Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies of the 16th and 21st Centuries. By Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff

By: Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff

This article will be devoted to an explanation of the various halachic underpinnings of the Sanhedrin, including:

What are the roles and responsibilities of the Sanhedrin?

What exactly is semicha, and why is it such a central factor in the creation of the Sanhedrin?

What attempts have been made in the last hundreds of years to reconvene a Sanhedrin and reestablish semicha?

WHAT IS THE SANHEDRIN?

The Sanhedrin, also called the Beis Din Hagadol, is the final authority on all matters of halacha. Their interpretation of Torah she’be’al peh is authoritative.

Any halachic issue that is questionable and disputed by lower batei din is referred to the Beis Din Hagadol for a binding decision.

The Sanhedrin also fulfills several vital political and administrative roles. It appoints the Jewish king, as well as the judges who serve on the courts of the shevatim and the cities. Each shevet and each city was required to have a Beis Din of 23 that the Sanhedrin appoints. Thus, the Sanhedrin is not only the supreme halacha authority, but it is also, quite literally, the “power behind the throne,” “the power behind the courts,” – and, at the same time, the court of final appeal. It has the final say in all matters, both temporal and spiritual.

There are several other halachos that require the participation or agreement of the Sanhedrin, including a decision to wage war and expanding the halachic boundaries of the Beis HaMikdash or of Yerushalayim (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1). (We are permitted to eat many holy items, including certain korbanos and maaser sheni, only in halachic Yerushalayim, which has nothing to do with its current municipal boundaries. Expanding the city requires a special procedure that includes participation of the Sanhedrin.)

In addition, several types of adjudication require the participation of the Sanhedrin, including prosecuting a false prophet, and the law of zakein mamrei, an elder who ruled against the Torah she’be’al peh (both taught in parshas Shoftim), the law of a city that went astray (ir hanidachas), the procedure of the and that of eglah arufah (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:1).

The Sanhedrin is also in charge of supervising the Jewish calendar through the appointing of a specially-designated committee. (In the absence of a Sanhedrin or Beis Din Hagadol, Hillel Hanasi established a permanent calendar over 1500 years ago, so that the calendar can continue to exist even though we no longer have a Sanhedrin.)

WHERE AND WHEN DOES THE SANHEDRIN MEET?

The Sanhedrin was open daily in its main headquarters inside the Beis HaMikdash, called the lishkas hagazis. When they are involved in litigation, the entire Sanhedrin, consisting of 71 members,is present. When not in session, there must still always be 23 members of the Sanhedrin in the lishkah.

WHO QUALIFIES TO BE IN THE SANHEDRIN?

There are many technical requirements that all members must meet, but as a basic requirement they must all be superior talmidei chachamim and yirei shamayim (G-d fearing individuals). In addition, all members of the Sanhedrin — and indeed, of all the lower courts — must also receive the special semicha that Moshe bestowed upon Yehoshua, authorizing him to rule on all areas of Jewish law.

DOESN’T EVERY RABBI HAVE SEMICHA?

There are several levels of semicha. The most basic semicha, called yoreh yoreh, authorizes the recipient to rule on matters of kashrus and similar areas. A more advanced level of semicha, called yodin yodin, authorizes its recipient to rule as a dayan on financial matters. A still higher level, no longer obtainable today, is called yatir bechoros, which authorizes its recipient to rule on whether a first-born animal is blemished and therefore inappropriate to offer as a korban (see Sanhedrin 5a). This semicha permits the firstborn animal to be slaughtered and eaten.

There was also a qualitatively different type of semicha that could be obtained from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu until the time of the Gemara. This semicha authorized the recipient to rule on capital and corporal cases (chayavei misas Beis Din and malkus) and to judge kenasos, penalties set by the Torah. Only a Beis Din consisting exclusively of dayanim ordained with this semicha may judge whether a person receives lashes or the death penalty for his actions.

In earlier days, each city and shevet had its own Beis Din of 23 judges, all of whom were possessors of the highest level of semicha. In addition, all 71 members of the Sanhedrin must have this form of semicha.

HOW MANY DAYANIM GIVE OUT SEMICHA?

A single judge who is himself a musmach may grant semicha to as many qualified people as he chooses, although the grantor must be accompanied by two other people, who need not be musmachim themselves. Dovid HaMelech (himself an expert judge and tremendous talmid chacham) once granted 30,000 semichos in one day (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin, 4:7!! Semicha that was granted to someone who is not an expert in all areas of halacha is not valid (Meiri, Sanhedrin 14a).

