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Semicha (סמיכה -- meaning "leaning [of the hands]" or סמיכה לרבנות -- "rabbinical ordination") is a Hebrew word referring to what may be roughly translated as the "ordination" (in Hebrew: semichut סמיכות) of a rabbi within Judaism. It is the "transmission" of rabbinic authority in the form of an authorization to give advice or judgment in Jewish law. It is often referred to as rabbinic ordination.

A second 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.

Semicha in the times of the Hebrew Bible

According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses ordained Joshua through semicha. (Num 27:22-23, Deut 34:9). Moses also ordained the 70 elders (Deut 11:16-25). The elders later ordained their successors in this way. Their successors in turn ordained others. According to Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah this chain of hands-on semicha continued until the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (first century CE). After the Destruction of the Second Temple and the scattering of much of the Jewish people, the direct chain from Moses onward was broken.

Traditionally Moses is also assumed to be the "first rabbi" of the Children of Israel. Until the present time 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)

According to the commentary of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: Some say that this "laying of hands" actually denoted ordination (Talmud Sanhedrin 13b). According to others, Moses actually laid his hands on Joshua, but in later generations, it was not required for ordination (Yad, Sanhedrin 4:1,2). [1]

Semicha in the Mishnah and Talmud

Template:Judaism For some time, rabbis in the era of the Mishnah (until 200 CE) and the two Talmuds continued to ordain their successors through the semicha ceremony, but eventually the rabbis began to confer the title "rabbi" without a hands-on semicha; instead they used an oral or written formula. This is sometimes known as "neo-semicha".

In the Mishnaic era it became the law that only someone who had semicha could give religious and legal decisions (Talmud Sanhedrin 5b.)

Before 135 CE, only Jewish sages in Palestine had semicha, and thus were called rebbi (or "rabbi"). The sages of the Babylonian Jewish community had a similar religious education, but without the semicha ceremony they were called rav. As such, these early Babylonian Jewish sages deferred to the Palestinian Jewish sages.

The situation changed as a result of the failed revolution by Bar Kokhba in 132–135 C.E. The Romans put down the revolt, and the emperor Hadrian withdrew all support for the Sanhedrin, the supreme legislative and religious body of the Jewish people. According to the Mishna, Hadrian banned the granting of semicha; anyone who gave or accepted semicha was given the death penalty. Further, the Mishna states that if semicha is given, the very city in which the ceremony took place would be demolished (Sanhedrin 14a.)

Types of Semicha

The Talmud lists three classes of semicha issued (Sanhedrin 5a):

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 Yatir
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 sacrifices.

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

Post-Talmudic Semicha

The decline of classical semicha

According to most Jewish writers on this topic, sometime during the fourth century CE, during the time of Hillel II, the original semicha, with all the powers originally granted, ceased to exist.

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.

The Geonim, early medieval Jewish sages of Babylon, did not possess semicha, yet were formally known as "rabbis" and were entrusted with authority to make legal and religious decisions. Rabbinic ordination was not passed through the laying on of hands, but through a written certificate.

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. This practice was at first frowned upon by Sephardic Jews, who viewed the practice as "presumptuous and arrogant", and an imitation of gentile customs; 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".

Attempt by Rabbi Jacob Berab, 1538

In 1538 Rabbi Jacob Berab of Safed, Israel, attempted to restore the traditional form of Semicha. His goal was to unify the scattered Jewish communities through the re-establishment of a new 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 the hands to four rabbis, including Joseph Caro, who was later to become the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, widely viewed as the most important code of Jewish law from the 1600s onwards. Joseph Caro in turn ordained Moshe Alshich; Alshich in turn ordained Hayyim Vital.

Berab made an error by not first obtaining the approval of the chief rabbis in Jerusalem; when Berab later asked them to accept his authority, they rejected his request and protested his attempt to re-start traditional semicha. Levi ibn Habib, the chief rabbi in Jerusalem, wrote a treatise refuting the legality of Berab’s actions (Kunteres ha-Semikhah). 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

Israel ben Samuel Ashkenazi of Shklov; Talmudic casuist; born at Shklov about 1770; died at Tiberias May 13, 1839. One of a group of Talmudical scholars of Shklov who were attracted to Vilna by the Vilna Gaon, Ashkenazi was one of "the last arrivals," and attended upon the gaon as a disciple for less than a year. He gained Elijah's confidence, and was chosen to arrange for publication the gaon's commentary to the first two parts of the Shulḥan 'Aruk. That on the Oraḥ Ḥayyim was published in Shklov in 1803. Ashkenazi also published his master's notes to the tractate Sheḳalim of the Jerusalem Talmud, with a commentary of his own, under the title "Tiḳlin Ḥadtin" (Minsk, 1812). Later he emigrated to Palestine and became the head of the German and Polish congregations of Safed and then of Jerusalem. He was there surnamed "Ashkenazi" (the German), a name applied to all Jews of German extraction, in contradistinction to the Sephardim, who came originally from Spain or Portugal.

