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Shabbat Parashat Vayigash| 5771

Ask the Rabbi: Leviim washing the hand of Cohanim before nesiat kapayim

Question: As a kohen raised in chutz la’aretz, where nesi’at kapayim (duchenen =nk) was a big event and levi’im were eager to wash kohanim’s hands, I have been surprised that usually I have to wash my own hands in Israel. Should I say something to the levi’im?


Answer: Firstly, in the many places this respondent has davened in Israel, I have found that levi’im almost always wash kohanim’s hands. However, we will present the background on the practice and relate to the situation in your community.

The Beit Yosef (Orach Chayim 128) cites the minhag for levi’im to wash kohanim’s hands before nk, tracing the minhag to the Zohar (Naso). The Zohar speaks of adding sanctity into nk by having levi’im, who are sanctified from the time of Moshe and Aharon, wash and thus sanctify the kohanim’s hands. The Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chayim 128:15) adds an additional reason: it is reminiscent of the Beit Hamikdash, where the levi’im assisted the kohanim. The latter reason seems to portray the matter as related to the interrelationship between the two groups, whereas the Zohar describes it as an attempt to prepare for nk on the highest level possible. (It is unclear why the Aruch Hashulchan felt a need to add a new, albeit logical reason, to the clear one provided by the Zohar, the classical source the minhag is based on.)

Although important poskim state that one is not required to follow Kabbalistic practices, the normative approach is that when these practices are found in standard sources like the Shulchan Aruch (in this case, OC 128:7) and are followed broadly, they should be kept carefully. The questions arise in regard to cases where it is either difficult to keep the minhag or where keeping it conflicts with another halachic concern. We will explore the poskim’s opinion regarding a few such cases.

The correct ruling seems to be that a levi goes to do the washing, even when he will be unable to hear part of the chazarat hashatz and answer Amen, but not if he is needed for the minyan of people answering (see Shevet Halevi VIII, 47 and Teshuvot V’hanhagot III, 48). The greatest discussion is on whether a levi who is a talmid chacham should wash the hands of a kohen who is far from being one, which might be a lowering of the honor he should maintain. The Magen Avraham (128:7) brings a machloket on the matter but says that if one of the kohanim is a respected person, the levi may wash all of the kohanim’s hands.

Some of the opinions shed light on the general outlook on the minhag. The Pri Chadash (OC 128:6), who is most against the levi lowering his honor, prefaces his claim by saying that it is not a full necessity for a levi to wash the kohen’s hands. In contrast, the Shulchan Aruch Harav (OC 128:11), in saying that the levi may wave his honor, says that the levi is not so much serving the kohanim as adding sanctity to the process. Some say that that we cannot assign people to distinct categories based on level in our time, and the Aruch Hashulchan (ibid.) says that doing so could unwarrantedly hurt feelings. In general, the Igrot Moshe (OC IV, 127) while understanding why a levi who feels rushed might not want to fulfill this practice whose source is Kabbalistic, criticizes refusal as the wrong thing. The Yalkut Yosef (OC 128:23), while saying the minhag should be kept, cites the Knesset Hagedola as saying a levi who does not do so is not committing a sin.

As far as advice to you, while we agree that your levi’im seem to be shirking their duties, we think you should not say anything to them, given that it is not a full-fledged obligation. Rather, point out the situation to your rav (or a congregational leader in his absence). An announcement or subtle statement might be made for the sake of the community’s nk. In any case, nk when the kohen washes his own hands is not problematic. Ashkenazim assume that firstborns (from their mother) should wash if there are no levi’im (Bach; see Mishna Berura 128:22 and Kaf Hachayim, OC 128:40). Enlisting them might just get the levi’im moving.


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