CHOOSING A RABBI - Choosing a Rabbi 2

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The “laying on of hands” and “placing the spirit” described in the above verses are the first examples of Rabbinic ordination and the beginning of classical Semikhah (Semikhah is Hebrew for ordination). Joshua went on to ordain others, who in- turn taught and ordained their students down through the generations. This ordination was not a license to teach Torah or to lead a congregation – it was the transferring of divinely sanctioned authority from one scholar to another. This ordination imbued the holder with a spirit of wisdom, imparting holiness to his words and thoughts. Semikhah was required for certain roles; it was especially needed in order to serve in the Sanhedrin and other institutions of Torah law. Upon entry of the Jewish people into Israel, certain rules took effect governing how this ordination was given4:

•    Semikhah could only be conveyed by a quorum of three judges, one of whom must himself have Semikhah.5 Semikhah could be conferred verbally or in writing. The “laying on of hands” was only practiced in the earlier generations. It was not practiced beyond the generation of Moses and Joshua.

•    Both the grantor and recipient must be in Israel at the time Semikhah is given. •    In order to receive Semikhah, one must be an expert in all areas of Torah law. He must also be of proper character and zealously observant of the mitzvos and words of the sages.

An important detail of rabbinic ordination is that it was tiered: ordination was given in specific areas of Torah knowledge. To receive any one of these ordinations, however, a scholar must be capable and fluent in all areas of Torah knowledge.  The ordinations were, in ascending degrees:6

•    Yoreh Yoreh (He shall instruct, he shall instruct) – This ordination was for matters of religious and ritual law.

•    Yadin Yadin (He shall judge, he shall judge) – This ordination qualified the scholar to matters of civil, criminal, and monetary law.

•    Yatir Yatir or Yatir Bechoros Yatir (He shall permit, he shall permit) – This ordination qualified its holder to rule on matters of animal sacrifices and ritual purity.

This chain of ordination passed unbroken for centuries until shortly after the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132 – 135 CE). In the wake of Bar Kokhba’s failed attempt to re-establish Jewish autonomy, the Romans viewed Semikhah as a dangerous expression of the Jewish desire for self-rule. They also realized that, by ending Semikhah, they would destroy the Sanhedrin.  What ensued was a brutal  program of persecution and suppression. By imperial decree, giving Semikhah was made a capital offense with terrible consequences. Not only were the parties to the Semikhah executed, but absolute destruction was decreed for the city in which Semikhah was granted. To emphasize his point, the emperor also ordered the complete destruction of all villages and settlements located within 2000 Amos of that city’s boundaries.7

By the fourth and fifth centuries the Romans had driven most of the rabbinic community across the border into what is now Iraq. With few sages remaining in Israel, the chain of Semikhah eventually broke.8 For the next several centuries, the title “rabbi” would not be used.9 Instead, a scholar would either be referred to as “khokham” (wise one) or, if he held a position of authority, as a Gaon (eminence).

4 Most of this material is taken from Maimonides, Hil. Sanhedrin 4.
5 Sanhedrin 13b-14a. Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:5.
6 Sanhedrin 5a.
7 Sanhedrin 14a.
8 There are some Gaonic traditions indicating that ordination may have continued beyond the fourth century. See the Kovetz Shaarei Tzedek, p. 29-30 and Sefer HaShtarot, p. 132. However, even these concur that there is no modern semikhah.
9 The term “Rabbi” is not all that common in the Talmud either. There are many honorifics used in the Talmud for Torah scholars. However, most of them are referred to simply by their names or sobriquets.