Question: May a kohen walk in front of another person who is in the middle of Sh’moneh Esrei in order to hide his shoes before performing Birkas Kohanim?
Short Answer: While it is important for a kohen to hide his shoes from plain sight when he recites Birkas Kohanim, he should not pass in front of a person reciting Sh’moneh Esrei in order to do so.
I. Hiding Shoes
The Mishnah B’rurah (128:15) writes that the kohanim should “hide” their shoes when they remove their shoes before Birkas Kohanim. This should be done out of respect for the shul and/or for the other people in shul. In other words, it is proper for the kohanim to place their shoes under the bench or table before performing Birkas Kohanim as opposed to leaving them out in the open in plain view.
The sefer Meir Oz (p. 817) suggests that nowadays the kohanim are not careful with this halachah because our shoes are cleaner than in previous generations. Since there is less dirt on our shoes nowadays, it is not disrespectful for the shoes to be visible to all when the kohanim perform Birkas Kohanim.
Regardless, ideally, the shoes should be hidden from sight. Indeed, Rav Y.Y. Neuwirth (the author of Sh’miras Shabbos K’Hilchasah) was once informed (see HaMaor Journal, Tishrei-Cheshvan 5774, p. 108) that kohanim are not careful in this practice of hiding shoes. Rav Neuwirth remarked, “Oy, publish a letter in the newspaper in my name that kohanim should be careful about this halachah!”
II. Walking in Front of Others
The Gemara (B’rachos 27a) states that it is forbidden to walk in front of a person who is in the middle of Sh’moneh Esrei. This halachah is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 102:4). The Mishnah B’rurah (15) explains that it is prohibited to walk in front of such a person because it (i) will disturb his concentration; and (ii) it is improper to walk in between a person and the Sh’chinah (Divine presence).
But what about if the only place that a kohen can place his shoes entails the kohen walking in front of a person davening Sh’moneh Esrei? Should the kohen ignore the prohibition of walking in front of him and nevertheless hide the shoes? Or, should the kohen ignore the requirement to hide his shoes in order to refrain from walking in front of the person davening Sh’moneh Esrei?
III. Which Takes Precedence?
The Mishnas Yosef (5:27:2) explains that the halachah of hiding shoes is simply a “midas chasidus,” a noble thing to do. While the Kaf HaChayim (128:30) expounds on the importance of this custom and treating the shul with proper respect, nevertheless, if the shoes are left in the open, it is not too degrading for the shul. Indeed, when most kohanim hide their shoes, the fact that one kohen is unable to do so does not create a bizayon for the shul or community.
Thus, the Mishnas Yosef rules that the kohen should not walk in front of a person davening Sh’moneh Esrei in order to hide his shoes. Moreover, while there is a dispute in the Mishnah B’rurah (102:17) whether you may walk past the sides of a person davening Sh’moneh Esrei, the Mishnas Yosef rules that a kohen should be scrupulous in this area, as well. Because the Zohar is strict about walking past the sides of someone davening Sh’moneh Esrei, it is preferable that the kohen adhere to this stringency rather than hide his shoes.
The ruling is likewise followed by many contemporary poskim, including Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (Gam Ani Odecha, Vol. 2, siman 47), and Meir Oz (ibid).
Next Week’s Topic: May a kohen perform Birkas Kohanim by standing in the place where his father normally stands during Birkas Kohanim?