Restoring the Sanhedrin
Part I – Semichah: The Chain of Tradition
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. l’meidan dinei k’nasot). But today’s rabbis are not real Smuchin. Instead, today’s Semichah is 'Heter Hora’ah,' authorization that allows rabbis to render halachic decisions (Teshuvot Ha-Radach 18:10-11. See also Rema, Yoreh De’ah 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 S’ma, 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 Mi’pi 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 mi’pi ish' back to the Beit Din of Moshe Rabbeinu(Rambam, Hil. Sanhedrin 4:1. See also Rambam’s 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 L’Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, aseh 153; Ran in the pages of the Rif, Gittin 20a; Tashbetz, Zohar Ha-Rakiah, 54; Sefer Ha-Terumot, Sha’ar 45; Azariah de Rossi, Me’or 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 V’koroteha, Warsaw, 1919, pp. 404-419, and R. Dov Revel, “Chiddush ha-Semichah Lifnei Arbah Mei’ot 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...