Sunday, February 6, 2011

Aliyos for Cash?

[The Kosher Cooking Carnival for Adar I is here]

Sam was called to the Torah, and immediately after his aliyah he recited Birchas haGomel (the blessing usually recited upon being saved from harm). When Sam returned to his seat, his neighbor asked, “Were you in an accident? Did you have surgery?”

To which Sam replied: “No – but I was so surprised to get called up, I almost had a heart attack!”

The joke is original, but the story is familiar; Jews around the world frequently complain about the scarcity of their aliyos. However, that’s not really the topic of this post. Right now I want to talk about the question of charging money for aliyos.

I know gabbaim who decline to honor visitors, arguing that a synagogue will rarely see a significant donation from a drop-in. Alternatively, they make sure that visitors who are called to the Torah know that they are expected to make a significant contribution.

Some shuls have policies against honoring people who live locally and fail to join the shul. The argument is that people who refuse to support the community do not deserve to be recognized by the community.

The point is valid. Shuls depend on public support, and it’s hard for them to compete against tzedakah drives for schools and orphanages and the needy. Shuls even compete against the rabbi’s own Benevolent Fund. It’s not as though a shul can survive on membership dues alone; shuls generally offer people membership on whatever financial terms people can manage, even donations of a few dollars each month.

So how is a shul to survive, if people take it for granted? In distributing aliyos based on donations, these institutions are just trying to protect themselves with the only currency they control.

And yet, and yet… it still rankles. I know I am not the only rabbi to be uncomfortable with a “pay to play” policy. Torah is supposed to be for everyone, and the idea that we parcel out access to mitzvos based upon contributions does not sit well with me.

Also, this system encourages the publication and discussion of people’s contributions – “He got shlishi on Yom Kippur, he must be a big donor.”

And for rabbis, in particular, this arrangement can be uncomfortable. A shul rabbi makes himself available for everyone, regardless of bank account - but the practice of calling certain people to the Torah, to the exclusion of others, creates the perception that those who make larger contributions are entitled to special treatment from the shul, and therefore its rabbi.

I've written about this before; see these posts:

I guess membership should have its privileges

The high price of holy days

But I still don't have a resolution for the issue. So what should a shul do?


  1. In the short run there's(imho) not much one can do. In the medium run, educating people what it means to be part of a kehilla (Judaism is primarily about obligations, not rights). In the long run (to quote Keynes) we're all dead(so remind people what the ultimate reward is-and it's not shlishi)
    Joel Rich

  2. Great joke, and thanks for the link!
    !שבוע טוב וחודש טוב

  3. Doesn't some of this depend on the size of the shul? With approximately 600 aliyos a year for Shabbos and yom tov morning leinings those davening in a shul of let's say 300 men would only get 2 aliyos each per year if everything was equally divided. Then add in that cohanim and leviyim, a smaller percentage of the shul population, will quite probably be getting more aliyos each--total available for everyone else is now about 485. Then add in that there will be those who have yahrzeit--does such an aliyah count as one of the 485 or is it extra? Now add in bar mitzvahs and aufrufs. Do you give the baal simcha all the aliyos to distribute or only some? If all then it's quite possible that 100 aliyos a year disappear from that 485, leaving you with only 385 for the rest of the mispalalim for the rest of the year. Now, do you count the just over bar mitzvah unmarried young men in the same way as you do those who are marrried?

    In short, distribution of the aliyos can depend on the size of the shul, the number of simchas, the age of the men and how adept the gabbai is at keeping records and distributing aliyos. Charging for aliyos in the case of a large shul I feel shouldn't be done because there may be scarecely one aliyah per person available per year.

    Note: our shul has 900+ families with many more males. The answer here was to divide the shul into 5-6 minyanim for a regular Shabbos and 6-7 for a yom tov. There is no charge for aliyos and everyone must get at least one aliyah a year.

  4. Aliyos for Cash is just one step away from "Pay to Pray," which is the subject of many a post-Yamim Noraim criticism. The rabbi should be available no matter what kind of donation the Jew makes; Torah honors should be the same. Opportunities to give should be plentiful and shared often.

    I love this blog.

  5. Joel-
    Shishi, perhaps?

    Mrs. S-
    Thanks, and thanks for including me in KCC.

    To add: Your numbers are actually high. Taking out kohen and levi and maftir, since most don't do those, it's more like 280. (about 50 shabbatot in a solilunar year, 5 per shabbat; another about 10 days outside of Israel with 3 non-kohen/levi/maftir aliyot). Then note that older people have many yahrtzeits, and then add in the smachot, and the 280 shrinks fast.

    Or am I-
    Agreed, and thanks!

  6. Aha! now it all makes sense :-)
    Joel Rich