Aliyah

Being Called up to the Torah.

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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah is called an aliyah (plural, aliyot), which means "going up." This refers both to the physical ascent of the person to the bimah where the Torah is read and to the spiritual uplifting associated with participation in this hallowed ritual.

The number of aliyot varies widely (Meg. 4:1-2). Three people are called to the Torah on Monday and Thursday mornings, on Sabbath afternoons, during the mincha service on Yom Kippur, on the festivals of Hanukkah and Purim, and on all fast days.

Among the reasons offered for this ruling are the three classes of Jews (Kohanim, Levites, Israelites) that must be represented; the threefold division of the Bible (Torah, Prophets, Writings); and the threefold Priestly Blessing, the first of which contains three Hebrew words (Meg. 21b). On Monday and Thursday mornings, when congregants have to go to work, calling up more than three people would overly lengthen the service. If there were more than three aliyot at Mincha on Saturday afternoon, the service would not be completed before dark (Rashi, Meg. 21a).

Each aliyah must consist of a minimum of three verses (Meg. 4:4), and a public Torah reading must have a minimum of 10 verses (Meg. 21b)--a practice traditionally related to the number of commandments in the Decalogue. The only exceptions to this practice are the reading for Purim morning (Exod. 17:8-16) and the weekday reading for the section of Vayelekh (Deut. 31:1-9), when a total of nine verses are read.

Number of Aliyot

There are four aliyot on Rosh Hodesh and on the intermediate days (hol hamoed) of Passover and Sukkot; five on Rosh Hashanah and on the festival days of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot; six on the morning of Yom Kippur; and seven on Sabbath morning.

On Sabbath mornings, some congregations take advantage of a provision in Jewish law that permits dividing the Torah portion into more (but not less) than the required number of aliyot (Meg.23a). This is not permitted on Mondays or Thursdays or when Rosh Hodesh, Hanukkah, and fast days fall during the midweek, lest it waste the time of people who must go to work (bittul melakhah).

These extra aliyot (hosafot) allow one or more additional persons to have the honor of being called up to the Torah. Other congregations reject this practice because it lengthens the service, insisting on limiting the number to the prescribed seven aliyot.

Logistics of an Aliyah

There are two traditions concerning the proper way to approach the bimah when called for an aliyah. One custom is to ascend on the right and descend from the left, in accordance with the practice of approaching the altar in the Temple (Zev. 63a-b). In addition, the entrance to the Temple Mount was from the right (Mid. 2:2). The other tradition is to ascend to the bimah by the shortest route and descend by the longest, thus demonstrating that one is eager to be called for an aliyah and reluctant to leave. According to the Shulhan Arukh, if it is necessary to choose between these two traditions, one should take the shorter route, even if this requires going up from the left (Orakh Hayim 141:7).

It is a dishonor to the Torah to leave the bimah immediately after reciting the final blessing that aliyotconcludes the aliyah. Among Ashkenazim, it is customary to remain until the entire subsequent Torah portion has been read and the final blessing recited. In the Spanish and Portuguese tradition, one waits only until the person honored with the next aliyah has recited the first Torah blessing, returning to one's seat while the Torah is being read.

In Ashkenazic synagogues, other worshipers typically congratulate the person returning from having an aliyah with the Yiddish phrase "Yasher koach" (Hebrew: Yishar koach; "May you grow in strength" or "May your strength be directed in the right path"). This custom may reflect the belief in talmudic times that intense study of the Torah, symbolized by the Torah reading, "weakens the strength of man" (Sanhedrin 26b).

Among Sephardim, the expression used is "Hazak uvaruch"  (Be strong and be blessed) or "Baruch tihiyeh" (May you be blessed), to which the person returning from having an aliyah responds "Hazak ve-ematz"(Be strong and of good courage).

Sephardic women, primarily those from Syria, Iran, and Iraq, make an ululating sound after the Torah honoree (especially a bar mitzvah or bridegroom) has concluded the final blessing or has left the bimah to take his seat. This practice is thought to avert the evil designs of malevolent spirits determined to cast a pall on all joyous events, similar to the original rationale for breaking a glass at the end of the wedding ceremony.

