Looking at the Kohanim during Birkat Kohanim
When I was a little girl, I knew it was prohibited to look at the Kohanim during Birkat Kohanim. The clarity of this knowledge caused me to be overly stringent, and I would turn around to avoid looking. One Shabbat, I was davening at the Kotel, and I turned around to avoid looking at the Kohanim as I always did. A strange woman approached me (she was wearing a wedding dress) and said: “You’re not included in the bracha! Don’t you want to be blessed?”
I have studied quite a bit since that day, and today I understand that while one should not gaze directly at the Kohanim during Birkat Kohanim, one’s back should not be turned either.
What are these rules based on? Two important principles regarding this blessing appear in the Talmud. The first related to the manner in which the bracha is received. The Gemara (Sota 38a) states that “the people behind the Kohanim are not included in the blessing.” The Gemara adds that the people working in the field, who are unable to attend shul, are included in the blessing (since they are prevented from active participation); however, one who is able to stand before the Kohanim and chooses not to – is not blessed. The Gemara later debates whether the people should respond to the blessing by citing biblical verses in order to express their appreciation of the blessing (“is there such a thing as a servant who is blessed and does not show gratitude?”), or should rather be silent (“is there such a thing as a servant who is blessed and does not listen [silently]?”). Regardless, it seems that listening is a prerequisite for receiving the blessing. Moreover, the baraita states that the blessing is recited “face to face … as a person would speak with his friend.” Based on this statement, one might say that it is unheard of that a servant who is blessed should turn his back on the one who is blessing. The Rambam connects facing the Kohanim with the demand to stand ‘before the Kohanim.’
However, facing the Kohanim while they recite the blessing also raises a concern. According to various Talmudic sources one should not look at the Kohanim while they recite Birkat Kohanim. The Gemara (Hagiga 16a) states: “Anyone who looks at the following three things loses his eyesight: the rainbow, and the nasi (head of the Sanhedrin), and the Kohanim … one who looks at the Kohanim refers to the time of the Temple, when they would stand in their posts and bless Israel with God’s explicit name.” Rashi explains that when the Kohanim blessed the nation in the Temple, the Shechina (Divine Presence) would appear between their crossed fingers. Accordingly, the prohibition to gaze at the Kohanim should be limited to a time when the Shechina is present (i.e., in the Temple). However, the Gemara in Megilla (24b) states that Kohanim who have blemishes that attract attention (in their hands or face) may not participate in Birkat Kohanim “because the people will look at him.” Conversely, when a Kohen with a blemish is known in the community, and he will likely not attract extra attention since the people are used to him – he may recite Birkat Kohanim. This implies that one should not look at the Kohanim even outside of the Temple. Here too, Rashi states that the reason is the presence of the Shechina, but Tosfot and other Rishonim disagree with Rashi and state that the reason is the distraction from the blessing; when the people are blessed by the Kohanim, they should be concentrating on the blessing and not exposed to distraction such as an apparent blemish. According to this, there is no inherent problem with gazing at the Kohanim, unless looking at them leads to distraction – and when a distraction is present it is the Kohen who is removed, not one’s gaze. However, the Rambam explains that the very act of looking can create a distraction (and apparently a blemish draws attention and is categorized as a distraction); therefore, the people and the Kohanim should look down instead of at each other. To avoid eye contact, a prevalent custom developed in some communities (and is widespread today) to have the Kohanim cover themselves with a Tallit (prayer shawl) while blessing the people. This custom allows also Kohanim with a blemish on their hands and face to bless the people (according to the Rema, only if their hands are covered).
May one gaze at a Kohen who is covered with a Tallit? Seemingly there is no problem since he is covered – unless gazing creates a distraction. There should also be no problem with an occasional glance. However, the Magen Avraham and the Mishna Berura in his wake wrote that the custom today is not to gaze at the Kohanim in remembrance of the Temple. Some believe this is the reason Rashi mentioned the Shechina in Birkat Kohanim outside the context of the Temple. Therefore, we avoid gazing at the Kohanim while they bless the people today as well, in commemoration of the Beit ha-Mikdash.