S'micha

'''Semicha''' ("leaning [of the hands]"), also semichut ( "ordination"), or semicha lerabbanut ("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. Writers in the Middle Ages wrote that this line of succession seems to have died out sometime during the fourth or fifth century CE, and the original semicha, with all the powers originally granted, ceased to exist. Other writers disagree.

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.

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. There are records of this chain of hands-on semicha continuing 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

Eventually Semicha came to no longer require a literal laying on of hands; the operative part of the ceremony consisting of a court of three, at least one of whom himself had semicha, conferring the authority on the recipient.[1] Semicha had gradually become a verbal blessing, embrace, and reception of a diploma. This is known as Neo-Semicha. It was later ruled that 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.

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 two other rabbis and fifty students to a mountain pass far from any settlement or farm, the three rabbis ordained all fifty students, and when the Romans attacked them Rabbi Yehuda blocked the pass with his body allowing the others to escape.[4]

Many medieval authorities believed Semicha came to an end during the reign of Hillel II, around the year 360 CE.[5] However other records reveal that it continued at least until 425, when Theodosius II executed Gamaliel VI and suppressed the Patriarchate and Sanhedrin.

A minority of Jewish writers maintain that a form of the original semicha continued to be practiced in small numbers as late as the eleventh century CE.


Other writers say it may have survived until the 12th century; claiming that even when there were no yeshivot - or any Jewish life to speak of - in Israel itself, semuchim from Lebanon and Syria would travel there in order to pass on semicha to their students, and continued until the closure of the Damascus yeshiva in the 12th century.

Finally there are theories claiming Semicha survived into the twenty first century (see "Modern Theories of Unbroken Semicha" below).

Types of Semicha

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

'''Yoreh Yoreh'''

The recipient of this semicha demonstrated sufficient education and proper judgement to be able to render halakhic judgements on matters of religious law as it pertained 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 judgement to be able to render halakhic judgements on matters of religious law as it pertained to monetary and property disputes.

'''Yatir Bechorot Yatir'''

The recipient of this semicha demonstrated sufficient education and proper judgement 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'''

<br>There are no&nbsp;collaborating records of Semicha beyond 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). Transmission of the Torah accompanied by a verbal blessing and an embrace is known as Neo-Semicha. 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 seems 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.' [7]

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.

Modern Theories of Unbroken Semicha

There is never a shortage of modern theory&nbsp;surrounding that which has mystique such as the Ark of the Covenant and more recently, although certainly not as well known, the Semicha.&nbsp;Concerning the unbroken chain of Semicha two theories of interest have been recently been proposed&nbsp;:

'''A Lost Tribe'''

Rambam wrote, "If there is one with uninterrupted semicha, you do not require everyone’s agreement." This seems to indicate he did not view cessation of Semicha as conclusive. Rav Yisroel of Shklov seems to have shared this view inasmuch as he attempted to discover Semicha in Yemen in the 1830s. His answer to the objection of Semichut being conferred in Yemen instead of Israel was centered around the fact that they had been distant from the rest of Klal Yisroel before such a ruling had been accepted. Since they knew nothing of this ruling and had obviously not accepted it themselves, there was a possibility they were still keeping the institution of semicha alive. This attempt ended in failure.

Research discoveries reveal Rav Yisroel may not have been in the right area at the wrong time. . Dr. Tudar Parfitt of London University discovered evidence that a group of Jewish people left Israel 2,500 years ago settling in Yemen and populating a city their oral tradition remembered as Senna.[8] Unfavorable conditions forced them to travel onward ultimately settling around the area of Zimbabwe. They began to assimilate with the surrounding gene pool. They passed down from generation to generation the tradition that they were Jewish and had an unbroken ordination succession (both Cohanim and some non-Cohanim Lemba claim Semicha). Magdel le Roux quotes a Lemba saying, "The succession is just from our forefathers right up to this generation." For many years scientists laughed at this group of black people who called themselves Jewish. Scepticism gave way to research when the Lemba were tested and found to share the same genes as Jewish people in Israel as well as having the Y chromosomal genetic markers, known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype.

