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Semikhah (Hebrew: סמיכה, "leaning [of the hands]") or Semicha or Smicha, also smichut (סמיכות, "ordination"), smicha lerabbanut (סמיכה לרבנות, "rabbinical ordination"), or smicha lehazzanut (סמיכה לחזנות, "cantorial ordination"), is derived from a Hebrew word which means to "rely on" or "to be authorized".
Prevailing smicha generally refers to the ordination of a rabbi or cantor within post-talmudic Rabbinic Judaism, and within all modern Jewish religious movements from Reform to Orthodox. Smicha lerabbanut signifies the transmission of rabbinic authority to give advice or judgment in Jewish law; see Rabbi #Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Judaism. Although presently most functioning synagogue rabbis hold smicha lerabbanut 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" smicha lerabbanut even though they may occupy important rabbinical and leadership positions. Smicha lehazzanut signifies the transmission of authoritative knowledge about Jewish musical and liturgical traditions. Some cantorial institutions in the United States currently grant smicha lehazzanut to their students, while others use the term "investiture" to describe the conferral of cantorial authority onto their graduates.
Classical semikhah refers to a specific type of ordination that, according to traditional Jewish teaching, traces a line of authority back to Moshe ben Amram, The Men of the Great Assembly, and the Great Sanhedrin. The line of classical semikhah died out in the 4th or 5th century A.D. but it is widely held that a line of Torah conferment remains unbroken. Some believe evidence existed that classical semikhah was existent during the 12th century when semuchim from Lebanon and Syria were traveling to Israel in order to pass on Torah conferment to their students. Others, such as Rav Yisroel of Shklov (1770–1839), believed semikhah may not have been broken at all but that it continued outside of the land of Israel. Today many believe in the existence of an unbroken chain of rabbinical tradition dating back to the time of Moshe ben Amram ("Moses") and Yehoshua ben Nun ("Joshua") (See "The Unbroken Chain of Torah" below).
According to the Tanakh, 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, to an undetermined time.[original research?]
Traditionally Moses is also assumed to be the "first rabbi" of the Israelites. He is still known to most Jews as Moshe Rabbeinu ("Moses our Teacher"). Moses was also a prophet, and it is a fundamental Jewish belief that he was the greatest of all the Torah'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)
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. 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. In the Mishnaic era it became the law that only someone who had semikhah could give religious and legal decisions.
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. 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 Judah ben Bava, who took five students of the recently martyred Rabbi Akiva to a mountain pass far from any settlement or farm, and ordained all five students. 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. The five new rabbis – Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua – escaped and became the next generation of Torah leadership.
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. However, Theodosius I forbade the Sanhedrin to assemble and declared ordination illegal. (Roman law prescribed capital punishment for any Rabbi who received ordination and complete destruction of the town where the ordination occurred). It seems to have continued until at least 425, when Theodosius II executed Gamaliel VI and suppressed the Patriarchate and Sanhedrin.
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, and it later required the participation of at least one who had attained this status, himself. According to Maimonides the other two need not be semukhim. Semikhah represents an unbroken chain of tradition and authority dating back to the time of Moshe and Yehoshua. 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.
The Talmud lists three classes of semikhah issued:
- 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.
The decline of classical semikhah
The original line of succession seems to have died out in the 4th or 5th 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.
Some believe that classical semikhah may have even survived until the 12th century when semuchim from Lebanon and Syria were traveling to Israel in order to pass on semicha to their students.
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, Ashkenazi 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, 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". 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 Karo, who was later to become the author of the Shulchan Aruch, widely viewed as the most important code of Jewish law from the 17th century onwards.
In 1541, Karo succeeded Berab and he perpetuated the tradition by ordaining Moshe Alshich, Elisha Gallico and Jacob Berab II. In the 1590s, Alshich ordained Hayyim Vital, and between the years 1594 and 1599, Jacob Berab II ordained seven more scholars: Moses Galante, Elazar Azikri, Moses Berab (Jacob's brother), Abraham Gabriel, Yom Tov Tzahalon, Hiyya Rofe and Jacob Abulafia.
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. 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 this tribe had been distant from the rest of the Jewish people 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 the Holy Land 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 the Holy Land 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 in a series of articles in the Religious Zionist periodicals "Sinai" and "Hatzofeh," later gathered together in monograph form as "Renewing the Sanhedrin in our New State." 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, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was hesitant to support this goal, and the idea eventually died away.
Attempt in Israel in 2004
On October 13, 2004, orthodox rabbis of various streams met as a group in Tiberias and declared themselves to be a re-established Sanhedrin. The basis for re-establishing semikhah had been made by Rabbi Jacob Berab's Sanhedrin, as recorded by Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of Shulchan Aruch). An election was held, as required by halakha. Seven hundred rabbis were reached either in person or by writing, and Rabbi Moshe Halberstam of the Edah Charedis was the first to "receive semikhah" after Rabbis Ovadiah Yosef and Yosef Shalom Eliashiv found him fit, although he was too old to actually serve as a judge. He then ordained Rabbi Dov Levanoni, who ordained more rabbis.
This attempt was intended to improve upon 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 this Sanhedrin) said, "I'd be happy if in another few years these chairs are filled by scholars who are greater than us [sic] and we can say: `I kept the chairs warm for you.'"
The current attempt to re-establish the Sanhedrin is the sixth in recent history.
Status of current rabbis
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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.
In the UK, a communal minister who does not have semikhah has the title "Reverend" rather than "Rabbi".
The term Rav Muvhak (Hebrew: רב מובהק, alternative pronunciation: Rebbe Muvhak, Movhok, Movhak) refers to the person who taught a student rabbi "most of his knowledge". Thus, Muvhak could be understood as "principal", or "primary". Typical usage is to state that a particular student-Rabbi's Rav Muvhak is Rabbi A but the student-Rabbi also studied (or received Semikhah) from Rabbi B. Rabo (Hebrew: רבו, alternative pronunciation: Ravo) means his Rav/Rebbe/Rabbi, hence the term Rabo Muvhak, i.e. "his Principal Rabbi". Special honour must be given to a Rav Muvhak. In modern times most student rabbis are educated by a number of different rabbis. Therefore the term Rav Muvhak is now uncommon.
Ordination of cantors
In the US, some institutions "ordain" cantors (i.e. grant them semikhah), while others "invest" them. The term "investiture" was originally intended to make a distinction between the ordination of rabbis and that of cantors. However, in response to the increased responsibility of the cantor in contemporary American synagogues, some institutions such as Hebrew Union College (Reform) have recently begun to use the term "ordination" instead of "investiture." Other institutions that ordain cantors include Hebrew College (pluralistic), the Academy for Jewish Religion (pluralistic), and Aleph (Renewal). The Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) currently invests its cantors.
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- Talmud,Sanhedrin 13b
- Maimonides, Sanhedrin ch 4
- Talmud Sanhedrin 5b
- Sanhedrin 14a
- Nachmanides, Sefer Hazekhut, Gittin ch 4; Rabbenu Nissim, ibid; Sefer Haterumot, Gate 45; R Levi ibn Haviv, Kuntras Hasemikhah.
- A History of the Jewish People, by Hayim Ben-Sasson, Harvard University Press (October 15, 1985), ISBN 978-0-674-39731-6
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:3
- Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:3
- Mishneh Torah, Hilchoth Sanhedrin 4:11
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- Nadav Shragai, Now that there's a Sanhedrin, who needs the Supreme Court?
- http://www.dafyomi.co.il/bmetzia/halachah/bm-hl-033.htm - Bava Metzia, daf 33, sourced to R'Meir
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- 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.