Dear Cantor Matt,
What’s an aliyah? How many should I count on for my daughter’s bat mitzvah? Is there any wiggle room for a big family?
— Aliyah Leeway?
This question just reinforces the notion that there’s never a simple answer in Judaism. My response to you is “it depends” and “maybe.”
OK, let’s start with the basics.
The word aliyah means “going up,” and is used to describe the honor of being called up to the bimah during the Torah reading and making a blessing. We say “going up” because regardless of where the bimah is located in your particular sanctuary, we always consider the Torah to be the holiest and most exalted item in the room.
This is different than other honors that a person might get, like opening the ark or doing an English reading. The term aliyah is reserved only for being called to the Torah and making the blessing.
On any given Saturday morning, when you would typically have a bar or bat mitzvah scheduled, there are seven aliyot (yes, that’s plural). In fact, we can rate the importance of various Jewish holidays and occasions by counting how many people we call to the Torah during the service. On a run-of-the-mill weekday, there are three. A new month has four, while most Jewish holidays include five. Yom Kippur, which is even more sacred, calls for six aliyot. But Shabbat, considered the holiest day each week of the Jewish calendar, requires us to call up seven aliyot to the Torah.
So where’s the confusion? I should have just answered, “You should count on seven aliyot for your daughter’s bat mitzvah,” right?
Not so fast. The number seven is not the absolute number of aliyot, but rather the minimum number that are called up on Shabbat, when you’re probably having the bat mitzvah. That means that technically there could be eight, nine, twelve, twenty-three, or a couple hundred. (Better alert the caterer that lunch will be served around midnight.)
Your temple’s policies will determine whether or not there will be more than seven. Many synagogues will sensibly limit the number to the prescribed seven, or else routinely add just one or two more. You can imagine that once the door is opened to an unlimited number of aliyot, the service can become interminable. And each family will scramble for more and more people to honor—who wants to be the family that “only” called up seven people? (“For the thirtieth aliyah, we’d like to call up Skippy Goldberg, our paper boy from 20 years ago.”)
One logical reason why a temple might allow these extra aliyot is to accommodate more than one celebration. Is today a double bar mitzvah? Is there a baby naming or other joyous occasion taking place? Is there an important visitor attending that morning whom the congregation would like to honor? If so, then there may be more than seven.
The bottom line is that you might indeed have some wiggle room with some of the other honors and whom you choose to call up, but the number of actual aliyot to the Torah is likely carved in stone for you and your family.
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt
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