Can kohanim who use wheelchairs do birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing)?
Responsa Shevut Yaakov 2:1 (R. Yaakov Reischer, 1670-1733) argued they can but his position was attacked by Responsa Noda b’Yehuda OC 5 (1713-1793) and others. Generally these attacks were seen as compelling. Contemporary posek R. Shmuel HaLevi Wosner states (Responsa Shevet haLevi 10:28) that R. Reischer’s position was “pushed aside from Halakhah without any uncertainty.”
I suggest that the rejection of Shevut Yaakov should be reconsidered in light of analysis bolstered by new evidence.
According to Talmud Sotah 38a, everyone agrees that birkat kohanim must be performed standing—the only dispute is about how to derive this rule from the Torah. The anonymous first position (tanna kamma) in a beraita (text from the Mishnaic period) suggests that Devarim 27:12-“and these shall stand to bless the nation on Mount Gerizim”-establishes a legal paradigm for the act of blessing. Since Bamidbar 6:23 says that birkat kohanim must be done כה, ‘thus’, we derive it includes all standard blessing requirements.
Rabbi Natan in that beraita prefers to assimilate blessing to the realm of sheirut (priestly Temple service), all of which must be done standing. He derives this from the juxtaposition of service and blessing in Devarim 10:18: “to serve Him and to bless in His Name.”
The Talmud asks: How does Rabbi Natan know that sheirut must be performed standing? It replies that Devarim 18:5 declares that G-d chose them “to stand to serve.”
This appears to be a stub citation of a beraita from Zevachim 23b. That beraita notes further that Devarim 18:7 concludes “and he will serve in the Name of Hashem his Divinity, like all his brothers the Levites who stand there before G-d.” The duplication of the requirement to stand teaches us that it applies even bediavad (post facto), meaning that sheirut performed while seated is invalid.
Tosafot to Sotah 38 cites R. Isaac of Dampierre (RI) as deriving from Zevachim 23 that birkat kohanim is also invalid if performed while seated. All this suggests that the answer to our opening question is an unequivocal no–kohanim may not do birkat kohanim while seated in wheelchairs.
However RI’s conclusion can be challenged in a variety of ways:
1) According to Zevachim 23, Devarim 18:5 is not sufficient to declare that sheirut performed while seated is invalid–that is derived from 18:7. Since the assimilation of birkat kohanim to sheirut is derived from 18:5, perhaps there is an obligation to stand for the Blessing, but it is valid nonetheless if performed while seated. It might follow that a kohen who is incapable of standing can still perform a valid birkat kohanim, and perhaps is obligated to go up to do so.
2) Zevachim 23 is relevant only according to Rabbi Natan. According to the tanna kamma in the beraita on Sotah 38, the requirement to stand for birkat kohanim is derived, via the word ‘thus’, from the one-time blessing on Mount Gerizim rather than from sheirut.
Sotah 38a earlier records a dispute between a tanna kamma and Rabbi Yehudah as to the source of the requirement that birkat kohanim be said in the original rather than in translation. Rabbi Yehuda derives the requirement directly from ‘thus’, whereas the tanna kamma derives it from Mount Gerizim.
Tosafot explain that the tanna kamma did not see ‘thus’ as establishing a bediavad requirement. If we combine the positions of the two tanna kammas, birkat kohanim performed by a seated kohen is not invalid. It follows that a kohen who is incapable of standing can still perform a valid birkat kohanim, and may be obligated to go up to do so.
3) RI assumes that the analogy to sheirut is a genuine midrash halakhah (legal derivation from the Biblical text), i.e. that it establishes a deoraita (having the authority of Biblical law) requirement to perform birkat kohanim standing.
However, the Talmud on Taanit 26b-27a asks why the analogy to sheirut does not prove that birkat kohanim cannot be performed by someone with a mum. It responds that “they are asmakhtot, derabannan, lekulla” (mnemonics rather than midrash halakhah; having the authority of Rabbinic rather than Biblical law; and lenient). This may mean that the analogy to sheirut is mere mnemonic, establishing only Rabbinic requirements. It follows that the requirement of standing for birkat kohanim, at least according to Rabbi Natan, may be Rabbinic rather than Biblical. This makes it likely that the requirement does not apply bediavad or to someone who is physically incapable of standing.
What emerges from all this is that RI’s position invalidating birkat kohanim performed while seated is explicitly based only on Rabbi Natan, not the tanna kamma. The default principle is that halakhah follows a tanna kamma. As well, we now have 2 plausible grounds for arguing that RI’s conclusion doesn’t follow from Rabbi Natan’s derivation.
Nonetheless, we would be hard pressed to rule against RI without finding a Rishon (medieval authority) who disagreed with him. But Maimonides cites ‘thus’ as his source for the requirement to stand during birkat kohanim, rather than the analogy to sheirut, apparently following the tanna kamma rather than Rabbi Natan. Maimonides may therefore hold that a kohen who is incapable of standing can perform a valid birkat kohanim, and perhaps is required to go up to do so.
Shevut Yaakov argues that Maimonides cites ‘thus’ because he followed Taanit 27 and saw the analogy to sheirut as establishing a Rabbinic law. He argues the requirement then does not apply to kohanim who are incapable of standing.
Noda b’Yehuda responds that Taanit 27 does not mean that the analogy to sheirut is wholly Rabbinic; rather, it is Rabbinic in its application to all issues other than standing. He notes that Tosafot Menachot 109 and Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot both state clearly that the analogy is Biblical with and only with regard to standing. Noda b’Yehuda’s critique, and variants advanced by others such as Panim Me’irot, have generally been taken as dispositive.
Noda b’Yehuda’s reading of Taanit 27 seems very forced; nothing in that text suggests that the analogy to sheirut should be understood as Biblical anywhere. Furthermore, Shevut Yaakov concedes that RI would invalidate any seated birkat kohanim, but argues that Maimonides disagrees. R. Landau’s rejection of Shevut Yaakov comes down to the claim that that Maimonides should be presumed to agree with RI—even though RI depends on the forced interpretation of Taanit 27—unless we clearly establish why he disagreed. Intellectually, the real puzzle is not why Maimonides disagreed, but rather why Tosafot Menachot 109 and Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot offered that interpretation in the first place.
The contemporary R. Pinchas Leibush Padua (Pelaot Edotekha 5) solves that puzzle. He argues that Tosafot Menachot and Sefer Mitzvot Gedolot (and Rabbeinu Asher Megillah 3:19) are not presenting an interpretation of Taanit 27a as we have it, but rather either preserving an alternative text or presenting an alternative answer from the Sifrei. That alternative’s explanation of why the analogy to sheirut does not ban someone with a mum from performing birkat kohanim is that Devarim 10:8—“To stand before Hashem to do sheirut and bless”—limits the analogy to standing.
I believe that Pelaot Edotekha’s argument is demonstrably correct. Tosafot Menachot is citing a responsum of Rashi, and the language of that responsum in many versions makes clear that the limitation of the analogy’s Biblical force to standing is a quote, not an interpretation.
RI’s position that birkat kohanim peformed while seated is wholly invalid was based on that text; but Maimonides had our text of Taanit, and therefore believed that the analogy to sheirut is wholly Rabbinic. This was likely the position of every other Rishon who had our version of the text, and is explicit in Rabbeinu Gershom and Meiri. These Rishonim would probably allow kohanim who are incapable of standing to perform birkat kohanim while seated, and I suggest that we have a general halakhic preference for positions based on the Talmudic version that has become standard.
The question is whether this argument is sufficient to return the Shevut Yaakov to the halakhic mainstream. I suggest that this must at least be considered.