The Mechaber (128:24, citing Sotah 38b) emphasizes the importance of the congregation facing the kohanim: “The people who are behind the kohanim are not included in their blessing. However, those who are to their side or facing them, even a divider of steel cannot cause a separation. And as far as those behind them, if this is due to circumstances beyond their control, e.g., they are engaged in their livelihood, then they, too, are surely included in the blessings of the kohanim.”
(The Tur (ad loc.) explains that “facing” as used by the Gemara also means people standing to the side facing the kohanim sideways. The Mechaber agrees.)
Both the Ba’er Heitev and the Mishnah Berurah (ad loc.) write that people who occupy seats along a shul’s eastern wall, and thus find themselves behind the kohanim for Birkat Kohanim, are included in the kohanim’s blessing. In a sense, they have no other option, and therefore are considered victims of circumstances beyond their control.
The Magen Avraham (ad loc. sk36) disagrees. He argues that these individuals can seek an empty seat or space that faces the kohanim.
The Bach seems to suggest that this is not possible – that each person owns a seat in shul and cannot walk over to someone else’s seat and evict its occupant. Possibly, the Bach would agree with the Magen Avraham in a shul that has a lot of open space. In that event, there would be no excuse for anyone not to seek out a space that faces the kohanim.
(To be continued)
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.