This special semicha must be issued within Eretz Yisroel. Thus, even if a talmid chacham is highly qualified, he may not receive semicha unless the grantor of the semicha and the recipient are both in Eretz Yisroel (Sanhedrin 14a). For this reason, most of the Amora’im, the great talmidei chachamim of the times of the Gemara, never received this semicha, because they lived in Bavel, not in Eretz Yisroel.

THE STORY OF RAV YEHUDA BEN BAVA

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 13b) tells us the following fascinating story which took place during the extreme persecutions that followed the failure of the Bar Cochva revolt: The Roman Empire once decreed that issuing semicha was a serious crime, punishable by death for both the grantor and the recipient. Furthermore, they ruled that the town in which the semicha was issued would be destroyed, and the areas near it would be razed.

After the execution of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava realized that he was one of the last musmachim (recipients of this special semicha) still alive. If he failed to grant semicha to some young scholars, the semicha would terminate with his own death. He therefore endangered himself and granted semicha to five surviving disciples of Rabbi Akiva: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Rabbi Yehudah ben Ila’i, Rabbi Yosi ben Chalafta, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua – basically, to an entire generation of Torah leadership. In order not to endanger anyone else, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava brought them to a place that was midway between two major cities and between two mountains. Thus, for the Romans to fulfill their decree they would need to level two mountains.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava succeeded in his mission, although he paid for it with his life. Because of his supreme sacrifice, the semicha continued among the Jewish people for several more generations.

With the increased persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the Jewish population of Eretz Yisroel dwindled, and with time, ordination through this semicha ended. Thus, no one received the semicha that qualifies someone to judge capital, corporal, or kenasos cases, and this aspect of halachic life came to an end.

CAN SEMICHA BE REINSTITUTED?

The Rambam writes: “It appears to me that if all the chachamim in Eretz Yisroel agree to appoint dayanim and grant them semicha, they have the law of musmachim, and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semicha to others… a person who received semicha from someone who already has semicha does not require authorization from all of them – he may judge penalty cases for everyone, since he received semicha from Beis Din. However, this matter requires a final decision” (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11).

Thus, the Rambam suggested a method whereby the semicha can be re-created. However, several issues need to be clarified before this project can be implemented:

1. Did the Rambam conclude that this is the halacha, or is it merely a suggestion he is conjecturing? Don’t his final words, “However, this matter requires a final decision,” imply that he was uncertain about his suggestion and that he deferred making a final decision regarding this issue?

2. Assuming, unlike our previous sentence, that the Rambam ruled definitely that semicha can be reinstituted, did he require, literally, all of the Chachamim in Eretz Yisroel to agree, or does a majority suffice? Must the rabbonim be assembled all in one place, or is it sufficient if they are aware of the process and grant their approval?

3. Is the Rambam’s opinion on this subject universally held? And if not, do we rule like him?

THE 16th CENTURY CONTROVERSY– REINTRODUCING SEMICHA

After the Spanish expulsion, many Jews remained in Spain, practicing their Judaism in secret, while publicly appearing to be Christians. Thousands of these Marrano Jews, also often called by the Spanish term conversos or the Hebrew word, anusim, eventually escaped to areas where they could return to the religion of their fathers, yet they were haunted by the transgressions they had committed on Spanish soil. Many were concerned that they would never escape the specter of their more serious aveiros, many of which carried the punishment of kareis. Although they had become true ba’alei teshuvah, they lived in fear of their ultimate day of judgment, when they would have to provide a reckoning for their actions and face the serious consequences.

THE SOLUTION

The Mahari Beirav, Rav of Tzefas in the early sixteenth century, came up with a solution to the problem of these ba’alei teshuvah. He proposed the creation of batei din that could carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases a person from the punishment of kareis (Mishnah Makos 23a).

There was one serious problem with this proposal. In order to create batei din that can administer these punishments, one must have dayanim who have received a special semicha that can be traced to Moshe Rabbeinu. Since this semicha had terminated over a thousand years before, the Mahari Beirav needed a method of reintroducing the semicha.

