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Shabbat Parashat Shoftim| 5766
The Controversy Over the Renewal of Semicha - Harav Yedidya Kahane
Last week we brought the Rambam’s idea that it may be possible to renew authentic semicha (full ordination that allows a dayan to administer any type of judicial matter). The Rambam suggested that this could be done by assembling and obtaining the agreement of all of the scholars of Eretz Yisrael. An attempt was actually made to accomplish just that in the city of Tzefat (Safed) some 450 years ago. This famous city was home to the most famous and prominent talmidei chachamim of their day. The leader of the group was Rabbi Yaakov (Mahari) Beirav, and his colleagues included Rav Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch), the Maharit, and several other outstanding rabbis. They assembled and in fact granted renewed semicha to Mahari Beirav. He subsequently granted semicha to R. Yosef Karo and later to others, including the holy Alshich.
The most adamant and prominent opponent of these events was the Maharal ibn Chaviv, rabbi of the Jewish community of Yerushalayim at the time. He had several arguments against this move to renew semicha, and we will now cite the most fundamental among them. (We will not get into the more technical, halachic arguments in this forum.)
The Rambam himself wrote that “it seems to me” and “the matter needs to be decided.” This is not the type of language that is appropriate to follow as practical halacha, especially when it is at best a minority position.
Furthermore, Rambam’s proof for this possibility (Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin 1:3) is from the fact that without renewal of semicha it would be impossible to ever have real judges again. Yet this must be possible, as the prophet promises us, “I shall return your judges as in the beginning” (Yeshaya 1:26). However, the Radvaz (on Sanhedrin 4:11) answered that question. Remember that Malachi (3:23) promised that the prophet, Eliyahu, will return. As he had semicha, he can pass it on. There are also midrashim that the sons of the tribe of Reuven will return to the rest of the Jewish people, and they may have people with semicha among them. (This is difficult as semicha can be passed down only in Eretz Yisrael.)
A third claim is that in order to give semicha, the Rambam says that one needs to know the entire Torah, and we do not have anyone on that level.
Despite these arguments, the scholars of Tzefat did not accept the Maharal ibn Chaviv’s reservations. They pointed out that in the Commentary on the Mishna the Rambam wrote his thesis without reservation. It is possible that when the Rambam wrote that the matter needs to be decided, he referred to how to properly implement the semicha, not whether it can be done. Regarding the possibility that Eliyahu will renew the semicha, the Rambam may posit (characteristically) that the ability to do so must exist in the natural world, without relying on miracles.
In any case, the semicha instituted in Tzefat lasted only two generations.
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