Dr. Rudo Mathiva stated, " We, the Jewish community are guilty--guilty because we never accepted what the Lemba had always maintained...until [the] genetic proof recently&nbsp;; that their story was a part of ours. We are guilty because we rejected them. "

The question that now remains is if they were indeed accurate in oral traditon concerning their origins is there also merit for their claim of possessing an unbroken chain of Semicha?

'''TRANSMISSION OF TORAH'''

Dr. Curtis Ward of Ohio State Divinity College, ( who has researched the history of Semicha and has done research among the Lemba) proposes that in times when persecution prohibited the existence of ordained Rabbi’s that the father automatically became Rabbi (“teacher”) of the home and passed his rabbinical blessing to his son (or children) until such time the classical form of Semicha was able to be resumed . He says that perhaps it should be reconsidered what was halackally acceptable as transmission of Semicha in times when those conferring Semicha were being put to death. In this view the missing links in the Semicha chain would be the transmission from teacher to student (or father to son) consisting of Torah teaching, pronunciation of blessing(which was always an integral part of Semicha), and the embrace. This could be viewed as having been acceptable until such a time that the classical Semicha could be resumed by Rambam's suggestion of all the sages of Israel coming together, unanimously ordaining judges, and then resuming classical Semicha. This is the most practical and pragmatic approach . If , as many believe, there was an unbroken chain of transmission of Torah, there by necessity must be a teacher to transmit it and a student to receive it, and this done in perpetual succession.[9]

Dr. Wards most unorthodox suggestion is the Semicha survived in the persecuted outcasts of the mainstream Church through the dark ages. It is pointed out that Apostle Paul; was a Pharisee of high standing with Semicha as were many other Pharisees which joined themselves to the early Nazerine body of believers. These believers ordained others ad infinitum continuing to the time of the Anabaptist.[10]

It is claimed Semicha survived in Europe with a small group in America and one in Israel claiming to have recieved it from this source.[11]

None of the abovementioned theories have gained mainstream acceptence but many smaller groups are showing an interest.

Balebatim

Many Jewish leaders maintain that "ordination" is not a requirement for being a leading Jewish rabbi. There have been many laymen "balebatim" who have semicha and are officially "ordained" but do never practice as rabbi. There are other Jewish religious leaders who are simply born into families, like the sons of Hasidic Rebbes who become the leading rabbi/s without any formal "ordination" . They say the notion of the "greatness" of "ordination" in the Western Christian world is non-Jewish, and alien to the classical requirements whereby a Jewish spiritual leader should be first and foremost a very great Talmid Chacham, often one who has published rabbinic literature and an admired Tzadik . It is in this manner that rabbis have historically been defined and recognized by Jews and Judaism, and the way all known Jewish books, magazines, and articles have written about them.

Notes

1^ Talmud, Sanhedrin 13b .

2^ Maimonides, Sanhedrin ch 4 .

3^ a b Talmud Sanhedrin 5b . ^ Talmud, Sanhedrin 14a .

4^ Nachmanides, Sefer Hazekhut, Gittin ch 4; Rabbenu Nissim, ibid; 5 Sefer Haterumot, Gate 45; R Levi ibn Haviv, Kuntres Hasemicha. .

6^ Rav Moshe Halberstam, First to Renew Semikha, Dies at 74. Israel National News. .

7^ Road to Redemption, Brill, Parfitt, Dr. Tudor .

8,-11^ Bloodstains, Heritage Publications, Ward, Dr. Curtis, 2007

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.

The Sages have said:

And the King Messiah will be revealed and all the nations of the world will gather around King Messiah, and the verse will be fulfilled, 'The root of Jesse which standeth as the peoples' ensign, unto it shall the nations seek, and his resting place shall be glory. (Isaiah 11:10)'

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