May 19, 2024
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Editor’s note: This series is reprinted with permission from “Insights & Attitudes: Torah Essays on Fundamental Halachic and Hashkafic Issues,” a publication of TorahWeb.org. The book contains multiple articlesorganized by parshaby Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mayer Twersky.

In parshas Pinchas, we read about the institution of semicha. Moshe Rabbeinu was instructed by HaKadosh Baruch Hu to place his hand on his student, Yehoshua bin Nun, in the presence of klal Yisrael and to ordain him (Bamidbar 27:18). The Gemara (Sanhedrin 13b) understands that the placing of the hand was, merely, a “hora’as sha’ah” which only applied to Moshe Rabbeinu and does not apply in later generations. The institution of semicha, however, is a din ledoros.

One cannot be a member of the Sanhedrin unless he has proper semicha. The Seridei Eish points out that just as Moshe Rabbeinu’s conferring semicha on Yehoshua bin Nun had to be done in a public fashion; so too, in the future generations, semicha is always supposed to be conferred in a public fashion. The Rema (in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 242:14) quotes from the Abarbanel that the semicha that we have today is only an imitation semicha, since the din requires that semicha be איש מפי איש עד משה רבינו— “in an unbroken chain back to Moshe,” and has to be conferred in Eretz Yisrael, and this chain of mesorah was broken about 1,500 years ago.

In the mid-1500s, the rabbanim who lived in Tzefas gathered together in order to confer semicha on Rav Yosef Karo and several other rabbanim. This was based on the suggestion made by the Rambam that, perhaps, there is an alternate route for conferring semicha: either one who himself has semicha can confer the semicha on another talmid chacham and that will be איש מפי איש עד משה רבינו; or if all of the rabbanim in Eretz Yisrael gather together, perhaps, that is another way of conferring semicha. The mekubalim of Tzefas in the 16th century were motivated to attempt to reinstitute the semicha, because they were hoping to live to see the coming of Mashiach.

The Gemara interprets the pasuk at the end of Malachi to mean that Eliyahu HaNavi will come and appear before the Sanhedrin—who will reconvene in the location that they last met before they were disbanded—to announce the coming of Mashiach the next day. This is the reason that the mekubalim chose to live in Tzefas at that time—as opposed to Jerusalem—because the last location where the Sanhedrin met was clearly in the Galil—Tiveria, Tzipori, Usha and Sefarom etc.

If no one today has bona fide semicha—as the Rema quoted from the Abarbanel—then one cannot have any Sanhedrin. How, then, can the prophecy of Malachi be fulfilled? Eliyahu HaNavi will not be able to appear in front of the Sanhedrin! For this reason, the rabbanim in Tzefas reinstituted semicha in the hope that, someday, there would be 71 properly-ordained rabbanim who would be able to constitute a Sanhedrin and be able to facilitate the coming of Eliyahu HaNavi to announce the coming of Mashiach.

The end of the story was that fewer than 10 rabbanim received semicha, and the entire plan fizzled out. Even though today, the semicha is only imitation semicha, nonetheless, Rabbi Meir Shapiro of the Lubliner yeshiva instituted that the imitation semicha be conferred in a public fashion. He originated the concept of a “Chag Hasemicha,” which our yeshiva still follows.

Semicha in the days of the Tannaim had to be conferred by a beis din of three, who did so as representatives of all of klal Yisrael. The Rambam writes—in his commentary on Mishnayos Bechoros—that it is for this reason that semicha had to be conferred only in Eretz Yisrael, because the concept of klal Yisrael only applies to those Jews who live in Eretz Yisrael. This is, probably, the reason that semicha must be conferred in a public fashion, because the halacha considers it as though all of klal Yisrael is conferring the semicha.


Rabbi Hershel Schachter joined the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1967, at the age of 26, the youngest Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. Since 1971, Rabbi Schachter has been Rosh Kollel in RIETS’ Marcos and Adina Katz Kollel (Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics) and also holds the institution’s Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud. In addition to his teaching duties, Rabbi Schachter lectures, writes, and serves as a world renowned decisor of Jewish Law.

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