Rabbis – the meaning of semichah or ordination

What qualifies someone to be titled as “rav”? His semichah,of course! Sadly, that only pushes the question a step backwards because the question remains: what exactly is semichah?

Five hundred years ago, the Abarbanel (commentary to Avos 6:2) was puzzled by this self-same problem: “After I came to Italy,” he writes, “I found that a minhag had spread of people granting semichah to one another…. I saw that it began with the Ashkenazim; they all give and receive semichah. I do not know from where they got this heter…” Actually, a comprehensive answer to his question had been penned a hundred years earlier.

A Desperate Appeal

Around the end of the fourteenth century, the Rivash’s (Responsa 271) received a desperate letter. France was in turmoil following a disagreement between Rav Yeshaya (who lived out-side France) and the leading Rav of France, Rav Yochanan ben Matisya-hu. Rav Yeshaya had appealed for the support of the Maharam (Rav Moshe) HaLevi of Vienna. In response, the Maharam granted Rav Yeshaya, un-der pain of cherem, exclusive control of the French Rabbinate. From then on, rabbonim in France would no longer have independent control of granting semichah.

If anyone dared be tofeis yeshivah (serve as rav) without Rav Yeshaya’s permission, the cherem warned, every get and chalitzah he issued would be invalid, and any vessel that he ruled as kosher would be treif like an idol-atrous vessel. France roiled in reaction to this decree. Even if the Ma-haram was one of the greatest and oldest contemporary sages, did this give him the right to issue decrees in France without the agreement and acceptance of its communities!

To clarify whether the Maharam possessed the power to make such a cherem or not, the Rivash felt it necessary to define semichah in our times.

“First of all,” he writes, “we must explain the definition of this semichah prevalent in France and Germany whereby rabbis receive semichah and grant it to others.”

First, the Rivash emphasizes that modern semichah has absolutely nothing to do with the ancient semichah that existed from the time of Moshe until the times of Chazal.

“The semichah that existed in the days of Chazal was in order to judge cases that involved capital penalties or fines,” he writes. “To judge such cases required mumchin, that is semuchim, people who received semichah from others, who had themselves received it from other semuchim, one from an-other until Moshe Rabbeinu himself. Nowadays, however, semichah has been lost and interrupted, since no one has semichah that extends back to the Master of Prophets. Also, semichah [of this sort] cannot take place outside the Holy Land, as both the giver and receiver of semichah must be in the Land.”

Having proved that our type of semichah is not the same as that which was passed down from Moshe Rabbeinu, the Rivash raises a second possibility.

Perhaps the purpose of our semichah is to give bite to rabbis’ rulings and force people to obey them. There is historical precedence for this, as Chazal derive from the verse, “The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda, nor sovereignty from between his legs” ( Bereishis 49:10). The Reish Galusa in Bavel and the Nasi of Eretz Yisroel had status similar to that of Jewish kings and could judge any Jew forcibly, whether he liked it or not. Not only did the Reish Galusa and Nasi have such powers; anyone appointed as their proxy could also judge the people by force and was exempt from paying compensation even if he delivered an erroneous verdict. If so, conjectures the Rivash, perhaps the purpose of semichah in France and Germany serves the same purpose of enabling rabbis to judge people by force and exempt them from paying compensation.

“This too is impossible,” he writes. “Because if so, they would have to receive permission either from the Reish Galusa who has power to rule by force everywhere, as he had power from the kings of Persia and was like a king over the Jewish exile, or from the Nasi of Eretz Yisroel who was the greatest member of the Sanhedrin. But all this has been lost through our sins. We have no scepter and no sovereignty.”

Denied the second explanation of semichah, the Rivash raises a third possibility. Perhaps modern semichah merely grants rabbis the right to pasken.

“This too is impossible,” he objects. “Because if he is not proficient in learning, permission would not help, and if he is proficient in learning and worthy of paskening, he needs no permission.”

Eggs and Swamp Water

The Rivash therefore concludes with a fourth explanation. Modern semichah is required because of a decree that forbids any disciple from paskening without the permission of his teacher, even if his teacher lives in another country. The event that trig-gered this decree is described in the Gemora (Sanhedrin 5b):

“Rebbe once went to a place and saw people kneading their dough in impurity.

“He asked them, ‘Why are you kneading your dough in impure [vessels]?’

