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Semicha (סמיכה) (meaning "leaning [of the hands]" in Hebrew) is roughly equivalent to the word "ordination" (in Hebrew: Semichut סמיכות) of a rabbi within Judaism. It is the "transmission" of rabbinic authority in the form of an authorization to give advice or judgment in Jewish law. It is often referred to as rabbinic ordination. A second and distinct meaning of semicha is the laying of hands upon an offering of a korban ("sacrifice") in the times of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Semicha in the times of the Hebrew Bible
According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses ordained Joshua through semicha. (Numbers 27:22, 23; Deut. 34:9). Moses also ordained the 70 elders (ibid 11:16–17, 24–25). The elders later ordained their successors in this way. Their successors in turn ordained others. According to Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah this chain of hands-on semicha continued until the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (first century CE). After the Destruction of the Second Temple and the scattering of much of the Jewish people, the direct chain from Moses onward was broken.
Traditionally Moses is also assumed to be the "first rabbi" of the the Children of Israel. Until the present time he is still known to most Jews as Moshe Rabbeinu ("Moses our Teacher"). Moses was also a prophet and is considered to be the greatest of all the Hebrew Bible's prophets. Moses passed his leadership on to Joshua as commanded by God in the Book of Numbers where the subject of semicha ("laying [of hands]" or "ordination") is first mentioned in the Torah:
- Book of Numbers: "Moses spoke to God, saying, 'Let the Omnipotent God of all living souls appoint a man over the community. Let him come and go before them, and let him bring them forth and lead them. Let God's community not be like sheep that have no shepherd.' God said to Moses, 'Take Joshua son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hands on him'. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the entire community, and let them see you commission him. Invest him with some of your splendor so that the entire Israelite community will obey him. Let him stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall seek the decision of the Urim before God on his behalf. By this word, along with all the Israelites and the entire community shall he come and go.' Moses did as God had ordered him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the entire community. He then laid his hands on him and commissioned him as God had commanded Moses." (Numbers 27:15-23) 
- Book of Deuteronomy: "Joshua son of Nun was filled with a spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him. The Israelites therefore listened to him, doing as God had commanded Moses." (Deuteronomy 34:9) 
According to the commentary of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: Some say that this "laying of hands" actually denoted ordination (Talmud Sanhedrin 13b). According to others, Moses actually laid his hands on Joshua, but in later generations, it was not required for ordination (Yad, Sanhedrin 4:1,2). 
Semicha in the Mishna and Talmud
For some time, rabbis in the era of the Mishnah (until 200 CE) and the two Talmuds continued to ordain their successors through the semicha ceremony, but eventually the rabbis began to confer the title "rabbi" without a hands-on semicha; instead they used an oral or written formula. This is sometimes known as "neo-semicha".
In the Mishnaic era it became the law that only someone who had semicha could give religious and legal decisions (Talmud Sanhedrin 5b.)
Before 135 CE, only Jewish sages in Palestine had semicha, and thus were called rebbi (or "rabbi"). The sages of the Babylonian Jewish community had a similar religious education, but without the semicha ceremony they were called rav. As such, these early Babylonian Jewish sages deferred to the Palestinian Jewish sages.
The situation changed as a result of the failed revolution by Bar Kokhba in 132–135 C.E. The Romans put down the revolt, and the emperor Hadrian withdrew all support for the Sanhedrin, the supreme legislative and religious body of the Jewish people. According to the Mishna, Hadrian banned the granting of semicha; anyone who gave or accepted semicha was given the death penalty. Further, the Mishna states that if semicha is given, the very city in which the ceremony took place would be demolished (Sanhedrin 14a.)
The decline of classical semicha
According to most Jewish writers on this topic, sometime during the fourth century CE, during the time of Hillel II, the original semicha, with all the powers originally granted, ceased to exist.
A minority of Jewish writers maintain that a form of the original semicha continued to be practiced in small numbers as late as the eleventh century CE.
The Geonim, early medieval Jewish sages of Babylon, did not possess semicha, yet were formally known as "rabbis" and were entrusted with authority to make legal and religious decisions. Rabbinic ordination was not passed through the laying on of hands, but through a written certificate.
Sometime after the Black death struck Europe, the Jewish community was influenced by the formal issuing of diplomas conferred by European Christian universities. In the areas today known as France and Germany, Ashkenazic Jews began using the term semicha again, this time using it to refer to a formal "diploma" conferred by a teacher on his pupil. This practice was at first frowned upon by Sephardic Jews, who viewed the practice as "presumptuous and arrogant", and an imitation of gentile customs; eventually however this practice was adopted by the Sephardic Jewish community as well.
