The Meaning of ‘Semicha’

Jewish World

Semicha is a Hebrew word meaning “leaning.” But unless you are engaged in Jewish religious observance or have some Jewish education you may not know that it is a synonym for rabbinic ordination, says Sarah Bunin Benor, professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College and creator of the Jewish English Lexicon. So, how did a word meaning leaning become the way to describe the act of becoming a rabbi? The search for the answer starts in the Bible.

In Jewish tradition, Moses was the first rabbi; religious Jews universally refer to him as “Moshe Rabbenu” (“Moses our teacher”). Moses is not referred to as Rabbi in the Bible. But the Book of Numbers does describe 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 transfer some of his “majesty” to Joshua.

But why leaning, and not, for example, placing or resting? The act of leaning hands is found in only one other context in the Bible, and that is to describe how the priest and others offer their animal sacrifices—by leaning their hands with all their might on the head of the animal prior to the sacrifice.

What is really going on here? Rabbi Tzvi Marx, former educational director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and currently teaching Talmud in The Netherlands, suggests an answer based on a reading of these passages he learned from his master teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

In the sacrificial ritual, the animal takes the place of the person offering the sacrifice. By leaning with all one’s might on the head of the animal, the offeror symbolically is relying on the animal to offer himself to G-d. As Marx puts it, when Moses leans his hands on Joshua’s head with all his might, he is not just transferring power to Joshua; like the animal in the performative sacrificial ritual, he is putting Joshua in his place in a very visual way, symbolizing the Israelites’ reliance on Joshua to carry forward Israel’s mission into the future.

Unfortunately, says Rabbi Gil Student, editor of TorahMusings.com, there is little, if any, historical evidence in post-biblical times that the practice of “leaning hands” was used to transfer legal authority. Nor is there mention of semicha until the time of the Talmud (about 400 CE), a thousand years after redaction of the Bible.

Semicha is used in the Talmud to mean both rabbinic ordination and reliance. Tractate Ketubot, which deals with marriage contracts, discusses the merits of sitting or standing with and without semicha—support or leaning, while tractate Sanhedrin, covering rabbinic courts, refers to semicha as ordination of rabbis in the land of Israel. It also names different categories of semicha authority: 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.

Both meanings have stuck. The verb form of semicha, somaych, meaning “support,” is found in two prominent prayers in the contemporary daily liturgy, Psalm 145 (“Ashrei”) and the Standing Prayer (“Amidah”), both of which date back to ancient times.

Similarly, with respect to rabbinic ordination, there is an ancient tradition, recounted in Perkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), of a chain of transmission of legal authority from Moses and Joshua to later sages, from generation to generation, down through the centuries to the rabbis whose religious rulings are contained in the Mishna (about 200 CE). But nowhere does it state that conferring semicha involved leaning of hands. In fact, the commentary on the Mishna, the Gemara (about 400 CE), explicitly states that it was accomplished orally, by declaring “you shall be called rabbi,” not by leaning hands.

In ancient times, keeping the chain of semicha alive (passing the mantle of legal authority from one 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 liturgy for Yom Kippur contain numerous stories of rabbis being tortured to death for defying Roman laws outlawing the granting of semicha. Due to unrelenting pressure, granting semicha in the land of Israel ended in 358 CE, according to Rabbi Student. 

But despite the break in the chain of this “classical” semicha, during subsequent centuries, religious leaders developed “workarounds” to maintain religious authority. Rabbinical academies in Babylonia continued, but their graduates were called “rav,” rather than “rabbi.” Student notes that scholars of medieval Judaism have preserved documents from the latter days of the Babylonian academies (about 800 to 1000 CE) authorizing individuals “to rule and to judge.” Starting in the 14th century, with the dearth of rabbis after the Black Plague, a new two-tier ordination regime, which continued into the 18th century, granted lower levels of authority: chaver (associate), which allowed a qualified person to be a congregation rabbi with authority to answer easy legal questions, and moreinu, (our teacher) to authorize marriages and divorce.

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, the language used to grant semicha and the ceremonies conferring semicha are as diverse as the contemporary landscape of pluralistic American Judaism. Yet at the same time two trends have emerged. One, less traditional, is the widespread ordination of women rabbis, which started in the Reform movement in 1972 and has spread to the Reconstructionist, Conservative, Renewal and, most recently, to the Open Orthodox women’s Yeshivah Maharat. This has led to feminization of the language conferring semicha for women graduates—for example, changing yoreh, yoreh to toreh, toreh.

The other trend is in the semicha ceremony itself, the moment when semicha is conferred. The historical emphasis on the adjudicatory authority of the rabbi, reflected in the Talmud, and the academic and rational styles of the 19th and early 20th centuries have given way to a more personal and spiritual experience—ironically echoing the first biblical grant of semicha by Moses to Joshua, with its leaning of hands and transfer of spiritual “majesty.”

Reform Hebrew Union College provost Rabbi Andrea Weiss, prior to the semicha ceremony, studies with each graduate the biblical precedent of Moses leaning his hands on Joshua. She describes the moment when she places her hands on their heads [2:07:19 to 2:07:41] and gives, soto voce, the priestly blessing, as the culmination of the semicha ceremony. 

While the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary does not lay hands as part of the semicha ceremony, 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.

Perhaps the most interesting example of this trend is in the Reconstructionist movement. Its president, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, notes that biblical or classical semicha, with its “supernatural intimations of some kind of transmission of divine power,” was long seen by her movement 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 her hands as part of the graduation ceremony [1:31:10 to 1:31:47], which she describes as “an incredibly powerful experience.”

At the same time, the ordination ceremonies of both the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary [1:13:56 to 1:14:36] and the independent Hebrew College [4:26:36 to 4:28:26] echo the language of the Talmud, using variants of the language “you will be called rabbi” to cap their ordination ceremonies. While just a few use the interpretative meaning of semicha, reliance and dependence, it is a given that all of them are “leaning” on the new graduates to carry on the tradition of rabbinic leadership.


Opening image: “Moses Blesses Joshua” by Marc Chagall, 1966.

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