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Semikhah (Hebrew: סמיכה‎, "leaning [of the hands]"), also semichut (Hebrew: סמיכות‎, "ordination"), or semicha lerabbanut (Hebrew: סמיכה לרבנות‎, "rabbinical ordination") is derived from a Hebrew word which means to "rely on" or "to be authorized". It generally refers to the ordination of a rabbi within Judaism. In this sense it is the "transmission" of rabbinic authority to give advice or judgment in Jewish law. Although presently most functioning synagogue rabbis hold semikhah by some rabbinical institution or academy, this was until quite recently not always required, and in fact many Haredi rabbis may not be required to hold a "formal" semikhah even though they may occupy important rabbinical and leadership positions.

Classical semikhah refers to a specific type of ordination that according to traditional Jewish teaching, traces a line of authority back to Moses and the seventy elders. This line of succession seems to have died out in the fourth or fifth century CE (See "The Unbroken Chain of Torah" below).

A third and distinct meaning of semikhah is the laying of hands upon an offering of a korban ("sacrifice") in the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, see Semicha in sacrifices.

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Semikhah in the times of the Torah

According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses ordained Joshua through semikhah. (Num  27:15-23, Deut  34:9). Moses also ordained the 70 elders (Num  11:16-25). The elders later ordained their successors in this way. Their successors in turn ordained others. This chain of hands-on semikhah continued through the time of the Second Temple, and at least until the time of Hillel II.

Traditionally Moses is also assumed to be the "first rabbi" of the Children of Israel. He is still known to most Jews as Moshe Rabbeinu ("Moses our Teacher"). Moses was also a prophet and is considered to be the greatest of all the Hebrew Bible's prophets. Moses passed his leadership on to Joshua as commanded by God in the Book of Numbers where the subject of semikhah ("laying [of hands]" or "ordination") is first mentioned in the Torah:

  • Book of Numbers: "Moses spoke to God, saying, 'Let the Omnipotent God of all living souls appoint a man over the community. Let him come and go before them, and let him bring them forth and lead them. Let God's community not be like sheep that have no shepherd.' God said to Moses, 'Take Joshua son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hands on him'. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the entire community, and let them see you commission him. Invest him with some of your splendor so that the entire Israelite community will obey him. Let him stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall seek the decision of the Urim before God on his behalf. By this word, along with all the Israelites and the entire community shall he come and go.' Moses did as God had ordered him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the entire community. He then laid his hands on him and commissioned him as God had commanded Moses." (Num  27:15-23)
  • Book of Deuteronomy: "Joshua son of Nun was filled with a spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him. The Israelites therefore listened to him, doing as God had commanded Moses." (Deuteronomy 34:9)

Semikhah in the Mishnah and Talmud

Despite the name, the classical semikhah did not actually require a literal laying on of hands; the operative part of the ceremony consisted of a court of three, at least one of whom himself had semikhah, conferring the authority on the recipient.[1] Both the givers and the recipient had to be in the Land of Israel, but they did not have to be in the same place.[2] In the Mishnaic era it became the law that only someone who had semikhah could give religious and legal decisions.[3]

The title ribbi (or "rabbi") was reserved for those with semikhah. The sages of the Babylonian Jewish community had a similar religious education, but without the semikhah ceremony they were called rav. The Talmud also relates that one can obtain the title of Rabbi by those to whom he teaches or counsels.

After the failed revolution by Bar Kokhba in 132–135 CE, the Romans put down the revolt, and the emperor Hadrian tried to put a permanent end to the Sanhedrin, the supreme legislative and religious body of the Jewish people. According to the Talmud, Hadrian decreed that anyone who gave or accepted semikhah would be killed, any city in which the ceremony took place would be razed, and all crops within a mile of the ceremony's site would be destroyed. The line of succession was saved by Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava's martyrdom: he took no other rabbis with him, and five students of the recently martyred Rabbi Akiva, to a mountain pass far from any settlement or farm, and this one Rabbi ordained all five students. These new Rabbis were: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehudah (ben Ila’i), Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua – an entire generation of Torah leadership. When the Romans attacked them, Rabbi Yehuda blocked the pass with his body allowing the others to escape and became one of Judaism's ten Rabbinic Martyrs himself by being speared 300 times. Hence, semikhah is also granted from one Rabbi to a new Rabbi, without the need of two witnesses, and the above five Rabbis carried on this tradition. The footnote gives a page of Talmud in Aramaic. See Sanhedrin 14a.[4]

