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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

Thoughts on Torah Honors

Over the years, I've seen many individuals, particularly guests in the synagogue for a special occasion such as a bar or bat mitzvah, who have been “honored” with aliyot or other Torah honors but, while appreciating the honor, glad to be thought of, find themselves somewhat bewildered as to what to say, where to stand, and what to do once they get up on the bimah. In some cases, this may be due to the variation in practices in different synagogues or for others it is a case of unfamiliarity with the ritual because of their infrequent attendance at the synagogue. For women who grew up in non-egalitarian congregations, even those well educated in Hebrew studies, may feel lost the first few times they take on these honors. As we at Temple B'nai Israel introduce our new traditional egalitarian service this week, I thought it might be a good time to talk about aliyot, Torah honors, the blessings we recite, and the proper procedure for accepting these honors.

The reading of the Torah on Shabbat and festivals is the high point of our worship service. For some of our sages, this recital from Scripture and its surrounding rituals is not just an opportunity to study the words of the Torah, but it Is seen as something more, as a re-enactment of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Some believe it is appropriate to stand at attention as the Torah is read in order to emphasize that we are joining Jews throughout the centuries in receiving the divine revelation given at Sinai. In earlier essays, I have written about the prayers for taking out the Torah scrolls and for returning them to the ark and the drama that they entail. Here we will focus on the reading itself and on those called to participate in this aspect of the service.

The rabbis set up a hierarchy in the number of readings for various occasion. On Shabbat as well as festivals coinciding with Shabbat, we call seven individuals to the Torah. On Yom Kippur, we call six. On other major festivals, five are called to the Torah. When Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, is observed during a weekday and also on Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days of Sukkot and Pesach, we call four to the Torah for aliyot. All other occasions including Chanukah and Purim and the various fast days, we have just three aliyot, the minimum. On Shabbat, it is permissible to add to the seven, but many congregations avoid doing this so as not to unduly lengthen the service. But sometimes there is just one more person who just needs to be called to the Torah. On Shabbat and festivals, when we also read a haftarah from the prophets, the last few verses of the Torah reading are repeated for an additional aliyah, the maftir, given to the person who will read the haftarah. If there is an occasion when we read from a second or even a third scroll, the last reading is designated as the maftir.

According to the Talmud, the first person called to the Torah, by rights should be the greatest Torah scholar in the community. However, already in Talmudic times, the rabbis decided, in order to keep the peace, mipnei darkhei shalom, to call the Kohen, a descendant of Aaron the priest, first even if he is not a scholar at all. The Kohen is followed by a Levi, a descendant of the tribe of Levi, the assistants to the Kohanim in Temple days. After that, all the others called are Israelites. If there is no Kohen, one may call either a Levi or an Israelite and the rest are Israelites. When there is a Kohen, but no Levi, the Kohen who also is in fact a descendant of Levi, remains at the Torah for the second aliyah. We do not call a different Kohen lest someone think there was something wrong with the first.

We may be familiar with the word “aliyah” since it is also used to refer to those who go up on pilgrimage to Israel and, in modern times, it refers to those who immigrate to the State of Israel on a more permanent basis. The word itself has the meaning of going up. I always had thought of it in the context of the synagogue as referring to those who go up onto the bimah for an honor at the Torah. However, Rabbi Judith Hauptman writes that even if one goes down for the Torah reading on a lower level, the word is appropriate for it actually means to count for a particular purpose. In the Talmud the expression is “Hakol olim l'minyan shivah” “Everyone counts for the number of seven (aliyot).”

The practice has changed a bit since Talmudic days. Originally all of those called to the Torah were expected to read the section to which they were called directly from the Torah scroll. The first person called would recite the opening blessing and then the others would follow without reciting any blessing. The final reader would conclude with the second blessing. The sages changed that practice in order that people coming and going during the reading would all hear both blessings. So every reader would precede their reading with the first blessing and concludes with the second. By medieval times, if not earlier, it became apparent that not everyone was comfortable reading from the Torah, so to avoid embarrassment, a reader was selected to read the entire portion and the individuals called for aliyot would just say the blessings before and after each section.

The reader is aided by two gabbaim who stand on either side of him or her and carefully follow the reading in a printed volume of the chumash in order to correct any errors in the reading. The Torah scroll has just the consonantal text without any vowels, cantillation marks, or punctuation, so the reader needs to review the portion in advance. The term “gabbai” means a collector and in some congregations, the gabbai's duties continue after Shabbat to collect donations to the synagogue from those who received honors. In some places, the donor's pledge is even stated in the blessing received following the aliyah. This practice is less common in most synagogues today, though it is still a nice gesture to make a donation to the synagogue or to another charitable cause after receiving a Torah honor. Our gabbaim nowadays are not expected to chase down donors after Shabbat to collect pledges. Their duties are limited to distributing honors and assisting the reader.

