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Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5772

Ask the Rabbi: Giving Yisrael an Aliya When a Kohen Remains in Shul

by Rav Daniel Mann

Question: In our shul, we ask the kohanim to leave shul when we have multiple chiyuvim (those who need aliyot). Now, we have an elderly kohen who finds it taxing to leave shul. Since he does not mind giving the aliya to a Yisrael, may we do so even if he stays in shul?  


Answer: The gemara (Gittin 59b) presents possible sources for the idea that a kohen is to be honored by going first in matters of honor, such as aliyot. It continues that according to the basic rules of honoring a kohen, he could waive the rights to the first aliya, but we do not allow this out of concern that there will be quarreling about when the kohen should do so.

When, if at all, is it legitimate to obviate the mitzva to honor the kohanim with the first aliya? The Maharik (9) upheld a minhag to sell the first aliya on Parashat Bereishit to the highest bidder, kohen or not, which showed excitement for the Torah and raised money for lighting costs. He said that a kohen could not protest and supported the step of asking the authorities to keep one who did out of shul. While Acharonim do not argue with the Maharik, several limit the extent to which we expect a kohen to relinquish his rights. The Shivat Tziyon (6) and Chatam Sofer (OC 24) objected to efforts to introduce regular bidding for aliyot at the expense of the kohen’s aliya. On the other hand, the Chatam Sofer (ibid. 25) supported the idea of a minhag to allow a chiyuv to receive the first aliya when there were multiple chiyuvim. He just said that the kohanim should be convinced to accept the idea, and then once the minhag took hold, no kohen could protest in the future. Contemporary poskim (see Igrot Moshe, OC II, 34 and Yabia Omer VI, OC 23) concur.

Let us now deal with your minhag of asking the kohanim to leave (and return as the opening beracha is being made). One basic idea is that if the kohanim are not there, we are not shunning them by giving the aliya to a Yisrael. Another factor is to avoid pegama (the appearance that we passed over the kohen because he is somehow unfit to serve as a kohen). Indeed, a kohen should leave shul before laining begins when he is unable to receive an aliya because he is in a sensitive part of his davening or because it is a fast day and he is not fasting (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 566:6; Rama, OC 135:5).

The final issue, though, is whether you are allowed to give a Yisrael the kohen’s aliya when a kohen stays in shul, therefore raising the problem of the rabbinic injunction to avoid fighting and the matter of pegama. The Magen Avraham (135:7) infers from the Maharik’s ruling to have the kohen removed from shul that under no circumstances may one call up a Yisrael when there is a kohen present. However, the Beit Yosef (OC 135) says that when it is acceptable to give the aliya to a non-kohen, there is no issue of overlooking the kohen or reasons to cast aspersions on him, and the kohen may stay in shul. Although the Pri Chadash (135:3) and others agree with the Beit Yosef, it is worthwhile where possible to try to conform to the common practice of having the kohanim leave (see Yabia Omer, ibid.).

There is another strong reason for leniency. The gemara says that on Monday and Thursday a kohen may allow a Yisrael to get the first aliya, because there are small groups for those tefillot and less chance of fighting, and there is no mention that he needs to leave. Tosafot and others say that the reason for this distinction no longer applies, and this is accepted. However, poskim point out that such a post-Talmudic innovation is binding only when its reasoning applies, which is often not the case (see Igrot Moshe, ibid.).

With so many indications for leniency, you may allow a Yisrael to get the first aliya during the week even if an elderly kohen does not want to walk out. On Shabbat, there is less reason (as above) and less need for leniency, with the possibility of hosafot, and rarely would it be proper to skip the kohen. It is proper when calling up the Yisrael to
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