Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVII, p. 213;
Sefer HaSichos 5749, p. 666;
Sefer HaSichos 5751, p. 780ff
A Measuring Rod
Ever since his creation, man has felt the need to search for truth. Simultaneously, however, he has had to face the limits implied by his own subjectivity, and the awareness that the insights he discovers are thus limited in scope.
By giving the Torah, G-d provided mankind with an absolute standard of Truth. In contrast to our subjective insights, the Torah gives us objective values guidelines and principles that are applicable in all situations, in every place and at every time.
What is man’s responsibility? To judge. To subject himself and his surroundings to scrutiny and to determine the conduct prescribed by the Torah. He should then act upon that judgment and endeavor to modify his life and environment accordingly. In this way, he elevates himself and his surroundings, lifting them into a connection with G-d that transcends human conceptions of good.
At the City’s Gates
These concepts are reflected in the name of this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, “judges,” and its opening verse:1 “Appoint judges and officers at all your gates.”
Placing judges at the gates of a city reflects a desire to have every element of the city’s functioning conform to the standard of Torah law. The judges will convey the Torah’s dictates, and the officers will take steps to ensure that these directives are applied.
In this vein, the Rambam2 uses this verse as a prooftext for the commandment to appoint judges and police in every city in Eretz Yisrael. In an extended sense, the verse also serves as a lesson that each person must act as a judge and an officer in his own home, structuring it according to the Torah’s standards.
This concept is further amplified by an interpretation3 of “your gates” as referring to the body’s sensory organs the eyes, ears, skin, nose and mouth. These serve as the “gates” through which we take in information from the environment. We are enjoined to “appoint judges” at these gates, so that even our physical perception will be permeated by the guidance of the Torah.
Moreover, the Torah uses the singular form of the word “your gates,” ????? , implying that these efforts are incumbent upon every individual. Every person is “a city in microcosm,”4 and should “appoint judges and officers” to control his interactions with the world at large.
The Need for Enforcement
The judges within our communities and similarly, the judgmental aspects of our own personalities cannot only look inwards. On the contrary, our Sages state5 that a judge must “gird his loins with bands of steel, lift his robes above his knees, and traverse from city to city. to teach the Jewish people.”
Nevertheless, this outreach contains an intrinsic drawback. What is a judge’s authority? The objective standard dictated by the Torah. And since the Torah is fundamentally above mortal intellect, people may have difficulty relating to the judge’s directives. Even when they acknowledge the truth of these directives and recognize that they should be obeyed, there may be a gap between such recognition and their own understanding. And this gap may keep such directives from being applied.
There are two ways to resolve this difficulty. The first is mentioned in the verse cited: the appointment of enforcement officers who will compel others6 to carry out the judges’ rulings.7
There is, however, a shortcoming to this approach. For although enforced compliance to the Torah’s standards ensures just conduct in the world at large, the person compelled to observe remains unrefined. He has been forced to conform to the Torah’s standard, but that conformity is merely external.
A more comprehensive approach is suggested by a verse from Isaiah describing the Era of the Redemption:8 “And I will return your judges as in former times, and your advisers as at the beginning.” This implies that the standards which the judges dictate will be complemented by “advisers.”
An adviser does not issue mandates. Instead, as the name implies, he offers constructive suggestions. He is more or less on the same level as the person he advises, and speaks to him as a good friend, with whom he has much in common. The listener feels comfortable hearing this advice and accepts it, not on faith, but with the understanding that it will benefit him.
When “advisers” thus share and explain rulings delivered by the judges, the dictates of the Torah change not only a person’s conduct, but also his character.
The Spirit of Prophecy
The difference between these two kinds of observance that brought about by enforcement and that brought about by understanding and consent can be illustrated by comparing the function of a judge with that of a prophet a subject also mentioned in this week’s Torah reading.