The exact date that the original semikhah succession ended is not certain. Many medieval authorities believed that this occurred during the reign of Hillel II, around the year 360 CE.[5] However it seems to have continued at least until 425, when Theodosius II executed Gamaliel VI and suppressed the Patriarchate and Sanhedrin.[citation needed]

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The formula for Semikhah

The ancient formula for Semikhah was ‘Yoreh Yoreh. Yaddin Yaddin’ (‘May he decide? He may decide! May he judge? He may judge!’); and in the early days of rabbinical Judaism any ordained teacher could ordain his students.

The unbroken chain of Torah

Classical semikhah was granted by a court of three judges (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2a), and it later required the participation of at least one who had attained this status, himself. According to Rambam (hil. Sanherin 4:3) the other two did need not be semukhim. Semikhah represents an unbroken chain of tradition and authority dating back to the time of Moshe and Yehoshua. [6] It is believed that Hashem taught the Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu on Mt. Sinai in 1312 BCE and that since that time, the knowledge of Torah has been passed from generation to generation by the conferment of semikhah, rabbinic ordination, or the unbroken transmission of authority dating back to the time of Moshe. This unbroken chain of tradition is believed by many to have continued for over 3,300 years and continues to this day. [7] [8]

Types of Semikhah

The Talmud lists three classes of semikhah issued:[3]

Yoreh Yoreh
The recipient of this semikhah demonstrated sufficient education and proper judgment to be able to render halakhic judgments on matters of religious law as it pertains to daily life such as kashrut, nidda, and permissible or forbidden activities on Shabbos or Yom Tov.
Yadin Yadin
The recipient of this semikhah demonstrated sufficient education and proper judgment to be able to render halakhic judgments on matters of religious law as it pertains to monetary and property disputes.
Yatir Bechorot Yatir
The recipient of this semikhah demonstrated sufficient education and proper judgment to determine the ritual status of firstborn animals that have developed a blemish. This degree required extensive veterinary knowledge.

While the first two classes are still issued today, the last one is not.

Post-Talmudic Semikhah

The decline of classical semikhah

The original line of succession seems to have died out in the fourth or fifth centuries. The Geonim, early medieval Jewish sages of Babylon, did not possess semikhah, and did not use the title "rabbi". They were formally known as "rav" and were entrusted with authority to make legal and religious decisions.

Sometime after the Black Death struck Europe, the Jewish community was influenced by the formal issuing of diplomas conferred by European Christian universities. In the areas today known as France and Germany, Ashkenazic Jews began using the term semikhah again, this time using it to refer to a formal "diploma" conferred by a teacher on his pupil, entitling the pupil to be called Mori (my teacher). This practice was at first frowned upon by Sephardi Jews, who viewed the practice as "presumptuous and arrogant", and an imitation of gentile customs (in this case, the university doctorate); eventually however this practice was adopted by the Sephardic Jewish community as well.

Attempts to revive classical semikhah

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, rules that "if all the sages In Israel would unanimously agree to appoint and ordain judges, then these new ordinants would possess the full authority of the original ordained judges" (Hilchoth Sanhedrin 4:11). His code of law was accepted as normative by the majority of Jewish scholars since that time, though this section was mainly viewed as theoretical, especially because he concludes that "the matter needs deciding". The Sanhedrin of Rabbi Jacob Berab purported to enact this into practical law, changing minor details. However, since the legal existence of this Sanhedrin depends on the validity of Maimonides' view, the question is circular.

Attempt by Rabbi Jacob Berab, 1538

In 1538 Rabbi Jacob Berab of Safed, Land of Israel, attempted to restore the traditional form of Semikhah. His goal was to unify the scattered Jewish communities through the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin. At his prompting, 25 rabbis from the land of Israel convened; they ordained Jacob Berab as their "Chief rabbi". Berab then conferred semikhah through a laying on of hands to four rabbis, including Joseph Caro, who was later to become the author of the Shulchan Aruch, widely viewed as the most important code of Jewish law from the 1600s onwards. Joseph Caro in turn ordained Rabbi Moshe Alshich, who in turn ordained Rabbi Hayyim Vital.

