Semicha in sacrifices
In the Hebrew Bible, semicha (literally "leaning") refers to the priest's placing of his hands before the offering of a korban (animal sacrifice) in the Temple in Jerusalem. This involved pressing firmly on the head of the sacrificial animal, thereby symbolically "transmitting" sins onto the animal or, in other interpretations, to transform the sacrifice into an offering acceptable to HaShem.
In the Hebrew Bible
- And he shall lay [samach] his hand upon the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.
It is also mentioned in Leviticus 4:24 with regard to the laying on of hands over one's sin-offering, before it was slaughtered: "And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the goat." In Pseudo Jonathan's Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, the translator of the verse explains its sense: "And he shall lay his right hand with force on the head of the goat." According to Philo of Alexandria, the custom of laying on of hands was done in order to aid him in developing a clean conscience, so that he can say without guile: "These hands have not taken a bribe to distort justice, neither have they divided the spoil, nor have they coveted, neither have they shed innocent blood, etc."
In the Talmud
The Jerusalem Talmud mentions that the first dispute in Israel concerned the laying on of hands (semicha) upon the head of one's sacrificial animal during a Festival Day, with applied force, some permitting the owner of the animal to do so, others forbidding him to do so.
The Babylonian Talmud provides a more detailed set of regulations for the practice of semicha.
- How does one lean [perform semicha]? The offering stands in the north, with its face towards the west, and the one who leans stands in the east, with his face to the west. And he places his two hands between the two horns of the offering; however, there may be nothing interposing between his [bare] hands and the offering; and he confesses over a chatat [sin-offering] the sins of a chatat, and over an asham [guilt-offering] the sins of an asham. and over an olah (burnt-offering) [...the sins of an olah]. (Talmud Yoma 36a).
The symbolism of this custom has been variously explained. According to Philo (De Victimis) the sacrificer intended his act to imply that "these hands have done no wrong, but have performed good and useful deeds." This, however, applies only to thank-offerings and meal-offerings, and not to sin-offerings or to offerings of atonement. Some rabbinical authorities,[who?] followed by some Church Fathers,[who?] interpreted "semikah" as meaning that the sacrificer, by laying his hands upon the animal, transferred his sins to it and imposed upon it the punishment which his conduct had merited (Sforno on Leviticus i. 5; Levi ben Gershon on Leviticus i. 4). Also important, here, should be the explicit teaching [Leviticus 16:21], "And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them [their sins] on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness."
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Many scholars hold that these interpretations are not well founded; many hold that there is no evidence that the Israelites believed that sins were actually transferred to the sacrificial animal through the laying on of hands. In this view, the recitation of the liturgical formula, rather than the ritual act, is the determining factor. This explanation of semikah, moreover, does not apply in the case of meal-offerings and thank-offerings, for they had nothing to do with a transference of sins. Since semikah was prescribed for sin-offerings and for offerings of atonement, as well as for meal-offerings and thank-offerings, it must have had a meaning which applied to all these various sacrifices, and must therefore have had some connection with the basal concept of sacrifice. In this view, the hands were laid upon the victim's head as implying on the part of the sacrificer the words: "This is my property, which I dedicate to God."
- Philo, De Specialibus Legibus (The Special Laws), book i, chapter 37, vss. 202–204.
- Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 2:2 [10b], cf. Babylonian Talmud, Betzah 20a et seq.