Jewish Law

What’s the Truth about . . . Giving a Levi the First Aliyah?


Misconception: If there is no Kohen, it is preferable to give the first aliyah to a Levi.

Fact: Most authorities rule that it is equally acceptable to call upon a Levi or Yisrael in place of a Kohen, while some prefer to give it to a Yisrael.

Background: The Torah is read publicly on Shabbat morning and afternoon, Monday and Thursday mornings, the mornings of major and minor holidays and fast days and on the afternoons of fast days (Mishnah Megillah 4:1-2).1 The minimum number of aliyot is three. On Rosh Chodesh and Chol Hamoed, four people are called up; on yom tov five; on Yom Kippur six and on Shabbat seven.2 On Shabbat, additional aliyot may be added (SA, OC 282:1),3 although the number should stay within reason.4

Concerned that the order of aliyot could lead to dissension, Chazal established a standardized sequence for aliyot whereby the first aliyah is always given to a Kohen, the second to a Levi and all subsequent aliyot to Yisraelim (Mishnah Gittin 5:8; SA, OC 135:3). Assuming there are sufficient Yisraelim in shul, the current Ashkenazic practice is to not give a Kohen or Levi any of the later aliyot except for Maftir, or, if additional aliyot are added on Shabbat, the very last one known as “achron” (MB 135:24, 36-37).5 Sepharadic practice is to give a Kohen or Levi subsequent aliyot as well (SA, OC 135:10; Yalkut Yosef 135:31).

The first aliyah is given to honor the Kohen in fulfillment of the verse, “You must strive to keep him [the Kohen] holy [v’kidashto], since he presents the bread offering to God” (Vayikra 21:8). The verse is explained (Gittin 59b) to mean that the Kohen should be honored with speaking first, making a berachah first, bentching first and being given a preferred portion (SA, OC 201:2). There are four ways to understand Chazal’s interpretation of the verse:6 Some view the obligations as Biblical in nature; others see them as rabbinic obligations with the verse being an asmachta; others rule that in the time of the Temple the obligations were Biblical while today they are rabbinic and finally, some say that the Biblical obligations only apply to the Kohen Gadol but the rabbis extended them to all Kohanim. The Rambam (Klei Hamikdash 4:1; Sefer Hamitzvot 32) rules that “all Jews should treat him [the Kohen] with great honor; they [the Kohanim] should be first in all matters of kedushah, should speak first, bless first and take the good portion first.”

The honor due a Kohen seems to be linked to his unique status of being eligible to perform the sacrificial rites in the Beit Hamikdash. Therefore, a Kohen who defiled his status by violating a Kohen-related law (such as marrying a divorcee) would not be honored with the first aliyah even if he is the only Kohen present. He may, however, be called up for an aliyah as an ordinary Yisrael.7 Regarding a Kohen who trained to be a doctor, which inevitably led to his becoming tamei, there are various opinions.8,9 Whether or not a Kohen who is a ba’al mum (has a physical blemish that would disqualify him from working in the Temple) must be accorded honor and receive the first aliyah is the subject of debate as well.10

Status of a Scholar
A Kohen cannot voluntarily forgo the honor of receiving the first aliyah, nor can he be forced to relinquish it. Chazal do not seem to ascribe a special status to a talmid chacham in the hierarchy of aliyot. The Rambam appears to be troubled by this. He writes in his commentary (Gittin 5:8) that “it is widespread that the Kohen gets the first aliyah even if there is a [greater] talmid chacham [present], but this is something with no foundation in the Torah at all and is not mentioned in the Talmud, and I do not know where this stain came from.”11 Nevertheless, he accepts the practice of giving a Kohen the first aliyah even if he is an am ha’aretz and even in the presence of a talmid chacham (Hilchot Tefillah 12:18). That is how the Shulchan Aruch (135:4) rules and the commentators (e.g., Taz) explain that such is the intention of the Talmud when it discusses how to honor a Kohen (Gittin 59b). Even if a much greater talmid chacham is present, the Kohen cannot be bypassed (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 23:9; MB 201:13; MB 135:9; Chayei Adam 31:17-18), certainly not on Shabbat and yom tov, and preferably not on Mondays and Thursdays either (Tur, OC 135).12

In addition to giving a Kohen the first aliyah, there is a requirement, even in the absence of the Beit Hamikdash, to give preference to a Kohen in other areas. Nonetheless, he may forgo the honor due him (Rema 128:45) and, for example, permit someone else to lead bentching.13 It is sometimes preferable to honor a talmid chacham over a Kohen in areas other than aliyot, unless the Kohen is also a talmid chacham, even of a lesser stature (Rema, OC 167:14; MB 201:12; Shach, YD 246:14).

