In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we find the Birkat Hacohanim, the Priestly Blessings. We say the Priestly Blessings every Shabbat when Fred repeats the Shacharit Amidah. Some rabbis bless the family of a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah with the Priestly Blessings. And every Jewish wedding I have attended, the rabbi blesses the couple with the Priestly Blessings.
“God spoke to Moses. Speak to Aaron and his sons. Thus you shall bless the people of Israel.” If you have ever attended an Orthodox service outside of Israel on the regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, you would have seen, that towards the end of the repetition of the Amidah, every Cohen takes off his shoes, ascends the bimah, puts his tallit over his head, and stretches out his arms with the tallit covering the arms. There follows an elaborate ritual where the Cohanim pronounce the threefold blessings. The Priestly Blessings are the sole ownership of the Cohanim.
The Talmud quotes Rabbi Yosei ben Halafta (he lived in the second century c.e.), “In all my days, I have never opposed the words of my friends. I know that I myself am not a Cohen, but if my friends say to me, go up and duchen [“duchen” is the word that describes the process by which the Cohanim utter the Priestly Blessings in the Amidah], I will do it.”
The Talmudic sages and the commentators to the Talmud reacted to Rabbi Yosei’s willingness to follow the suggestion of his friends. Some sages said, if Rabbi Yosei was saying, “I will go up and join the Cohanim and I will not say the Priestly Blessings,” what harm is that? Any person can stand with the Cohanim and not say the Priestly Blessings (not that I have ever seen it). The sages went on to say, if Rabbi Yosei was saying, “I will go and join the Cohanim and I will say the Priestly Blessings,” that’s another story. A non-Cohen may join the Cohanim to say the Priestly Blessings. But, the sages said, if there is no Cohen, a non-Cohen may not recite the Priestly Blessings by himself in the Amidah.
The Talmud is clear. Rabbi Yosei says, “If my friends tell me to join the Cohanim to duchen, I will do it.” I wonder what kind of friends would tell a non-Cohen to duchen. Conversely, Rabbi Yosei contrived an extreme example to show his loyalty to his friends, with no halachic violation. As my mother would say, “If your best friend told you to jump off the George Washington Bridge, would you do it?”