“They replied to him, ‘A certain talmid came here and gave us a ruling that swamp water does not make [food] susceptible to impurity.’”

Actually, the talmid had told them egg liquid (mei beitzim) does not make food susceptible to impurity, and they thought he meant swamp water (mei betza’im ). Therefore, they were happily using swamp water for their dough and kneading it in impure vessels. Seeing the damage that can result from irresponsible pesak, Rebbe decided to take stern measures.

“At that time,” the Gemora says, “[Rebbe] made a decree that a talmid may not issue a ruling without permission from his rav.”

This, the Rivash decides, is also the reason for modern semichah.

“Accordingly, we can say that the semichah customary in France and Germany is like this,” he writes. “When the talmid reaches the stage that he can pasken… and is only prevented from doing so because of the decree this is forbidden unless he receives permission from his teacher, or if his rav gives him permission to establish a yeshivah anywhere and darshen and teach whoever comes to ask, this is when he calls him rav. That is, from now on it is considered as if he is no longer a disciple, but fit-ting to teach others everywhere and be called a rav.”

This de finition of semichah led the Rivash to conclude that there was no reason for the Jews of France to be concerned about the Maharam of Vienna’s decree.

“I say that one need not be con-cerned at all about the decree of Ma-haram HaLevi on the communities of France and its sages if it includes all the sages and disciples who are not his talmidim and not talmidim of Rav Yeshaya,” he concludes. “Because even if it is well known that Maharam HaLevi is outstanding in wisdom and outstanding in old age, he is nonetheless not the Nasi, the greatest of the great Sanhedrin, who stands over our people in proxy for Moshe Rabbeinu and makes decrees over Yisroel…”

In other words, since the Maharam of Vienna was not like the Reish Ga-lusa who had power over the whole Diaspora, nor like the Nasi who had power over Eretz Yisroel, he had no right to enact decrees against the Jews of France.

The Remo (Y.D. 242:14) sums up the Rivash’ position as follows:

“The semichah we have nowadays is so that people should know that he is proficient in halachah and that whatever he rules is with the permission of his teacher. Therefore, if his teacher died, he does not need semichah.

In other words, semichah serves two purposes. Principally, it is the teacher’s formal sanction for his talmid to issue halachic rulings. It also serves a subsidiary purpose of informing people that the talmid is halachically proficient. Because of this subsidiary reason, many talmidei chachomim receive semichah not only from their teachers, but also from Poskim with whom they may have had little contact beforehand. The story of the Tzefas Semicha Controversy during the time of the Beis Yosef is best left for another day.

Times Change

Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos 3:241) argues that semichah has undergone another metamorphosis in recent times.

“Nowadays,” he complains, “the title of rav is not at all in accordance with halachah. Today, an avreich who learns Yoreh Dei’ah up to chapter 110 and receives semichah as a rav, imagines that he is a proper rav and paskens matters of Shabbos, berachos, and kashrus, even in difficult issues. … However, nowadays many serve as rav only in order to deliver droshos or to be mekarev people and teach them Torah… Thus the bad situation in our time has a side benefit – the title of rav helps those people who give droshos and work with the tzibbur.

This would indicate that unlike original semichah of Moshe Rab-beinu, which substantiated its conferee as being expert in the entire Torah (see Shach YD 242:14), today’s semichah doesn’t necessarily mean much at all. Each semichah stands on its own merits.

This is reminiscent of the situation in the Mishnah, where the most honored title is to have no title at all (Rambam intr. to Peirush Hamish-nayos):

“The  Author  [of  the  Mishnah, Rebbe], divided the 128 people mentioned in the Mishnah into three levels,” the Rambam writes. “Whomever he considered very honored above all levels he called by his name, such as Hillel and Shamai, Shemaya and Avtalyon. This was due to their greatness and honored status, since it was impossible to find a title sufficiently honorable for their name just as there is no title for the prophets.

“On the other hand, he gave the title of Raban to those sages he considered below this level, such as Raban Gamliel, and Raban Yochanan ben Zakai. Those whom he considered below this level he titled Rabi, such as Rabi Meir and Rabi Yehuda. He also entitled people of this level Aba, such as when he says Aba Shaul.”

Thus, we live in an upside down world. Just as Chazal warn that those on the top in this world may be the most lowly in the next, so people’s titles are often little more than skin deep.

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