Berab made an error in not first obtaining the approval of the chief rabbis in Jerusalem, which led to an objection to having a Sanhedrin at that time. One should note that this was not an objection to the semikhah, but to reinstituting a Sanhedrin. Levi ibn Habib, the chief rabbi in Jerusalem, wrote that when the nascent Sanhedrin took the authority of a Sanhedrin upon itself, it had to fix the calendar immediately. However, by delaying in this matter, it invalidated itself. Rabbi David ibn abi Zimra (Radvaz) of Egypt was consulted, but when Berab died in 1542 the renewed form of semikhah gradually ground to a halt.

Attempt by Rabbi Yisroel Shklover, 1830

In the 1830s, Rav Yisroel of Shklov, one of the leading disciples of the Vilna Gaon who had settled in Jerusalem, made another attempt to restart semikhah. Rav Yisroel was interested in organizing a Sanhedrin, but he accepted the ruling of Levi ibn Habib and David ibn abi Zimra that we cannot create semikhah by ourselves.

At the time the Turkish Empire was crumbling, and losing wars against Russia, Prussia, Austria and others. In attempt to modernize, the Turkish Empire opened itself up to more and more Western "advisors". For the first time the Arabian Peninsula and the Yemen was opened up to westerners. Scientists and Sociologists were convinced that in the Yemen lay communities that had been cut off and isolated from the western world for centuries. At the time, leading European scientific journals seriously considered that the remnants of the "Ten Tribes" would actually be found in the Yemen.

Rav Yisroel of Shklov, influenced both by this rush of scientific thought and interested in utilizing a suggestion of the Radvaz of receiving semikhah from one of the "Ten Tribes", specifically Reuven and Gad. Rav Yisroel charted out where he thought the Bnei Reuven were probably located, and sent an emissary, Rav Pinchas Baruch, to locate them (Sefer Halikutim to the Shabsei Frankel edition of Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11). Unfortunately, Rav Baruch did not succeed in locating the shevet of Reuven and he was either killed or died while attending to the medical needs of poor Yemenite villagers.

An interesting point of Jewish Law arises in that Rav Yisroel raised the question how could the Tribe of Reuven have kept the semikhah alive, since they were outside the Land of Israel and the semikhah can be granted only in Land of Israel. He answered that since the Bnei Reuven had been distant from the rest of Klal Yisroel before this ruling had been accepted, there is no reason to assume that they accepted this ruling, and there was a chance that they were still keeping the institution of semikhah alive.

Attempt by Rabbi Aharon Mendel haCohen, 1901

Rabbi Mendel collected the approval of approximately 500 leading Rabbis in favor of the renewal of Semikhah according to the view of Maimonides. His involvement in the founding of Agudath Israel and the intervening of World War I distracted him from implementing this plan.

Attempt by Rabbi Zvi Kovsker, 1940

Rabbi Zvi Kovsker came to Israel from Soviet Russia. Seeing the condition of Jews in the years leading up to World War II, he undertook an effort to contact and work with many Rabbinic leaders in Israel towards getting their approval for the renewal of Semikhah, and the reestablishment of a Sanhedrin, as an authentic government for the Jewish people (this was before the establishment of the State of Israel).

Attempt by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon, 1949

In 1948, with the establishment of the modern State of Israel, the idea of restoring the traditional form of semikhah and reestablishing a new "Sanhedrin" became popular among some within the religious Zionist community. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, Israel's first minister of religious affairs, promoted this idea. A small number of religious Zionist rabbis of Modern Orthodox Judaism's Rabbinical Council of America voiced support for this idea; some rabbis within Conservative Judaism entertained the idea as a potentially positive development. However, most secular Jews, most Haredim, and most non-Orthodox Jews did not approve of this goal. Israel's Chief Ashkenazic rabbi at the time, Isaac Herzog, was hesitant to support this goal, and the idea eventually died away.

