Question: I have seen that some customarily wish the Kohanim “Chazak U’Baruch” after they conclude Birkat Kohanim. Is this custom correct according to Halacha?
Answer: This is indeed the custom among many Jews, both in Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, in order to show gratitude to the Kohanim for blessing us lovingly and acting as conduits to bestow Hashem’s blessings upon us. The Sefer Mateh Efraim (Chapter 592) writes that this also serves to show support to those who perform a Mitzvah, similar to saying “Yasher Ko’ach” (“Chazak U’Baruch” for Sephardic Jews) to the Chazzan and Shofar blower on Rosh Hashanah.
Maharam Mintz (end of Chapter 85) writes that the reason we wish “Yasher Ko’ach” to the Chazzan is in order to encourage him to conclude other Mitzvot as well.
Nevertheless, regarding Kohanim, some treat this custom lightly, for Kohanim are obligated to bless the Jewish nation and if they abstain from doing so, they transgress three positive Torah commandments. If so, why is there any reason to bless the Kohanim by saying “Chazak U’Baruch”?
However, the above claim is incorrect, for even when one does something required of him, if he has done good to someone else, it is appropriate to show one’s appreciation to him. This applies even to mundane matter as well, such as regarding a taxi driver, a cashier at the supermarket, and the like, in that it is a Mitzvah to be kind and show one’s appreciation to them for their service.
The great Rishon Le’Zion, Hagaon Rabbeinu Yitzchak Yosef Shlit”a writes (in his Yalkut Yosef- Chapter 128) that the claim that Kohanim are obligated to bless the Jewish nation is incorrect, for if the Kohen wishes, he may leave the sanctuary and thus would not be obligated to recite Birkat Kohanim at all. Thus, even if it turns out that the Kohen became obligated to bless the congregation, this was only the result of his good will to begin with for having shown up and remaining in the synagogue.
Thus, wishing the Kohanim “Yasher Ko’ach” or “Chazak U’Baruch” following Birkat Kohanim is indeed a fine custom. One should always take care to realize the good that others do for him and thank them for it.
We remember that there was a non-Jewish housekeeper who used to work in Maran zt”l’s home doing cleaning, ironing, and the like and every morning when Maran zt”l entered the kitchen to eat breakfast, and the housekeeper would pass by, he would wish her a good morning. Similarly, during the times that Maran zt”l had a security detail, Maran would always ask about the guards’ welfare and treat them with respect and with a show of gratitude for the service they provided him. Let us all learn from his behavior and emulate it.