Semicha: Rabbinical Ordination

Question

Dear Rabbi,
Who is a Rabbi? Does it require a degree like becoming a doctor? A bit of historical background would be appreciated. Thanks!

, , 4 months

Answers

  1. The first ordination recorded in the Torah is when Moses placed both his hands on Joshua’s head and proclaimed that Joshua would be the leader of the Jewish nation after him. Ever since then there has been a transference of religious leadership from one generation to the next, as the religious leadership of the older generation bestowed upon their most outstanding students the authority to rule in matters of Jewish Law. In Talmudic times a brilliant student would be ordained in front of at least three acknowledged authorities.

    The word for ordination in Hebrew is “semicha” and it means to place one’s hands (on the head of another person) – just as Moses did to Joshua. The tradition continued for many generations until the practice came to an end during the Roman conquest of the Land of Israel due to the fact that the Roman authorities forbade ordination on pain of death. Shortly after that the accepted method for ordination changed and all that was required was for a recognized authority to simply proclaim that his student was an expert in Jewish Law and qualified to rule.

    Over the space of several generations the concept of semicha changed slightly to the point that Maimonides rules that it is forbidden for a person to establish himself as an authority in Jewish Law unless he receives his teacher’s explicit permission to do so.

    For several centuries there has been a specific standard for testing students to see if they are expert enough to be called a Rabbi. There are basically two tracks that both require concentrating on learning the intricacies of Jewish Law in great depth. The first covers more subjects and is the basic standard for any kind of Rabbinical post. Thus, someone who wants to become a communal Rabbi would need to cover the Laws of Kashrut. Most Rabbis today will have taken rigorous exams not just in Kashrut but on the Laws of Shabbat, Family Purity, Mourning plus all kinds of other sections as well. After having successfully completed all the exams the title of Rabbi is then conferred upon him. The second track focuses solely on monetary matters and it is considered to be even more rigorous than the first track. It involves being intimately familiar with hundreds and hundreds of pages of complex laws and regulations found in the Code of Jewish Law and the many commentaries. The title that is normally granted to someone who has passed those exams is “Dayan,” which means a judge.

    Nowadays the term Rabbi does not exclusively mean that the person has passed the exams mentioned above. It is also used to denote a person who is looked up to as being a great scholar and/or a spiritual mentor to others. And it is also the correct method of addressing teachers and lecturers in Talmudic schools.

    Interestingly enough, an official ordination is not an absolute necessity to be considered to be one of the spiritual leaders of the generation. Possibly the greatest scholar in pre-Holocaust Europe was Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (more commonly referred to as the Chofetz Chaim after his seminal work). Despite not having any official qualifications or position, the Chofetz Chaim was regarded as being the ultimate authority in Jewish Law. There is a fascinating vignette about him that when he was already over eighty years old the Chofetz Chaim applied for a passport (the first time he needed one) and, in order to facilitate the process, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the undisputed leader of all the religious Jews in Lithuania, issued a certificate of ordination for the Chofetz Chaim in order that he could be officially recognized as a Rabbi by the Lithuanian authorities!

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team