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Yom Rivii, 4 Tammuz 5777

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1. The Advised Protocol for our Worship Services

Shortly before it is your turn for an aliyah, go up to the bimah and sit on the bench to the far left side, which is adjacent to the American flag. If you have the first aliyah, go up when the Torah is being paraded around the congregation. For the next ones, go up when the previous person is reciting the blessings.

When it is time for your aliyah, you will be called to the bimah by your Hebrew name. Come forward to the Torah reading table. The reader will then show you (with a silver yad) the place in the Torah where he/she will read. Touch with one of the tzitzit of your talit, the place shown and then kiss the tzitzit. If you are not wearing a talit, (some women do not) use the cloth Torah binder. You will find it on the table.

Take hold of the Torah handles and recite the blessing before reading the Torah. This will be printed in large type (both in Hebrew and transliteration) next to the Torah. Remember to repeat the second line, after the congregation.

The reader will then read from the Torah. Follow the pointer with your eyes while the reader is reading. When the reader concludes, touch the Torah again with the tzitzit at the place where the reader points to and again kiss the tzitzit (or Torah binder).

Take hold of the Torah handles, roll the Torah closed and recite the blessing after reading the Torah.

Move to the left side of the Torah reading table next to the gabbai and stay on the bimah until the conclusion of the next aliyah.

Cross the bimah to the stairs on the Rabbi’s side and return to your seat. It is fine to shake hands and greet people on your way back.

When it is time for your aliyah, you will be called to the bimah by your Hebrew name.   - from Step 2 of Aliyah to the Torah in Seven Steps

During the reading of the Torah on Shabbat and holidays at Rodef Shalom, one cannot help but notice the important work of the gabbai.  Gabbai (pl. gabbaim) is an Aramaic word that means “tax collector,” and has been more freely translated into Old English as “sexton,” or the individual who coordinates the assignment of honors in the synagogue service. Today, with the reality of a professionalized ritual director or the services of a full-time rabbi in most congregations, the gabbai still retains great responsibility, but his/her role is reserved for the most central part of the worship of a holy day.

Actually, there are two gabbaim; the first one calls up the individuals who have received honors by their Hebrew names, while the second one keeps track of where we are in the Torah itself.  Both gabbaim correct the Torah reader when necessary and make sure that everything is done properly.

Traditionally, individuals are called up for an aliyah by their own Hebrew name plus their father’s Hebrew name.  In egalitarian synagogues like Rodef Shalom, we like to include the mother’s Hebrew name as well.  For the prayer for the sick (misheberach), individuals are traditionally referred to by their Hebrew name plus their mother’s Hebrew name, although the father’s Hebrew name (or else the person’s English name) may be used instead. Jews-by-Choice are called up to the Torah as the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah (ben or bat Avraham v’Sarah) . 

Certain families maintain a long-standing tradition of being Kohanim (priests) or Levi’im (Levites).  This tradition is passed down paternally (i.e. on the father’s side of the family only), not maternally (i.e. not the mother’s side).  If one’s father is a Kohen, the son’s Hebrew name includes ben (father’s name) ha-Kohen and the daughter’s Hebrew name includes bat (father’s name) ha-Kohen.  If one’s father is a Levi, the son’s Hebrew name includes ben (father’s name) ha-Levi and the daughter’s Hebrew name

includes bat (father’s name) ha-Levi. Although we at Rodef Shalom do not uphold the custom of calling up a Kohen (or bat Kohen) for the first aliyah and a Levi (or bat Levi) for the second aliyah, we recognize the distinction of this personal lineage with the attachment of these titles whenever in the sequence of the aliyot on may be called to the Torah.

2. The Call to the Torah                               

During the reading of the Torah on Shabbat and holidays at Rodef Shalom, one cannot help but notice the important work of the gabbai.  Gabbai (pl. gabbaim) is an Aramaic word that means “tax collector,” and has been more freely translated into Old English as “sexton,” or the individual who coordinates the assignment of honors in the synagogue service. Today, with the reality of a professionalized ritual director or the services of a full-time rabbi in most congregations, the gabbai still retains great responsibility, but his/her role is reserved for the most central part of the worship of a holy day. Actually, there are two gabbaim; the first one calls up the individuals who have received honors by their Hebrew names, while the second one keeps track of where we are in the Torah itself.  Both gabbaim correct the Torah reader when necessary and make sure that everything is done properly.

