Mishna Berura note 9 on O.C. 135:3 says that if there is no Cohen in the shul during public Torah reading, we call up the wisest person in the shul.

In many shuls that I have attended, they call up a Levi in place of a Cohen. While, of course, I can't evaluate everybody's wisdom level, I attended my son's yeshiva, and the rosh yeshiva, who is a Yisra'el, I would presume is a gadol bechachma compared to the 13 year old boy who was a Levi who was called up.

I've seen in many other shuls that a common custom is to call a Levi rather than follow this precedent. I can't imagine that so many shuls are making a mistake. Why is this allowed, then? Is there a preference to call a Levi over a Gadol?

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    I’ve never understood this Halacha. Why shouldn’t a Levi get precedence when a Kohen isn’t around? As a Levi myself, I’m totally not biased.
    – DonielF
    Nov 24 '17 at 20:41
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    I think the shuls that call the Levi are indeed making a mistake. Nov 25 '17 at 19:14
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    @DonielF There's a published Sefer Haminhagim from the Century City shul in CA, available on the web. I browsed through it and their published minhag says to forego calling a Levi when there's no Cohen and start with a Yisra'el. In my shul, we go either way based on the Gabbai's whim on that day. We rarely have Cohen on a weekday. But, the only "Gadol Bechachma" in shul is the rabbi. (I know more than most of the congregants, but, I boast...) And they don't call the rav (or me) first each weekday :-) So, they're not following either rule!
    – DanF
    Nov 26 '17 at 0:41
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    R' Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger says that a Levi has precedence over a Yisrael, in this case, unless there is a Yisrael of a particularly high stature, eg. a scholar in residence, visiting gadol, or something similar. Nov 27 '17 at 4:04
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    @NoachMiFrankfurt - that is a good source. Does he explain why? Do you have a reference?
    – user4736
    Nov 28 '17 at 18:49

Shulcan Aruch in Halacha 6: אם אין כהן... קורא ישראל... ולא יעלה אחריו לוי and the RMA: אבל ראשון יוכל לעלות.

MB says they should choose the gadol, irrelevant if it's the Levi or Yisrael, but if it's a Yisrael the Levi should not be called.

I couldn't find a Kaf Hachaim, but R' Melamed here implies he might say a Levi shouldn't be called.

Generally, we would have the gadol come first, as ממזר תלמיד חכם קודם לכהן גדול עם הארץ (Horayot 3:8) The reason for Cohen to be first is וקדשתו (Moead Katan 28:2 bottom of page). The דרכי שלום reason is not to make Cohanim feel non-shcolars.

There is no similar saying for a Levi, so when a Cohen isn't around we revert to taking a Talmid Chacham.

  • The דרכי שלום reason is not to make Cohanim feel non-shcolars : That is incorrect:תקנו חכמים שבעלייה הראשונה יכבדו כהן, בשנייה לוי ובשלישית ישראל. וטעם תקנתם: "מפני דרכי שלום", שלא יבואו לריב על הכיבוד שבעלייה הראשונה . MB also cites the same reason.
    – user4736
    Nov 27 '17 at 20:57
  • @Alter, and the MB on the page linked in the question says it's so they don't fight over whose more of a scholar
    – JNF
    Nov 27 '17 at 21:59
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    This answer also does not answer the question: We already know what was cited here. The question is seeking some justification for the minhag to call davka a levi - this answer does not provide that. This should be a comment. it's so they don't fight over whose more of a scholar - exactly. It means that unless you follow a strict order, there could be an argument about who is the greatest T"Chm, etc, : " וטעם תקנתם: "מפני דרכי שלום", שלא יבואו לריב על הכיבוד שבעלייה הראשונה " it's not so that the kohan shouldn't feel like he's less.
    – user4736
    Nov 28 '17 at 4:59
  • The question asks if there's a preference, not justification of a specific practice. Also, question cited only MB and I brought SO down the line, which from the question I believe the asker has not seen
    – JNF
    Nov 28 '17 at 4:59
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    @Alter a lot of commenting. But, yes, you are correct it's a partial answer, here. Darchei Shalom specifies the normal order assuming that there is a Cohen to start. That's it. The debate begins when there is no Cohen, and that's exactly what I was asking about. If something is still unclear, please inform me. The וי"א שאין מעלים לוי ראשון partially answers my question. There is an opinion not to use a Levi. So, according to that opinion, we would be making a mistake to call the Levi.
    – DanF
    Nov 28 '17 at 14:20

(Unfortunately, I do not have sefarim with me at the moment - I am traveling - so I cannot cite all my sources right now.)