In the Introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah, the Rambam explains two functions served by a prophet:
a) to urge people to observe the Torah and its mitzvos, as the prophet Malachi called out:9 “Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant;”
b) to give advice regarding conduct in worldly matters. “G-d granted us prophets in the place of astrologers, sorcerers, and diviners, so that we can ask them matters of a general nature, and those of a particular nature.” In this vein, King Shaul went to the prophet Shmuel to ask about his father’s donkeys.10
With regard to the determination of Torah law, the Rambam continues:
The Holy One, blessed be He, did not permit us to learn from the prophets, but rather from the Sages. It does not say: “And you will come to the prophet who will be in that age,” but rather “And you will come to. the judge who will be in that age.”11
Here we see a pattern resembling the one described above: Sages and judges teach the dictates of Torah law, prescribing modes of conduct. And the prophets convey G-d’s word on a level more closely related to people’s ordinary experience, encouraging them to make G-dliness a part of their daily lives.
A Fundamental Element of Faith
To emphasize the importance of prophecy, the Rambam states:12 “One of the fundamentals of [our] faith is to know that G-d sends His prophecies through people.”
Since this is a “fundamental of faith,” we can understand that it applies at all times. Our Sages state13 “that from the time the later prophets, Chaggai, Zachariah, and Malachi died, the spirit of prophecy departed from Israel.” Nevertheless, the word “departed” does not mean it was abolished completely. The spirit of prophecy did not cease, but rather ascended to a higher plane.14
Indeed, even after the era of the Biblical prophets, the spirit of prophecy permeated many people. For this reason, in the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam includes a lengthy discussion of the subject of prophecy,15 without mentioning the cessation of prophecy, or that the spirit of prophecy can flourish only in a specific time. And in hisIggeres Taimon, the Rambam speaks about several prophets in his own time.16
The Message of Our Judges and Prophets
These are not subjects for history texts, but concepts particularly relevant to the present era. As a foretaste of the fulfillment of the prophecy: “And I will return your judges as in former times, and your advisers as at the beginning,” in the age before Mashiach‘scoming, we have been granted judges and prophets17 to provide us with direction and guidance.18 And often these qualities have been personified in single individuals,19as manifest in the Nesi’im of Chabad until the present age.20
These leaders have, like judges, given us directives regarding the nature of the present time: to borrow an expression of the Previous Rebbe,21 “all the buttons have been polished,” and we are in the final moments before the Ultimate Redemption. And like advisers, they have provided us with the insight to anticipate the Redemption in our lives, and prepare an environment in which this spirit can spread throughout the world.
The great Talmudic sage and physician Shmuel once visited Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, who was suffering from an ailment of the eyes. Shmuel wanted to insert medicine into the great man’s eyes, but Rabbi Yehuda said that he could not endure such a treatment. “In that case,” said Shmuel, “I will gently smear some of the medication on your eyes.” “I can’t endure that either” answered Rabbi Yehuda. Faced with this dilemma, Shmuel placed a tube of the medication under Rabbi Yehuda’s pillow, and sure enough, Rabbi Yehuda recovered.
Seeing that Shmuel was such a great expert in medical matters as well as a great sage, Rabbi Yehuda sought to ordain him as a rabbi. But every time he tried, he was unable to gather the requisite people to perform the ordination.1 Shmuel then said to Rabbi Yehuda, “Master, do not trouble yourself, for I have seen it written in the book of Adam Harishon2that “Shmuel Yarchinaah3 will be called a great sage, but shall not bear the title “rabbi…”4
It was not until the second century that “rabbi,” which literally means “my master” or “my teacher,” became an official title. Until that time even the greatest Jewish sages and prophets were not given an honorific.5 Over the centuries, the meaning of the title and the requirements for receiving it have evolved significantly. In order to understand what “rabbi” means today, let’s take a look at the history of rabbinic ordination, or semicha.