If there is a need for additional aliyot, such as at a brit, 14 the Kohen may step out of the shul, thereby allowing Yisraelim to get the first two aliyot. If he refuses to do so (or if there are exactly ten men), a Yisrael may be called up and the gabbai should say “Ya’amod ploni af al pi sheyaish kan Kohen” (Kaf Hachaim 135:14; Yabia Omer 6; OC 23; c.f. Iggerot Moshe 2; OC 34). The precedent for this is an oft-cited story in which the Maharik relates that in his time (fifteenth century), the custom in many shuls in France and Germany was to auction off the first aliyah in Bereishit. Large sums of money would thus be raised, serving to honor the Torah as well as to fund many communal needs. If a non-Kohen bought it, Kohanim would leave the shul. One time, a Kohen refused to leave and demanded to be given the aliyah. The Maharik ruled that the custom was acceptable, and the obstinate Kohen could be ignored (c.f. Beit Yosef, OC 135; Peri Chadash 135:3; MA 135:7).

In the Absence of a Levi
If a Kohen is present but there is no Levi, the same Kohen who received the first aliyah (not another Kohen) gets called up again to receive the second aliyah (SA, OC 135:8).15 If the Kohen who got the first aliyah mistakenly thinks there is no Levi and starts to recite the berachah for the second aliyah, he must continue with the aliyah (SA, OC 135:7).

In the Absence of a Kohen
A topic of major debate among halachic authorities is what to do if there is no Kohen. In the gemara (Gittin 59b), Abaye states that in the absence of a Kohen, “nitparda chavilah, the bundle has come apart,” i.e., the normal sequence of Kohen, Levi, Yisrael does not apply. There are three interpretations of Abaye’s statement. Rashi (Gittin 59b, s.v. “nitparda”), in his first explanation, explains that the Levi’s kedushah derives from his service to the Kohen, and in the absence of a Kohen, the Levi has no special status.16 Based on this, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 135:6) rules that in the absence of a Kohen, a Yisrael should be called for the first and for all subsequent aliyot. According to this view, in the absence of a Kohen, a Levi may not be called for the first aliyah,17 lest people erroneously conclude that he is a Kohen or that it is a Torah obligation to honor him over a Yisrael. He should not be called for subsequent aliyot because although there is no obligation to give him precedence with regard to aliyot, he does have a certain kedushah. It would, therefore, lower his status to be called after a Yisrael (AH, OC 135:11; Bach 135), and it may cause latecomers to erroneously think that the first person was a Kohen (Mishnah Berurah 135:23).

The second explanation, found in Rashi and quoted by the Rema (135:6), is that once there is no Kohen, there is no specific order for aliyot (AH, OC 135:12). According to this view, in the absence of a Kohen, the first aliyah may either go to a Levi or a Yisrael. Preferably it should be offered to the greatest talmid chacham present, whether a Levi or a Yisrael (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 23:9).

The third explanation is that the Levi does take precedence (OC 135:12).18 While the first aliyah should go to the greatest talmid chacham present, if a Levi and Yisrael are of equal status, the Levi takes precedence. Note that no one suggests that in the absence of a Kohen the first aliyah must go to a Levi, irrespective of his status as a talmid chacham.

Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl rules that “ein kapeida, there is no preference.” 19 Whether a Levi or Yisrael is called up in place of the Kohen, the gabbai must state that he is receiving the aliyahbimkom Kohen, in place of a Kohen” (MB 66:26).

