Jewish Word | Semicha—When a Rabbi Becomes a Rabbi

Semicha is a Hebrew word meaning “leaning.” It’s also a widely used synonym for rabbinic ordination—the act that makes a rabbi a rabbi. What’s the connection between the rabbinate and a physical movement that at first seems to have nothing to do with rabbinic functions? The search for the answer starts in the Bible.

In Jewish tradition, Moses was the first rabbi; religious Jews refer to him as “Moshe Rabbeinu,” Moses our teacher. Though the Bible itself never uses that term, the Book of Numbers describes exactly how Moses, at the end of his life, per G-d’s instructions, transfers his authority as the leader and chief judge of the Israelites to Joshua: Moses “leans” his hands (“yismoch et yadav”) on Joshua’s head to pass on his spiritual “majesty” to his successor. This act of “leaning of hands” is found in only one other context in the Bible, when the priest and others lean their hands with all their might on the head of the animal prior to a sacrifice. Rabbi Tzvi Marx, former educational director of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, cites a teaching of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in suggesting that in both kinds of leanings, the person doing the leaning is demonstrating his reliance on the other to carry out his obligation—in the case of the animal, to be sacrificed on his behalf, and in the case of Joshua, to carry forward Israel’s mission.

The word semicha turns up as a noun for the first time in Talmudic times, around 400 CE. The Talmud uses it to mean both ordination of rabbis in the land of Israel and, in other contexts, reliance—in the sense of leaning on or being supported physically. It also names two levels of semicha or rabbinic authority still in use: Yoreh, yoreh (“May he teach? He may teach”) for questions about what is permitted or forbidden, and Yadin, yadin (“May he adjudicate? He may adjudicate”) for cases about monetary matters. The concept is also alluded to in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), part of the Mishna, around 200 CE. There it refers to an ancient tradition that there was a line of transmission of legal authority from Moses and Joshua to later sages, from generation to generation, through the centuries, to the rabbis whose religious rulings are contained in the Mishna. By this time, however, there’s no mention of the actual act of the leaning of hands; in fact, the commentary on the Mishna, the Gemara, written about 400 CE, explicitly states that the transmission of authority was accomplished orally, with the declaration, “You shall be called rabbi.”

For centuries, rabbis were concerned about keeping the original chain of semicha alive in the land of Israel. Passing legal authority from a rabbi to his students was considered so essential to the preservation of the Jewish people and the continuity of Judaism that rabbis gave their lives to do so. The Talmud and the Yom Kippur liturgy contain stories of rabbis being tortured to death for defying Roman laws outlawing the granting of semicha. Eventually, though, under unrelenting pressure, the chain of semicha was broken in 358 CE, according to Rabbi Gil Student, editor of TorahMusings.com.

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Nevertheless, religious leaders continued to ordain successors, developing work-arounds, such as new terms for rabbi and new categories of semicha. Starting in the 14th century, given the dearth of rabbis in Europe after the Black Plague, a new two-tier ordination regime, which continued there into the 18th century, granted lower levels of rabbinic authority: chaver (associate), which allowed a qualified person to be a congregation’s rabbi with authority to answer easy legal questions, and moreinu (our teacher), to authorize marriages and divorces.

By the 19th century, some rabbinical schools became more like colleges, granting certificates of ordination. These schools, says Student, often conferred yet another lower level of ordination and stated that the graduate could serve as a “rabbi and a leader”—rav u manhig. Many ultra-Orthodox yeshivas still use this designation today.

Nevertheless, most denominations today use the word semicha when ordaining their rabbis, in ceremonies as diverse as the contemporary landscape of pluralistic American Judaism. Reform Hebrew Union College Provost Rabbi Andrea Weiss studies the biblical precedent of Moses and Joshua with each graduate prior to ordination. She describes the moment when she places her hands on their heads and gives the priestly blessing as the culmination of the semicha ceremony. While the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary does not lay hands, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, head of its rabbinic program, notes that the “spiritual aspect,” including blessing by a rabbinic mentor, has recently become an important element of the ordination ceremony.

And the president of the Reconstructionist movement, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, notes that biblical semicha, with its “supernatural intimations of some kind of transmission of divine power,” was long seen as inconsistent with Reconstructionist theology. Yet, in response to her students’ desire for “a more intimate and relational experience in the ritual of becoming a rabbi,” five years ago she began laying hands as part of the graduation ceremony, which she describes as “an incredibly powerful experience.”

Rabbi and poet Rachel Barenblat describes her ordination in the Jewish Renewal movement this way: “Someone murmurs ‘Lean back,’ and I do. Feeling the pressure of my teachers’ hands as they transmit blessing, I am shaking. Something ineffable is happening, something I cannot verbalize or explain.”

Opening picture: Photo credit: Marc Chagall

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