The Origins of Semicha
Although the title itself is a more recent development, the ordination of spiritual leaders began at the dawn of Jewish history. The original form of ordination was passed down from teacher to student in an unbroken chain reaching all the way back to Moses. Classical semicha ensured that the student was the next link in the Sinaic tradition and authorized him to judge cases which involved any sort of punitive punishment.6
The first to be thus ordained was Joshua. Moses placed his hands upon him, as the verse states: “And he placed his hands upon him and commanded him, in accordance with what the L rd had spoken.”7 (The word “semicha” literally means “laying of the hands.”) Similarly, we find that Moses ordained the 70 judges, albeit without any mention of “laying of the hands.”8
The physical laying of hands was not continued in later generations, and semicha came to be conveyed by simply addressing the person as “rabbi”9 and telling him: “You are ordained and you have the authority to render judgment, even in cases involving financial penalties.”10
Joshua and the 70 elders ordained others, and they in turn gave semicha to their disciples. This tradition continued until the Talmudic era, when the sages were able to trace a direct line all the way back to the courts of Joshua and Moses.11
Conditions for Classical Semicha
This first form of ordination could only be granted under very specific conditions:
● The one granting the semicha had to do so while accompanied by two others. For semicha cannot be conveyed by less than three ”judges.” However only one of these three, namely the person conveying the semicha, had to be ordained himself.12
● Both the ordaining rabbi and the one receiving ordination had to be present in the Land of Israel.13 But they were not required to be in each other’s presence. Ordination could be granted through an oral or written message.14
● While a person could be ordained to rule only in a specific area of Jewish law,15 he was required to be expert and qualified to rule in all areas.16 Ordination to rule in matters relating to kashrut was referred to as “Yoreh Yoreh,” “May he decide? He may decide!” To rule regarding monetary issues, one required “Yaddin Yaddin” “May he judge? He may judge!” 17
● Not only could a person be ordained to rule only in a specific area, he could also be ordained to rule only for a specified time period.18
● There was no limit on how many people could be ordained at one time. In fact, King David ordained 30,000 people at once!19
● Originally, whoever was ordained would in turn ordain his students. But during the times of Hillel the Elder (1st century BCE), as a gesture of respect to the remnants of the house of David, the sages instituted that semicha could be conveyed only with the express permission of the generation’s Jewish leader–the nasi.20
At the same time, the sages also instituted that the nasi should not convey semicha unless he was accompanied by the head of the rabbinical court, the av beit din, and that the av beit din should not convey semicha unless accompanied by the nasi. The other sages, however, could convey semicha by themselves after receiving license from the nasi, provided they were accompanied by two others.21
The First Rabbis
In the Mishnah and Talmud we find, for the first time, three titles: Rabbi, Rab and Rabban.22
Rabbi: The title “rabbi” was borne by the sages of the Land of Israel, who were ordained there in accordance with the custom handed down by the elders. As direct heirs to the Torah of Moses, they were granted authority to judge penal cases.23
Rab: The Babylonian sages, who received ordination in their own schools in the diaspora, went by the title “rab.” Since they were not ordained in Israel, their ability to rule was restricted and did not include cases involving punitive damages.
Rabban: This title was reserved for the patriarchate, the nasi or the president of the rabbinical court, the av beis din of the Sanhedrin.24
The first to be called “rabban” were Rabban Gamaliel the Elder25 (died around 50 CE), Rabban Shimeon his son,26 and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai27 (died around 74 CE).
The first to be called “rabbi” were Rabbi Tzadok, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, and other disciples of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossei HaKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Nethanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.28
Keeping in mind that before these titles were used, even the greatest leaders and prophets were not called “rabbi,” it emerges that while the title “rabbi” is greater than ”rab,” “rabban” is greater than ”rabbi,” and the simple name without any title is greater than them all (provided of course that the person was deserving of an honorific).29
The Roman Ban and the End of Classical Semicha
At the time that these titles developed the Jewish nation was in turmoil. The first to bear them saw the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, and the institution of an oppressive Roman occupation in Israel. After the failed revolution by Bar Kokhba (132–135 CE), the emperor Hadrian tried to put a permanent end to the Sanhedrin and to semicha, which he saw as the Jews’ persistent attempt at self-rule.
The emperor decreed that whoever performed or received ordination should be put to death. In addition, the city in which the ordination took place was to be demolished, and all within 2000 amah uprooted. The tradition of semicha would indeed have been completely lost at that time were it not for the self-sacrifice of the great sage Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava.
Hearing the decree, Rabbi Yehuda took five students of Rabbi Akiva, the great sage who had just been martyred by the Romans, and sat between two mountains that served as the ”Shabbat boundary”30 between two large cities, Usha and Shifarum.
When the Romans discovered them, Rabbi Yehuda cried out to the students, “My children, flee!” The students replied “Our teacher, what will become of you?” He responded, “I am placed before them like a rock that cannot be overturned.” It is said that the Romans did not leave the spot where they had found Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava until they had pierced him with three hundred spears, rendering him like a sieve. But by then, the newly-ordained rabbis were out of reach.