Attempt in Israel in 2004

On October 13, 2004, a group of orthodox rabbis of various streams met in Tiberias and declared itself a re-established Sanhedrin. The basis of re-establishing semikhah had been made into halakha by Rabbi Jacob Berab's Sanhedrin as is recorded by Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of Shulchan Aruch). The group in Tiberias intended to learn from the mistakes of Jacob Berab in 1538 by contacting rabbis all over Israel instead of only local rabbis. An election was held, as required by halakha. Seven hundred rabbis were contacted either in person or in writing and Rabbi Moshe Halberstam of the Edah Charedis was the first to receive semikhah after Rabbis Ovadiah Yosef Yosef Shalom Eliashiv found him fit for this honour, although he was too old to actually serve as a judge. He then ordained Rabbi Dov Levanoni, who ordained some more rabbis.[9]

This attempt was intended to be an improvement on Rabbi Jacob Berab's attempt by contacting seven hundred rabbis across Israel, as opposed to Jacob Berab's election by twenty five rabbis of Safed. The current members mostly behave as place holders and have publicly expressed their intention to step aside when more worthy candidates join. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz the Nasi of the Sanhedrin said I'd be happy if in another few years these chairs are filled by scholars who are greater than us and we can say: `I kept the chairs warm for you.' [1]

The current attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin is the sixth attempt in recent history, but unlike previous attempts, there seems to be wide consensus among the leading Torah sages living in the Land of Israel of the pressing need for such an institution at this time, due to the moral climate created by actions of the State of Israel which have been perceived by communities around the world both Jewish and Gentile as controversial.

Not all present-day rabbis have semikhah

Although presently most functioning synagogue (i.e. "pulpit") rabbis hold semikhah, this was until quite recently not always required, and in fact many Haredi rabbis may possibly not be required to hold a "formal" semikhah even though they may occupy important rabbinical and leadership positions. The reasons being that what is prized in the communities they serve and lead is most of all a supreme mastery of the Talmud with a vast knowledge of the commentaries of the Rishonim and Acharonim and Responsa, added to knowledge of the Shulchan Aruch and Halakha ("Jewish Law"). Many Hasidic rebbes and Rosh yeshivas of major Orthodox yeshivas are not required to "prove" to their flocks that they do or do not hold formal semikhah because their reputations as Torah-scholars and sages is unquestioned and esteemed based on the recommendations of trusted sages, and the experiences and interactions that many knowledgeable Torah-observant Jews have with them, which thus gives practical testimony based on experience that these great rabbis are indeed worthy to be called as such. For example, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Chafetz Chayim, probably one of the most famous rabbis of the early 20th century, was trained and recognized as a rabbi, but did not hold semikhah until he had to apply for a passport. He realized that unless he obtained a written document of semikhah, he could not technically enter "rabbi" as an occupation without lying. He then received his semikhah by telegraph from Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Wilna, an unusual arrangement - especially in the early 20th century.

Most current poskim, however, do have semikhah. Just as a debate exists about who is a Jew, there is little consensus as to who is a rabbi. The Reform movement in a Responsa states that for their Temples, pulpit rabbis need to attend and complete their academic program at the Reform movement's Rabbinic schools. But they further state that this does not negate other sects of Judaism from accepting the time-honored semikhah of one-on-one. Nor do they deal with the issue of rabbis who are not pulpit rabbis but teach, study, and do research. They do say that the need for three rabbis is unneeded as the two additional rabbis are just witnesses and cannot attest to the new rabbi's knowledge. Orthodox Jews do not see Conservative or Reform Rabbis as being "Rabbis", and are usually careful to quality the title with the movement from which it originated. A "Rabbi" without qualified is assumed to be Orthodox, and hence, legitimate.

In the UK, a communal minister who does not have semikhah has the title "Reverend" rather than "Rabbi".

Rav Muvhak

The term Rav Muvhak (alternatively Rebbe Muvhak, Movhok, Movhak) refers to the person who taught one "most of his Chachmah" [10]. A simple definition for Muvhak is "primary". Typical usage is to state that a particular Rabbi's Rav Muvhak is Rabbi Aleph but he also studied/received Semikhah from Rabbi Gimmel. Rabo (alt. Ravo) means his Rav/Rebbe/Rabbi, hence the term Rabo Muvhak [11]. Special honour must be given to a Rav Muvhak [12]. In modern times most students are educated by a number of different rabbis so the term Rav Muvhak is now anachronistic [13].

