Restoring the Sanhedrin
Part III – Attempts at Renewing Semichah
Over the centuries, there have been a number of attempts to renew Semichah based on the Rambam’s ruling, not without controversy. While these movements were unsuccessful and short-lived, they express a sincere desire to return the crown of Torah to its former glory.
The first attempt at restoring Semichah since the chain of transmission was broken, is recorded by Rav Evyatar Gaon. He writes how his father, Rav Eliyahu HaKohen Gaon, head of Yeshivat Gaon Yaakov, travelled from Tyre to Haifa in 1083 in an attempt to renew Semichah.
The second - and most famous - attempt at renewing Semichah took place in Safed in 1538. At the time, many Jews living in the Land of Israel had fled Spain and Portugal during the Expulsion, and in the years that followed. Many of them were anusim or conversos, having been forcibly converted to Christianity. Rav Yaakov (Mahari) Beirav, one of the leading authorities at the time, himself a refugee from Spain, decided to convene a Beit Din of Smuchin to administer Makkot to those anusim who had committed idolatry by living as Christians. Mahari Beirav believed this would expiate them of the punishment of Kareit, as the Mishnah states (Makkot 3:15), “All those obligated in Kareit who are lashed – they are exempt from Kareit.”
Based on the Rambam’s ruling, Mahari Beirav assembled the rabbis of Safed, twenty-five in all, who then conferred upon him Semichah. He then, in turn, conferred Semichah upon four individuals, including Rav Yosef Karo, and Rav Moshe di Trani. The identities of the other two are believed to be Rav Avraham Shalom and Rav Yisrael de Curial. Rav Yosef Karo then gave semichah to Rav Moshe Alshikh, who in turn gave it to Rabbi Chaim Vital.
The rabbi of Jerusalem, Rav Levi ibn Chaviv (Maharalbach), fiercely opposed the renewal of Semichah. In his Kuntres Ha-Semichah, a strong polemic published together with his responsa in Venice in 1565, he voices many objections. The Maharalbach perceived the renewal of Semichah in Safed as a slight to the honor of Jerusalem and its rabbis. After all, he argued, the Rambam himself writes that a consensus is necessary among “all the sages of the Land of Israel,” and he (Maharalbach) was not consulted. Maharalbach also believed that the Rambam himself was not convinced that Semichah can be renewed as he writes, “And the matter requires a decision.” These are just some of the many objections the Maharlbach puts forth in his Kuntres. In addition, there is some speculation that the Maharlbach may have sensed messianic undertones in the attempt to renew Semikhah, which would explain his strong opposition (See R. Dov Revel, “Chiddush ha-Semichah Lifnei Arbah Mei’ot Shanah,” Chorev 5:9-10, 5699, p. 21).
Mahari Beirav responded to the objections of Maharalbaḥ in a series of responsa. He explains that the Rambam’s intent when writing, “all the sages of the Land of Israel,” is not to be taken literally. Instead a majority is sufficient, like in many areas of halacha. He also explains that the Rambam’s conclusion, “and the matter requires a decision,” was written concerning Rambam’s second statement, namely that a Samuch can act alone. Mahari Beirav also points out that many later authorities agreed with the Rambam, or at the very least did not voice an objection.
A letter was sent to Rav Dovid ibn Zimra (Radbaz), Chief Rabbi of Egypt, seeking his opinion on the matter. In both a responsum and in his Commentary to the Mishneh Torah, Radbaz ruled in accord with Maharalbach. Radbaz was convinced that the Rambam was uncertain about his ruling on renewing Semichah. In addition, he 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.”
Due to Maharalbach’s fiery opposition, as well as difficult conditions in Safed in the years that followed, the fledgling movement to renew Semichah soon dissolved.
In 1830, Rav Yisrael of Shklov, a student of the Vilna Gaon who ascended to the Land of Israel, attempted to renew Semichah in order to restore the Sanhedrin in hopes of bringing about the Final Redemption. He went as far as sending an emissary to search for remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes, hoping that they had continued the chain of Semichah 'ish mi’pi ish,' and could now confer Semichah upon others as well (See Aryeh Morgenstern, Hastening Redemption, trans. Joel A. Linsider, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 102-110, and Idem, “Nisyono Shel R. Yisrael Mishklov L’chadesh Et ha-Semichah L’or Mekorot Chadashim,” Sinai 100, 5747, pp. 548-565. See also See also Avraham Ya’ari, Iggerot Eretz Yisrael, Massada, 1971, pp. 342-357).
Interestingly, a special attempt was made to locate members of the Tribe of Reuven, as Radbaz, in his comments to Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11, writes, “In the future, the children of Reuven will come and fight a war before the coming of the messiah - and who is to say that there is not among them a samuch mi’pi samuch who will grant Semichah to others?”