The names of the five students were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda (bar Ilay), Rabbi Shimoen, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. According to some, Rabbi Nechemiah was ordained there as well.31
Although semicha had been temporarily saved, it became increasingly difficult to fulfill all its requirements, particularly because a large portion of the sages were living in Babylonia, and as mentioned, a rabbi could only be ordained in the Land of Israel.
It is not clear exactly when the classical semicha ceased completely. According to some, it ended in the days of Rabbi Hillel the Second, who became the leader of the Jews around 359 CE. Rabbi Hillel foresaw the end of the classic rabbinic ordination, and, seeing that the method used to sanctify the new month, which required ordained rabbis, was in peril, he established the set calendar that we use to this very day.32
Others are of the opinion that some form of the classical ordination continued for many years after that. They point to letters from Rabbi Tzemach Gaon (9th century) and Rabbi Chaninia Gaon (10th century) which imply that in their days, punitive damages were still judged in the Land of Israel, something which only one withsemicha could do.33 Yet others point to letters from Rabbi Yehuda ben-Barzillai of Barcelona (11th-12th centuries) which seem to imply that even in his days there was some sort of semicha in Israel.34
Attempted Renewal of Classical Semicha
After the Spanish expulsion of 1492, many Jews remained in Spain, nominally accepting Christianity while practicing their Judaism in secret. Thousands of theseconverso Jews eventually escaped Spain, immigrating to Israel and other countries, where they could again practice Judaism openly. These Jews were haunted by the sins they had committed in their previous lives. Many were concerned that they might never fully atone for their more serious sins, some of which carried the punishment of karet–spiritual excision from G‑d.
In the year 1538, Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, the leading rabbi of Safed Israel and himself a refugee from the Spanish expulsion, came up with an original solution to this problem. He proposed the creation of Jewish courts that would carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases someone from the decree of karet.35
This punishment, however, could only be administered by a rabbi ordained with the original, classical form of semicha. As part of his plan, Rabbi Beirav sought to reinstate classical semicha based on a ruling by Maimonides that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint judges and grant them ordination, the semichais binding. These judges may then adjudicate cases involving penalties and convey semicha upon others.36 37
After much deliberation, 25 sages of Safed ordained Rabbi Yakov Beirav with the newly-minted semicha. Rabbi Beirav then sent Rabbi Shlomo Chazan to Jerusalem to inform the sages there of the reinstitution of semicha and to ordain Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv, (known as the Ralbach), with the same powers bestowed on him.
But Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv rejected the newly established semicha, claiming, among many other things, that when they reinstituted the semicha, they did not have the consent of all the sages of Israel. A bitter exchange between the two rabbis ensued, and a passionate debate erupted between their two camps.38
In the midst of this debate, members of the opposition informed the Turkish government that by reviving the semicha, Rabbi Beirav intended to reestablish the kingdom of Israel and rebel against them. Fearing for his life, Rabbi Beirav decided to flee to Egypt. Before doing so, however, he granted semicha to four of his leading disciples:39 Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch), Rabbi Moshe of Trani, Rabbi Abraham Shalom and Rabbi Israel de Curial.40 Rabbi Yosef Karo passed this semicha on to Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, and Rabbi Moshe Alsheich later ordained Rabbi Chaim Vital (the prime disciple of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal)41.
There is no record of this renewed ordination proceeding any further than Rabbi Chaim Vital. And although there have been a number of additional attempts at renewing the classical semicha, none of them gained as much traction or included such prominent sages as this attempt by Rabbi Yaakov Beirav. It seems that Jewish leaders have not embraced these attempts in deference to the opinion that classical ordination will only be reestablished during the messianic era.42
It is clear that classical semicha does not–or cannot–exist nowadays. This brings us to the obvious question: We still have plenty of rabbis, so what exactly is the modern-day semicha? Who gets to be called a rabbi?
Rabbinical Ordination Today
Despite the cessation of classical semicha, rabbis continued to be ordained throughout the generations. This diminished form of ordination was necessary because it is forbidden for a student to establish himself as an authority in Jewish law without his teacher’s explicit permission.43 Thus rabbinical ordination came to mean simply that the student had received permission from his teacher to make halachic rulings.