See also

Notes

Further reading

  • Levitas, Isaac, Aaron Rothkoff, and Pamela Nadell: Semikhah. In: Encyclopaedia Judaica. Eds. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 18. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. p. 274-279.
  • Julius Newman: Semikhah (ordination). A study of its origin, history, and function in Rabbinic literature. Manchester University Press. Manchester 1950.

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Semicha (Hebrew: סמיכה‎, "leaning [of the hands]"), also semichut (Hebrew: סמיכות‎, "ordination"), or semicha lerabbanut (Hebrew: סמיכה לרבנות‎, "rabbinical ordination") is derived from a Hebrew word which means to "rely on" or "to be authorized". It generally refers to the ordination of a rabbi within Judaism. In this sense it is the "transmission" of rabbinic authority to give advice or judgment in Jewish law. Although presently most functioning synagogue rabbis hold semicha by some rabbinical institution or academy, this was until quite recently not always required, and in fact many Haredi rabbis may not be required to hold a "formal" semicha even though they may occupy important rabbinical and leadership positions.

Classical semicha refers to a specific type of ordination that according to traditional Jewish teaching, traces a line of authority back to Moses and the seventy elders. This line of succession seems to have died out sometime during the fourth or fifth century CE.

A third and distinct meaning of semicha is the laying of hands upon an offering of a korban ("sacrifice") in the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, see Semicha in sacrifices.

Contents

Semicha in the times of the Torah

According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses ordained Joshua through semicha. (Num  27:15-23, Deut  34:9). Moses also ordained the 70 elders (Num  11:16-25). The elders later ordained their successors in this way. Their successors in turn ordained others. This chain of hands-on semicha continued through the time of the Second Temple, and at least until the time of Hillel II.

Traditionally Moses is also assumed to be the "first rabbi" of the Children of Israel. He is still known to most Jews as Moshe Rabbeinu ("Moses our Teacher"). Moses was also a prophet and is considered to be the greatest of all the Hebrew Bible's prophets. Moses passed his leadership on to Joshua as commanded by God in the Book of Numbers where the subject of semicha ("laying [of hands]" or "ordination") is first mentioned in the Torah:

  • Book of Numbers: "Moses spoke to God, saying, 'Let the Omnipotent God of all living souls appoint a man over the community. Let him come and go before them, and let him bring them forth and lead them. Let God's community not be like sheep that have no shepherd.' God said to Moses, 'Take Joshua son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hands on him'. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the entire community, and let them see you commission him. Invest him with some of your splendor so that the entire Israelite community will obey him. Let him stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall seek the decision of the Urim before God on his behalf. By this word, along with all the Israelites and the entire community shall he come and go.' Moses did as God had ordered him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the entire community. He then laid his hands on him and commissioned him as God had commanded Moses." (Num  27:15-23)
  • Book of Deuteronomy: "Joshua son of Nun was filled with a spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him. The Israelites therefore listened to him, doing as God had commanded Moses." (Deuteronomy 34:9)

Semicha in the Mishnah and Talmud

Despite the name, the classical semicha did not actually require a literal laying on of hands; the operative part of the ceremony consisted of a court of three, at least one of whom himself had semicha, conferring the authority on the recipient.[1] Both the givers and the recipient had to be in the Land of Israel, but they did not have to be in the same place.[2] In the Mishnaic era it became the law that only someone who had semicha could give religious and legal decisions.[3]

The title ribbi (or "rabbi") was reserved for those with semicha. The sages of the Babylonian Jewish community had a similar religious education, but without the semicha ceremony they were called rav. The Talmud also relates that one can obtain the title of Rabbi by those to whom he teaches or counsels.