The blessing recited prior to each reading originally appears in the Talmud as a blessing to be said during the Birchot Hashachar, the introductory service, prior to beginning the study of Torah for the day. The Talmud does not give the text of the blessings for an aliyah, however. They first appear In the minor tractate of Soferim, a post-Talmudic work which is dated to the eighth century. In Soferim, a different version of the first blessing appears. There we find: “Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, hanotein Torah min ha-Shamayim, chayei olamim mimromim. Baruch ata Adonay, Notein haTorah.”' The beginning and ending are the same as what we are familiar with, Praising God, the Sovereign of the Universe. But the continuation is somewhat different, “who gives the Torah from heaven and eternal life from on high. Praised are You Lord, who gives the Torah.” By the next century, in the prayerbook of Rav Amram Gaon, though, we find the blessings as we are familiar with them today. The two blessings before and after the Torah reading are nearly identical except for the middle line. In the first blessing, we praise God, “asher bachar banu mikol ha-amim, who has chosen us from among all the nations, v'natan lanu et Torato, and who gave us His Torah” and we conclude, Baruch ata Adonay, notein haTorah, praised are You, Lord who gives the Torah or the Giver of the Torah.” The implication is that though the Torah was given once in time, it continues to reveal new insights in every generation, so that we feel it is a text that continues to give. The passage about choosing us from all nations we have encountered before and while some are uncomfortable with this idea of chosenness, that seems too chauvinistic, to me it speaks not of privilege so much as of responsibility. He has singled us out to give us the Torah and to expect that we will continue to study it and to live by its teachings and spread its message to all the other nations of the world.

The second blessing replaces the middle line with the words, “asher natan lanu Torat emet v'chayei olam nata b'tocheinu, who gave us a Torah of truth and planted within us eternal life.” Since the Torah is described as a tree of life, by giving us the Torah, God has planted within us the seeds of eternity. Since the blessings are so similar, it is easy to get confused and recite the second blessing first. However, don't worry. If you do that, the simple remedy is to recite the first blessing second. One way to keep them straight, if you know the order of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, bet comes before nun, so asher Bachar banu comes before asher Natan lanu.

So now, what do you do if the gabbai gives you an aliyah? In some congregations you may receive a card before the reading begins indicating which aliyah you will be called for. If there are no cards, you may just be told the number of the aliyah. The aliyot after the Kohen and Levi, are numbered Shelishi (3rd), Reviyi (4th), Chamishi (5th), Shishi (6th) and Sheviyi (7th). [While we are still taking precautions due to the Covid virus, we have been asking people to remain at their seats for their aliyot, but rise to recite the blessings.] Ordinarily, the gabbai begins the Torah reading by chanting an introductory passage from the prayerbook. He then calls the Kohen to the Torah by his Hebrew name and the name of his father (and mother, if he wishes). In many congregations today, a Bat Kohen, a woman whose father was a Kohen, may also be given this honor and the same applies to a Bat Levi. If there is no Kohen, the gabbai states, “Ein kan Kohen, there is no Kohen here, ya'amod so-and-so bimkom Kohen, arise so-and-so in place of the Kohen.” After the Kohen, he calls the Levi, and then the others in turn.

If the gabbai does not know your Hebrew name, you will be asked on being called to the Torah what your Hebrew name is and also what your father's name was. Many of us also add our mother's name as well. So, for example, the gabbai may say, “Ya'amod Shmuel Yosef ben Aharon Moshe v'Esther Leah reviyi, Arise Shmuel Yosef son of Aharon Moshe and Esther Leah for the fourth aliyah.” If your father was not Jewish, you can be called as the son of your mother alone. If you don't recall your parents' Hebrew names, we can call you up as a son of Abraham and Sarah, the parents of all Jews, or by your parents' English names. Since we usually use Abraham and Sarah for the parents of converts, some prefer to call born Jews up as the sons of Isaac and Rebecca instead. The same procedure is followed when we call a woman to the Torah, except we use bat, daughter of, instead of ben, son of.

When times are normal, the person called to the Torah is expected to proceed to the bimah immediately, by the shortest route, without stopping along the way. You will stand to the right of the reader who will point out with the yad (the pointer) where the next reading begins. You should take hold of both rollers of the Torah. The rollers are known as atzei chayim, trees of life, and by taking hold of them, you are symbolically fulfilling the verse, “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” Take the end of your tallit, the tzitzit, the fringes, or the belt of the Torah if you are not wearing a tallit, and touch them to the place the reader has shown you. Then touch the tallit or belt to your lips to kiss the Torah as a sign of devotion. Hold the Torah open, but look up or over to the side while you recite the blessings. No one should think that they are actually written into the Torah. If you do not know them by heart, there is a card next to the Torah with the text of the blessings in Hebrew and with an English transliteration as well. If you need the transliteration, just remember not to read the ch as in cheese, but as in challah.

