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Shabbat Parashat Chukat| 5770
Ask the Rabbi: Birkat Kohanim in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei
Question: I often have to speed up my Shemoneh Esrei in order to be finished in time for Birkat Kohanim (duchening). Someone told me that I could actually go up even if I am still in the midst of Shemoneh Esrei. Is this true? In general, I am interested in suggestions of how to deal with the situation.
Answer: The idea of going up for Birkat Kohanim in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei exists, and we will explain it before discussing its limitations.
The Radvaz (IV, 293) says that if there is no other kohen who will be doing Birkat Kohanim, then a kohen who is still in Shemoneh Esrei should stop to go up and do it. He says that since Birkat Kohanim is from the Torah, while any specific tefilla is only rabbinic, the kohen should make sure that Birkat Kohanim is done. The precedent for that is the halacha that when a kohen serves as a chazan, if he is able to return to his tefilla afterward, he can stop for Birkat Kohanim (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 128:20). If, on the other hand, there are other kohanim, there is no need to disrupt Shemoneh Esrei, and although a kohen has a personal obligation to duchen, that is activated only when he is called to do so (see Shulchan Aruch ibid.:4). The Radvaz assumes that when someone calls out to the kohanim, he does so with the intention that only those who are available should come up. The Magen Avraham (128:40) says that if an individual kohen still davening was specifically told to go, his obligation would be activated and he would have to stop his tefilla and fulfill it in any case. One requirement is that the kohen at least started slightly to move in the direction of the place of Birkat Kohanim during the beracha of R’tzei, which he may do (Shulchan Aruch ibid.:8).
The Mishna Berura (128:106), after citing the Magen Avraham, cites significant opinions that say that the strictness with which Chazal treated Shemoneh Esrei precludes interrupting it even if he is the only kohen and even if he is called. Only if he is up to the same part of Shemoneh Esrei as the chazan at the time of Birkat Kohanim would he be allowed to proceed. In that case, neither walking to the front of shul nor reciting Birkat Kohanim at its appointed place in Shemoneh Esrei is a significant break. The Kaf Hachayim (OC 128:56) also paskens this way.
When he may not go up, the kohen does not leave shul. The matter of leaving is either to avoid being called, which we saw does not apply, or is a non-crucial step so people will not think he is pasul (Terumat Hadeshen II, 22), which is not justified here.
If you are already up to Elokai Netzor, you can skip or shorten it, as is suggested regarding answering Kedusha (Shulchan Aruch, OC 122:1). If you are not able to take the steps back in time, you can go up during Elokai Netzor, as we have seen that this is no worse a break than answering Kedusha, which is permitted in that situation (ibid.). In these cases, you should remember to take a minimal step toward the duchan during R’tzei and make sure to keep your hands clean as of the last time you washed, which according to most, can even be the morning washing (Va’ani Avarcheim p. 165; see Yalkut Yosef, OC 128:(11)).
It is obviously not an optimal situation to have to possibly miss Birkat Kohanim or to have to deal with timing matters, which, among other things, is probably disturbing to one’s concentration. If you feel that it is easy to speed up your tefilla with little to no concentration loss, we suggest doing so, especially if we are talking about missing by a matter of seconds. Another possibility discussed by the poskim is to start Shemoneh Esrei somewhat early and thus finish at a workable time. Although it is good to start Shemoneh Esrei with everyone else, many permit starting a little early if there are significant gains by doing so (see Yabia Omer II, OC 7; Ishei Yisrael 33:(25)). While you are certainly not required to do so, if it puts you more at ease in your Shemoneh Esrei, you may do so.
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