The Book of Numbers and Deuteronomy both teach that God commanded Moses to lay his hands on Joshua in a public ceremony to give him the authority to lead, teach, and judge the people. Moses did so, and he subsequently did the same to each of the 70 elders, ordaining them. Thus began the tradition of rabbinic ordination called semicha, which entitles one to be called rabbi. While other conditions have attached to the semicha through the ages, the one constant is that only one who has received it may give it. Although traditionally thought to be an unbroken chain passed directly from Moses, some secular governments throughout history have prohibited the practice, imposing terrible punishments for violation.
The different branches of modern Judaism have different standards for semicha. All require significant training in Jewish scripture and law, as well as the commentaries and responsa. Rabbinical training is most commonly given by rabbinical seminaries established by the major branches of Judaism, by smaller denominations, and by non-denominational seminaries as well. Reconstructionist and Reform rabbinical students generally are required to possess a bachelor’s degree, a requirement not imposed on Orthodox students; however, Orthodox training takes considerably longer and is deemed the most rigorous. In addition, Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from becoming ordained rabbis.
The semicha is given upon the completion of rabbinical training, and evidences the new rabbi’s mastery of Scripture and the law, the commentaries and responsa, and other learning as prescribed by the seminary. Modern semicha consists of two elements, which are essentially teacher (yoreh yoreh) and judge (yadin yadin). Most rabbis are teachers, or moreh hora’ah (a teacher of lessons), but their responsibilities extend far beyond instruction. They also hold responsibility for rendering judgments on religious law as it pertains to everyday activities, such as the Jewish dietary laws and what may and may not be done on holy days. The rabbi who receives the yadin yadin semicha is called a dayan and may decide issues of monetary and property law.
About the author: Rabbi Leib Tropper is a noted Orthodox rabbi who has taught extensively at different schools in the New York City area and at colleges and universities throughout the United States and Israel. Rabbi Tropper received four semichas while teaching at the Ohr Sameach yeshiva system in Jerusalem.