Sephardic Jews begin by blessing the congregation using a verse from the book of Ruth that Boaz uses to greet his workers, “Adonay imachem” “May God be with you.” The congregation responds as did the workers, “Y'varech'cha Adonay.” “May God bless you.” That is not our practice, though it is a lovely custom. The oleh, the person called to the Torah, begins with the same words that introduce the Sh'ma and its blessings earlier in the service, “Barchu et Adonay hamevorach.” “Praise the Lord who is deserving of blessing.” The congregation then responds, “Baruch Adonay hamevorach l'olam va-ed.” “Praised be the Lord who is deserving of blessing for ever and ever.” The oleh also wants to praise God, so he or she should repeat after the congregation that same line, “Baruch Adonay hamevorach l'olam va-ed.”

He or she then immediately continues with the first blessing. If you know the tune, go ahead and sing it, otherwise, it is perfectly fine to read it: “Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher bachar banu mikol ha-amim v'natan lanu et Torato. Baruch ata Adonay, notein haTorah.” The congregation and the reader will answer “Amen.” The oleh continues to hold the right hand roller, but releases the left roller so the reader may grab hold of it. The reader will use the yad to point to the words he is reading and the oleh should follow along. Some make a point of reading along with the reader in an undertone if they are able.

When the reader finishes the section, he will point to the place where he stopped. Once again, using the same procedure, the oleh kisses the Torah and then taking both rollers, rolls it closed. He then chants or reads the second blessing, “Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher natan lanu Torat emet, v'chayei olam nata b'tocheinu. Baruch ata Adonay, notein haTorah.” The congregation answers “Amen.” The oleh moves over to the side to make room for the next person to be called. However, he does not yet return to his seat, but remains throughout the next reading, to indicate his reluctance to leave the Torah behind.

If the oleh has just recovered from serious illness or returned from an overseas trip or escaped a dangerous situation, he may wish to “bench gomel,” that is to thank God for delivering him from danger. This blessing appears in the siddur right after the blessing for the Torah. The oleh says “Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, hagomel l'chayavim tovot sheg'malani kol tuv. Blessed are You Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who does good for those who are unworthy and who has done good for me.” The congregation responds, “Mi sheg'malcha kol tuv, hu y'gemalcha kol tuv selah. May He who has done good for you continue to do good for you. Selah!”.

There may be a Mi Sheberach blessing recited in honor of the oleh immediately after the aliyah or in some congregations there is just a single Mi Sheberach for all the honorees at the very end of the Torah reading. Our Mi Sheberach prayers are usually very straightforward, just mentioning the individual who has come to the Torah. In other traditional shuls, however, your memory for your family's Hebrew names may be taxed as not only are you blessed, but also your spouse and your children and grandchildren and other relatives. Some get into the swing of things and add a blessing also for the rabbi and the cantor, for the gabbaim, the officers of the synagogue, and all its members as well. As mentioned, in those same shuls you may also be asked for a pledge and you can answer vaguely that you will give to tzedakah, to a charitable cause of your choosing, or you may give a number, generally a multiple of chai ($18). On special occasions, before a wedding, after the birth of a child, for a bar or bat mitzvah, on a birthday or anniversary or such, there are special versions of the Mi Sheberach prayer. There is also a Mi Sheberach that is said for those in need of healing. We usually say this as a separate prayer after the conclusion of the Torah reading.

After the next oleh finishes his aliyah, he will move to the right and you may now return to your seat. The return trip is usually the longest route back and, as you circle the congregation, you will receive congratulations from all those along the way.

Other honors at the Torah are the hagbahah, the raising of the Torah and the gelilah, the wrapping of the Torah. If you are asked to raise the Torah, feel free to refuse if you cannot lift that much weight. When you are called, you do not have any Hebrew to read, you simply come up to the reading stand and when given the go ahead, you take hold of the rollers of the Torah, open it to three columns, pull it out about halfway off the reading table and push down on the rollers as you bend your knees. Don't try to lift the Torah directly using your wrists, but use leverage and the strong muscles of your knees to raise it up. Hold the Torah straight up and turn in all directions so the congregation may all see the text of the Torah scroll. Proceed to the nearest chair and as you continue to balance the Torah, sit down and let the person who has gelilah take hold of the tops of the rollers. Together, roll the Torah closed, fitting the single disks on one roller between the double disks on the other roller. Continue to hold the Torah upright as the person with gelilah fastens the belt around the middle of the Torah with the buckle in front and puts the mantle over the tops of the rollers, making sure that the embroidered part is in front on the side on which you're sitting. At this point, you might support the Torah better by putting an arm around it as any ornaments (if there are any) are put in place. Someone will take the Torah from you and place it in the stand and you may return to your seat. Generally, one of the gabbaim will assist the person with gelilah in properly dressing the Torah.

When we think of the Torah service as a re-creation of the revelation at Sinai, getting an aliyah can be a highly spiritual moment. Each time we are called to the Torah, we should feel as if we are personally receiving a portion of the divine teaching and sharing it with the entire congregation. When we come up for an aliyah, we truly are counted among the people of Israel, we are standing at the foot of Sinai with all those who have come before and we are accepting our portion in God's most precious gift to us.


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