The Torah Reading Service takes place every Shabbat (seven aliyot and maftir), on holidays (five aliyot and maftir) on Shabbat afternoon and on Monday and Thursday mornings (three aliyahs). No matter which day the Torah is read, the first two aliyahs are always designated for a kohein (priest) and a Levi (Levite). The source for these priority honors is Leviticus 21:8, “And you shall sanctify him (meaning a kohein).” This same verse is cited in the Talmud where it instructs that the priests should be given precedence “in every matter involving sanctification, to open proceedings, to say grace first and to choose his [tithing] portion first” (Talmud Gittin 59b).
A kohein always receives the first aliyah, a Levi receives the second. If no Levi is present, a single kohein is given both the first and second aliyah. On the other hand, if no kohein is present, the standard order need not be followed. (Some communities will give the first aliyah to a Levi, while others will not.)
This hierarchy of honors is explained on the same page of the Talmud: “Because Scripture says, ‘And Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests the sons of Levi’ (Deuteronomy 31:9). Now do we not know that the priests are the sons of Levi? What it means, therefore, is that the priests [are first] and then the sons of Levi” (ibid.)
In the course of this discussion, it is pointed out that while this rule derives “from the Torah...its object is to maintain peace” (ibid.), perhaps because it seeks to minimize arguing over who should receive the first aliyah.
*There are six aliyot on Yom Kippur and varying numbers of aliyot on other days, such as Rosh Chodesh.
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