In this week’s parsha, we are introduced to the unique mitzvah of the kohanim – their ability to be the instrument through which the people of Israel will be blessed.
It is such a unique kind of mitzvah that, with some exceptions, even a kohen who is a known sinner may still bless the people. It is his status as a kohen that carries the day, and pushes aside the choices he may make in his life. This ruling is so clearly in the kohen's favor that the Shulchan Arukh in Orach Chaim 128:2 suggests that a kohen who opts out from blessing the people, shirking his responsibility at the moment the kohanim are called, is considered in violation of three positive commandments.
In Laws of Prayer and Raising the Palms Chapter 15, Maimonides lists six qualities that would render a kohen unfit to bless the people. The following is a summary of the disqualifying qualities – with exceptions to these rules - as presented in Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh.
Reading and Diction: if he cannot recite the words properly, if he confuses letters (alef and ayin, shin and sin), or if he has a 'heavy tongue' that prevents words from coming out.
A 'Baal Mum': who has a blemish, either temporary or permanent. If he has a deformity in his face, hands or feet, or if spittle drips from his mouth when he talks. A person who is blind in one eye may bless the people, though the Shulchan Arukh disagrees. A person afflicted with the blindness or spittle issues may bless the people in his own city, when everyone knows him and is comfortable with his nonstandard qualities. At a time when he has a broken limb, he should not bless the people.
A Sinner: If he killed someone or worshiped idolatry. The Rama (128:35) allows a kohen who killed someone by accident, a car-crash for example, to bless the people again after he has done teshuvah. The Mishnah Brurah also allows teshuvah to let a non-accidental murderer bless the people again. [I don't believe killing someone in war counts as a disqualifier.]
The Shulchan Arukh adds that if he has married a divorcee he may not bless the people, even if he divorces her or she dies, until he makes a vow not to associate in an intimate way with the women a kohen is forbidden to marry.
A kohen who is otherwise not careful about observance, one who violates the Sabbath for example, may bless the people. Mishnah Brurah 128:146 reminds us that just because he is a sinner does not mean we have the right to take away a mitzvah that is uniquely for him. Every person can use all the mitzvot they can get, and a sinning kohen certainly can use every mitzvah given to him.
Age: Some say he needs to have facial hair, but the Shulchan Arukh says (128:34) if he is bar mitzvah, it is as if he has facial hair. A minor may participate to learn the ropes, as long as there are others present who are over the age of 13.
Wine: One who has consumed a "r'viis" (between 3 and 5 ounces) of wine in one shot, or more than a r'viis of wine, may only bless the people after the effect of the wine has passed. Higher percentages of alcohol drinks would apply as well. If the r'viis was consumed in two shots, or if the wine was diluted, he may bless the people.
Tumah: If he did not wash his hands, he may not bless the people. Shulchan Arukh adds that if he became tameh to a person who is not one of his seven close relatives: mother, father, wife, sister, brother, son, daughter, he may not bless the people.
The law states in Sotah 38a, that the blessing must be in Hebrew. Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen asks, why is this so? The answer lies in the last words of the blessing "And he shall place for you Shalom." Shalom contains within it all kinds of important connotations, feelings, thoughts, and ideas. As it cannot be adequately translated from Hebrew, it must be stated in Hebrew.
May we always find a way to be accepting of the kohanim who come to bless us, who fit the qualifications as described here. May kohanim merit to live their lives in such a manner that the congregation will be pleased to be blessed by them. May they also work on the qualities they can control (tumah, pronunciation, wine, etc) such that they will always be ready to fulfill their mitzvah.
Hopefully, as a result, we can all be blessed with the blessing we can all benefit from: the blessing of Shalom.