Originally published in the Masorti Journal, no. 2
One often hears arguments about which of the aliyot confers greater privilege. According to the Talmud (Gittin 59a-b), there was so much contention over the aliyot in ancient times, members of the congregations vying with one another to be called up first, that rules were laid down ‘for the sake of peace’ (mipnei darkhei shalom). Judging by what has happened in synagogal life since then, the rules were not always successful in preventing quarrels; occasionally, indeed, the rules themselves became a source of contention.
People have often protested that it is absurd to quarrel over such petty matters, but the other side of the coin is that something more than pettiness may be involved. If Jews have to quarrel, it can be argued, let it be over the right to be called up to the Torah, even though the self-seeking motive is rarely absent.
Nevertheless, it is good that in the majority of present-day congregations too much controversy is avoided by adherence to the rules. These are the rules as stated in the talmudic passage.
A Kohen is called up first, a Levi second, an Israelite third. The point here is that the first and second aliyot, as the beginning of the reading, are the choicest and these are, therefore, given not to people with claims of personal worth but of ‘aristocratic’ birth. No one will say: ‘Why is he so worthy to be given the highest honour?’, since it is not he as a person that is being given the honour. Evidently, in this earlier period there was little contention over the fourth to the seventh aliyot since once the reading had commenced with the two ‘best’ there was no special significance to one over the others. Yet soon problems arose even here.
We learn (Gittin 59b-60a) that the Galileans sent an enquiry to R. Helbo (third century): ‘Who is to be called up after the Kohen and Levi?’ R. Helbo did not know (!) so he asked R. Johanan who gave the order as: Kohen, Levi, a parnas (the term for a leader of the community), a scholar who is qualified to be a communal leader (i.e. even though he was not one in fact), after that the son of a parnas, after that a head of the synagogue, and then members of the general public. This statement obviously reflects social conditions in Eretz Yisrael in the third century, and the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayim 136: 1) adapts it slightly so as to conform to practice in the sixteenth century: ‘On the Sabbaths, festivals and Yom Kippur, after the Levi, there are those qualified to be communal leaders (Isserles’ gloss explains the qualification as the ability to render decisions in every branch of Jewish law!) and after them the sons of scholars, after them the heads of synagogues and after them the general public’. This, too, reflects a situation in which only distinguished scholars were chosen to be leaders of the community.
Later on the custom became widespread of buying the aliyot, i.e. paying for the privilege – the money going to the upkeep of the synagogue or to charity. Thus the 17th-century commentator to the Shulhan Arukh, Abraham Gumbiner (Magen Avaraham ad loc.) states: ‘In places where the aliyot are sold one can call up whoever one wishes, provided no one is insulted by being given less than the honour that is his due’. We can imagine how hard it must have been to decide whether everyone was being treated in the manner he felt was his due.
Eventually, however, it became the custom to leave it all entirely to the discretion of the gabbaim (the wardens of the synagogue). A list of hiyuvim (those entitled to be called up) was drawn up. As recorded in the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh of Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried (78: 11), these are the hiyuvim: 1) a bridegroom on the Sabbath before the wedding; 2) a bar mitzvah (these two have equal entitlement); 3) a father who names his baby girl in the synagogue; 4) the father of a baby boy who has already been named at the brit; 5) one who has yahrzeit (for a parent). Rabbi Ganzfried adds, a guest to the synagogue. And nowadays aliyot are given to people celebrating some special event, a wedding anniversary or a seventieth birthday and the like. This causes extra headaches to the gabbaim who, in addition, have to try to satisfy the claims of non-hiyuvim to be called up occasionally at least. The custom has consequently developed of adding to the seven aliyot. While this may be unavoidable at times, it is not generally to be encouraged because of tirha de-tzibura (‘bothering the congregation’), i.e. unduly prolonging the service. The Jewish teachers usually had concern that the service should not be boring and time-consuming.
Is there any specially ‘choice’ aliyah? There is a reference to this in the Shulhan Arukh but not as we might have expected, in the section on reading the Torah, but in that on the laws of mourning (Yoreh Deah 400: 1). The principle is that a mourner during the shiva should not be called up, but if he is given a particular aliyah on all other Sabbaths, he should be called up for that aliyah even during the shiva; otherwise it would amount to public mourning, forbidden on the Sabbath. The Shulhan Arukh therefore states that Rabbenu Tam, Rashi’s famous grandson, insisted on being called up for the third aliyah (shelishi) even during his shiva since he always received that aliyah. On the basis of this, in some communities the town rabbi was always given shelishi and, in any event, this aliyah came to be considered the choicest. However, in the responsa collection of R. Simeon b. Zemah Duran (1361-1444) of Algiers, a different version is given (Tashbetz, vol. 11, no. 76) according to which Rabbenu Tam was always given not shelishi but revi’i, the fourth aliyah. Unless this is a copyist’s error, the preference for revi’i is probably because this is the first of the additional aliyot on the Sabbath (the shelishi aliyah is given on weekdays as well).
Duran also records that Asher b. Yehiel, the famed rabbi of Toledo in the 14th century, known as the Rosh, insisted on being given the fifth aliyah (hamishi). A curious reason is given. Many people were reluctant to be called up for hamishi because the number five has no ‘partner’, i.e. 1 + 9 = 10; 2 + 8 = 10; 3 + 7 = 10; 4 + 6 = 10, but five can only go into ten by adding another five. In order to demonstrate the folly of such superstition, the Rosh insisted on being called up to hamishi and in some communities it then became a status symbol to be called for the ‘Rosh’s aliyah’.
Among the Hasidim, the rebbe is usually given the sixth aliyah (shishi). There is a kabbalistic reason for this preference. The ten Sefirot, the powers in the Godhead, according to the kabbalah, are divided into three higher and seven lower. The sixth one of the lower Sefirot is called Zaddik and this is the name given to the rebbe. Hence, since each aliyah corresponds to one of the Sefirot, the Zaddik aliyah is given to the zaddik on earth, that is, the rebbe. There are also references to the final aliyah being especially choice in that with this one the reading is concluded.
Nowadays, when it is normally the practice of people to read the Haftarah themselves, it has come to be considered a special honour to be called up for Maftir.
So, all having been said, while the traditional rules and their elaboration should not be ignored by the gabbaim, ultimately it must be left to their discretion and their ability to please all the members of the congregation. Forlorn hope!