TZEFAS, 5298 (1538)

In  5298 (1538), 25 gedolim of Tzefas, at the time the largest Torah community in Eretz Yisroel, granted semicha to the Mahari Beirav, based on the writings of the Rambam (Peirush Hamishnayos, Sanhedrin 1:3; Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11). He then ordained four people with the new semicha, including Rav Yosef Karo, who had already written his monumental works Kesef Mishneh and Beis Yosef, and later authored the Shulchan Aruch, and Rav Moshe diTrani, the author of several major halacha works, including Beis Elokim, Kiryas Sefer, and Shu’t Mabit. Mahari Beirav also sent a semicha to the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Levi ibn Chaviv, known as the Maharalbach, who he assumed would be delighted to receive such a wonderful gift!

The Maharalbach was not happy with the gift andrefused to accept the semicha. He took strong issue with their granting semicha, for the following several reasons:

1. The Rambam’s closing words, “This matter requires a final decision,” shows that he was not fully decided on this halacha, and therefore it cannot be relied upon.

2. The Ramban (Sefer Hamitzvos, Aseh 153) disagrees with the Rambam, contending that semicha can not be reinstituted until Moshiach arrives. Thus, since the Rambam was uncertain about this halacha, and the Ramban was certain that there is no such thing, the halacha follows the Ramban.

3. Even if we assume that the Rambam meant this ruling to be definitive, the Tzefas rabbonim had not fulfilled the procedure correctly, since all the gedolim of Eretz Yisroel must be together in one synod. (This opinion is actually mentioned earlier by the Meiri, Sanhedrin 14a.)

Furthermore, the Maharalbach insisted that all the scholars must be involved in the active debate and that all must agree. He also contended that even if someone holds that a majority of gedolim is sufficient, the minority must be aware of the debate and participate in it. He further contended that creating such a synod after the fact would not help, since, once the Tzefas rabbonim had ordained the Mahari Beirav, they now have a bias in their ruling (noge’a bedin), which invalidates their opinion on the subject.

The Maharalbach proved his opinion, that the Rambam’s suggestion was not accepted as normative halacha, from the fact that there had been numerous opportunities for gedolei Yisroel to create semicha, and yet, they refrained from doing so. The Maharalbach concludes that semicha will not exist again until the arrival of Moshiach.

WHAT ABOUT THE MARRANOS?

As for the ba’alei teshuvah that would be left without release from their kareis, the Maharalbach pointed out that if they performed sincere teshuvah, they would be forgiven for their sins, no matter how severe they were. Although it is possible that they may suffer somewhat in this world for these aveiros, despite their teshuvah, they would receive no punishment for their aveiros in the next world (Makos 13b).

On the other hand, the Maharalbach pointed out that he did not understand how semicha could accomplish what Mahari Beirav wanted, anyway, since Beis Din cannot punish someone for violating the Torah, unless several requirements are met, including:

The sinner must receive a warning, immediately prior to his violating the commandment, telling him that he is sinning, explaining to him that what he is planning to do is wrong, and informing him what punishment he will receive if he sins. The sinner must acknowledge that he heard and understood the warning, and then perform the sin, anyway. Furthermore, Beis Din does not punish a sinner unless two adult male Jews witness the entire procedure and then testify in front of Beis Din. Clearly, none of these Marranos had received warning prior to performing the aveiros,and, therefore, they were not punishable with malkus in Beis Din. Thus, how would these ba’alei teshuvah receive the malkus they desire, even if dayanim musmachim exist?

RESPONSE FROM TZEFAS

The Mahari Beirav responded to the Maharalbach’s arguments. As far as the punishment of malkus is concerned, the Mahari Beirav held that if someone voluntarily asks an authorized Beis Din to give him malkus for his sin, the punishment is carried out, even though there were no warnings and no witnesses. Thus, the creation of a Beis Din of musmachim facilitates the atonement of these people.

As far as semicha is concerned, the Mahari Beirav did not accept the Maharalbach’s criticism that his semicha program was invalid. The Mahari Beirav explained that the Rambam’s ruling – that it is possible to appoint dayanim and grant semicha if all the chachamim in Eretz Yisroel agree to do so – is definitive, not theoretical or suggestive, and he questions whether the Ramban disputes this opinion. Even if the Ramban does question it, the Mahari Beirav contends that the halacha follows the Rambam. Furthermore, he contends that a simple majority of gedolim living in Eretz Yisroel is sufficient to create semicha, since the halacha in all other cases of jurisprudence is that we follow the majorityThus, since all the gedolim of Tzefas, who were a majority of the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel at the time, had appointed him as dayan, the semicha could be renewed on this basis. In addition, the Mahari Beirav contends that correspondence with the other gedolei Yisroel is a sufficient method to determine whether a majority favor renewing semicha, and that it is not necessary for all the gedolim to attend a meeting together for this purpose.