In 1901, Rav Aharon Menachem Mendel HaKohen, rabbi of the Ashkenazic community in Cairo, issued a kol koreh to the rabbis of his generation, urging them to form a worldwide rabbinic organization, in hopes of forming a Sanhedrin. The organization’s charter, which describes the restoration of the Sanhedrin as one of its goals, features a list of hundreds of rabbis from across the globe in support (See his Sefer Ha-Agudah, Cairo, 1913, republished in his collected works, Yad Re’em, Tel Aviv, 1960, pp. 69-79).
In 1911, he published Semichat Chachamim, a treatise on the topic of renewing Semichah and restoring the Sanhedrin. Rav Aharon Menachem Mendel HaKohen too met with opposition, but did receive some support – including support from Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky (Ridbaz), one of the leading rabbinic figures at the time. In a letter, Ridbaz writes that the restoration of the Sanhedrin is the medicine that will heal the Jewish People and restore Torah and Judaism to Israel.
The major aliyah to Israel in the early 20th Century stirred renewed interest in renewing Semichah once again. Some even saw the institution of the Chief Rabbinate as a step towards restoring the Sanhedrin. Rav Tzvi Makovsky, a member of the Tel Aviv rabbinate, authored a comprehensive study on the topic, Va’Ashivah Shoftayich, published in 1938, exactly 400 years since the failed attempt in Safed. He too sent letters to leading rabbinic figures in his day, with the goal of restoring the Sanhedrin in pre-state Palestine. Many of the responses he received were published in his work, and his efforts generated a flurry of scholarship on the topic.
Following the founding of the State of Israel, Rav Yehudah Leib Maimon, a Mizrachi leader who served as Minister of Religion in Israel’s First Knesset, began an initiative to restore the Sanhedrin. He too wrote a comprehensive work on the laws and history of renewing semichah and restoring the Sanhedrin. In Shevat of 1951, he organized a conference in Tiberias, but few rabbis attended, as the opposition at the time was heavy. Among those opposed was Chief Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog. The Chazon Ish, who was also strongly opposed to the notion of renewing semichah wrote, “Radbaz, writing in his day, writes that we are not worthy – all the more so we, who are orphans of orphans. The give and take concerning this is laughable!” (Chazon Ish, Choshen Mishpat, Likutim 1).
Rav Maimon’s choice in holding the conference in Tiberias was not incidental. The seat of the Sanhedrin was last in Tiberias, and as Rambam writes, “There is a tradition that in the future it [the Sanhedrin] will return first to Tiberias, and from there it will be transferred the Temple” (Hil. Sanhedrin 14:12. See also Rosh ha-Shanah 31a-31b, and Rashi, ad Loc.).
In 2004, a group of rabbis in Israel joined together in Tiberias to once again renew Semichah and restore the Sanhedrin. The group chose to confer Semichah upon Rav Moshe Halberstam, scion of a Chassidic dynasty and prominent member of the Beit Din Tzedek of the Eidah Charedit, who served as Rosh Yeshivah of the Tschakava Yeshiva in Jerusalem and rabbi of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital. In turn, Rav Halberstam conferred Semichah upon the other dayanim. Rav Adin Steinsaltz was appointed Nasi, but later left the group.
According to the nascent Sanhedrin’s website, “Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and many others gave their blessing but did not join the Sanhedrin.” Their website also reports that the current members are placeholders, so to speak, and “any scholar, at any time, may gain a place on the legislature by proving a greater level of scholarship in Jewish Law than a current member of the legislature.” To date, the group is still active and looking for greater acceptance.
In the years following the establishment of the State of Israel, Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky wrote, “it is not yet the proper time to return the crown to its former glory and establish a Sanhedrin befitting of its name.” But Rav Tukachinsky concludes that given the unique moment in history we are living in, we should indeed prepare by establishing a “Beit Din Ha-Gadol in Jerusalem to adjudicate all questions of life in Israel.” This body, he continues, should consist of the leading rabbinic authorities, and will “have the power to strengthen the place of Torah and the foundations of Judaism with its influence on the spirit of our People” (Ir Ha-Kodesh V’ha-Mikdash, Jerusalem, 1970, Vol. 4, pp. 129 -132).
Rav Tukachinsky’s sentiment is especially relevant today, given the current social, religious, and political climate in the State of Israel.
The controversial, yet ambitious attempts at renewing Semichah and restoring the Sanhedrin did not succeed. But given the significance of the topic, the issues raised should continue to be discussed and debated by scholars. In the meantime, we await the day when we will see the realization of our hope and prayer, “Restore our judges as in earliest times and our counselors as at first.”