Hinting One Does Not Want an Aliya

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by R. Daniel Mann

Question: As a guest to a shul, I received an aliya on Shabbat morning, and at Mincha, a different gabbai came over to me between aliyot to ask me my name. I told him: “I got an aliya this morning.” He got the hint and gave it to someone else. Did I act properly, or was that considered refusing an aliya?

Answer: The gemara (Berachot 55a) lists “one who is given a sefer Torah to read and he does not read” as one of three things that shorten a person’s life. One can see this not as a prohibition to turn down an aliya but advice not to, although, as people who seek life and take Chazal’s ideals and advice as the basis of their actions, it may be equivalent. The Rif and Rosh (Berachot 9:4) cite this gemara as halacha. Therefore, your words, which apparently effectively turned down the opportunity to read Torah most classically (i.e., an aliya) needs justification; there are four grounds for leniency to consider.  

The Rambam and Shulchan Aruch omit this “halacha,” which arouses much discussion among Acharonim. One answer is that the gemara refers to the original situation, when the oleh also lained (Eliya Rabba 139:2), so that refusing an aliya was withholding teaching Torah, whereas for the last hundreds of years, refusing an aliya has no major consequences. This approach, though, is insufficient alone to allow refusing an aliya, as most poskim and the minhag follow the Magen Avraham (53:22) that the issue exists with even today’s aliyot

Several sources allow refusal when done with a good cause. This can have a fundamental justification – the problem is belittling the importance of Torah study, and therefore when one refuses for due cause, there is no belittlement (see Radbaz III:304; Torah Lishma 228). Alternatively, even if it is insulting to the Torah, sometimes the need leaves us with little choice. There is a story of Rabbi Akiva who turned down an aliya because he had not sufficiently prepared the parasha (see Tanchuma, Yitro 16), and the Mishna Berura (139:1) rules to follow this precedent. Another example is if one was called for an aliya after his brother (Sha’arei Ephrayim 1:33), and Shevet Hakehati (IV:50) justifies refusal to enable a pre-yahrtzeit to receive maftir. There is a machloket (see Torah Lishma 428 and Tzitz Eliezer, XIV:34) whether embarrassment of one who is too poor to offer an expected donation suffices for refusal. However, in your case, no one needed to be embarrassed – the gabbai didn’t know and you need not be more than slightly uncomfortable lest someone think it is “not fair” you got two aliyot. Poskim were very against using a reason to refuse that is not convincing enough (see Lev Chaim III:12). 

The third ground for leniency is the fact that the gabbai did not call you up but just demonstrated that he planned to. The Machatzit Hashekel (to Magen Avraham ibid.) claimed that the similarly sounding Magen Avraham and Knesset Hagdola (cited ibid.) disagree whether the problem of refusing the aliya applies only when one is actually called (MA) or from when it becomes apparent that he is slated for it (KHG). The Chida (Chayim Sha’al I:13) posits that the Sephardi minhag of informing the oleh to stand up without calling his name is to shield him from consequences if he turns it down. In short, it is an open question if his asking you your name bound you.

The most promising leniency in your case is that you apparently did not turn down the aliya. It is not just that you did not say so explicitly but implicitly, but your reaction falls short of refusal. You simply gave the gabbai information that afforded him the option of rethinking his plan of calling you. I have witnessed similar cases where the gabbai moved on to the next person, and others in which he said, “That’s okay, have another one!” If the gabbai said the latter, I would have urged you to thank him and show your willingness to come up. However, since he did the former, he did nothing wrong by not calling you up for another aliya, and you did nothing wrong by just allowing him to correct his mistake. 

About Daniel Mann

This column is produced on behalf of Eretz Hemdah by Rabbi Daniel Mann. Rabbi Mann is a Dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of Living the Halachic Process, volumes 1 and 2 and A Glimpse of Greatness.

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