Why is this allowed, then? Is there a preference to call a Levi over a Gadol?

As @JNF pointed out in his fine answer, calling a Levi when there is no Kohein does not seem to be correct according to what we find in the Poskim.

But as the OP has pointed out, the minhag to call a Levi in that case is widespread, and apparently some have approved of the practice. That being the case, perhaps we can find some justification for calling a Levi:

For K'HT there is a takana "מפני דרכי שלום" to go in order: Kohein, Levi, Yisroel, so there should not be an argument about who deserves the first עליה - we follow a special order that no-one can argue with.

If so, it's more logical to go with Levi next if there is no Kohein - again for darchei shalom, so there should not be an argument about who deserves the first עליה. The case of a Levi but no Kohein is a bit of an 'edge case'- so minhag can prevail there. The minhag to give it to a Levi makes a great deal of sense and seems more in the spirit of the original, explicit takana.

To take it a step further, there is a סברה to uphold this minhag:

Why should the whole takana collapse because there is no Kohein? Calling a Levi first still maintains darchei shalom.

Unless we can find a גמרא that states explicitly otherwise - that we should not call a Levi - it seems far-fetched to demand that a shul change its standing minhag simply because the poskim favor a different minhag, when the shul's minhag is entirely logical and reflects the spirit of the halacha.

One problem with this סברה might be that we are always concerned that someone who is not a Kohein could be confused for a Kohein if they are called first. Therefore we always say "ישראל במקום כהן" when a Yisroel is called instead of a Kohein.

We would certainly have to say "לוי במקום כהן" if we called a Levi, but perhaps that's not enough: Since people know that a Levi is special, they may confuse the Levi for a Kohein regardless.

A greater problem with this idea might be that although the reason stated for giving a Kohein the first עליה is because of that takana, the fundamental reason for choosing a Kohein over someone else reverts back to "וקידשתו" - from which Chazal learned that a Kohein should always be honored by putting him first. However "וקידשתו" does not apply to a Levi, and applying it to a Levi might actually be considered insulting to Kohanim in general.

All told, I tend to agree that calling a Levi first when there is no Kohein is not a correct minhag:
It could cause confusion about who is a Kohein and could even be an affront to the Kohanim in general.

Chazal told us to honor the Kohanim. When there is no Kohein, everyone is equal in that respect, and so we call the תלמוד חכם.

  • @DanF - I thought about this some more. The sugia is mashma that without the takana, it should go to the Gadol according to the halacha. The question of what to do when there is a Levi but no Kohein is an in-between case that is not mentioned there. In that case, minhag could determine what to do. I changed the answer to refect all this.
    – user4736
    Nov 28 '17 at 5:59
  • I'm sorry, you're answer sends me some confusing messages, still. I agree that it seems logical to maintain the order and have a Levi called ahead of a Yisra'el. But, it seems that Darchei Shalom applies only when a Cohen is present. I.e., in a sense, "there is no #2 when there is no #1." The problem is that choosing the Gadol, perhaps, disturbs the Darchei Shalom, as people could argue who the biggest "gadol" in shul really is. (I've been in a few minyanim with multiple Gedolim present. Fortunately, many Gedolim are modest :) So, it seems that using the Levi avoids this problem.
    – DanF
    Nov 28 '17 at 14:34
  • @DanF : The problem is that choosing the Gadol, perhaps, disturbs the Darchei Shalom - exactly - and that is why we take the Kohein - that is the takana. All this answer does is attempt to explain why some people use Levi, and then shlug that up because "there is no #2 when there is no #1." I think this is actually a very interesting question: What happens to Darchei Shalom when there is no Kohein around - are people supposed to go back to fighting? I like your auction idea, if the money goes to tzadaka (and that doesn't mean the rabbi's private fund...)
    – user4736
    Nov 28 '17 at 18:39

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