Last week, we explored Semichah - real rabbinic ordination - ish mi’pi ish, all the way back to the Beit Din of Moshe Rabbeinu. As discussed, this chain of tradition was eventually broken.
But in order to restore a Sanhedrin, real Semichah must be renewed. Can we renew Semichah, today?
According to the Rambam, with the consent of the Chachamim of the Land of Israel, Semichah can indeed be renewed. In his Peirush Ha-Mishnah, the Rambam writes:
“I am of the opinion that if there were an agreement by all of the students and sages to choose a man from the yeshivah, meaning to appoint him as a head – on condition that this is in the Land of Israel, as we have mentioned – this man, with the support of the yeshivah, will be a Samuch, and can then ordain anyone he likes. For if it were not so, then it would be impossible to ever have the Beit Din Ha-Gadol, for each of them must be a Samuch, without a doubt. And Hashem has already promised their return, as it says, ‘I will restore your judges as at first.’ And lest you say that the Moshiach will appoint them even though they are not Smuchin, that is invalid as we have already explained in the introduction to our work that the Moshiach will not add to the Torah nor will he take away from it – not from the Written Law, nor the Oral Law. And I believe that the Sanhedrin will return before the revelation of the Moshiach. And this will be one of its signs. As stated, ‘I will restore your judges as at first and your counselors as at the beginning…’” (Sanhedrin 1:3).
And in his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam rules:
“It appears to me that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint judges and grant them Semichah - they are Smuchim and they can judge penalty cases and are able to grant Semichah to others. If so, why did Chazal bemoan [the loss of] Semichah? So penalty cases would not disappear from among Israel - for Israel is spread out and it is not possible that they would all consent. If someone were to receive Semichah from someone who already has Semichah - he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone, since he received Semichah from a Beit Din. And the matter requires a decision - V’hadavar tzarich hechre’ah” (Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11).
It is unclear what the Rambam’s source for renewing Semichah is. By beginning, “it appears to me,” it would seem that the Rambam admits that this is his own Chiddush. In addition, many are troubled by the Rambam’s concluding words, “the matter requires a decision.”
In fact, that last sentence has been the subject of controversy for centuries.
“V’hadavar Tzarich Hechre’ah”
What does the Rambam mean when he writes “V’hadavar tzarich hechre’ah – and the matter requires a decision?” Was he himself uncertain? Was he looking for consensus? Was a decision ever reached?
Some contend the Rambam himself was unconvinced. In his Peirush Ha-Mishnah he writes with certitude, but in the Mishneh Torah, his Code of Law, he ends with uncertainty - indicating that he is not willing to rule definitively on the matter.
Others explain that when Rambam writes, “the matter requires a decision,” he is referring to what he wrote previously – that one Samuch may grant Semichah together with two Hedyotot. It is plausible to suggest that the Rambam would admit this particular issue requires further analysis, as the notion of one Samuch alone granting Semichah appears to contradict Sanhedrin 13b-14a, and what the Rambam himself writes in Hil. Sanhedrin 4:5. Radbaz, however, disagrees and writes that the Rambam already ruled explicitly (Hil. Sanhedrin 4:3), that as long as one of the three Dayanim is a Samuch, Semichah may be granted. Therefore, Radbaz contends that when Rambam writes, “and the matter requires a decision,” he is indeed expressing his uncertainty about renewing Semichah.
In addition, Radbaz writes that even if it were possible to gather all the rabbis together in agreement, Semichah may only be granted to “one who is able to rule on the entire Torah, and it is distant in my eyes that in this generation that there is anyone fitting to rule on the entire Torah” (Radbaz to Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11).
Yet others understand Rambam’s last sentence in a completely different way. Rav Ben Tzion Meir Chai Uziel and Rav Chaim Dovid Ha-Levi explain that renewing Semichah in the future will require careful consideration and much deliberation. Simply gathering together all of the sages of Israel and reaching a consensus will require “hecre’ah.”
According to Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, the Rambam is addressing whether or not the individual receiving Semichah would require authorization to adjudicate cases in the Diaspora, as well. Rav Yisrael Yehoshua Trunk of Kutno also suggests that the opinions of the Sages outside the Land, who desire to live in the Land of Israel, should be considered – something that will require deliberation.
Rav Dov Revel suggests that this phrase was not even written by Rambam himself, but added in later by a copyist expressing his own doubts about the Rambam’s ruling. However, Professor Eliav Shochetman contends that aside from some minor variants, all extant manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah include the phrase.
But even according to the opinion that the Rambam himself may have been uncertain, it would seem that a “decision” has been reached. A consensus of Rishonim and Achronim agree with the Rambam and cite his Chiddush for renewing Semichah as Halacha, without any reservations! And without any addition of, “and the matter requires a decision.” Among them: Rashba, Meiri, Rav Yaakov Chazan of London, Semag, Kaftor Va-Ferach, Mahari Beirav, Rav Yosef Karo, Taz, Mabit, Rav Moshe Alshich, the Chida, Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz, Rav Elchanan Wasserman, and Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer.
Interestingly, the Raavad does not argue with Rambam on this issue (as he often does!) suggesting that Raavad too is in agreement.
In addition, based on what the Rambam writes in passing elsewhere in his Mishneh Torah, it would appear that the Rambam himself rules on the matter. Both in Hil. Sanhedrin 16:2 and Hil. Shofar 8:2, the assumption is made unequivocally that the renewal Semichah is possible today.
Still some object in principle to the Rambam’s concept of renewing Semichah. The Vilna Gaon, for example, disagrees with the Rambam and writes that even in the Land of Israel, Semichah cannot be granted without one true Samuch, who can trace his ordination back to Moshe Rabbeinu. Additionally, some believe that the Ramban disagrees with the Rambam, as the Ramban is of the opinion that Semichah, together with Kiddush Ha-Chodesh, will be restored with the arrival of the Moshiach.
Next week, we will explore a number of attempts at different periods in Jewish History to renew Semichah and restore the Sanhedrin.