After a residence of several years in the Holy Land, Ashkenazi went to Europe as a "sheliaḥ" (emissary of the rabbis), to collect alms for the poor Palestinian Jews; and in that capacity he traveled through Lithuania and other parts of Russia. On his return to Palestine he wrote his chief work, "Pe'at ha-Shulḥan," which is intended as a sort of supplement to the Shulchan Arukh, supplying all the agricultural laws obligatory only in the Holy Land, omitted by Caro in his code. Israel also incorporated in this book the notes of Elijah Wilna to the tractate Zera'im, the first order of the Mishnah, and gave in addition a voluminous commentary of his own which he called "Bet Yisrael." The work was published in Safed in 1836 by the printing-house of Israel ben Abraham Back.

In the 1830’s, Rav Yisroel of Shklov, one of the leading disciples of the Vilna Gaon who had settled in Yerushalayim, 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 loosing 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. It is unusual that Rav Yisroel took this stance, because the majority of authorities hold that semicha can be given and received only in the Land of Israel.

Attempt by Rabbi Aharon Mendel haCohen, 1901

Attempt by Rabbi Zvi Kovsker, 1940

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 Judah 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 Ashkenazi 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 sects met in Tiberias and declared itself a re-established "Sanhedrin". The legal basis for their claim was found in Maimonides' writings (see above) as understood by Rabbi Jacob Berab and Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of Shulchan Aruch). The group in Tiberias intended to imitate the actions of Jacob Berab in 1538 by holding an election for a samuch (first ordained Rabbi). Seven hundred rabbis were contacted either in person or in writing and Rabbi Moshe Halberstam of the Edah Charedis was elected.

Some in the haredi world claim that he was the first to receive classical semicha in two thousand years. He participated in the project to reestablish the "Sanhedrin", only to the extent that the became first person to receive semicha. He was found to be “fitting to serve on the Sanhedrin" by both Sephardic Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and Ashkenazi Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv and no objectors came forward to oppose his receiving the ordination. Rabbi Halberstam then ordained Rabbi Dov Levanoni who, in turn, ordained the rest of the rabbis involved in the nascent Sanhedrin.

This attempt was intended to be an "improvement" on Jacob Berab's attempt by contacting seven hundred rabbis across Israel, as opposed to Jacob Berab's election by twenty five rabbis of Safed. In addition, to avoid disagreements over who was worthy to sit on the Sanhedrin, a Jewish Court of seventy one rabbis was immediately formed with whatever scholars were available, with minimal regard to their level of scholarship. The rabbis act as "place holders" and have publicly expressed their intention to step aside when a more worthy candidate is found. However this step, even if the semicha were valid, has cast doubt of legal status of the "Sanhedrin". This fact was recognized even by the "Nasi" of the "Sanhedrin".

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 for the pressing need for such an institution at this time, due to political climate created by actions of the State of Israel which have been perceived by various religious communities as actions against their interests. The Sanhedrin is seen as one of several attempts to form an alternative (in this case religious) leadership in Israel. However, though criticism from leading Rabbis is lacking, public support for it is equally lacking, so it remains unlikely that this particular attempt will gain acceptance within the Jewish community.

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 Shulkhan Arukh 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.

See also


  • Rabbi article in Encyclopedia Judaica Keter Publishing
  • Lauren Gelfond Feldinger, The Jerusalem Post, The Next Feminist Revolution Mar. 17, 2005
  • Orthodox women crossing threshold into synagogue, Marilyn Henry, Jerusalem Post Service, 15 March 1998
  • Jonathan Mark Women Take Giant Step In Orthodox Community: Prominent Manhattan shul hires ‘congregational intern’ for wide-ranging spiritual duties The Jewish Week, NY, 19 December 1997

External links