Saying Amein to Birkas Kohanim

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

Rabbi Shragga Kallus delivered an enthralling and engaging lecture filled with Torah riddles. One such riddle was: “What are two scenarios where a person would answer ‘amein’ in the middle of his private Shemoneh Esrei?” Typically, all responses are forbidden then. He offered two scenarios. One is relatively rare (still valid as a riddle answer!). The second one is controversial. One possible scenario is when someone is listening to the chazzan and being Yotzei with the chazzan’s recital of Shemoneh Esrei in lieu of his own. Since he is fulfilling his obligation of Shemoneh Esrei by listening to the chazzan, he must answer amein to each bracha. For various reasons, this technique is seldom employed. The second scenario Rabbi Kallus offered, while being more common, is not universally accepted. The Gemara (Sotah 38) says that a kohen has a positive mitzvah to bless Klal Yisrael. The Gemara does not directly discuss whether the person receiving the bracha has any mitzvah. The Sefer Chareidim writes that someone who pays attention to Birkas Kohanim and intends to be included in the blessing is also part of the mitzvah. Rav Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz, in his work the Hafla’ah, understands the Chareidim quite literally: A person who listens to Birkas Kohanim can fulfill a mitzvas aseih; and if one doesn’t want to be blessed and turns his back to the kohen, he violates this aseih. The Biur Halacha opens the second chelek of his work by citing the Chareidim. Some conclude therefore that the Chofetz Chaim is accepting the Chareidim’s position as definitive halacha. Still, one can point to the silence among the other Rishonim on this issue to mean that they disagree with the Sefer Chareidim altogether and reason that there is no mitzvah for an individual to be blessed by the kohanim.

Receiving the blessings is definitely a wonderful opportunity but not an obligation. The Shu’T Mahari Assad even suggests that the Chareidim himself did not mean that there is a distinct mitzvah for a non-kohen to listen to Birkas Kohanim. However, the people taking part in Birkas Kohanim enable the kohanim to fulfill their mitzvah of blessing the congregation. Helping someone else fulfill a mitzvah is in itself a mitzvah, and that is the mitzvah that a congregant can perform. However, if the congregant leaves shul before Birkas Kohanim, he has not violated any mitzvah. He had an opportunity to be included in the blessing of Birkas Kohanim and decided to forgo it. These variant opinions might explain the different directives among the poskim in regard to a situation that is common in Eretz Yisrael but can also happen here: Suppose someone is in the middle of his silent Shemoneh Esrei when the kohanim start reciting Birkas Kohanim. What should he do? Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, reasoned that the person should continue davening and may not interrupt his tefillah to pause for Birkas Kohanim. If there were a possible bittul mitzvas aseih, Rav Elyashiv would have advised the supplicant to pause, but he reasons that the Sefer Chareidim is a minority opinion. Consequently, l’halachah, there is no mitzvas aseih to hear Birkas Kohanim, so one is not permitted to interrupt his davening by pausing. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, (Igros Moshe O.C. 4, 21:2) disagrees. He specifically cites the Sefer Chareidim and reasons that a person hearing Birkas Kohanim has a biblical obligation to answer mein to each of the brachos. Therefore, someone who is reciting K’riyas Shema should still answer amein to the three blessings (but not the opening bracha that kohanim recite when they start). However, someone in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei may not answer amein but still must pause and remain silent while listening to the blessings. Since someone who does this loses out on the mitzvah of answering amein to the Birkas Kohanim, Rav Moshe writes that one is not allowed to start Shemoneh Esrei if he knows he will not be finished in time to answer amein. The Dirshu edition of the Mishnah Berurah points out an interesting inconsistency. The aforementioned teshuvah was penned on 15 Sivan 5740 and addressed to Rabbi Efraim Greenblatt, zt”l. In it, Rav Moshe writes that if the person davening Shemoneh Esrei is not in front of the kohanim, he may not move in middle of his prayer to stand in front of the kohanim. Yet in a later teshuvah (O.C. 5, 20:23), dated 2 Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5741, also addressed to Rabbi Greenblatt, Rav Moshe writes otherwise.

He reasons that even in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, if the supplicant is not in front of the kohanim, he should relocate himself to be in front of them. He writes, “Even though I did not see this halacha clearly anywhere it appears to me to be sound logically.” Rav Moshe writes further in this second teshuvah, “There is certainly an obligation on every individual to hear Birkas Kohanim if he is in a city that has a shul with kohanim. The Sages were lenient with day laborers who worked in the field [so that they could] miss Birkas Kohanim during the week. They are considered anusim. Since Birkas Kohanim in America is only on yom tov, everyone who isn’t sick has to come to shul to hear Birkas Kohanim. Women who have young children are exempt and they are considered anusim.” In fact, in many congregations, even women who do not normally attend come to hear Birkas Kohanim. However, the Gemara writes that someone who is considered anus, and cannot attend Birkas Kohanim, still receives his or her bracha. Since they would attend if they could, they are not despising their bracha. However, someone who can attend Birkas Kohanim but chooses not to is not included in the bracha. Returning, to the opening riddle, what would happen if someone is in the middle of his silent Shemoneh Esrei and finished the bracha after Modim? May he answer amein to Birchas Kohanim? According to Rav Elyashiv, certainly not. He should not even pause but should continue davening. Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt”l, answered that he may answer amein. (The Ishei Yisrael rules this way and cites others that follow this view.) Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, is quoted as saying one should not answer amein. (Dirshu MB 128:81) Interestingly enough, the afore-cited teshuvos of Rav Moshe seem to differ on this point as well. The latter teshuva allows one to answer amein if it will not cause himself confusion. Therefore, according to Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt”l, there is a second solution to the riddle.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@

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