President Washing Priests' Hands

Is the president of the country allowed to wash the hands of the priests?

The Chief Rabbi Prof. Neria Guttel addresses in his halakhic article published in the new book "Tachumin" by the Tzomet Institute the question of whether President of the State, Yitzhak Herzog, who is a Levi, is allowed to waive his honor and wash the hands of the priests during prayer.

(Photo: Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

In a new article in the latest volume of 'Tachumin', published by the Tzomet Institute, Rabbi Prof. Neria Guttel, Head of the Research Department at the "Torah and State Center" and former President of Orot Israel College, publishes a halakhic (Jewish law) article that deals with the question of whether the President of the State, who is a Levi, is permitted to wash the hands of the Kohanim (priests).

The article explores the question of whether the President of the State is permitted to wash the hands of the Kohanim or, like the king, he is not allowed to waive his honor. Additionally, Rabbi Guttel mentions that this is a practical question since President Isaac Herzog attends prayers at the synagogue.

In the article, Rabbi Prof. Guttel specifies the halakhic sources regarding the washing of the hands of the Kohanim by the Levi'im and mentions the main approaches to this matter. He also addresses the question of what the law is when the Levi is a Torah scholar or holds an important position: "It is well-known in halakhic literature that the Levi'im pour water on the hands of the Kohanim before they ascend the altar," writes Rabbi Prof. Guttel. "This is ruled in the Shulchan Aruch, and it is also a widespread custom among the majority of communities in Israel. At the same time, it is well-known that we must be extremely careful to preserve the honor of the King of Israel."

And from here, it is evident that the laws governing the President of the State of Israel are not exactly the same as those governing a king in all matters. Nevertheless, many poskim have established that it is appropriate to treat the President with respect, following at least "similar" honor practices that apply to a king of Israel. Now that we have already had Levite Presidents - like the sixth President, Mr. Chaim [Levi] Herzog, and his son, the eleventh President, Mr. Yitzhak [Halevi] Herzog - it is proper to consider the question of whether these esteemed Levite individuals should pour water over the Kohanim's hands.

Rabbi Gutel notes that for three consecutive generations, this question has been relevant to the Herzog family: "When Mr. Chaim Herzog was appointed as the sixth president of the State of Israel, he turned to the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, with the question of how to act in the matter of washing the hands of the priests by a Levite who serves as honorably as possible. Rabbi Eliyahu sought to clarify how his father, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac [Halevi] Herzog, had acted in this matter, as he had undoubtedly struggled with the issue and eventually did what he did, and therefore, there is no sage like an experienced one." The clarification revealed that the custom of Rabbi Herzog was as follows: "When he prayed with a minyan in his home, he used to wash the hands of the priests, but when he prayed at the 'Yeshurun' synagogue, he did not do so out of respect for the Torah." Rabbi Eliyahu thus concluded: "I told the president to act as his father did." A similar instruction was given to him by Rabbi Avraham Shapira. Indeed, this was the custom of President Chaim Herzog: when he stayed in the presidential residence in Jerusalem and prayed there, he refrained from washing the hands of the priests. In contrast, when he was at his private home in Herzliya, he did wash the hands of the priests. Nowadays, this custom has also been adopted by his son, the eleventh president, Mr. Yitzhak Herzog. Since his inauguration as president, he does not wash the hands of the priests in Jerusalem, while in Tel Aviv, he does perform the washing.

In summary, Rabbi Gutel writes: "Ashkenazim and Sephardim have the custom that Levites pour water over the priests' hands before they raise their hands during the priestly blessing. The source of this custom is not found in early halakhic literature but in Kabbalistic writings: the Zohar and the Zohar Chadash. Halakhic authorities have differing opinions regarding whether a learned Levite should pour water over an unlearned priests' hands.

Some authorities completely reject this practice, while others appreciate the different considerations taken into account – such as the specific location, individuals involved, and the number of priests and Levites present – leaving the decision to the Levite based on the circumstances. There is documented evidence that prominent Levites, whether in their rabbinical or leadership roles, have sometimes adhered to this practice and other times refrained from it, based on the considerations of time and place. This custom was followed by prominent figures like Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, and his son, President Chaim Herzog, as well as his grandson, President Yitzhak Herzog.

The full article will be published as mentioned in 'Techumin.' These days, Volume 43 of the 'Techumin' series by the Zomet Institute is being released, aiming to serve as a platform for innovative Torah-halakhic studies, accommodating Orthodox research and investigations into issues related to the Jewish state and the implications arising from the intersection of Jewish life with progress and technology."

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