May 26, 2003 -Number 13
Reading the Torah: How to Have an Aliyah
For all too many Jews, the idea of being called to the Torah for an Aliyah fills them with terror and trepidation. But for centuries, having an Aliyah is one of the highest honors that a congregation can bestow on one of its members. It does not have to be a moment of rapid heartbeat and sweat. Rather, with a little preparation one can actually look forward to receiving this honor.
All one really needs to know is the Torah Blessings. Most Jews learn this at their Bar Mitzvah but for some it may have been a while since they last recited it. The Torah Blessings can be found in almost every siddur and usually are also transliterated for the Hebrew Challenged. There is a special melody for these blessings (one recited at the beginning of the Aliyah and one recited at the end) but it is permitted to just read them without the melody. The only Hebrew one is required to recite during an Aliyah are these blessings. In almost every congregation in the world, a copy of these blessings can be found next to the Torah on the Bima so it is not necessary to memorize the blessings, only to be familiar with them. In the United States, there is also a transliteration of the blessings on the Bima as well.
The other piece of information needed in advance is one’s Hebrew Name. A complete Hebrew name consists of your own name and the name of your parents. For example, the Name “Hiyyim Yaakov” is not enough. The full name should be “Hiyyim Yaakov ben Avraham V’Sara” If one is a Cohen or Levy, that is a descendant of one of those ancient tribes, than that title is also added to the name. These title as passed down from Father to children. Mothers can not pass down their title but may still use it for their own names.
When given an Honor, one is given the number of that honor. Often the first two honors are reserved for a Cohen or Levy the others are only numbered. The number of Aliyot change with the service. Weekdays and Shabbat Afternoon three are called for an Aliyah. On Rosh Hodesh we call 4, on major Festivals, five are called and on Yom Kippur morning, six are called. On Shabbat there are seven Aliyot. The Maftir is an additional reading done on holidays and Shabbat. This takes a lot of planning and preparation and will be the subject of a future HMS installment.
When one is called for an Aliyah, one ascends the bima from the location closest to the table where the Torah is being read. The honoree takes his or her place at the side of the Torah reader. The Honoree gives the Torah reader (Called a Baal Koray, the Master Reader)his or her Hebrew Name and they are officially called up for the honor. Sometimes the gabbi who assigns the honors will ask for a Hebrew Name in advance so the Baal Koray can call the Honoree by name when they are first called from the floor. The Baal Koray will point to a spot in the Torah where the reading will begin. The Honoree takes his or her Tallit or the binder from the Torah and touch gently the spot indicated by the Baal Koray. Notice that we never touch the letters in the Torah with our hands lest they smudge or invalidate any letters since this will invalidate the entire Torah. After touching the Torah, we kiss the tallit where we touched it to the scroll. We then take hold of the lower two “handles” of the Torah, hold the scroll open on the table and recite the blessing before the reading of the Torah. The line recited by the congregation is repeated by the honoree and then continues with the rest of the blessing. The honoree then steps to the side to allow the Baal Koray to read from the scroll.
When the reading is finished (each honor must have at least three sentences to be valid, some are quite longer since we don’t like to break up a story in the text) the Baal Koray will point to the place where the reading ended. Once again we touch the spot with the tallit or Torah binding and then take hold of the lower “handles” we close the scroll (don’t roll it or the Baal Koray could lose his place!!) And then we recite the blessings for after the reading.
When the honor is over, we don’t want to quickly leave the bima. We stay at the table for the following honor (the gabbi at the table will show you where to stand or just look where the person ahead of you stood and then take his or her place) When the following honor is finished, we exit the bima from the side farthest from the Torah table and shake hands with the people on the bima and those who are in the congregation as we come off the bima. They will say “Yashir Koah!” meaning, you should always be strong. The correct reply is “Baruch Yiheyeh” meaning, there should be a blessing upon you. This is a reminder that we bring a part of the sanctity of the Torah down with us as we return to our seats. Others want to shake our hand so that a part of that holiness will rub off on them.
When in doubt as to what to do, a gabbi or just about anyone else on the bima can guide you. (The exception may be the person who had the honor before you, he or she could be just as lost as you) Don’t be afraid to ask.
Certain times are appropriate for having an Aliyah. One can be so honored on a birthday or anniversary, on a day that is special at home (baby naming, birth of a son, bar or bat Mitzvah, or a pending wedding) or to celebrate something from work. One has an Aliyah when setting out on a long journey or when one returns safely home. One also has an honor before difficult surgery and after the recovery or after any life threatening experience. (There is a special blessing for escaping danger). If any of these apply the Rabbi may come to your side and recite a special prayer of thanksgiving, the “Mi Shebayrach” There is also a prayer when one has an honor on the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the death of a close relative. Some congregations do not do these on Shabbat morning. One would come back for a Monday, Thursday or Saturday afternoon service for the special memorial prayer