Megillah 30 - 32
The First Aliyah Blessing
Rabbi Meir says, “Open it (the Sefer Torah), look at it, close it, say the brachah, and then afterwards open it again and read (the verses) from it.” Rabbi Yehuda says, “Open it, say the brachah, and then read it.”
When a person is called up for an aliya, what does he do with the Sefer Torah before saying a brachah? The answer is disputed between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda in a beraita on our daf. Rabbi Meir mentions to close the Sefer Torah before saying the brachah, whereas Rabbi Yehuda does not mention closing it.
The gemara explains the reason for Rabbi Meir’s insistence on closing it before saying the beracha. He reasons that if the Sefer Torah was open during the brachah, some people might mistakenly think that the brachah is written in the Torah. It would be a serious issue for people to think so, and the person saying the brachah can avoid this problem by closing the Sefer Torah prior to the brachah. On the other hand, says the gemara, Rabbi Yehuda is not worried that people will make this mistake. Accordingly, he says there is no need to close the Sefer Torah beforehand.
In addition to the reason given in our gemara, other reasons are found in Torah sources for not closing the Sefer Torah before saying the brachah. Both reasons are based on the concept of time. One reason is that both closing it before the brachah and then reopening it afterwards to read from it require additional time not spent in prayers or Torah reading. This “downtime,” so to speak, poses a “bother” to the congregation (tircha d’tzibbura). Another reason not to close it before the brachah is to not make any type of interruption (hefsek) — even a brief period of time — between completing the brachah and beginning to read from the Torah.
Rabbi Zeira says in the name of Rav Masna in our gemara that the halacha is to “open it, say the brachah and read it” — without mentioning closing it before saying the brachah. This is the view if Rabbi Yehuda according to the beraita on our daf. The gemara explains that Rabbi Zeira did not say more succinctly that “the halacha is according to Rabbi Yehuda” since there are some Sages who teach the beraita with Rabbi Meir’s and Rabbi Yehuda’s names and views reversed. This ruling is cited as halacha in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 139:4. The Rema adds that the person should turn his head to the side while saying the brachah to completely avoid any iota of suspicion that the brachah is written in the Torah. The Rema suggests that the correct direction to face is slightly to one’s left side. The Magen Avraham offers a Kabbalistic reason. A person should view Hashem as being in front of him always, and when one faces left, he is facing Hashem’s right, so to speak. The Aruch Hashulchan offers a “practical” reason: since the person who will read the Torah is traditionally standing to the left of the person called up for the aliya, it is only fitting to face slightly towards that person.
For what it is worth, in my experience it seems that the widespread practice is to close the Sefer Torah before saying the brachah. This view is found in the teachings of the Ba’alei Tosefot here, who say that a person should ideally close the Sefer Torah first, due to the concern voiced in the gemara that, if left open, onlookers might wrongly think that the brachah is written in the Torah. (See the Bach, the Maharsha, the Pri Megadim, the Aruch Hashulchan and others to better understand how this practice does not contradict Rabbi Yehuda’s ruling and the gemara’s endorsement of his view as the halacha.) However, I have also seen individuals who say the brachah with their head facing slightly to the side. The Chafetz Chaim cites a variety of halachic opinions and their reasons in his Mishneh Berurah writings. In his work called Bi’ur Halacha he concludes that either practice is acceptable, providing it does not go against the custom of the community and the ruling of the synagogue’s rabbi.