After the failed revolution by Bar Kokhba in 132–135 CE, the Romans put down the revolt, and the emperor Hadrian tried to put a permanent end to the Sanhedrin, the supreme legislative and religious body of the Jewish people. According to the Talmud, Hadrian decreed that anyone who gave or accepted semicha would be killed, any city in which the ceremony took place would be razed, and all crops within a mile of the ceremony's site would be destroyed. The line of succession was saved by Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava's martyrdom: he took no other rabbis with him, and five students of the recently martyred Rabbi Akiva, to a mountain pass far from any settlement or farm, and this one Rabbi ordained all five students. These new Rabbis were: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehudah (ben Ila’i), Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua – an entire generation of Torah leadership. When the Romans attacked them, Rabbi Yehuda blocked the pass with his body allowing the others to escape and became one of Judaism's ten Rabbinic Martyrs himself by being speared 300 times. Hence, semicha is also granted from one Rabbi to a new Rabbi, without the need of two witnesses, and the above five Rabbis carried on this tradition. The footnote gives a page of Talmud in Aramaic. See Sanhedrin 14a.[4]

The exact date that the original semicha succession ended is not certain. Many medieval authorities believed that this occurred during the reign of Hillel II, around the year 360 CE.[5] However it seems to have continued at least until 425, when Theodosius II executed Gamaliel VI and suppressed the Patriarchate and Sanhedrin.[citation needed]

Types of Semicha

The Talmud lists three classes of semicha issued:[3]

Yoreh Yoreh
The recipient of this semicha demonstrated sufficient education and proper judgment to be able to render halakhic judgments on matters of religious law as it pertains to daily life such as kashrut, nidda, and permissible or forbidden activities on Shabbos or Yom Tov.
Yadin Yadin
The recipient of this semicha demonstrated sufficient education and proper judgment to be able to render halakhic judgments on matters of religious law as it pertains to monetary and property disputes.
Yatir Bechorot Yatir
The recipient of this semicha demonstrated sufficient education and proper judgment to determine the ritual status of firstborn animals that have developed a blemish. This degree required extensive veterinary knowledge.

While the first two classes are still issued today, the last one is not.

Post-Talmudic Semicha

The decline of classical semicha

The original line of succession seems to have died out in the fourth or fifth centuries. The Geonim, early medieval Jewish sages of Babylon, did not possess semicha, and did not use the title "rabbi". They were formally known as "rav" and were entrusted with authority to make legal and religious decisions.

Sometime after the Black Death struck Europe, the Jewish community was influenced by the formal issuing of diplomas conferred by European Christian universities. In the areas today known as France and Germany, Ashkenazic Jews began using the term semicha again, this time using it to refer to a formal "diploma" conferred by a teacher on his pupil, entitling the pupil to be called Mori (my teacher). This practice was at first frowned upon by Sephardi Jews, who viewed the practice as "presumptuous and arrogant", and an imitation of gentile customs (in this case, the university doctorate); eventually however this practice was adopted by the Sephardic Jewish community as well.

Attempts to revive classical semicha

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, rules that "if all the sages In Israel would unanimously agree to appoint and ordain judges, then these new ordinants would possess the full authority of the original ordained judges" (Hilchoth Sanhedrin 4:11). His code of law was accepted as normative by the majority of Jewish scholars since that time, though this section was mainly viewed as theoretical, especially because he concludes that "the matter needs deciding". The Sanhedrin of Rabbi Jacob Berab purported to enact this into practical law, changing minor details. However, since the legal existence of this Sanhedrin depends on the validity of Maimonides' view, the question is circular.

Attempt by Rabbi Jacob Berab, 1538

In 1538 Rabbi Jacob Berab of Safed, Land of Israel, attempted to restore the traditional form of Semicha. His goal was to unify the scattered Jewish communities through the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin. At his prompting, 25 rabbis from the land of Israel convened; they ordained Jacob Berab as their "Chief rabbi". Berab then conferred semicha through a laying on of hands to four rabbis, including Joseph Caro, who was later to become the author of the Shulchan Aruch, widely viewed as the most important code of Jewish law from the 1600s onwards. Joseph Caro in turn ordained Rabbi Moshe Alshich, who in turn ordained Rabbi Hayyim Vital.