A lengthy correspondence ensued between the Maharalbach and the rabbonim of Tzefas, which is referred to as the Kuntros Hasemicha and is appended to the end of the Shu’t Maharalbach.

Incidentally, the dispute between the Maharalbach and the Mahari Beirav, whether the gedolim can reinstitute semicha, dates back to the Rishonim. The Meiri (to Sanhedrin 14a) rules that semicha can be reintroduced by having all the gedolei Yisroel of Eretz Yisroel gather together and appoint someone to be a dayan. However, the Meiri rules that the gedolim must meet together in one group for this ruling, which precludes the Mahari Beirav’s method. The Rashba (Bava Kamma 36b) also cites the Rambam’s opinion, although he rules the opposite, that renewal of semicha must await the arrival of Moshiach, following the opinion of the Ramban, as explained by the Maharalbach. In addition, the Ritva and the Nemukei Yosef (both at the end of Yevamos) state that semicha must await the arrival of Moshiach.

Evidence to support the Mahari Beirav’s opinion, if not his method, can be drawn from the Gemara (Eruvin 43b) that states that Eliyahu will declare his arrival as the harbinger of Moshiach by coming to the Beis Din Hagadol. This Gemara implies that the Beis Din Hagadol will precede the arrival of Eliyahu, and not the other way around (see Maharatz Chayes ad loc.). However, the Ritva and the Nemukei Yosef appear to hold that there will be no Sanhedrin until Moshiach comes.

THE RADBAZ GETS INVOLVED

Both sides appealed to the Radbaz, the acknowledged gadol hador, who lived in Egypt at the time, for a ruling. (The Radbaz later moved to Eretz Yisroel, but at the time of this dispute he was outside of Eretz Yisroel and, therefore, had not been involved in the initial debate and discussion.)

The Radbaz ruled, like the Maharalbach, that the semicha was invalid, believing that the Rambam, himself, was uncertain whether his suggested method to reintroduce the semicha is a definitive ruling, and, furthermore, universal acceptance of such semicha would be necessary, even according to the Rambam’s approach. In addition, the Radbaz felt that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with enough proficiency in halacha to rule on any subject in Torah. He did not believe that his generation had any talmidei chachamim in this league, which means that, even if the Rambam had concluded that this system could be used to reintroduce the semicha, the ruling is no longerin effect.

HOW, THEN, WILL THE SANHEDRIN BE REESTABLISHED?

The Radbaz does discuss an issue – if we cannot create a new semicha, how, then, will we have semicha in the future? As mentioned above, semicha is necessary to create a Sanhedrin, and the Sanhedrin is necessary to appoint the Jewish king and judges, and for many other community activities. Radbaz presents three methods whereby semicha can be reestablished:

1. Eliyahu HaNavi, who is a musmach (see Rambam, introduction to Mishneh Torah), will issue semicha to others, when he arrives as the harbinger of Moshiach’s arrival.

2. Descendants of Shevet Reuven, who have semicha, may reappear. Simply because we are unaware of anyone with semicha does not mean that members of other shevatim who have been separated from us since prior to the churban do not have semicha. (This approach creates a question. If semicha can only be given in Eretz Yisroel, how could members of these shevatim receive semicha, when we know that they were exiled from Eretz Yisroel? See below for an answer to this question.)

3. Moshiach, himself, will grant semicha and thus create a Beis Din Hagadol. Radbaz does not explain where Moshiach gets his authorization to grant semicha.

RESULTS OF THE TZEFAS SEMICHA

The Mahari Beirav passed away three years after the semicha project began. Although Rav Yosef Karo had received this semicha and actually ordained Rav Moshe Alshich (author of the Alshich commentary to Tanach), by all indications, he never utilized the semicha in any other way. Nowhere in Shulchan Aruch does he refer to a renewal of semicha. Furthermore, several places in Shulchan Aruch assume that no Beis Din is authorized to rule on the laws of penalties and punishments. These passages would be written differently if its author assumed that a Beis Din of semuchim existed today.

This is even more intriguing in light of the fact that in his commentary, Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 295), he records as definitive halacha the Rambam’s opinion that semicha can be renewed.

