What is Involved in an Aliyah?
As the curtain in front of the holy ark in the synagogue is opened, the liturgy for the public Torah reading begins with a verse taken from Parshat Beha’alotekha: “When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: ‘Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered and Your foes flee before You’ (Numbers 10:35).” Upon the return of the Torah scroll to the ark and before the curtain is closed, the next verse is recited: “And when it halted, he would say: ‘Return, O Lord, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands’ (10:36).” The week of Parshat Beha’alotekha, then, is an appropriate time to explore halakhic and historical issues pertaining to the Torah reading that takes place in the synagogue.
By rabbinic enactment, the Torah is read in the synagogue on Mondays, Thursdays, Sabbath mornings and afternoons, New Moons, major and minor festivals, and fast days. On each occasion, there is a mandate regarding the specific number of people who must read a Pentateuchal passage. For example, on Sabbath morning there are seven Aliyot. Each oleh (Aliyah recipient) would, during older times, personally read his assigned Scriptural portion, while only the first and last readers would recite the opening and closing blessings, respectively (Mishnah Megillah 4:2). During the Amoraic period, a change was enacted: Each oleh recites both the opening and closing blessings. The change was made so that people who disrespectfully walk in and out during the Torah reading should not be under the mistaken impression that no blessings are recited in connection with the public reading (Megillah 21b).
During the medieval period the custom in Ashkenazi communities evolved so that instead of each oleh’s reading his own Aliyah, a professional reader appointed by the congregation would read the entire parashah. Rabbenu Tam speculated that the reason for this change was to spare under-educated Jews the embarrassment of non-participation in the synagogue service (Tosfot Baba Bathra 15a). He compared the communal Torah reading to the Scriptural reading associated with the First Fruits. When an Israelite farmer brings his basket of Bikkurim to the Temple, he must recite the paragraph beginning with “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5-9). Those who could recite the text from memory would do so. Those who could not were fed the words by a Temple functionary. Some farmers who were ashamed to accept assistance simply stopped coming to the Temple. In response, the Temple authorities decreed that everyone who brings Bikkurim, regardless of his education level, would be given assistance (Mishnah Bikkurim 3:7).
Tosfot noted that the presence of two people, the oleh and the professional reader, standing on the podium and both reading from the Torah scroll, could run afoul of halakhah. The Talmud expressly forbids the practice of simultaneous readers (Megillah 21b), as two voices cannot be distinguished from each other, leaving the listener with an unintelligible cacophony of sound (Rashi). Isaac of Dampierre suggested that the law bans only a reading done by two equally loud voices, whereas the synagogue practice is merely for one of the two men to whisper assistance to the primary reader. Tosfot claimed support for the presence of two people’s standing at the podium during the Torah reading from a passage in the Yerushalmi requiring the public reading to mimic the Sinaitic Theophany. Just as the Revelation was accomplished through an intermediary, Moses, so too should be the synagogue reading be effected through an intermediary, the professional reader (see Yerushalmi Megillah 74d).
Rosh rejected Rabbenu Tam’s theory about why the protocol for Aliyot changed. He noted that the farmer is personally obligated to bring Bikkurim and that failure to do so is sinful. In contrast, no individual in the congregation is personally obligated to accept an Aliyah. Those capable of reading should accept Aliyot, while the others should be motivated by the shame of their non-involvement to advance their Hebraic education to a level that will allow their participation. Instead, suggested Rosh, the reason for instituting a professional Torah reader was that some congregants who lacked the ability to read Torah with grammatical accuracy and proper melody nonetheless would insist upon reading. These “go-getters,” who were competent only in their own minds, would bitterly complain if refused Aliyot. To avoid controversy, the professional reader was appointed (Rosh Megillah 3:1).
But despite the appointment of the professional reader, Rosh claimed, the oleh must still read his Scriptural portion in an undertone. For the oleh to merely recite the blessings, and remain entirely passive during the actual reading, would render his utterances “blessings recited in vain,” ברכה לבטלה. At a minimum, the oleh must be competent enough to identify the letters on the parchment and roughly sound out the words (Shu”t Ha-Rosh 3:12). Rosh marshaled proof for his strict ruling from a passage in the Tosefta. If a synagogue has only one person available to read Torah, that person should ascend the Bimah, read, sit down, and then repeat the sequence for all seven Aliyot (Tosefta Megillah 3:12). Rosh noted that the public reading necessarily means the presence of ten men. The fact that none of the other men was available to receive an Aliyah means that thoroughly illiterate individuals cannot be called for an Aliyah. Rather, the oleh must have at least a modicum of competence. Isaac bar Sheshet Perfet agreed with Rosh and ruled that the Aliyah of an illiterate person is halakhically invalid, cannot be reckoned among the required seven Aliyot, and renders the oleh guilty of taking God’s name in vain (Shu”t Rivash 204).
Abudarham (14th century Spain) cited a Midrashic passage to prove that someone who is unfamiliar with the Scriptural reading should not accept an Aliyah. Rabbi Akiba once declined the offer of an Aliyah. His disciples incredulously wondered why he declined that honor. Akiba explained that he had not prepared the reading by reviewing it three times (Tanhuma Yitro 15). Abudarham extrapolated from the story that, if the great Akiba declined an Aliyah on the grounds of unpreparedness, all the more so should people be refused Aliyot if they cannot correctly read even one word. Based upon Gaonic precedent, in exigent circumstances Abudarham permitted someone to receive an Aliyah so long as he could repeat (one word at a time) what he heard from the precentor. Tur, similarly, required the oleh minimally to be able to repeat what had just been chanted (Orach Chaim 141).
