Sunday 26 August 2018


The word Smicha, referring to rabbinical ordination, literally means ‘authorization’.  To be somech means to ‘rely upon’. It also alludes to the process of the teacher ‘laying hands’ upon the student.
The common Smicha which rabbis have today is not the original ordination, nor does it carry with it the authority of that ordination. It is, instead, a ‘heter hora’ah’ or a dispensation to give halachic guidance on certain areas of Jewish law. In some circles, the Smicha ordination is even frowned upon.
The Torah first uses the term ‘SMiCHa’ to describe the process whereby Joshua was ordained by Moshe:
Moshe placed his hands – ‘vaYismoch’ - on Joshua, who was to lead the people after his death.[1]
Additionally, Moshe also ordained seventy elders, and the Torah says that G-d took some of the spirit of Moshe and gave it to the seventy elders[2]:

This original chain of Smicha transmission then continued till around the 4th or 5th centuries CE.
Originally, Smicha could only be given in the Land of Israel where the teacher was called Rabi (Rabbi). That is why the Babylonian sages who did not get formal Smicha were called Rav.
The original Smicha could only be granted in the presence of three judges, however only one of them had to have Smicha himself.
The ancient formula for conferring Smicha was ‘yoreh yoreh, yadin yadin’(Can the student decide a law? Yes he can decide! Can he adjudicate a case? Yes he can adjudicate!)
From about the 2nd century CE, the Smicha institution was beginning to weaken. This was just after the failed Bar Kochba revolutions against the Romans which took place between 132 to 135 CE. Emperor Hadrian decreed that anyone who gave Smicha would be killed - and the city in which the ceremony took place and all crops within a radius of a mile would be destroyed.
According to the Talmud, R. Yehuda ben Bava gave his life in order to perpetuate the Smicha institution. He took five students of R. Akiva (who had just been killed) to a desolate mountain pass and gave Smicha to all of them. When the Romans came after R. Yehuda ben Bava, he blocked the narrow pass and the five newly ordained rabbis[3] escaped but he himself was killed.[4]
Those five rabbis were thus able to continue the Smicha transmission process for some time, but already at that point in history, the majority of Jews were living in Babylonia where Smicha was invalid.  Thus matters continued until around 425 CE when Theodosius executed R. Gamliel VI, the last nasi or president of the Sanherdin.

Around that time, Hillel the Second apparently foresaw the imminent cessation of the classic rabbinic ordination - and since ordained rabbis were required to sanctify the new moon - he established the mathematical rules for the calendar calculation, that we still make use of today.

