Kohen Conundrums

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

A visitor to the Munkacser beis midrash might see a bizarre sight. He might notice his friend Mr. Katz davening Shacharis there on Monday morning. Yet, when it is time for kriyas haTorah, the first Aliyah would be given to a Yisrael. The astute observer might conclude that they are following the laws it applied in the times of the Gemara. There were times back then that the first Aliyah was given to the gadol ha’dor or an exceptional talmid chacham. Yet the Minchas Elazar clearly writes that we no longer follow that practice. So why would a Yisrael get the first Aliyah if there is a kohen present? An alternative theory is on that day, there were three Yisraelim who had a yahrzeit. Since there is an obligation to have an Aliyah on a yahrzeit, perhaps they asked the kohen to pardon the slight to his honor and allow them to call a Yisrael first. But that theory wouldn’t bear scrutiny either. The Minchas Elazar writes that his father never failed to call a kohen first even if there were many people with yahrzeits and many gedolei ha’dor that came to visit. There is a mitzvah to honor a kohen and asking a kohen to be mochel would be slighting his honor. The next option is that there was no Levi in shul.

The regular order for Aliyos is Kohen, Levi, and then Yisrael. If there is no Levi, perhaps we skip the Kohen and start with a Yisrael. Rashi in Kesubos (25b) seems to suggest that in fact if there is no Levi, we should call two kohanim and then a Yisrael. However, the Rashash points out that, inexplicably, Rashi picked an interpretation of the law that is not accepted at the conclusion of the Gemara in Gittin (59). There, the Gemara says it is not possible to call two kohanim to the Torah one after another, as people will wonder why a second kohen was called to the Torah. Perhaps they will reason that the first kohen was found to be unfit. To prevent the congregants from casting aspersions on the perfectly fine kohen, Chazal said that a second kohen should not be called to the Torah if there is no Levi. Rather, the very same kohen who received the first Aliyah should take the second one as well. The order would then be Kohen, Kohen, Yisrael. The original puzzle still stands, then: Why would they ever call a Yisrael first in the Munkacser beis midrash if there are kohanim present? Moreover, the Minchas Elazar said he saw his saintly father do this regularly and the kohen didn’t even walk out! The solution is that, in fact, this can occur when no Levi is present. The Rema writes that l’chatchilah someone who has received an Aliyah should not get Maftir. Certainly, the same person should not receive two standard Aliyos, and most certainly the same person should not receive two Aliyos one after another! The Minchas Elazar suggests that having the same kohen take two consecutive Aliyosis b’dieved. If the same kohen would take the first two Aliyos, there may be an element of reciting unnecessary brachos. Why should the kohen recite four brachos, when two would suffice – one at the beginning of his first Aliyah and the second at the conclusion of his second Aliyah. In fact, the Piskei Teshuvos quotes Acharonim who say that a kohen who receives a second Aliyah in the place of a Levi should recite only two brachos, not four. However, that is not the accepted custom. Yet the Minchas Elazar writes that if a Kohen wants to forgo his two Aliyos for the sake of minimizing unnecessary brachos, it is certainly praiseworthy. In that case, a Yisrael would get the first Aliyah.

One may ask, what reason is there to be stringent and not follow a practice that is clearly condoned in the Gemara and codified in Shulchan Aruch? The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 135:8) writes explicitly, “If there is no Levi in shul, the Kohen that read first blesses a second time in the place of the Levi.” The Minchas Elazar writes that, in truth, the Shulchan Aruch implies that his suggested conduct is not preferable. Why didn’t the Shulchan Aruch simply say that in such a case, “we give the kohen two aliyos”? The answer is that the Shulchan Aruch is telling us what to do upon discovering that there is no Levi in shul only after the kohen has already received his Aliyah. Then we tell “the kohen that read first” to take a second Aliyah. However, if we can ascertain from the outset that there is no Levi, the halacha is different. In that case, we prefer that the kohen willingly forgo his honor for the sake of Heaven and minimize unnecessary blessings. The Minchas Elazar writes that his father did not ask the kohen to be mochel when there was no Levi; the kohen wanted to do what was right and graciously volunteered to forgo his Aliyos. Nevertheless, there are those who disagree and say that the kohen should always take the first two Aliyos if there is no Levi. Whatever the kohen does is fine, as long as his intentions are for the sake of Heaven.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.

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