This column is dedicated to addressing your Jewish questions, to which the TJP has appropriated this space for nearly the past decade. However, given my position as dean of the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA), I want to use this space to discuss a concept that has existed since the 40th year of our existence as a nation. What I refer to is the tradition of “semicha” usually translated as rabbinic ordination. The word literally means to “lay ones hands upon another and lean upon them,” as we find in the Torah’s first ordination.
Moses, the first “rabbi,” passed his leadership to Joshua as commanded by God in the Book of Numbers where the subject of semicha is (first?) mentioned in the Torah: “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 Elazar 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… Moses did as God had ordered him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Elazar the priest and before the entire community. He then laid his hands on him and commissioned him as God had commanded Moses.” (Num 27:15-23; see also Numbers 11:16-25 and Deuteronomy 34:9).
Thus started the unbroken chain of semicha for more than one thousand years, from Joshua until the second century CE, when the Roman emperor Hadrian decreed that conferring semicha was punishable by death.
Punctuating the vital importance of semicha is the heart-wrenching story of Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava’s martyrdom. One year, ben Bava took two rabbis and 50 students to a mountain pass far from any settlement or farm for ordination, so others would not be punished. The three rabbis then ordained all 50 students. When the Romans discovered them and attacked, the elderly Rabbi Yehuda blocked the mountain pass with his body, absorbing Roman arrows so the young rabbis could escape and ensure the continuity of Torah to the next generation. Though the direct semicha on that level ceased after that terrible time, the practice of conferring a rabbinical degree continues today.
It would seem to be quite a strange way to confer a degree, with the teacher putting his hands upon the head of the graduate! Such an action, in fact, reveals a profound message. Semicha is not merely a degree showing one has passed a test and exhibits mastery of a body of material. A rabbi, when conferring semicha upon a student, is putting himself into that student, as shown by physically resting his hands upon the student and leaning on him while conferring the title of rabbi upon him. During rabbinic ordination, we “rest our hands and weight” upon the students, giving of our hearts, minds and selves to the next generation of rabbis.
The joy I alluded to above is that, although semicha is usually relegated to the major academies of study in renowned Jewish communities, in just a few days we are about to proudly witness a real semicha ceremony Dallas! Four unique individuals, who joined DATA as rabbis, have spent the past three years diligently studying the Talmud, Jewish law and philosophy in the rabbinic training program of DATA, and are about to receive a graduate-level semicha from a leading rabbinical sage as well as from the Kollel Institute of DATA. This will take place from 7:15 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Sun., July 31 at Ohr Hatorah Congregation, 6324 Churchill Way in Dallas. This will be DATA’s third semicha event during the nearly 20 years since our inception. Rabbis previously ordained here have gone on to leadership positions in Dallas and throughout the United States.
I invite everyone to join me and the rabbis for this occasion, and be part of history when Dallas becomes a link in the chain spanning the generations from Moses and Joshua and leading on to the future!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.