In honor of National Clergy Appreciation Month (October), Jewish Treats presents a history of “the Rabbi.”
The basic definition of a rabbi is someone who has received rabbinic ordination from a respected rabbi or authorized institution. Generally, a rabbi serves as the spiritual leader of a congregation, a teacher, or a scholar. However, there are many people who have received rabbinic ordination who do not assume normal rabbinic positions.
The Hebrew term for ordination is semicha (more accurately pronounced s’meecha), which comes from the root of the Hebrew word for “close” or “connected” and is understood to mean a “laying on of hands.” The first time the term is used, is in the Torah in Numbers 27, when God commands Moses: “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him; and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight” (27:18-19).
The process of semicha began with Moses ordaining Joshua and continued unbroken for generations, with the elders of each generation teaching the subsequent generation and conferring upon them the right to be called Rabbi. The formal semicha process required that ordination be conferred in the presence of three witnesses (one being the rabbi conferring the ordination) in the Land of Israel.
It is written in the Talmud “Rabbi Aha the son of Rabba, asked Rabbi Ashi: Is ordination affected by the literal laying on of hands? – [No,] he answered; it is by the conferring of the degree: He is designated by the title of Rabbi and granted the authority to adjudicate cases of financial penalty” (Sanhedrin 13b).
While the term semicha is still used now to refer to the process of becoming a rabbi, the formal process of semicha ended when Emperor Hadrian (76-138 C.E.) made it a capital crime to perform and receive ordination.