Berab made an error in not first obtaining the approval of the chief rabbis in Jerusalem, which led to an objection to having a Sanhedrin at that time. One should note that this was not an objection to the semicha, but to reinstituting a Sanhedrin. Levi ibn Habib, the chief rabbi in Jerusalem, wrote that when the nascent Sanhedrin took the authority of a Sanhedrin upon itself, it had to fix the calendar immediately. However, by delaying in this matter, it invalidated itself. Rabbi David ibn abi Zimra (Radvaz) of Egypt was consulted, but when Berab died in 1542 the renewed form of semicha gradually ground to a halt.

Attempt by Rabbi Yisroel Shklover, 1830

In the 1830s, Rav Yisroel of Shklov, one of the leading disciples of the Vilna Gaon who had settled in Jerusalem, made another attempt to restart semicha. Rav Yisroel was interested in organizing a Sanhedrin, but he accepted the ruling of Levi ibn Habib and David ibn abi Zimra that we cannot create semicha by ourselves.

At the time the Turkish Empire was crumbling, and losing wars against Russia, Prussia, Austria and others. In attempt to modernize, the Turkish Empire opened itself up to more and more Western "advisors". For the first time the Arabian Peninsula and the Yemen was opened up to westerners. Scientists and Sociologists were convinced that in the Yemen lay communities that had been cut off and isolated from the western world for centuries. At the time, leading European scientific journals seriously considered that the remnants of the "Ten Tribes" would actually be found in the Yemen.

Rav Yisroel of Shklov, influenced both by this rush of scientific thought and interested in utilizing a suggestion of the Radvaz of receiving semicha from one of the "Ten Tribes", specifically Reuven and Gad. Rav Yisroel charted out where he thought the Bnei Reuven were probably located, and sent an emissary, Rav Pinchas Baruch, to locate them (Sefer Halikutim to the Shabsei Frankel edition of Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11). Unfortunately, Rav Baruch did not succeed in locating the shevet of Reuven and he was either killed or died while attending to the medical needs of poor Yemenite villagers.

An interesting point of Jewish Law arises in that Rav Yisroel raised the question how could the Tribe of Reuven have kept the semicha alive, since they were outside the Land of Israel and the semicha can be granted only in Land of Israel. He answered that since the Bnei Reuven had been distant from the rest of Klal Yisroel before this ruling had been accepted, there is no reason to assume that they accepted this ruling, and there was a chance that they were still keeping the institution of semicha alive.

Attempt by Rabbi Aharon Mendel haCohen, 1901

Rabbi Mendel collected the approval of approximately 500 leading Rabbis in favor of the renewal of Semicha according to the view of Maimonides. His involvement in the founding of Agudath Israel and the intervening of World War I distracted him from implementing this plan.

Attempt by Rabbi Zvi Kovsker, 1940

Rabbi Zvi Kovsker came to Israel from Soviet Russia. Seeing the condition of Jews in the years leading up to World War II, he undertook an effort to contact and work with many Rabbinic leaders in Israel towards getting their approval for the renewal of Semicha, and the reestablishment of a Sanhedrin, as an authentic government for the Jewish people (this was before the establishment of the State of Israel).

Attempt by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon, 1949

In 1948, with the establishment of the modern State of Israel, the idea of restoring the traditional form of semicha and reestablishing a new "Sanhedrin" became popular among some within the religious Zionist community. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, Israel's first minister of religious affairs, promoted this idea. A small number of religious Zionist rabbis of Modern Orthodox Judaism's Rabbinical Council of America voiced support for this idea; some rabbis within Conservative Judaism entertained the idea as a potentially positive development. However, most secular Jews, most Haredim, and most non-Orthodox Jews did not approve of this goal. Israel's Chief Ashkenazic rabbi at the time, Isaac Herzog, was hesitant to support this goal, and the idea eventually died away.