Traditionally, two people are not called up for the same aliyah. Jewish law requires that congregants hear every word of the Torah reading distinctly, which is difficult if two persons chant the portion simultaneously. This ruling was extended to prohibit two people from being called up to the Torah together, even if only to recite the blessings, since worshipers unable to hear the words clearly would not be permitted to respond "amen."

In some Conservative and Reform congregations, two or more people are frequently called up for the same aliyah, especially when there is a bar or bat mitzvah. They may either recite the blessings in unison or have one person recite the blessing before the Torah reading and the other the blessing after it.

Traditionally, two blood relatives may not be called consecutively to the Torah, either because of fear that the evil eye will cast a spell upon a family receiving too many blessings or because Jewish law forbids near relatives from testifying together--and those pronouncing the Torah blessings are effectively giving testimony to the truth of the sacred text. However, it is permitted to have one read the seventh aliyah and the other the maftir portion.

Allocation

The Talmud notes that the precise system for allocating aliyot developed "for the sake of preserving peace in the congregation" (Git. 5:8). The privilege of the first aliyah is given to a Kohen. These members of the priestly caste and descendants of Aaron were to be shown honor and deference because they were consecrated to God and offered the sacrifices to the Lord (Lev. 21:8).

The second person to be called to the Torah is a Levite, a descendant of the family that also played a major role in the Temple service. The remaining aliyot are distributed among the rest of the congregation, who are classified as "Israelites." Nevertheless, a Kohen or Levite may be called for the seventh aliyah on the Sabbath or for maftir, which is given to the person who reads the haftarah (Git. 60a).

If there is no Kohen, a Levite has the next priority. If there is no Levite, an Israelite is called first. In either of these cases, an announcement is made that the individual is being awarded the aliyah "in place of the Kohen" (bimkom Kohen). If there is no Levite, the Kohen who received the first aliyah is awarded the second one as well.

Reform and some liberal Conservative synagogues have abolished the distinction between Kohen, Levite, and Israelite, both because it is difficult to be certain of the lineage of any Jew (though a genetic characteristic of Kohanim has been reported) and because of a belief in equality for all their members. On the Sabbath the third and sixth aliyot are particularly esteemed, and it is customary to give them to learned individuals or to the person who sponsors the refreshments after services.

It is an even greater honor to receive the final aliyah for each of the five books of the Torah. This is based on the midrashic phrase, "the last [one] is most beloved" (Gen. R. 78:8), which relates to Genesis 33:2, in which Jacob, fearing a conflict with his brother, Esau, placed his adored Rachel and her son Joseph in the safest position at the rear. Other especially honored aliyot are Shirat ha-Yam (Song at the Sea; Exod. 15:1-21) and the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:2-14; Deut. 5:6-18), for which the congregation stands while the Torah is being read.

According to an old tradition, those commemorating specific events in their lives are given precedence in receiving the honor of being called to the Torah. Because of the limited number of aliyot available, it has become necessary to develop guidelines concerning those who should receive them. In this way, the potential for bias among synagogue leaders is eliminated, resentment among worshippers is reduced and dissension is avoided.

In general, priority in the distribution of the third aliyah onward is as follows:

1. A groom or bride on the Sabbath before his/her wedding.

2. A boy who has turned 13 years of age (bar mitzvah), or a girl who had turned 12 or 13 years of age (bat mitzvah).

3. The father or mother of a newborn infant, male or female, on the first Sabbath after the baby is born.

4. A groom or bride on the Sabbath after his/her wedding.

5. The father or mother of a baby girl who is to be named.

6. One observing yahrzeit for a parent on that day.

7. The father or mother of a baby to be circumcised on that day or during the coming week.

8. One observing yahrzeit for a parent during the coming week.

9. One required to recite the blessing of gomel.

10. One who is about to leave on a long journey or has just returned from one.

11. A distinguished guest in the community.

When two or more people are observing the same occasion, priority is generally given to a regular worshiper over one who comes infrequently and to a member of the congregation over a non-member. Some congregations try to provide aliyot for those who are or will be observing yahrzeit for someone other than a parent, often in the format of a "group" aliyah.

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Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.