Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Semicha (Part I of III)

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Semicha refers to a diploma which certifies the recipient's proficiency in halacha,[1] and authorizes him to serve as a rabbi. However, semicha in its classical sense refers to the ancient hallowed ordination which traces its lineage from teacher to student all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu. The Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu ordained Yehoshua as his successor by performing semicha (lit. "laying of the hands") upon him.[2] Moshe also ordained the seventy elders of Israel, who in turn ordained additional students.[3] This chain of semicha continued right through to the Roman Empire, at which time a decree was made forbidding the continuation of rabbinical ordination.[4] There have been a number of attempts throughout history to reinstate this original semicha, though these efforts have ultimately been unsuccessful.

Click here to read moreThere is a widespread practice for men to endeavor to receive semicha prior to marriage. This is true even if one has no intention of serving as a rabbi in any professional capacity. The idea behind this is because the material studied in the course of rabbinical ordination includes many practical and useful topics which arise frequently in a Jewish home. In fact, we are told that one should endeavor to become proficient enough in halacha to the point where one will not need to contact a rabbi for halachic queries.[5] One should hold a celebration in honor of receiving semicha, complete with a festive meal and the singing of appropriate songs.[6]

It may have been the late Lubavitcher Rebbe who revitalized the practice of students studying for rabbinical ordination on such an extensive scale.[7] Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik was no less a pioneer in organizing and preparing students for rabbinical ordination – however, in most cases, he did so with the intention that graduates would enter the rabbinate in some professional capacity. The Rebbe encouraged it primarily for the advantages of being proficient in these areas of halacha but also for professional purposes. One should endeavor to receive semicha from three rabbis.[8]

Before a yeshiva or other semicha-granting institution admits a student to its semicha program, it is necessary for them to ensure that the candidate has already achieved a high level of scholarship. This is especially important because semicha programs do not generally delve into the details of routine halachic matters, as it is assumed that the student is already familiar with those topics. While the completion of a semicha program and receiving the title "rabbi" is certainly grounds for both celebration and honor, it does not in any way testify that the newly-ordained individual is proficient in every area of Torah law. The granting of semicha merely testifies that the recipient has studied and amassed knowledge in very specific areas of halacha. It does not imply that the graduate is especially knowledgeable in areas of halacha which were not part of his semicha studies. It does, however, imply that the ordained individual has been found competent to make decisions in other areas of halacha after carefully reviewing all the relevant texts. A rabbi who issues halachic rulings in areas of halacha in which he is not especially fluent is called "and evil and arrogant person".[9]

Next Week: "Yoreh Yoreh", "Yadin Yadin", "Yatir Yatir", and the enigmatic "Rav U'manhig"
Feel free to send me "tidbits" and "factoids" for inclusion.
(Thanks Amiel!)


[1] Rema Y.D. 242:14
[2] Bamidbar 27:15-23, Devarim 34:9
[3] Bamidbar 11:16-25, Rambam Sanhedrin 4:1
[4] Sanhedrin 14a
[5] Shulchan Aruch Harav Talmud Torah 4
[6] Ketubot 17a
[7] Sefer Haminhagim (Chabad) p.75
[8] Sanhedrin 13b
[9] Rambam Talmud Torah 5:30

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