However, a statement by R. Yossi complicates things. The Gemara (Shabbos 108b) quotes R. Yossi as saying that even though he is not a kohen, if his friends tell him to go up to duchen, he does what they say. How could R. Yossi do that in violation of the positive commandment? Further complicating things, Tosafos (ad loc., s.v. ilu) quotes Ri (12th cen., France) as saying that the reason a non-kohen may not duchen is reciting an unnecessary blessing. What about the positive commandment?

    Later commentators and authorities offer a number of ways to reconcile the positive commandment mentioned in Kesubos, R. Yossi’s behavior mentioned in Shabbos, and Ri’s seeming lack of awareness of the problem. Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema; 16th cen., Poland; Darkei Moshe, Orach Chaim 128:1) suggests tentatively that the positive commandment is only a barrier if there are no kohanim. A Yisrael or Levi may not go up alone and do Nesi’as Kapayim. However, if kohanim are already going up to bless the people, a non-kohen may join them. However, both in Darkei Moshe and in his gloss to Shulchan Aruch (ad loc., par. 1), Rav Isserles concludes with tzarich iyun, this requires further study.

    II. Unnecessary Blessing

    Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland; Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 128:2) questions Rav Isserles’ distinction between a non-kohen saying the blessing on his own and with others. From where does this distinction emerge? Rav Gombiner suggests that perhaps this is what Ri means when he says that there is a problem of an unnecessary blessing. This unnecessary blessing is the positive commandment mentioned in Kesubos. Rav Yechezkel Landau (18th cen., Czech; Noda Bi-Yehudah, vol 1, Orach Chaim, no. 6) discusses whether Rav Gombiner’s reference to an unnecessary blessing means the blessing before doing Nesi’as Kapayim (“asher kideshanu bi-kdushaso she Aharon…”) or the actual Nesi’as Kapayim itself. He concludes that it probably means the latter, reciting the blessings contained in the biblical verses. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Ma’or Yisrael, Shabbos 118b) asks how there could be a problem reciting an unnecessary blessing by saying biblical verses. Anyone can say a full verse with G-d’s name.

    However, Rav Yosef of Trani (17th cen., Israel; Responsa Maharit 1:149) explains that the problem of a non-kohen doing Nesi’as Kapayim is the unnecessary recitation of G-d’s special name, which was only said in the Temple in Jerusalem. The kohanim would use the special name in Nesi’as Kapayim. If a non-kohen said that name, he would violate the positive commandment to fear G-d’s name. Therefore, during the Temple, only a kohen was allowed to do Nesi’as Kapayim. After the Temple’s destruction, a non-kohen is allowed to do Nesi’as Kapayim because even the kohanim no longer use G-d’s special name. R. Yossi lived after the Temple’s destruction and that is why he would do Nesi’as Kapayim under pressure from his friends. According to Maharit’s approach, we can understand why the problem is saying the biblical verses — if he uses G-d’s special name.

    III. Limited Blessings

    Rav Gombiner (ibid.) offers another resolution between the two Gemara passages, setting aside Ri’s comment in Tosafos. Perhaps R. Yossi went up to duchen, in deference to his friends, but just stood there silently so as not to violate the positive commandment that only kohanim may bless the people in that way. Following Rav Yoel Sirkes (17th cen., Poland; Bach, Orach Chaim 128), Rav Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (19th cen., Hungary; Responsa Kesav Sofer, Orach Chaim, no. 13) says that a kohen only fulfills the mitzvah if he lifts his hands while reciting the blessings. That is why it is called Nesi’as Kapayim. As long as a Yisrael or Levi does not lift his hands, he is not fulfilling the mitzvah and therefore not violating the positive commandment. Rav Sofer suggests that this is why the Gemara in Shabbos says that R. Yossi went up to duchen while the Gemara in Kesubos discusses tracing lineage based on Nesi’as Kapayim. Anyone may say the blessings (duchen) but only a kohen may do it with raised hands (Nesi’as Kapayim).

    May a Yisrael duchen? According to Rema’s suggestion, if there are kohanim doing Nesi’as Kapayim, a Yisrael can join them completely. According to the Magen Avraham‘s second answer, a Yisrael may go up to duchen but he must remain silent. According to the Bach and Kesav Sofer, a Yisrael may also recite the biblical verses but he may not recite preceding blessing nor may he raise his hands. According to Maharit, outside the Temple, anyone can do Nesi’as Kapayim. However, due to the different and contradictory opinions, in practice a non-kohen is never allowed to do Nesi’as Kapayim.