Today’s daf (Yoma 37a) quotes a teaching of Rebbi who draws a beautiful lesson from a Torah verse.
In his stirring words of Parshat Ha’azinu, Moshe told the Jewish people: כִּי שֵׁם ה’ אֶקְרָא הָבוּ גֹדֶל לֵאלֹהֵינוּ – “when I call the Name of God, ascribe greatness to our God” (Devarim 32:3) – which, interestingly, is the biblical source for the brachot we recite before learning Torah (see Brachot 21a). However, Rebbi derives a further lesson from this verse that whenever we hear the Name of God, we should ‘ascribe greatness’ to it – by invoking a bracha. Thus, when the Jewish people heard the Kohen Gadol pronounce the Name of God on Yom Kippur, they all responded by saying: ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד (see Mishna Yoma 3:8, 35b).
Beyond this, we also learn from here that whenever we hear a ‘regular’ bracha, we should also ‘ascribe greatness’ to it which is why, when the Name of God is used in a bracha, we respond with the words ברוך הוא וברוך שמו (see Rosh, whose ruling is then codified in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 124:5).
However, there is a fascinating difference of practice in terms of the application of this principle to the Birkat Kohanim (the priestly brachot) which are recited daily in Israel, and in the diaspora either weekly (by most Sefardim) or on the Chagim (by Ashkenazim).
As we know, the three statements recited by Kohanim are found in Bemidbar 6:24-26, and each statement includes the Name of God. However, though we refer to these as brachot, they are not – strictly speaking – structured as regular brachot. Given this, when the Name of God is uttered by the Kohanim in their Birkat Kohanim, should the congregation respond with ברוך הוא וברוך שמו?
According to various poskim (eg. Shayarei Knesset HaGedolah, Birkei Yosef, Pri Megadim), the actual rule as learnt from Rebbi in our daf is to ‘ascribe greatness’ whenever God’s Name is mentioned, from which it may be derived that one should certainly respond to hearing the Name of God in the Birkat Kohanim with ברוך הוא וברוך שמו. Significantly, this is the practice of many Sefardim as codified by both the Ben Ish Chai (Tetzaveh 15) and the Kaf HaChaim (OC 128:87).
Contrasting this, the prevalent custom in almost every Ashkenazic community is not to say ברוך הוא וברוך שמו in response to the Name of God in the Birkat Kohanim (for sources on this, see Piskei Teshuvot OC 128 footnote 199), either given the assertion that this rule only applies to ‘regular’ brachot, or given the concern of it being considered an interruption (see V’Aleihu Lo Yibol Vol. 1 p. 91). Still, to avoid distracting the Kohanim, those that do say ברוך הוא וברוך שמו are encouraged to do so quietly.
What we learn from here is that while God is great, our task is to acknowledge the greatness of God, and thus whenever we learn the word of God (Torah) or hear the Name of God (Brachot), we should ‘ascribe greatness’ to God.