Attempts to revive classical semicha
Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, rules that "if all the Palestinian sages would unanimously agree to appoint and ordain judges, then these new ordinants would possess the full authority of the original ordained judges" (Hilchoth Sanhedrin 4:11). His code of law was accepted as normative by the majority of Jewish scholars since that time, though this section was mainly viewed as theoretical, especially because he concludes that "the matter needs deciding".
Rabbi Jacob Berab's attempt to revive semicha
In 1538 Rabbi Jacob Berab of Safed, Israel, attempted to restore the traditional form of Semicha. His goal was to unify the scattered Jewish communities through the re-establishment of a new Sanhedrin. At his prompting, 25 rabbis from the Land of Israel convened; they ordained Jacob Berab as their "Chief rabbi". Berab then conferred semicha through a laying on of he hands to four rabbis, including Joseph Caro, who was later to become the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, widely viewed as the most important code of Jewish law from the 1600s onwards. Joseph Caro in turn ordained Moses Alshekh ; Alshekh in turn ordained Hayyim Vital .
Berab made an error by not first obtaining the approval of the chief rabbis in Jerusalem; when Berab later asked them to accept his authority, they rejected his request and protested his attempt to re-start traditional semicha. Levi ibn Habib, the chief rabbi in Jerusalem, wrote a treatise refuting the legality of Berab’s actions (Kunteres ha-Semikhah). Rabbi David ibn Zimra (Radvaz) of Egypt was consulted, but when Berab died in 1542 the renewed form of semicha gradually ground to a halt.
The rebirth of the modern State of Israel
In 1948, with the establishment of the modern State of Israel, the idea of restoring the traditional form of semicha and reestablishing a new "Sanhedrin" became popular among some within the religious Zionist community. Rabbi Judah Leib Maimon , Israel's first minister of religious affairs, promoted this idea. A small number of religious Zionist rabbis of Modern Orthodox Judaism's Rabbinical Council of America voiced support for this idea; some rabbis within Conservative Judaism entertained the idea as a potentially positive development. However, most secular Jews, most Haredim, and most non-Orthodox Jews did not approve of this goal. Israel's Chief Ashkenazi rabbi at the time, Isaac Herzog , was hesitant to support this goal, and the idea eventually died away.
2004 developmenet in Israel
On October 13, 2004, a group of mostly Israeli-born rabbis of various sects met in Jerusalem's Old City and proclaimed itself the new "Sanhedrin", citing Maimonides' writings (see above) as "justification" for their actions. In a January 2005 article in the Israeli newspaper Arutz Sheva , member Rabbi Chaim Richman said of the decision that: "Not only are we commanded to establish the Sanhedrin, but this seems to be the perfect time to do so - a time of Divine will. On the one hand, there is a spiritual void in the 'establishment,' and on the other hand, there is a real thirst among the public for spirituality and guidance." Presently it remains uncertain whether this body will gain acceptance within the Jewish community.
Not all present-day rabbis have semicha
Although presently most functioning synagogue (i.e. "pulpit" rabbis hold semicha, this was until quite recently not always required, and in fact many Haredi rabbis may possibly not be required to hold a "formal" semicha even though they may occupy important rabbinical and leadership positions. The reasons being that what is prized in the communities they serve and lead is most of all a supreme mastery of the Talmud with a vast knowledge of the commentaries of the Rishonim and Acharonim and Responsa, added to knowledge of the Shulkhan Arukh and Halakha ("Jewish Law"). Many Hasidic rebbes and Rosh yeshivas of major Orthodox yeshivas are not required to "prove" to their flocks that they do or do not hold formal semicha because their reputations as Torah-scholars and sages is unquestioned and esteemed based on the recommendations of trusted sages, and the experiences and interactions that many knowledgeable Torah-observant Jews have with them, which thus gives practical testimony based on experience that these great rabbis are indeed worthy to be called as such. For example, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Chafetz Chayim, probabaly one of the most famous rabbis of the early 20th century, was trained and recognized as a rabbi, but did not hold semicha until he had to apply for a passport! He realized that unless he obtained a written document of semicha, he could not technically enter "rabbi" as an occupation without "lying". He then received his semicha by telegraph from Rabbi Chayim Ozer Grodzinsky of Wilna, an unusual arrangement - especially in the early 20th century!
- Rabbi article in Encyclopedia Judaica Keter Publishing
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