The Hierarchy of Holiness

The sages outline the number of aliyot for the Torah reading based on the uniqueness of the day on which the Torah is read:

  • The basic Torah reading has three aliyot, which are to be given to the Kohen, the Levi and the Yisrael. Thus, on a regular Monday and Thursday (as well as Minchah on Shabbat, which was a later enactment of Ezra the Scribe), there are three aliyot so as not to overly burden the congregation, since people are going to work.
  • On Rosh Chodesh and Chol Hamoed, which are a step holier in the sense that the musaf offering was brought in the Temple on these days, we add an aliyah, and four people are called to the Torah.
  • On festivals such as Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and Rosh Hashanah, which are considered holier in the sense that most work is forbidden (except for some carrying and food prep), we have five aliyot.
  • On Yom Kippur, all types of work are forbidden (just like Shabbat), and we have six aliyot.
  • On Shabbat, when the sanctity of the day is so intense that one who deliberately violates it is committing a capital offense, there are seven aliyot.1

The Priestly Blessing

In the Talmud,2 we find two opinions regarding what the number of aliyot corresponds to.

One tradition associates the three aliyot on regular weekdays, five on festivals and seven on Shabbat with the words of the Priestly Blessing, which has three words in the first verse, five in the second and seven in the third.3

“Officers of Royalty”

Another reason given in the Talmud4 is that we want to bestow royal honor to the Torah. Thus, the number of aliyot corresponds to the number of royal attendants mentioned in Scripture. At different times and different kings there were different amounts; thus, three on a weekday corresponds to “the three guards of the door,”5 five on festivals corresponds to the “five officers who saw the king’s face”6 (i.e., those close to the king who are with him constantly), and seven on Shabbat corresponds to “the seven officers who saw the king’s face.”7

Missed a Day of Synagogue

The daily prayer service contains the barechu call to prayer that is also in the blessing said before each aliyah. Thus, hearing and responding to barechu seven times on Shabbat can provide a measure of catch-up for someone who missed during the seven days of the week.8

Seven Divine Attributes

The Kabbalists explain that the seven aliyot correspond to the seven sefirot (chesed—kindness, gevurah—severity, tiferet—harmony, netzach—perseverance, hod—humility, yesod—foundation, malchut—royalty), which are revealed on Shabbat.9

Seven Divine Sounds

We find the words “sound” or “voice” seven times regarding the Giving of the Torah, both in the section of the giving of the first10 set of Tablets, as well as in the section in Deuteronomy discussing the giving of the second set of Tablets.11 Thus, the Midrash12 relates that the Torah was given through seven “sounds” or “voices.” These seven sounds correspond to the seven mystical facets of the Torah (which are further divided into seventy).

Corresponding to these seven voices, we have seven aliyot on Shabbat.13

A Portion for Every day

There is an old custom, which was strongly encouraged by the sixth Rebbe,14 to learn a part of the weekly Torah portion with Rashi every day (as part of the daily Chitas learning cycle), i.e., on Sunday, the first aliyah, on Monday, the second, etc. We know that everything, especially as it is connected to Torah, is by Divine Providence. Thus, it seems to me that the fact that there is one portion to learn for each day of the week is in itself a reason for the seven aliyot.

The World to Come

Some explain that Yom Kippur, which scripture refers to as a “Shabbat,” has six aliyot since it comes to atone for what we have done in this world, which came into being during the six days of the week.

However, on Shabbat there shines a glimmer of the World to Come, which is called “a day that is completely Shabbat,”15 reflected in the seven aliyot read on that day.16

May it be speedily in our days!