Rav Eliyahu Bechor Chazzan in Neveh Shalom (5a-b, #3-4) testifies that when he was chief rabbi of Alexandria (1888-1908), the custom was to give a Levi preference for the first aliyah when there was no Kohen present. He cites other authorities who also acted accordingly. The Bach (OC 135) suggests that because of the halachic debate, it is preferable not to call a Levi for the first aliyah. 20

The Kaf Hachaim (135:40) includes a list of authorities who prohibit calling a Levi for the first aliyah when there is no Kohen and suggests following this position unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as if the Levi is a chatan. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC 3:19) rules that the halachah follows the Rema, who says that if there is no Kohen, one may call either a Levi or a Yisrael for the first aliyah.

A fascinating incident occurred in 1664 in Germany, as recorded by Rav Yair Chaim Bacharach.21 One Friday evening, a member of the community died, and because the roof of the home containing the body was connected to the shul roof, Kohanim could not enter the shul that Shabbat. The town rabbi, Rav Moshe Shimshon Bacharach, instructed that seven Yisraelim be called up; he did not want to give a Levi the first aliyah. Although it was pointed out to him that the Shulchan Aruch and many others permit giving a Levi the first aliyah, he refused to do so, and insisted that Yisraelim get all the aliyot. Subsequently, he clarified that if a Levi has a chiyuv or is more learned than everyone else present, he may receive the first aliyah.

If a Yisrael is called up in place of a Kohen, then a Levi may not be called immediately after him (OC 135:6; Kaf Hachaim 135:40). However, some say he may get the fourth or even the third aliyah (Yabia Omer 6; OC 24). If a Levi is called up instead of a Kohen, the gabbai should say “Af al pi shehu Levi” (Yabia Omer 6:24).

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, a Levi, would often refuse the first aliyah when there was no Kohen present, despite being the greatest talmid chacham present (Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Nefesh HaRav [1994], 130; Rabbi Aharon Ziegler, “Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik,” Jewish Press, April 7, 2000). He felt that it was improper to ignore the opinion of Rashi that once the “bundle is separated,” the Levi should not receive the first aliyah. The Levi’s honor derives solely from his service to the Kohen. Thus, in the absence of a Kohen, he lacks special standing.

Unfortunately, while the halachic authorities clarified who should receive the first two aliyot, they did not resolve how to handle subsequent aliyot, which can lead to disputes (AH, OC 136:2). There are various categories of individuals who are regarded as “chiyuvim,” i.e., those obligated to receive an aliyah, such as grooms, new fathers, bar mitzvah boys and those observing yahrtzeits. Local custom dictates which chiyuvim take precedence (e.g., MA 282; Biur Halachah 136; AH, OC 136:3; Ben Ish Chai, Year 2, Toldot: 7 and Sefer Hagabai, ch. 22, p. 173-176). The Rambam (Letters [5732 ed.], p. 150) describes what he calls “an almost inescapable disease of the soul” in which people have an inflated self-image, which can lead to conflict. By determining the order of the aliyot, Chazal strove to preserve harmony and avoid machloket, since no aliyah is worth fighting over and “deracheha darchei noam v’chol netivoteha shalom, Her [the Torah] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Mishlei 3:17).22

1. The establishment of these readings is attributed to both Moshe and Ezra (Bava Kama 82a; Yerushalmi Megillah 4:1; Rambam’s Hilchot Tefillah 12:1; AH, OC 135:1; MA, OC 135: introduction).

2. On days with a Haftarah and four or fewer aliyot, the last oleh reads the Haftarah. On days with five or more, an additional person is called up for the “extra” Maftir aliyah and he reads the Haftarah. Thus on Shabbat there is really a minimum of eight people receiving aliyot.

3. The mishnah (Megillah 4:2) implies that aliyot may be added on yom tov and Yom Kippur, and that is how the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 12:16) and the Tur (OC 282, see Beit Yosef 282, s.v. “u’motzi’in”) rule.

4. Be’er Haiteiv 282:3; MB 282:5.

5. The Mishnah Berurah (135:37) cites an opinion that one can repeat the sequence, i.e., Kohen, Levi, Yisrael and then again Kohen, Levi, Yisrael.