Some believe, however, that classical ordination continued for a number of centuries until the time of R. Tzemach Gaon (9th century) and Rabbi Chaninia Gaon (10th century) as there are letters which imply that punitive damages were still judged in the Land of Israel, something which only one with Smicha could do.[5]
There is also the view that it may even have continued two centuries later till R. Yehuda ben-Barzillai of Barcelona (11th-12th centuries) as, again, historical letters show that there was still Smicha in Israel at that time.[6]
After the Great Plague[7] of the mid-1300’s, where Europe’s population was reduced by about 60 percent, a ‘new’ Smicha tradition began to surface. This was to keep in line with European Christian universities who were using the conferral of ‘diplomas’ to their students in recognition of their qualifications in various academic disciplines.
Initially the Sefaradim were opposed to this new institution of Smicha as they said it was mimicking the ways of non-Jews, but eventually, they accepted it.
Spanish born R. Ya’akov Beirav[8] (1474-1546) attempted to reinstate the original Smicha in Safed, Israel, which at that time had the largest Jewish community in Ottoman Syria, with over 1000 families.
R. Beirav wanted to seize on that powerful moment in history and recreate the authoritative Smicha for the first time in a thousand years (if one follows the view that Smicha was dissolved around the time of Hillel II). Additionally, he also wanted to re-establish the Sanhedrin, as the two institutions often go hand in hand. He was a Kabbalist and had messianic aspirations which informed much of his decision to go ahead with these major innovations.
One of the contributing practical factors for R. Beirav’s grand plan was the question of how to deal with the many Marranos from the recent Spanish Inquisition of 1492, who were at that time beginning to return to Judaism. Only a Sanhedrin could administer certain procedures[9], which, according to some rabbis in Israel were the only remedy for the ‘apostasy’ of some Marranos.
Rambam (1135-1204) had already, theoretically laid the groundwork for the reinstitution of the Smicha, by writing that if the sages of Israel would ordain one deserving candidate, then he, in turn, could confer Smicha on others afterwards. He was more inclined to promote a human and natural evolution towards the redemptive process than wait for a miraculous event.
Rambam wrote:
“It appears to me that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint dayanim (judges) and grant them Smicha (ordination), they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant Smicha to others [thus restoring Biblical ordination]...[10]
However, this matter requires a final decision.” [11]
According to some, the Rambam's final phrase that ‘the matter requires a final decision’, refers to a previous Halachic matter - and not to Smicha. Rabbi Yosef Caro is of the opinion that the view of the Rambam is indeed the definitive ruling.[12]
It must be pointed out that Ramban, as well as others, disagreed with Rambam’s view. However, the Safed rabbis (which included R. Yosef Caro), were prepared to rely on Rambam in this instant.
In 1538, twenty-five rabbis gathered in Safed and elected R. Beirav to be the first candidate to receive this Smicha. With his new authority, the first person he, in turn, conferred Smicha upon was his longtime opponent, R. Levi ibn Chaviv, also known as Ralbach, who was the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.[13]
His first conferral of Smicha upon Ralbach was regarded as a strategic move by some and an act of reconciliation by others. Ralbach himself, however, was not impressed by R. Beirav’s ‘magnanimity’ and was instead insulted that the Jerusalem rabbis had not been consulted. He wrote to the Safed rabbis and declared their actions illegal and dangerous (as he was worried that they would tamper with the calendar).[14] He was supported by R. David ben Zimra known as the Radbaz.[15]
R. Beirav responded with a personal attack against Ralbach, accusing him of living like a Christian in an attempt to save his life while in Portugal. Ralbach retorted that R. Beirav was not qualified to transmit the Smicha ordination in the first instance.
The Turkish authorities got wind of these dramatic developments and suspected the Jews were planning to resurrect a Jewish homeland right under their noses and R. Beirav began to fear for his life. He fled to Egypt, but not before conferring Smicha to a number of other rabbis, including R. Yosef Caro, author of Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Caro later ordained R. Moshe Cordovero who ordained the Alshich, who ordained R. Chaim Vital. Thus it appears that this Smicha ordination lasted for four generations.
A more recent attempt at reinstituting the Smicha of old took place during the 1830’s. R. Yisrael of Shklov, one of the foremost students of the Vilna Gaon wanted to establish a Sanhedrin and reintroduce the Smicha. However, he agreed with R. Levi ibn Chaviv and R. David ibn Zimra that we cannot just appoint a candidate as they did in Safed in 1538 – but he found a ‘loophole’ in an opinion of R. David ibn Zimra!
According to that opinion, it was theoretically possible to reintroduce Smicha if one could locate either of the two of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Gad and Reuven, as they had allegedly kept the Smicha tradition alive.
This opinion created a fascinating Halachic conundrum: If Smicha could only be conferred in the Land of Israel – then how could Gad and Reuven have been the custodians of this institution if they were no longer living in the land?
R. David ibn Zimra had the answer: These tribes had separated from the rest of the Jewish People long before the ruling - that Smicha could only take place in the Land of Israel - was enacted. They, therefore, were not bound by that ruling!
It is interesting to note that R. Yisrael’s teacher, the Vilna Gaon, took the view that science had an important role to play in the general education of a Torah scholar.  [See here and here.] According to some secular scientific journals which were popular at that time, some of the Lost Tribes of Israel could be found in Yemen.
As it happened, at that point in history, Yemen was beginning to open up to the West, and R. Yisrael believed that those tribes might be located there. He dispatched an emissary, R. Pinchas Baruch to Yemen but unfortunately, he either died or was killed there and nothing became of the mission.
Around 1903[16] R. Aharon Mendel haCohen was the rabbi of the Ashkenazi community in Cairo. He had a close relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, R. Refael Aharon Ben Shimon who was a Sefaradi. This relationship was held up as an example of how Ashkenazim and Sefaradim can get on as apparently this was considered rather unusual at that time!
R. Aharon Mendel wanted to establish a Sanhedrin in order to create a sense of uniformity between Sefaradim and Ashkenazim. They would also renew the Smicha and the Sanhedrin would officially despatch rabbis all over the Diaspora. They collected five hundred signatures from leading rabbis who would rely upon the abovementioned view of Rambam.
However, his friend the Chief Rabbi, then sent him a very polite and respectful letter explaining that practically there were too many divisions between the Jews - and besides that, it would be impossible to get all the rabbis to agree on one uniform protocol and submit to a higher authority.
Evidently, the Chief Rabbi was correct because R. Aharon Mendel’s project never materialised.
In 1940, R. Tzvi Kovsker arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union. He had firsthand experience of the condition of Jews in pre-war Europe.  He consulted with many Rabbis in the Holy Land at the time and tried to renew the Smicha and re-establish a Sanhedrin as a recognised government for the Jewish People, eight years before the establishment of the State of Israel!
In 1949, R. Yehuda Leib Maimon, the first Minister of Religious Affairs in the new state wanted to convert the existing Israeli Rabbinate into a de facto Sanhedrin. This evoked strong opposition from elements from within the ultra-Orthodox community who would not cooperate with the secular state.
In 2004, a group of seven hundred rabbis from various segments of the Israeli population, met in Tiberius with the expressed intention of establishing a contemporary Sanhedrin. After due process, R. Ovadia Yosef (Iraqi born Sefaradi Chief Rabbi) and R. Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (who many regarded as the Ashkenazi  posek hador) ordained R. Moshe Halberstam (Eidah Charedis) who in turn ordained R. Dov Levanoni who again ordained other rabbis.