Traditionally, individuals are called up for an aliyah by their own Hebrew name plus their father’s Hebrew name.  In egalitarian synagogues like Rodef Shalom, we like to include the mother’s Hebrew name as well.  For the prayer for the sick (misheberach), individuals are traditionally referred to by their Hebrew name plus their mother’s Hebrew name, although the father’s Hebrew name (or else the person’s English name) may be used instead. Jews-by-Choice are called up to the Torah as the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah (ben or bat Avraham v’Sarah) .  

Certain families maintain a long-standing tradition of being Kohanim (priests) or Levi’im (Levites).  This tradition is passed down paternally (i.e. on the father’s side of the family only), not maternally (i.e. not the mother’s side).  If one’s father is a Kohen, the son’s Hebrew name includes ben (father’s name) ha-Kohen and the daughter’s Hebrew name includes bat (father’s name) ha-Kohen.  If one’s father is a Levi, the son’s Hebrew name includes ben (father’s name) ha-Levi and the daughter’s Hebrew name includes bat (father’s name) ha-Levi. Although we at Rodef Shalom do not uphold the custom of calling up a Kohen (or bat Kohen) for the first aliyah and a Levi (or bat Levi) for the second aliyah, we recognize the distinction of this personal lineage with the attachment of these titles whenever in the sequence of the aliyot on may be called to the Torah.  

3. The Power of One’s Hebrew Name

Names represent our identity not simply because they are a convenient way to allow us to be distinguished one from another. It is because they define us. The names we are given at birth aren’t accidental. They are to some extent prophetic. They capture our essence. They are the keys to our soul.

The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. Central to that word, the middle two letters, shin and mem, make the word shem, Hebrew for ‘name.’ Your name is the key to your soul.

The Midrash teaches us that although prophecy no longer exists after the close of the Bible, there is one small area in which we are still granted a glimpse of Divine wisdom. It comes to us when we struggle to find the right name for our offspring.

The names of our children are the result of a partnership between our effort and God’s response. That is why the Hebrew word for ‘name,’ shem, has the same numerical value as the word for ‘book,’ sefer: 340.

Names are a book. They tell a story. The story of our spiritual potential as well as our life’s mission. That explains the fascinating midrash that tells us when we complete our years on this earth and face heavenly judgment, one of the most powerful questions we will be asked at the outset is, What is your nameand did you live up to it?

Does that mean that we are predestined to live lives circumscribed by something beyond our control? Are we doomed to play out roles handed to us by our parents while we were infants? Is our free will limited by our names? Of course not. Judaism emphasizes the principle of freedom of choice. Yet our names are indicators of our potential and predictors of our possible futures.

It is not our names that force us to be what we are. It is what we are that transmits itself in a profoundly prophetic manner to those entrusted with the holy task of choosing our names. It is a message from God entrusted to our name-givers in order to help us define our mission on earth.

Names represent our identity not simply because they are a convenient way to allow us to be distinguished one from another. It is because they define us. The names we are given at birth aren’t accidental. They are to some extent prophetic. They capture our essence. They are the keys to our soul.

The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. Central to that word, the middle two letters, shin and mem, make the word shem, Hebrew for ‘name.’ Your name is the key to your soul.

The Midrash teaches us that although prophecy no longer exists after the close of the Bible, there is one small area in which we are still granted a glimpse of Divine wisdom. It comes to us when we struggle to find the right name for our offspring.

The names of our children are the result of a partnership between our effort and God’s response. That is why the Hebrew word for ‘name,’ shem, has the same numerical value as the word for ‘book,’ sefer: 340.

Names are a book. They tell a story. The story of our spiritual potential as well as our life’s mission. That explains the fascinating midrash that tells us when we complete our years on this earth and face heavenly judgment, one of the most powerful questions we will be asked at the outset is, What is your nameand did you live up to it?

Does that mean that we are predestined to live lives circumscribed by something beyond our control? Are we doomed to play out roles handed to us by our parents while we were infants? Is our free will limited by our names? Of course not. Judaism emphasizes the principle of freedom of choice. Yet our names are indicators of our potential and predictors of our possible futures.

It is not our names that force us to be what we are. It is what we are that transmits itself in a profoundly prophetic manner to those entrusted with the holy task of choosing our names. It is a message from God entrusted to our name-givers in order to help us define our mission on earth.

4. A Touchable Moment

Torah, in our Tradition, is “eitz hayim hee la’mahchazeekim bah,” a tree of life for those who grasp it. This verse from Proverbs is the source of the custom of holding onto the “aitzei hayyim,” the Torah handles, made from trees, while reciting the Torah Blessings. When we do this, we grasp “the tree of life” both physically and figuratively before and after we read the Torah.  