Some are of the opinion that rabbinic ordination nowadays is a remembrance of the ancient classical semicha. Therefore they believe that when granting rabbinic ordination we should try to fulfill as many requirements of the original semicha as possible, such as the requirement that only one qualified to rule in all areas of Jewish law should be ordained.44
Most, however, believe that ordination nowadays has no connection to the original semicha. According to this opinion, there is no need to be qualified in all other areas of the law in order to receive a limited ordination.45 46
While one can receive permission to rule in any one particular area of Jewish law, nowadays, for the most part, there are two levels of ordination. The most basic one, called “Yoreh Yoreh,” authorizes the recipient to rule on matters of kashrut and similar areas of Jewish law that pertain to basic daily life. The more advanced level ofsemicha is called “Yoddin Yoddin,” and authorizes its recipient to rule as a dayan – a judge in financial matters.47
The Lubavitcher Rebbe strongly encouraged young men to study and receive at least the basic level of semicha, Yoreh Yoreh, before their wedding. This ensures that there is someone in each Jewish home who is able to answer the day-to-day halachik questions that are sure to arise.48
Finally, it should be pointed out that while many who use the title today are indeed qualified to give rulings and answer questions, “rabbis” have proliferated greatly over the last century. Nowadays the title may be used for one who has a very limited form of ordination (i.e. he can only rule in a very specific area of Jewish law) or simply as a title of respect for a person who is a teacher or has some position of authority. For this reason one should be careful when seeking guidance from a rabbi that he is truly qualified to render a decision in the area of Jewish law one is asking about.
Rabbi Yaakov Beirav countered (Iggeret Hasemicha) that A) The re-establishment semicha is not hastening the process of redemption, rather it is simply the fulfillment of a positive mitzvah. B) Maimonides’ closing words “This matter requires a final decision” refer to a different legal matter. C) There was no problem leaving the Jewish calendar unchanged. D) The most learned scholars lived in Safed and that was sufficient; in Jewish law the word “all” means the “main part” not “everybody” See Kunteres Hasemicha ibid for a lengthy lively exchange between the two rabbis.39.As Rabbi Yaakob Beirav writes at the end of his Iggeret HaSemicha. See however Rabbi Gedaliya ibn Chiya in Shasheles Hakabbala where he list additional Rabbis that were ordained and says that in all there were ten Rabbis (although he does not list all ten).40.See Eretz Chaim by Rabbi Yosef Chaim S’thon, Choshen Mishpat 1 where he writes that there is a tradition that Rabbi Yaakov Beirav was referring to those four Rabbis.41.Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 1:7.42.Ramban, Ashe 153 (as understood by Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv in Kunteres Hasemicha), Rabbi Sholomo ben Aderes – Rashba on Talmud Bava Kama 36b, Rabbi Yom Tov ibn Asevilli – Ritva, and Nemukei Yosef on Talmud Yevomos 122b. See also commentary by Rabbi Dovid ibn Zimra- Radbaz to Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:11 where he writes that the reason this new ordination ceased was because of the opposition of Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv.43.Maimonidies, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:2-3; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreah Deiah 242:4.44.Respnsa by Rabbi Moshe Isserlis 24 and Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Chasam Sofer) Even Haozer vol. 2 94.45.Responsa by Rabbi Yitzchak bar Sheshet, Rivash, 271; gloss of Rabbi Moshe Isserlis to Shulcan Aruch, Yoreh Deiah 242:14; Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh Deiah 242:29. See also Responsa by Rabbi Meshulam Rothe, Kol Mevaser,1: 12 in which he notes the apparent contradiction between the two views expressed by Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (see notes 26-27) and explains that the view of Rabbi Isserlis’ that is found in the gloss of the Shulchan Aruch is his final say on the matter.46.Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh Deiah 242:29. See Aruch Hashulchan (ibid) where he goes further and writes that in addition, the primary function of Semicha nowadays is permission to serve as a communal Rabbi. And no one living in a city which has such an ordained Rabbi may render halachik rulings without said Rabbis consent.47.See Talmud Sanhedrin 5a. An additional type of ordination mentioned in the Talmud ibid no longer obtainable today, is called yatir bechoros and authorizes its recipient to rule on whether a first-born animal is blemished and no longer appropriate to offer as a sacrifice.48.See Shaar Halacha Uminhag vol. 4 p 104-5; sefer Haminhagim p. 75.
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