Being Called up to the Torah.

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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.