6. See Rav Efrayim Fischel Weinberger, Yad Efrayim (Tel Aviv, 5736), 17:19, p. 176 for a summary and sources.

7. SA, OC 128:40-41; MA128:57; Iggerot Moshe, OC 2:33.

8. Former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger (Miyam Hahalachah 2:49) cites the Shvut Yaakov 2:2 on this topic. In that responsum, Rav Yaakov Reischer (eighteenth century) discusses whether to give the first aliyah to a Kohen whose son has apostatized and rules that the father is not held responsible for his son’s actions. He says nothing about a Kohen doctor.

9. The Melamed L’ho’il (Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, d. 1921, 1:31) writes that if after being informed of his error the Kohen does not repent, he should not be given the first aliyah. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (Shu”t Orach Mishpat, #29, cited in Sefer Hagabai, p. 182, n. 10) says that if he is otherwise religiously observant he should be judged favorably and leniently based on minority opinions. But he should be told to be careful about corpse tumah in the future.

10. See Minchat Chinuch #269; Aruch Hashulchan 128:72 and Avnei Chaifetz by Rabbi Aaron Lewin, p. 71.

11. In a responsum, the Rambam (no. 135; Blau ed. 1986 [vol. 1, p. 255], was critical of talmidei chachamim who permitted someone of lesser stature to receive an aliyah instead of them. A similar position is stated in Shu”t Rivash 204.

12. See Shu”t Ketav Sofer 36 about a Kohen forgoing his honor for the sake of the congregation.

13. The non-Kohen must receive explicit permission from the Kohen; it is not enough to say by rote “b’reshut . . .” (MA 167:33). Other factors may also play a role in who leads bentching. Kaf Hachaim suggests (184:42) that it is preferable that the person have a pleasant voice, and the Magen Avraham (193:104) suggests that he have a loud voice.

14. Although note that a resident with a chiyuv takes precedence over a guest (see Biur Halachah, OC 136). Regarding a Kohen forgoing the first aliyah on a Monday or Thursday in favor of a ba’al simchah, see Iggerot Moshe 2:34 and Yabia Omer 6:23:3.

15. Note that Shoel U’Maishiv (Mahadura Shtita’a 26) thinks that this arrangement is not ideal and that in the absence of a Levi it is preferable to give two Yisraelim the aliyot. On whether to actually do this, see Iggerot Moshe, OC 3:20.

16. Sefer Hachinuch 269 implies that it is because of the mitzvah to honor a Kohen that the Levi gets the second aliyah, and if there is no Kohen, then the order is no longer relevant.

17. While this position is held by many, some suggest that the Shulchan Aruch does not agree with this but is simply saying there is no preference.

18. The Aruch Hashulchan understands the Rema as agreeing with this third explanation.

19. Rav D.A. Spektor, Sefer Hagabai (Kiryat Arba, 2005), 166, n. 10.

20. Some authorities maintain that in the absence of a Kohen, a Levi is given priority over a Yisrael in other areas where a Kohen is honored, such as leading bentching (Yerushalmi, Gittin 5:9 based on Devarim 31:9; MB 201:13; Kaf Hachaim 167:101; cf. Tur, OC 201). The MA (201:4), following a long discussion illustrating that a Levi gets priority in leading bentching, notes that the introduction to bentching commonly used in his community (seventeenth-century Poland) included the following phrase: “B’reshut haKohanim vehaLeviim.” Rav Ovadia Yosef, in introductory comments to a recent edition of Neveh Shalom (par. 5), cites the Zohar as saying that even nowadays a Levi has more kedushah than a Yisrael. The dominant view, however, seems to be that a Levi does not have a special status independent of the Kohen and, as such, is not given priority to lead bentching (AH 201:4; Ben Ish Chai, Korach:14).

21. Minhagim D’kehillah Kedoshah Vermiza l’Rav Yuzpe Shemesh, with additions by Rav Yair Chaim Bacharach, Hamburger and Zimmer ed. (Jerusalem, 5748), 41-42. 22. See MB 53:65 that one should not fight over any mitzv

This article was featured in the Summer 2014 issue of Jewish Action.
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