Although Rav Moshe Alshich ordained Rav Chayim Vital (Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 1:7), who was renowned as the primary disciple of the Ari, z”l, the semicha trail appears to end at this point. There is no indication of anyone continuing the semicha project after this time. Thus, we can assume that the ruling of the Maharalbach and the Radbaz, that we should not introduce semicha on our own, was accepted.

SEARCHING FOR SEMICHA IN THE 1830’S

In the 1830’s, Rav Yisroel of Shklov, a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon who had settled in Yerushalayim, made another attempt to restart semicha. Rav Yisroel was interested in organizing a Sanhedrin, but he accepted the ruling of the Maharalbach and the Radbaz that we cannot create semicha by ourselves. Instead, he decided to utilize the suggestion of the Radbaz of receiving semicha from the tribes of Reuven and Gad. Rav Yisroel charted out where he thought the Bnei Reuven were probably located, and sent a certain Rav Baruch, as his emissary to find them (see Sefer Halikutim to Shabsei Frankel edition of Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11). Unfortunately, Rav Baruch did not succeed in locating the shevet of Reuven, and the plan came to naught.

It should be noted that Rav Yisroel raised the question how the Bnei Reuven could have kept semicha alive, since they were outside Eretz Yisroel and semicha can be granted only in Eretz Yisroel. He answered that since the Bnei Reuven had been distant from the rest of Klal Yisroel before this psak (that semicha can only be in Eretz Yisroel) had been accepted, there is no reason to assume that they accepted this psak, and they were probably still issuing semicha!!

Rav Yisroel’s vain search to locate a musmach was an attempt to reintroduce the Sanhedrin, a far more ambitious plan than the Mahari Beirav had considered. Apparently, Rav Yisroel also understood from the Gemara (Eruvin 43b) that the Sanhedrin will again exist before Eliyahu appears.

NAPOLEON’S SANHEDRIN

In 5567 (1807), Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, decreed the opening of what he called “The Sanhedrin,” consisting of 71 Jewish leaders, mostly Rabbonim, but including communal leaders, many of whom were not religious.

This group had nothing to do with being a Sanhedrin, other than that Napoleon had given it this name. Napoleon presented this group with a list of 12 inquiries to answer, which questioned whether the Jews were loyal to the French Empire and its laws, and about the interactions between Jews and non-Jewish Frenchmen. Of course, the “Sanhedrin” had to be very careful how they answered Napoleon’s questions, to make sure that they were not guilty of treason. This Sanhedrin met many times in the course of about a year and then disbanded. It was never called into session again.

THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Approximately twenty years ago, a group calling their organization the “Sanhedrin,” based themselves on the Mahari Beirav’s opinion that we can recreate semicha today, provided it is accepted by most of the gedolei Yisroel. On this basis, they claimed to have created semicha for one of the well-known poskim in Eretz Yisroel, who subsequently ordained a few others, who have ordained yet others, until they now claim several hundred “musmachim.”

At the time, I spoke to one of the “dayanim” of the “Sanhedrin” about the procedure used to appoint their musmachim. He told me that the organization mailed letters to every shul and settlement in Israel, requesting appointment of a certain, well-respected Rav as musmach. They then counted the votes of those who had responded and approved the appointment. Since those who replied approved of the appointment, they ruled this Rav to be a musmach whose semicha qualifies to serve on the Sanhedrin! To quote this “dayan,” those who chose not to respond do not count. We have a majority of those who responded!?!

Obviously, according to no opinion does this system carry any halachic validity.

When I spoke to the “dayan,” he asked me if I was interested in becoming one of their musmachim. He told me that he would send me the information necessary for an appointment by their committee that approves musmachim.

Consequently, I received a letter inviting me to the next meeting of their “Sanhedrin,” and a note that one of their members had vouched for me and, upon that basis, they were preparing a semicha that they would present to me personally at the next meeting of the “Sanhedrin”!! Above, I noted that the Radbaz ruled that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with the scholarship to rule on any subject in Torah. Since I do not qualify for semicha on that basis, I am curious what criteria they are applying to determine a minimum standard for semicha. Unfortunately, I think I know the answer.

Since I have not heard from this group in recent years, I presume that they are no longer active.

We should all daven with more kavanah when reciting the bracha Hoshiva shofeteinu kivarishonah, “Return to us judges like the ones we had originally,” as a result of Teka bishofar gadol licheiruseinu, “Blow the Great Shofar that will free us.”


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