Attempt in Israel in 2004

On October 13, 2004, a group of orthodox rabbis of various streams met in Tiberias and declared itself a re-established Sanhedrin. The basis of re-establishing semicha had been made into halakha by Rabbi Jacob Berab's Sanhedrin as is recorded by Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of Shulchan Aruch). The group in Tiberias intended to learn from the mistakes of Jacob Berab in 1538 by contacting rabbis all over Israel instead of only local rabbis. An election was held, as required by halakha. Seven hundred rabbis were contacted either in person or in writing and Rabbi Moshe Halberstam of the Edah Charedis was the first to receive semicha after Rabbis Ovadiah Yosef Yosef Shalom Eliashiv found him fit for this honour, although he was too old to actually serve as a judge. He then ordained Rabbi Dov Levanoni, who ordained some more rabbis.[6]

This attempt was intended to be an improvement on Rabbi Jacob Berab's attempt by contacting seven hundred rabbis across Israel, as opposed to Jacob Berab's election by twenty five rabbis of Safed. The current members mostly behave as place holders and have publicly expressed their intention to step aside when more worthy candidates join. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz the Nasi of the Sanhedrin said I'd be happy if in another few years these chairs are filled by scholars who are greater than us and we can say: `I kept the chairs warm for you.' [1]

The current attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin is the sixth attempt in recent history, but unlike previous attempts, there seems to be wide consensus among the leading Torah sages living in the Land of Israel of the pressing need for such an institution at this time, due to the moral climate created by actions of the State of Israel which have been perceived by communities around the world both Jewish and Gentile as controversial.

Not all present-day rabbis have semicha

Although presently most functioning synagogue (i.e. "pulpit") rabbis hold semicha, this was until quite recently not always required, and in fact many Haredi rabbis may possibly not be required to hold a "formal" semicha even though they may occupy important rabbinical and leadership positions. The reasons being that what is prized in the communities they serve and lead is most of all a supreme mastery of the Talmud with a vast knowledge of the commentaries of the Rishonim and Acharonim and Responsa, added to knowledge of the Shulchan Aruch and Halakha ("Jewish Law"). Many Hasidic rebbes and Rosh yeshivas of major Orthodox yeshivas are not required to "prove" to their flocks that they do or do not hold formal semicha because their reputations as Torah-scholars and sages is unquestioned and esteemed based on the recommendations of trusted sages, and the experiences and interactions that many knowledgeable Torah-observant Jews have with them, which thus gives practical testimony based on experience that these great rabbis are indeed worthy to be called as such. For example, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Chafetz Chayim, probably one of the most famous rabbis of the early 20th century, was trained and recognized as a rabbi, but did not hold semicha until he had to apply for a passport. He realized that unless he obtained a written document of semicha, he could not technically enter "rabbi" as an occupation without lying. He then received his semicha by telegraph from Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Wilna, an unusual arrangement - especially in the early 20th century.

Most current poskim, however, do have semicha. Unfortunately the sad reality, is just as the debate lingers as to who is a Jew, the debate lingers as to who is a rabbi. The Reform movement in a Responsa states that for their Temples, pulpit rabbis need to attend and complete their academic program at the Reform movement's Rabbinic schools. But they further state that this does not negate other sects of Judaism from accepting the time-honored semicha of one-on-one. Nor do they deal with the issue of rabbis who are not pulpit rabbis but teach, study, and do research. They do say that the need for three rabbis is unneeded as the two additional rabbis are just witnesses and cannot attest to the new rabbi's knowledge. Many orthodox sects do not accept Reform ordination, and definitely do not accept any female rabbis' ordination.

In the UK, a communal minister who does not have semicha has the title "Reverend" rather than "Rabbi".

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Talmud, Sanhedrin 13b
  2. ^ Maimonides, Sanhedrin ch 4
  3. ^ a b Talmud Sanhedrin 5b
  4. ^ Talmud, Sanhedrin 14a
  5. ^ Nachmanides, Sefer Hazekhut, Gittin ch 4; Rabbenu Nissim, ibid; Sefer Haterumot, Gate 45; R Levi ibn Haviv, Kuntres Hasemicha.
  6. ^ "Rav Moshe Halberstam, First to Renew Semikha, Dies at 74". Israel National News. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/news.php3?id=102678. 

Further reading

  • Levitas, Isaac, Aaron Rothkoff, and Pamela Nadell: Semikhah. In: Encyclopaedia Judaica. Eds. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 18. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. p. 274-279.
  • Julius Newman: Semikhah (ordination). A study of its origin, history, and function in Rabbinic literature. Manchester University Press. Manchester 1950.

External links



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