Continuation On What A Rabbi Is And The Meaning Of Semicha Ordination

I believe the meaning of the words “Rabbi” and “Semicha” have been largely corrupted in our generation.

It used to be that the title Rav was given to Tzadikim who had no self-interest in pretty much anything except Torah, Mitzvot, prayer, acts of lovingkindness and serving Hashem and the Jews. The ancient Kabbalistic technique of “Semicha” (leaning upon) of putting one’s hands over the student’s head to transfer part of one’s soul has also been forgotten and this concept means little more than a diploma for having studied the Shulchan Aruch nowadays.

True, the esteemed title of “Rav” carries with it an air of reverence, and many religious Jews seem to think that Rabbis are infallible and carry an untouchable aura of righteousness.

Not sure about you, but I used to think that.

Yet, this begs the question: what, indeed, is Semichah? And what do we learn from it?

A little history on how a Rabbi was made and Semicha was acquired

Venturing back five centuries, the Abarbanel, in his commentary on Avot 6:2, found himself entangled in the same enigma. His travels to Italy unveiled a curious minhag where individuals were granting semichah to one another. Puzzled, he traced its origins to the Ashkenazic tradition, where semichah seemed to be freely given and received, prompting him to query the legitimacy of this practice.

Little did he know that a comprehensive response to his quandary had been penned a century prior.

As we delve into the historical labyrinth of semichah, it becomes evident that this ancient practice is not just a ritual but a complex interweaving of tradition, scholarship, and spiritual lineage.

Which was lost, of course.

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In the twilight of the fourteenth century, the Rivash (Rabbi Yitzhak Ben Sheshet Perfet, Responsa 271) found himself entangled in the tumultuous affairs of France, a nation gripped by discord between Rav Yeshaya and the eminent Rav Yochanan ben Matisyahu.

The conflict escalated to the extent that the Maharam HaLevi of Vienna, in a move that reverberated with legal and spiritual implications, granted exclusive control of the French Rabbinate to Rav Yeshaya under a stern cherem (excommunication). This marked a seismic shift, stripping local rabbis in France of independent authority to grant semichah.

The cherem, wielded with grave consequences, threatened the validity of gittin and chalitzah issued by unauthorized rabbis and rendered any vessel they deemed kosher as treif (unkosher). France, a cauldron of dissent, questioned the Maharam’s right to issue such decrees without the collective agreement of its communities, even if the Maharam was a venerable sage.

To dissect the legitimacy of the Maharam’s cherem, the Rivash deemed it imperative to redefine semichah in their contemporary era.

“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.”

The Rivash emphatically asserts that modern semichah bears no resemblance to the ancient semichah of Moshe’s time until Chazal. The historical semichah, designed for judging cases with capital penalties or fines, required an unbroken chain of semuchim, individuals receiving semichah from others, ultimately tracing back to Moshe Rabbeinu himself.

However, in the Rivash’s era, semichah had been lost and could not take place outside the Holy Land. Clearly, what we have nowadays is only a facsimile of what used to be.

With the foundational differences established, the Rivash explores potential purposes of their type of semichah. Initially considering it as a means to enforce rabbinical rulings, paralleling the powers of the Reish Galuta in Bavel and the Nasi of Eretz Yisrael, he dismisses this notion due to the loss of such authoritative figures through the passage of time.

As he ventures into a third possibility—that semichah grants the right to pasken (give Halachic rulings) —the Rivash dismantles this idea as well. He argues that proficiency in learning is paramount, and if one possesses the necessary knowledge, permission becomes redundant.

In this intricate web of historical and Halachic intricacies, the Rivash navigates the multifaceted landscape of semichah, seeking to untangle its purpose and essence in the complex tapestry of Jewish legal tradition.

Sometimes even studying to becoming a Rabbi is enough to be granted Semicha

The need for modern Semicha

In pursuit of a comprehensive understanding of semichah, the Rivash presents a nuanced fourth explanation. According to his discernment, modern semichah is necessitated by a decree forbidding a disciple from issuing Halachic rulings without explicit permission from his teacher, even if the teacher resides in another country. The genesis of this decree, as recounted in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 5b), stems from a troubling incident witnessed by Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi).

Rebbi, encountering people kneading dough in impure vessels due to a misinterpreted ruling by a disciple, responded decisively by decreeing that no disciple could independently issue rulings without explicit permission from their teacher. The Rivash contends that this historical event, with its potential for erroneous psak, underpins the necessity for modern semichah.

The Rivash elucidates that the semichah custom in France and Germany aligns with this decree. When a disciple reaches a stage where they can pasken (rule) but is constrained by the decree, obtaining permission from their Rav transforms them into a Rav. At this juncture, they are considered fit to teach and guide others, signifying a transition from a disciple to a rabbinic authority.

This definition of semichah leads the Rivash to assert that the Jews of France need not be alarmed by the decree of the Maharam of Vienna. He contends that the Maharam, while distinguished in wisdom and age, lacks the authority akin to the Reish Galusa or the Nasi of Eretz Yisrael. The Maharam, lacking dominion over the entire Diaspora or Eretz Yisroel, is deemed insufficiently empowered to enact decrees against the Jews of France.

The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), summarizing the Rivash’s stance, articulates that modern semichah serves a dual purpose. Primarily, it acts as the formal endorsement from a teacher for a talmid (student) to issue Halachic rulings. Additionally, it functions as an indicator to the broader community that the talmid possesses proficiency in Halachah.

In the intricate web of historical and Halachic intricacies, the Rivash’s discourse on semichah unveils not only its roots but also its dynamic role in shaping the landscape of Halachic authority.

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Times are changing

Rav Moshe Sternbuch, in his Teshuvos Vehanhagos (3:241), delves into the contemporary landscape of semichah, painting a stark picture of its evolving nature in recent times. He laments the departure from traditional Halachic standards, asserting that the title of Rav, as conferred through current semichah processes, no longer aligns with Halachic principles.

In his critique, Rav Sternbuch highlights a disconcerting trend where individuals, having studied Yoreh Dei’ah up to chapter 110, assume the role of a Rav and confidently issue rulings on intricate matters of Shabbat, Brachot, and Kashrut.

He observes a shift where many who bear the title of Rav primarily engage in delivering drashot (sermons) or reaching out to and teaching Torah to the community, rather than fulfilling the broader Halachic role traditionally associated with the title.

Rav Sternbuch’s perspective suggests a departure from the original concept of semichah, which, in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, signified expertise in the entire Torah. Unlike the historical grounding of semichah, today’s conferral of the title seems less stringent and more contextual. Each semichah, it appears, stands on its own merits, reflective of the changing dynamics and purposes associated with rabbinic titles in our era.

This shift in the understanding and usage of titles, reminiscent of the Mishnah era, where the most honored individuals were often referred to by name without formal titles, indicates an inversion of traditional values.

The Mishnah, as explained by the Rambam, categorized sages into different levels, reserving specific titles for those deemed less esteemed. Similarly, Rav Sternbuch observes a modern paradox, where titles may not necessarily reflect the depth of one’s knowledge or Halachic proficiency.

I hope this situation will be reversed and the real Rabbis (who are hated) will assume the leadership once again.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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