Other authorities were much less demanding of the oleh. Abraham ben Isaac of Narbonne (12th century) permitted a blind man to receive an Aliyah on the occasion of his upcoming nuptials (Sefer Ha-Eshkol). Alexander Suslin (14th century Germany) permitted a blind kohen to be called for the first Aliyah rather than having the sexton announce the absence of kohanim. He dismissed the halakhic concerns about “blessings recited in vain” (Sefer Ha-Agudah Perek Ha-Chovel).
Joseph Karo cited a Kabbalistic passage indicating that the public Torah reading must be chanted by one voice and that if it is chanted by two voices it diminishes the believability of Revelation (Zohar Vayakhel 194b). Karo acknowledges that earlier authorities had insisted that the oleh read along with the professional reader lest his blessings be in vain, yet Karo asserted that because such halakhic concerns are not rooted in the Talmud they ought not to carry as much weight as an explicit Zoharic passage. Moreover, he justified the oleh’s silence on the basis of the Talmudic dictum שומע כעונה, “listening is the equivalent of reciting.” Yet even Karo concluded that it is necessary for the oleh to read his Pentateuchal portion in an inaudible undertone (Bet Yosef Orach Chaim 141).
Several decisors, including the Taz, cited the principle of שומע כעונה to justify conferring Aliyot upon people incapable of personally reading the text. The later authorities found this line of reasoning flawed. A person can satisfy his or her liturgical obligation by listening to another person’s recitation. One could even recite the blessings over the reading of the Megillah and then fulfill the mitzvah vicariously by listening to another’s reading. But since the oleh had no personal obligation to accept the Aliyah, its associated blessings cannot be justifiably rendered unless the oleh personally fulfills the mitzvah of reading Torah. Otherwise, he is no different from any of the other congregants sitting in the pews; these latter individuals certainly have no reason to render the Torah blessings (Bi”ur Halakhah 141).
In the Shulchan Arukh, Karo ruled that the oleh must read his portion in an undertone (Orach Chaim 141:2), and that a blind man may not receive an Aliyah because it is forbidden to read even one word of Torah from memory (139:3). Moses Isserles dissented, citing Maharil, who permitted Aliyot for blind people. Isserles noted that, consistent with Maharil’s ruling, Ashkenazim permit Aliyot for illiterates, too. Interestingly, in his commentary on the Tur, Isserles rejected Maharil’s ruling (Darkei Moshe 135:4). Yet in his glosses on the Shulchan Arukh he quoted it. Likely he did so simply because, whether he liked it or not, the prevailing Ashkenazi practice was to be lenient (Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 139:6).
The question of Aliyot for undereducated Jews dated back to Geonic times. The authorities debated whether a Kohen Am Ha-Aretz should be given the first Aliyah in the presence of an illustrious Torah scholar who was a Yisrael. Rav Natronai Gaon ruled in favor of the unlettered Kohen lest snubbing him disrupt communal peace (Teshuvot Natronai Gaon Orach Chaim 41). Karo codified that ruling with the caveat that the Kohen can read. Isserles, following Saadiah Gaon and Abudarham, modified the ruling to permit an Aliyah for the ignoramus who can at least repeat the words he heard from the Torah reader (Orach Chaim 135:4).
The discussion, thorough the end of the sixteenth century, was mostly of a technical halakhic nature. That changed dramatically with a responsum written by Benjamin Aaron ben Abraham Salnik (1550-1620). Salnik went blind later in life. He was personally aggrieved by Karo’s unequivocal ruling that a blind man may not receive an Aliyah. He felt that he had been chased away from the Divine heritage, the Torah of truth, and eternal life. While acknowledging that his emotions might skew his research, Salnik did his best to present both sides of the question. One of his best arguments in favor of leniency is that the Temple authorities allowed women to perform the rite of leaning (semikhah) on their sacrifices, despite its being required only for men, so as to afford the women spiritual satisfaction. By the same token, Salnik argued, the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of blind people should be important enough to the doctors of halakhah such that they would rule that it was permissible for handicapped people to receive Aliyot (Shu”t Maseit Binyamin 62).
An important consideration militating against Aliyot for blind people is the notion that the Written Torah and Oral Torah must remain, respectively, written and oral. Accordingly, it is forbidden to write down components of the Oral Law and it is forbidden to recite from memory passages from the Bible (Gittin 60b). The blind man might execute a flawless recitation. But it would necessarily be from memory and not from viewing the words on the parchment. A counter-argument would be that since the Oral Law has, as a matter of fact, been set down in writing (in the Mishnah and the Gemara), the rule governing the non-orality of the Written Torah might also be treated less rigorously.
Over the past few centuries, the Ashkenazi custom has been extraordinarily lenient. Mishnah Berurah notes that blind people and illiterates are regularly given Aliyot. Although theoretically the oleh should be questioned whether he can, at minimum, repeat the words of the professional reader, in practice no such test is ever administered. The only occasions when the reading ability of the oleh are taken into consideration are on Parshat Zachor and Parshat Parah, since those readings are considered Torah requirements (Mishnah Berurah 135:4 and 139:3).
Maseit Binyamin was ahead of his time in thinking that the ability to receive an Aliyah is a litmus test for how welcome one feels in the tent of Judaism. In the past two generations, halakhic decisors have had to address the propriety of giving Aliyot to non-observant Jews. While there are arguments in favor of an exclusionary policy, both Rabbis Moses Feinstein and Ovadiah Yosef issued lenient rulings. An important consideration was not to alienate the masses from traditional Jewish life. Synagogue leaders and functionaries must keep this in mind as they adopt their local policies. In the words of Hillel: “Love peace, pursue peace, love the people, and bring them close to Torah (Avot 1:12).”