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What is so special about the aliyahs?

What is so special about the aliyahs?

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Question:

At a synagogue I recently attended, I noticed people bidding for the right to be called to the Torah, or as they called it, getting an aliyah. What is so special about an aliyah? Are some more sought after than others?

Response:

Let's divide your question into two parts:

What is so special about an aliyah?

In all Jewish communities, it is considered a great merit and honor to be called to recite the blessings at the Torah. It is referred to as an aliyah, which means "ascent," referring not just to the climb to the platform upon which the Torah is read, but also to the spiritual elevation which comes along with this opportunity.

The Zohar1 tells us, "G‑d looked in the Torah and created the world; when a human looks in the Torah, and toils in it, he sustains the world." Even the very gazing at the letters in the Torah scroll—especially when this is preceded and followed by the special aliyah blessings—sustains and vitalizes the world.2

Furthermore, when one has an aliyah to the Torah, all parts of one's soul, including those which are in the spiritual realms beyond this world, experience an elevation at that moment.3 For the above reasons, people vie for this privilege.4

Which aliyah is the most coveted?

The first two aliyot are reserved for a Kohen and a Levi, respectively (if they are present). The remaining aliyot are given to everyone else. It follows, according to the Talmud,5 that when it comes to aliyot, the rule is "the earlier the better." Therefore, in many communities, Shlishi, the third aliyah—the first one available to the public—is the most popular.

This preference, however, is not universal. The Zohar relates that Rabbi Kruspedai would always have the sixth aliyah.6

In Shaar Hakavanot, a book of Lurianic Kabbalah, there is a lengthy explanation for this. In simple words, the seven aliyot represent the seven emotional Sefirot (divine attributes), and their corresponding attributes in the human soul. The sixth Sefirah is Yesod, which acts as a funnel through which all the previous Sefirot are channeled. Since all the special revelations of the Shabbat are being channeled through—and are fully manifest in—Yesod, to which the sixth aliyah corresponds, Rabbi Kruspedai preferred this aliyah.7

Accordingly, in many Chassidic synagogues, the sixth aliyah is reserved for the Rebbe or the Rabbi.

On Shabbat and certain other special days, after the reading of the Torah portion has been completed, we have an additional aliyah, called Maftir. The one who is called to the Torah for Maftir, during which the final verses of the Torah portion are repeated,8 also reads the Haftarah, a portion from the Prophets which expresses a message similar to that of the day's Torah reading.

The Maftir was commonly viewed as the least desired aliyah, since it is the only aliyah which may be accorded, under certain circumstances, to a boy under the age of bar mitzvah.9 However, many great scholars and saints preferred this aliyah in particular. One reason is that the Maftir includes a reading from both the Torah and the Prophets. Another is that the one who reads the Haftarah recites several additional blessings which the others do not.10

I hope this answers your questions. If you would like further explanation, feel free to ask.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson

Footnotes
1.

Vol. 2, p. 161b.

2.

Maamar V'chol Banayich 5729.

3.

Sefer Hasichos 5702, p. 75.

4.

This also explains why the auctioning of the aliyot is not considered out of place for a synagogue, and is even encouraged. (It is mostly popular during the High Holidays.) Bidding for an aliyah expresses our appreciation and yearning for spirituality, like the prayers themselves. Please see Why is bidding allowed on Shabbat? for more on this.

5.

Gittin 59b, 60a.

6.

Vol. 3 p. 164b. This preference is also mentioned in the writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Arizal (1534-1572).

7.

See Sha'ar Hakavanot, Derushei Krias Sefer Torah, II.

8.

There are occasions, such as the holidays and fast days, when the Torah reading for Maftir is not a repetition of previously read verses.

9.

Talmud, Megilah 24a.

10.

Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 147:11.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Joel Weiner Chicago December 30, 2012

A couple more questions 1. You state at the beginning "it is considered a great merit and honor to be called to recite the blessings at the Torah," implying the Aliyah is the reciting of the blessings and something separate from reading the actual verses. Doesn't Aliyah refer to BOTH the blessings and the Torah reading as well? My understanding was that Aliyah more referred to the reading, and that the blessings were referred to as Aliyah blessings? Is there a strict interpretation here of what Aliyah means?
2. Is there a connection with Aliyah as emigrating to Israel, or is it just the same word given different meaning by two different contexts?
Thanks very much! Reply

Shalom Benaron New Haven December 10, 2009

Re: Natalie For every Aliyah, at least three verses must be read. The appropriate dividing of the Aliyahs for any given reading are marked in your standard prayer book or Chumash (Bible). The only time it may be necessary to divide the Aliyahs on your own would be in the last Aliyah on Shabbat mornings, which some communities break into a few parts, if necessary to accommodate more than 8 people who need Aliyot that day. Reply

Natalie sheffler Roamoke, Virginhia December 10, 2009

aliyah How many verses must be read in Torah in order to have an Aliyah Reply

Ariel Weber New Jersey November 6, 2008

The sixth Aliya of Shaharit and the 3rd of Minha Hacham Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, the Ben Ish Hai, a very well know Mizrahi kabbalist and posek, said that the Arizal would always try to take the sixth aliya during Shaharit of Shabbat, as it represents yesod, and would also endeavor to get the 3rd aliya of Minha on Shabbat, as it represents da'at. He then said the reason for this is that da'at greatly helps to achieve the tiqun of yesod. Reply

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