Gittin 59

Priests, Levites and Israelites.

After several days immersed in narratives about seminal Jewish tragedies, today the Talmud returns to cataloging rabbinic enactments made for the sake of tikkun olam, peace in the world. We learn that even though oral agreements are the standard, deaf people may purchase goods through sign language. We learn that children may enact sales of moveable property, but only if they are mature and intellectually capable of making these transactions. (A toddler buying a car on eBay would be considered invalid.) And we also learn the following about public Torah readings:

A priest reads first and after him a Levite and after him an Israelite. This is on account of the ways of peace.

Reading first from the Torah was considered an honor. Therefore, priests were given the opportunity to read the first portion from the scroll, then Levites and only afterward were other Israelites invited up. Almost two millennia later, many congregations continue this tradition by reserving the first aliyah for a kohen and the second for a Levite

But was this actually a rabbinic enactment? The Gemara suggests that we can derive this straight from the Torah. They offer several derivations, and I will share one here:

From where are these matters derived? Rav Mattana said: As the verse states: “And Moses wrote this Torah, and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi.” (Deuteronomy 31:9) Is that to say I do not know that the priests are the sons of Levi? Rather (this phrasing serves as the source for the enactment that) first a priest reads from the Torah and after him a Levite.

The Torah’s words are all sacred and none are extraneous, so it’s not immediately clear why Deuteronomy informs us that the priests are sons of Levi. After all, we already knew that. Therefore, says Rav Mattana, the verse carries a different and more subtle meaning: that priests are honored by reading first from Torah and only then do Levites read.

Of course, it is somewhat surprising to see a tikkun adduced from Torah. After all, aren’t these rabbinic enactments? We wouldn’t therefore expect to find a Torah source for them (though this is not the first time in this tractate we’ve seen the Gemara do this). The Gemara addresses this too:

Abaye said to Rav Yosef: Why does the mishnah teach that the priest reads first from the Torah on account of the ways of peace, indicating that this is a rabbinic enactment? Is it not by Torah law that he reads first? 

Rav Yosef said to Abaye: Indeed, it is by Torah law, but the reason that the priest reads first is on account of the ways of peace.

It’s curious to see the rabbis spill this much ink on honoring the priests, toward whom we have frequently seen them express suspicion and disdain (though many prominent rabbis were themselves priests, which could complicate matters). It may not be surprising, then, that not only do they not claim ownership of the rule (saying it derives from the Torah), they also chip away at it. As we learn a bit further down the page:

But didn’t Rav Huna (who was not a priest) read (the Torah section ordinarily reserved) for priests, even on Shabbats and festivals?

Rav Huna is different, as even Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi, the most important priests in the land of Israel, were subject to him.

Sometimes, says the Gemara, there comes a rabbi whose learning and authority is so great he is permitted to take the honor of reading the Torah first. And, indeed, the formality may have been relaxed in other contexts as well:

Rav Mattana said: With regard to this matter that you stated, that in the synagogue a priest is not (permitted to honor an Israelite and allow him to read first), we said this only concerning Shabbat and festivals, when many people are present, but not on Mondays and Thursdays.

Then as now, Shabbat and festival services were better attended than regular Monday and Thursday services, which are also occasions for reading Torah. During the week, says Rav Mattana, things are more casual and perhaps the reading order need not be so rigid.

So while honoring priests with the first opportunity to read Torah remained on the books, and was recorded as being derived directly from Torah, nonetheless there were, in practice, multiple exceptions. 

Incidentally, after the priests and Levites read, it wasn’t necessarily a free-for-all among the rest of the congregation. There too, an order that reflects the honor of readers was preferred, as Rabbi Helbo explained to a congregation from the Galilee:

After them (priests and Levites) read the Torah scholars who are appointed as leaders of the community. And after them read Torah scholars who are fit to be appointed as leaders of the community. And after them read the sons of Torah scholars whose fathers were appointed as leaders of the community. And after them read the heads of synagogues. And after them any person.

In most contemporary congregations, we don’t necessarily view the assignment of each aliyah as a reflection of the social pecking order. But it is certainly still considered an honor to be invited up to the Torah — no matter which aliyah it is.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 14th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Gittin 35

Widows cry out for justice.

Gittin 31

Just chatting about the wind.

Gittin 88

Forced divorce.