When the Children of Israel journeyed through the desert, the Tent of Meeting traveled within the camp of Levi, which was right in the middle of the camp. The Tent of Meeting was right in the middle because within the Tent of Meeting was the Aron - the Holy Ark in which the Torah was kept. The Torah has to be in the center. It is not closer to one person, nor further from another. Every Jew can be as close to the Torah as any other.

Similarly, the Tree of Life was planted in the middle of the Garden of Eden. The handles are in the center of each of the Torah scroll just as the Tree of Life was at the center of the Garden. And similarly, the Torah is the center of the life of the Jew. If he moves it to one side and relegates it to a weekend activity, his life becomes distorted and unbalanced. Materialism rushes to fill the void that he has left by putting the Torah 'to one side.'  The Torah requires concentration. We must concentrate it at the center of our lives. For it is the heart of our faith. Just as from the heart flows life itself, and thus its place is in the center of the body, thus the Torah was at the center of the camps of Israel.

The custom of grasping the Torah during an Aliyah embodies the timeless connections between Torah and Jews.

5. A Sensitive, Yet Practical, Shift

We now return to the same step as was discussed last week, but with a more intentional focus on the dialectic among the personal customs of our congregants when grasping the scroll for the first Torah blessing.  

While several of us hail from experiences where we have either seen or been taught to roll the Torah closed when saying the first blessing, there is another custom to keep the scroll open and to look to the right side of the scroll (e.g. at the card with text of the blessings).  Both traditions stem from a common desire to indicate that the blessings are not to be found within the Torah itself.

Our preferred manner at Rodef Shalom - for which we politely ask all aliyah participants to embrace and adopt - is to leave the scroll open during the initial Torah blessing.  This enables the Torah reader to keep his/her eye on the starting spot of the reading which, in many cases, does not present itself easily and can sometimes be lost by the closing of the scroll.  

Truth be told, this frequent Torah reader has been confronted on numerous occasions in the past year by difficult starting points that have been found and then lost by the consequential closure of the scroll during the first blessing.  Imagining myself in the place of a less experienced reader, for whom getting off on the proper starting point could mean everything toward the success of his/her reading, it behooves all of us to weigh this sensitivity and courtesy against what has become a ritual step that has a clear alternative.

While I do not expect that this call for adjustment will result in an instantaneous response of compliance (for we are, after all, creatures of habit), I do seek the acknowledgement - and even an engaging conversation - from those who are reading this installment, and for whom some personal change might be necessary.  If you don’t already know where to find me, drop me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  

6. The Other Side of the Reading

I am most appreciative to those among you who have already followed up with me after the last  installment, regarding the request for courtesy in not rolling closed the scroll during the first Torah blessing (see Part 5).  A very logical question, that followed in conversation had to do with why this is not consistent for the second Torah blessing, which follows the reading.

When tracing this custom back to its roots in the Talmud, we see that it was not so simple (nor was there consensus) about what to do for either of the blessings ...

The Gemara in Tractate Megillah (32b) records a dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah about how exactly one should recite the blessing before he (or the designated reader) reads from the Sefer Torah. Rabbi Meir maintains that one first rolls the Sefer Torah closed after he looks at the place from which the reader will read, and then he recites the blessing. Rabbi Yehudah maintains that one may leave the Sefer Torah open when he recites the blessing.

The Gemara explains that the reason why Rabbi Meir requires one to close the Sefer Torah before he recites the blessing is so that onlookers will not think that the blessings are written inside the Sefer Torah. Rabbi Yehudah maintains that no one would make such a mistake, and therefore he permits one to leave the Sefer Torah open when he recites the blessing.

The Halachic ruling, in this case, follows the view of Rabbi Yehudah.

With regard to the blessing recited after the Torah reading, Rabbi Moses Maimonides writes that one should close the Sefer Torah before he recites the blessing. As the commentator known as the Maggid Mishneh explains, since the Sefer Torah anyway must be closed after one reads from it, one should close it before he recites the blessing (lest  think that the blessing is written in the Sefer Torah).

Go figure!

7. The Series Finale

Unlike some of the previous explanations in this series, the reasoning for this etiquette is fairly straightforward:  It wouldn’t be very respectful to flee the Torah’s presence the moment we’re done with the Aliyah.

Rabbi Simcha Bart comments that leaving right after one’s aliyah would be akin to saying out loud: “I really enjoyed the experience, but I have an important conversation to get back to. See ya next time!”

We therefore wait until the next person recites the opening blessing of his aliyah. However, we don’t want to miss any part of the Torah reading while making our way back to our seat, so we wait until the portion of the Torah reading is over before making a graceful exit.

With this instruction, I complete this thread of explanatory information.  I hope that the reader has learned something new and interesting.  

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