By Rabbi Avi Zakutinsky
“And this is the case of the killer who will flee there, so that he may live: Whoever strikes his fellow [to death] unintentionally, whom he did not hate in times past.” (Shoftim 19:4)
Our Parsha discusses the cities of refuge and accidental murder. In this article we will focus on the hallachos involving a kohen who killed a Jew, both accidentally and on purpose and whether he is permitted to fulfill his priestly duties.
- The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 128:35) rules that if a kohen killed someone, even by accident, he is not allowed to recite the priestly blessings (to duchan). The Mishna Berura explains the reason for the disqualification is because “ain kateigor na’aseh saneigor“, it would be inappropriate for the hands that have taken a life to give a beracha.
- There is a machlokes between the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama as to whether a kohen who killed but then did teshuva is allowed to duchan. The Shulchan Aruch rules that teshuva does not help and he remains disqualified. While the Rama writes that after repentance he is permitted.
- The Biur Halacha cites an argument amongst the poskim whether teshuva helps, according to the Rama, if the kohen murdered on purpose (meizid). Some poskim feel that the lenient ruling of the Rama was stated only by accidental murder. While other poskim apply his ruling to all scenarios, even purposeful murder. The Biur Halacha writes that it is difficult to know what the correct ruling is, however, if the kohen ascended to recite the blessings we should not stop him.
- Rav Ovadia Yosef shlit”a (Shu”t Yechave Daas 2:16) writes that if a kohen killed someone against his will (“b’ones”), the example given- a kohen a driving a car within the speed limit and a child jumps in front of the car (the death is considered b’ones because the driver did everything within his power to prevent it), he is allowed to duchan, after repenting. He writes that in this scenario one can be lenient for two reason; First- the hallacha might follow the opinion of the Rama that teshuva enables the kohen to duchen. Secondly- Some poskim maintain that one who killed b’ones is allowed to duchen. They write that the hallacha which prevents a killer from reciting the priestly blessings only applies when he is on some level at fault. One who killed b’ones will be permitted.
- The Magen Avraham (128:53) cites the opinion of Rav Levi Ben Chabib that the hallacha applies even if there are no witnesses to the murder, as long as the kohen knows that he killed someone he may not duchan.
- Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe Y.D. 2:158) explains that if the kohen is a soldier in the army and he killed someone during war time he is unequivocally allowed to duchan. In this case the killing is not considered a negative thing on the contrary hi is obligated to defend himself even if that means killing someone in the process, as it says in the Gemara (Brachos 62b): “If someone attacks you to kill you, then you must kill him first.” A similar sentiment was expressed by Rav Ovadia Yosef shlit”a -he was discussing the Israeli army as opposed to Rav Moshe who was discussing the Russian army- he writes that these soldiers are fulfilling a mitzvah by protecting the Jewish people and the Jewish land therefore it is pashut that they may bless the Jewish people.
- If the kohen is unsure whether he killed someone, the Maharlnach writes that he is not allowed to duchan. We treat a doubtful murderer as a certain murderer. However, after analysis it becomes clear that this question is really based on a machlokes rishonim dealing with a much broader topic then the hallachos of a murderous kohen, as we shall explain. The source that prohibits a kohen who murdered someone from reciting the priestly blessings is a verse in Isaiha. We know that when a doubt arrises in a biblical hallacha we are machmir. However, when it comes to rabbinical laws, we are lenient in doubtful situations. Now the question arises what is the proper approach in hallacha when a doubt arises with a hallacha found in the Navi (Divrei Kabbala) is it deemed like a biblical law and we should act stringently or like a rabbinical law and we should act leniently. This is actually a machlokes amongst the rishonim. The Rashba (Shu”t Hamiyucheses 263 and the Rashash (Shu”t 397) both feel that when a doubt arrises regarding a law sourced in the Navi we rule leniently as we do with rabbinic laws. The Kovno Rav, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector zt”l (Beer Yitzchok Y.D. 1 note 6) wrote that the Ran agrees with the opinion of the Rashba. A similar view can be found in the Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 110 note 105). However, the Netziv (Haemek Sheila Sheilta 35:2) proved that Rav Achai Gaon and the Bahag both disagree. They feel that a law which has sources in Navi has the same status as a biblical law. Similar views can be found in the Turei Even by the Shagas Aryeh (Megila 5b), Shu”t Toras Chesed (O.C. 38 note 8)- he writes that this is also the opinion of the Rambam- and Pri Megadim (cited by Mishna Berurah O.C. 692:16). Our discussion (a kohen who is unsure whether he killed a person) is dependant on the opinions of the rishonim. For our case is a doubt involving a law (namely that a kohen who killed someone is not allowed to duchan) which has a source in the Navi and according to the Rashba (and Rashash etc.) we should be lenient and allow him to duchan, unlike the Maharlnach. However, according to the Rambam (and Bahag etc.) we should be stringent and prevent him from reciting the blessings, in agreement with the Maharlnach. Indeed the Maharsham (shu”t 5:30) cites the ruling of the Maharlnach and notes that according to the Rashba we should allow him to recite the priestly blessings.
Rabbi Avi Zakutinsky is the author of the Hebrew Sefer Umekareiv Biyamin on Halachic Shailos Posed To Those In Kiruv, he currently teaches at Yeshivas Hashevaynu in Queens. For any questions or comments please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.