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Restoring the Sanhedrin Part I Semichah: The Chain of Tradition

Written by Rabbi Nadel, 19/6/2019

Restoring the Sanhedrin

Part I Semichah: The Chain of Tradition

 MK Betzalel Smotrich's recent remarks and Prime Minster Netanyahu's response have stirred controversy, sparked debate, and created a national conversation on if, how, and when the State of Israel should be run according to Jewish Law. The Shavuot edition of Makor Rishon's Mussaf Shabbat included a number of articles about restoring the Sanhedrin, even suggesting 71 contemporary Jewish leaders who could sit on the Sanhedrin today!

Over the next several weeks, we will explore together in this column a number of attempts throughout Jewish History to renew Semichah and restore the Sanhedrin.

Semichah, or rabbinic ordination, is the authority to adjudicate cases and answer questions of Jewish Law. A Beit Din of Smuchin can impose penalties and fines, and administer corporal and capital punishment (See Sanhedrin 2a-3b; Sanhedrin 13b and Rashi, ad loc., s.v. lmeidan dinei knasot). But todays rabbis are not real Smuchin. Instead, todays Semichah is 'Heter Horaah,' authorization that allows rabbis to render halachic decisions (Teshuvot Ha-Radach 18:10-11. See also Rema, Yoreh Deah 242:14). Dayanim today act as proxies of previous generations who had real Semichah, but are nevertheless limited in the types of cases they may hear mostly monetary matters which are commonplace (See Gittin 88b, and the comments of Rashi, Tosafot, Rashba, and Ritva, ad loc.; Bava Kamma 84b; Chiddushei Ha-Ramban to Sanhedrin 23a; Chidushei Ha-Ran to Sanhedrin 2b. See also Rambam, Hil. Sanhedrin 5:8; Tur, Choshen Mishpat 1 and Beit Yosef, ad loc.; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 1:1 and Sma, ad loc.).  

In fact, many rulings can only be rendered by Smuchin, and many mitzvot in the Torah can only be performed when there is real Semichah.

Ish Mipi Ish 

The Torah (Bamidbar 27:18, 23) relates how Moshe conferred Semichah upon Yehoshua: Hashem said to Moshe, Take to yourself Yehoshua bin Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, and lean your hand upon him. He leaned his hands upon him and commanded him, as Hashem had spoken through Moshe. Moshe also ordained the Seventy Elders (Bamidbar 11:16-17, 24-25). 

In turn, Yehoshua and the Seventy Elders gave Semichah to their students, and so on and so forth. Real smuchin could trace their authority, 'ish mipi ish' back to the Beit Din of Moshe Rabbeinu(Rambam, Hil. Sanhedrin 4:1. See also Rambams Introduction to Mishneh Torah).

This chain of tradition continued unbroken for generations. 

The Chain is Broken

Sanhedrin 14a describes how the Romans decreed that Semichah no longer be conferred. The Talmud relates how Yehudah ben Bava gave up his life to preserve Semichah:

One time, the Evil Empire [Rome] decreed a decree against the Jewish People: Anyone who confers Semichah will be killed, any town in which Semichah is conferred will be destroyed, and the surrounding Techum [of the town which granted Semichah] will be uprooted. What did Yehudah ben Bava do? He went and sat between two large mountains, and between two large cities, and between two Techumei Shabbat, between Usha and Shfaram, and ordained five elders. They were: R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Shimon, R. Yossi, and R. Elazar ben Shamua. Rav Avya added R. Nechemiah as well. When their enemies discovered them, [Yehudah ben Bava] said to them, My sons, run! They said to him, Rebbe what will become of you? He responded to them, I am placed before them [my enemies] like a rock that cannot be turned. It was said: They [the Roman soldiers] did not move from there until they had driven through him three hundred iron spears and made him like a sieve.

With this tremendous act of self-sacrifice, Yehudah ben Bava ensured the continuity of Semichah for another two centuries. But eventually, the chain of Semichah dating back to Moshe Rabbeinu would be broken.

According to many, real Semichah finally ended around 360 CE, when Hillel II dissolved the Sanhedrin and fixed the Jewish calendar (R. Avraham bar Chiya ha-Nassi, Sefer Ha-Ibbur, 3:7, in the name of Rav Hai Gaon; Ramban, Sefer Ha-Zechut, Gittin, Chap. 4; Ramban, Hasagot Ha-Ramban LSefer Ha-Mitzvot, aseh 153; Ran in the pages of the Rif, Gittin 20a; Tashbetz, Zohar Ha-Rakiah, 54; Sefer Ha-Terumot, Shaar 45; Azariah de Rossi, Meor Einayim, 25. Cf. Chiddushei Ha-Ramban to Gittin 36a). 

There is evidence, however, which suggests that Semichah continued to be conferred in the Land of Israel for centuries (See R. Chaim Yechiel Bornstein, Mishpat Ha-Semichah Vkoroteha, Warsaw, 1919, pp. 404-419, and R. Dov Revel, Chiddush ha-Semichah Lifnei Arbah Meiot Shanah, Chorev 5:9-10, 5699, pp. 1-26. See also J. Newman, Semikha, Manchester University Press, 1950, pp. 144-154, who suggests that Semichah continued until the death of R. Daniel ben Azaryah Gaon in 1062, and Yehuda ben Barzillai of Barcelona, Sefer Ha-Shtarot, p. 132, where it is implied that as late as the 12th Century, there was some form of Semichah in the Land of Israel).

Next week, we will explore if and how Semichah can be renewed...

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