On Shavuot, we celebrate revelation of Torah by reading the Aseret Ha-d’varim, the initial decalogue with which the formal communication of civil, criminal, ritual, and ethical law was given to Moses. Torah reading forms the core of any Shabbat service. A typical service contains both prayer – a time for us to speak to God; and Torah reading, which we might imagine is a time when God is speaking to us. The Religious life committee has been discussing two issues within the Torah service related to the way we distribute the honor of being called to the Torah for an aliyah to recite the blessings before and after the reading.
The first change that the Religious Life committee has made is to the way we manage aliyot during a family simha such as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or an Aufruf. Our custom at Ahavas Israel has been that when a family is celebrating a significant event, the family is given the privilege of distributing all of the Torah honors. This occasionally creates situations in which other congregation members are unable to get an aliyah.
We need to keep in mind that Torah reading is a congregational obligation (in the sense that we read torah publicly only in the presence of a minyan), and as such its function is to bring us together as a congregation. When distributing aliyot, halakha has a hierarchy of entitlements to aliyot, known as hiyyuvim, such as a child celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, a bride and groom on the Shabbat before his wedding, parents on the shabbat following the birth of a child, a person who as experienced a life threatening illness or surgery or a potentially dangerous journey, or a person with a yahrtzeit in the coming week. The aliyot give the community a chance to recognize life passages.
Therefore, the Religious Life committee has decided that families celebrating a simha who wish to distribute aliyot themselves will permitted to take six of the seven aliyot (as well as maftir) to give to whomever they wish. In addition, they will be given the option of distributing all of the Ark openings and closings, selected English and Hebrew readings, and all of the Torah readings.
The Religious Life committee will keep one aliyah for congregational use, to be offered to a person who has a halakhic privilege to take an aliyah, such as someone observing a Yahrtzeit or who has recovered from an illness. If no one from the congregation requires an aliyot, the ushers will do their best to give the aliyah to someone connected with the family celebrating the simha. For a fuller explanation of the policy, see AhavasIsraelGR.org under “Religious Life.”
The second Religious Life committee change has to do with the first two aliyot, the Kohen and Levi aliyot. When the Kohenim and Levi’im lost the privileges due to them by virtue of their Temple service, the Rabbis compensated them by given them the first two aliyot whenever the Torah was read. This was a rabbinic enactment, not a Torah privilege, given to them out of a sense of darchei shalom, “the paths of peace,” in order to preserve their honor in the community. Many congregations have moved away from this custom. Since darchei shalom is a sociological norm (in other words, it only applies when the kohanim would feel insulted by not being recognized), it changes with time and circumstances. In certain congregations and situations the limitations and restrictions created by maintaining the kohen, levi, yisrael procedure, rather than maintaining darchei shalom, tend to interfere with them. Where a Rabbi feels that a congregation or service would better be served by calling people up to the Torah as rishon, sheni, shlishi, it is entirely permissible to do so. Our religious life committee made a decision a number of years ago that giving the first two aliyot to Kohen and Levi was entirely optional. They have now reconsidered. The new policy returns us to a more traditional practice of reserving the first aliyah for a Kohen and the second aliyah for a Levi. If a Kohen or Levi are not present, that aliyah may be given to anyone. Additionally, if a family is distributing aliyot themselves for a family simha and they do not have a Kohen/Levi that they had planned to honor with an aliyah, they may give the first two aliyot to anyone they choose, regardless of Kohen/Levi status.
Both of these new policies will begin July 1 at the beginning of the new Ahavas Israel programming and fiscal year.