Within this system, many of the rabbis regard themselves as ‘placeholders’ until such time as ‘more worthy’ members are able to replace them as this new Sanhedrin is only a nascent (or developing) Sanhedrin.
According to TheSanhedrin.NET:
“Rabbi Tzvi Eidan, the author of Asot Mishpat (on the laws of reestablishing the Sanhedrin) was appointed as first interim Nasi. Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, a noted Talmudic scholar and a well-known Jewish philosopher is the currently elected Nasi. The Sanhedrin's spokesmen said that due to concerns that external pressure would be brought to bear upon individuals not to take part in the establishment of a Sanhedrin, the names of most participants would not be made public.”
To illustrate just how delicate this matter of a modern Sanhedrim with reinstated Smicha is, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz HaRav Rabbi Avraham Shapira chose to abstain on the issue but also refused to discourage it.
This nascent Sanhedrin was not without controversy, considering their political reach and their perceived authority to decide on matters of war and peace:
“One area where the Sanhedrin has offered extensive opinions is in the area of war and military policy. Based on the Mishnah’s statement "they may not send forth (the people) to a Milchemet Reshut (non-mandatory war) except by order of the court of seventy-one", the new Sanhedrin has declared that it is "the authorized institution to decide in matters of military policy, issues definitive moral guidance to soldiers on active duty and in the reserves. It also comments on the current administration's defence policy...". They clearly state "The commandment to 'inherit and dwell' (Deut. 12:29) in the Land of Israel is obligatory upon every Israeli government. In this regard Israel is commanded by G-d to conquer the entire expanse of the Land of Israel within its Biblical boundaries, including the Gaza strip." ” (See here for the actual statement).

[1] Bamidbar 27:23.
[2] Bamidbar 11:25.
[3] Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehudah (ben Ila’i), Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua.
[4] Sanherdin 14a.
[5] Kovets Sha’arei Tzedek p. 29-30.
[6] Sefer haShetarot p 132.
[7] Also known as the Black Death. It took about two hundred years for the world’s population to recover to its pre-plague level of 450 million.
[8] Beirav was an honorific. His real family name was Marmaran.
[9] Malkot could cancel out a decree of karet which some Marranos may have felt they were guilty of. (See Makkot 23a.)  The Mishnah (Makkot 3:15) states that all who are deserving of karet who receive lashes are absolved from karet. The Sages derived this from the verse (Devarim 25:3) "He shall flog him yet he shall not exceed [the prescribed number of lashes], lest . . . your brother be degraded before your eyes." As soon as the defendant receives lashes, he is considered our full-fledged brother.
[10] Full text continues “...If so, why did the sages bemoan [the loss of] Smicha? So that the judgment of penalty cases wouldn't disappear from among Israel because Jews are so spread out that it's not possible to get their consent [to authorize a dayan]. If someone were to receive Smicha from someone who already has Smicha, then he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone since he received Smicha from beit din (rabbinical court)....”
[11] Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:11.
[12]Beit Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 295.
[13] He was the son of R. Ya’akov ibn Chaviv, the author of Ein Ya’akov.
[14] See his Kuntres haSmicha. R. Beirav responded to that with his counter letter Iggeret haSmicha.
[15] R. David ben Zimra (Radbaz) was a Spanish Kabbalist who had fled from Spain and settled in Cairo. He was the teacher of R. Betzalel Ashkenazi (author of Shita Mekubetzet) as well as the Ari Zal.
[16] Some accounts record the year as 1901.

1 comment: