For the week ending 5 March 2005 / 24 Adar I 5765

Renewing 'Semicha'

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Matt in San Diego

Dear Rabbi,

I recently read in passing about how "semicha", the ancient practice of ordaining rabbis, is no longer in effect. Why is that, and cant it be re-established?

Dear Matt,

The term semicha literally means to place upon since it initially involved the masters placing his hands on the head of the recipient while conferring authority to him. The first person to receive semicha was Joshua, who was ordained by Moses: "He laid his hands upon him and commanded him, in accordance with what the Lord had spoken" (Num. 27:22). Moses also ordained 70 elders in order to help him guide and lead the people: "And I will increase the spirit that is upon you and bestow it upon them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone" (Num. 11:16).

Once the Jews entered the Land of Israel, semicha was performed only there (Rambam, Sanhedrin 4:6). That is why in the Talmud, sages living in Israel are referred to by the title Rabi whereas those in Babylon are called only Rav. After the Bar Kochba revolt, the Roman ruler Hadrian prohibited semicha, enforcing the death penalty against anyone who conferred, received or even lived in the town in which semicha was performed. In fact, the Talmud relates that Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba was executed for conferring semicha (Sanhedrin 14a).

In the year 1538, there was an attempt in Tzefat to re-establish semicha. The background of the story was as follows: During the Inquisition, many Jews fled Spain rather than endure forced conversion to Christianity. Among them was a special ten year-old boy, Yaakov Beirav, who fled with his family, became the chief rabbi of Fez at the age of eighteen, later became a member of the Rabbinical Court in Cairo, and eventually settled and opened a yeshiva in Tzefat.

Of those Jews who remained in Spain, some eventually regretted their public acceptance of Christianity, and many of them came to settle in Tzefat. According to Jewish law they could only attain complete atonement through the auspices of a court whose rabbis had the authority of formal semicha. Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, out of deep compassion for his fellow Jews, whose predicament he understood only too well, sought to help.

Regarding re-establishing semicha, Rambam wrote, "It seems that if all [meaning, a majority of] sages in the Land of Israel agree to appoint judges and confer upon them semicha, it would be re-established" (San. 4:11). Based on this, Rabbi Beirav ceremoniously gathered all the rabbis of Tzefat, who were the majority in those days, and received semicha from them. He then conferred it upon Rabbi Yosef Karo, Rabbi Moshe Terani (Mabit), Rabbi Moshe Galanti and Rabbi Moshe Cordovero.

Rabbi Beirav then sent an honorary envoy to confer semicha upon the Rabbi of Jerusalem, the great Rabbi Levi ben Chaviv (Ralbach). However, he refused to accept it and rejected the validity of the entire cycle of events. A prolonged disagreement among the great rabbis of that time ensued, without the matter being resolved. In the meantime, Rabbi Yosef Karo gave semicha to Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, who eventually gave semicha to the main disciple of the Arizal, Rabbi Chaim Vital. Because of the protracted debate, over several generations traditional semicha was gradually discontinued. So ended another episode of yearning in the long history of Jewish exile.

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