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Question: I’ve been to synagogues where groups of people are called up together for one aliyah to the Torah. Sometimes it’s a couple who are about to get married, having a joint aufruf. Other times it’s a whole confirmation class, reciting one blessing in unison. Does this practice have any halakhic justification? Where did it come from?
–Charlie, Washington DC
Answer: I used to have a teacher who told me that the answer to every question in Jewish law is, “There’s a mahloket“–it’s up for debate. This holds true in regards to your question, Charlie. Some synagogue rabbis have decided to offer joint aliyot in their congregations, and others have chosen not to. Who’s right and who’s wrong? It depends who you ask, of course!
Joint aliyot have become a popular practice because communities often use an aliyah to honor a group of people, such as a couple who has just gotten engaged, or the parents and grandparents of a bar/bat mitzvah . There are a limited number of aliyot during every service, so instead of calling up every member of a family separately, some congregations began calling up one whole family unit at a time. This is an accepted practice in Reform Temples, and is not done at Orthodox synagogues. In the Conservative movement, there are some congregations where joint aliyot are sanctioned, and others where they are not.
As is the case for many issues within the Conservative movement, two responsa were published by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that address this issue. One was in favor of joint aliyot, and one was against.
The responsum in favor of joint aliyot bases is based on the fact that the Torah service has evolved over time. Public Torah reading goes back at least as far as the 2nd century BCE. At that point, a blessing was recited before the first aliyah, and after the last aliyah. Unlike how we do it today, people who were called up for aliyot were in fact being called up to read from the Torah, not to make a blessing. Then, in Amoraic times the service was changed so that everyone who was called up to read also made a blessing. This way those who arrived late to synagogue or left early got to hear both blessings (Megillah 21a-b). Soon, there were not enough people who could competently read out of the Torah without preparation, so the person who received the aliyah was no longer asked to read the Torah, a job that was given to someone in advance.
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