The Honor of Reciting the Torah Blessings:
The honor of standing next to the Torah and reciting the blessings is called an aliyah (plural, aliyot), Aliyah means “going up.” The word “aliyah” has both a spiritual and physical connation in that the person is physically going up to the Torah – usually on a bimah – and is also “uplifted” by his/her ascent. The privilege of having an aliyah is reserved for one who has reached bar/bat mitzvah age. It is important to note that one who has not had a formal bar/bat mitzvah ceremony may be called to the Torah While this custom may vary boys must be 13 to be called to the Torah. Girls may be 12.
There are two traditions concerning the way to approach the bimah when called for an aliyah. One custom is to ascend on the right and descend from the left, in accordance with the practice of approaching the altar in the Temple. The other tradition is to ascend to the bimah by the shortest route and descend by the longest, thus demonstrating that one is eager to be called for an aliyah but reluctant to leave.
In order to show respect and honor for the Torah, one should not leave the bimah immediately after reciting the final blessing. The Ashkenazi custom is to remain until the entire subsequent portin/aliyah has been read and the final blessing recited.
When descending from the bimah, the Ashkenazic custom is to greet the person with the phrase “Yasher koach,” which means “May you grow in strength” or “May your strength be directed in the right path.” The Sephardic expression is “Hazak uvaruch” (Be strong and be blessed). The person returning from the aliyah then responds “Hazak ve-ematz“(Be strong and of good courage).
The Talmud notes that the privilege of the first aliyah is given to a Kohen, the members of the priestly caste and descendants of Aaron. The second aliyah is given to a Levite, a descendant of the family that also played a major role in the Temple service. The remaining aliyot are distributed among the rest of the congregation, who are classified as “Israelites.” If no Kohen is present, an Israelite is called first. Many Reform and Conservative synagogues have abolished the distinction between Kohen, Levite, and Israelite because of the belief in equality for all their members.