Can Semikhah Be Renewed Today?
A Survey of Halakha & History
Semikhah, or rabbinic ordination, is the authority to adjudicate cases and answer questions of halakha. A beit din of smukhin can impose penalties and fines, and administer corporal and capital punishment.[1. See Sanhedrin 2a-3b; Sanhedrin 13b and Rashi, ad loc., s.v. l’meidan dinei k’nasot.]
But today’s rabbis are not real smukhin. Instead, today’s semikhah is heter hora’ah, authorization that allows rabbis to render halakhic decisions.[2. See Teshuvot ha-Radakh 18:10-11. See also Rema, Yoreh De’ah 242:14.] When yoreh yoreh is conferred on a rabbi, he is given authority to rule on issues of issur v’heter. When a rabbi is authorized with yadin yadin, he is able to serve as a dayan and rule on monetary matters (dinei mamanot).
Dayanim today act as proxies (shliḥutayhu ka avdinan) of previous generations who had real semichah, but are nevertheless limited in the types of cases they may hear – mostly monetary matters which are commonplace.[3. See Gittin 88b, and the comments of Rashi, Tosafot, Rashba, and Ritva, ad loc.; Bava Kamma 84b; Ḥiddushei ha-Ramban to Sanhedrin 23a; Ḥiddushei ha-Ran to Sanhedrin 2b. See also Tur, Ḥoshen Mishpat 1 and Beit Yosef, ad loc.; Shulḥan Arukh, Ḥoshen Mishpat 1:1 and S’ma, ad loc.; Rambam, Hil. Sanhedrin 5:8.] In fact, many rulings can only be rendered by smukhin, and many mitzvot in the Torah can only be performed when there is real semikhah.
The question of whether semikhah can be renewed today is the subject of much discussion and debate. Though controversial, throughout Jewish History there have been a number of attempts to renew semikhah, and even restore the Sanhedrin.
Ish Mi’pi Ish
The Torah (Num. 27:18, 23) relates how Moshe conferred semikhah upon Yehoshua: “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Take to yourself Yehoshua bin Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, and lean your hand upon him.’” “He leaned his hands upon him and commanded him, as Hashem had spoken through Moshe.”[4. While semikhah literally means the resting of one’s hands, it is not required to place one’s hands on one’s student when conferring semikhah. Rather, the title of rabbi is conferred on him and he is given permission to render legal decisions. See Sanhedrin 13b; Rambam, Hil. Sanhedrin 4:2. Cf. Yerushalmi Horayot 3:2. See also Tzitz Eliezer 16:54.] Moshe also ordained the Seventy Elders (Num. 11:16-17, 24-25).
In turn, Yehoshua and the Seventy Elders gave semikhah to their students, and so and so forth. Real smukhin could trace their authority, ish mi’pi ish, back to the beit din of Moshe Rabbeinu.[5. Rambam, Hil. Sanhedrin 4:1. See also Rambam’s Introduction to Mishneh Torah, where it would seem that Moshe, so to speak, received semikhah from Hashem.]
This chain of tradition continued unbroken for generations.
The Chain is Broken
Sanhedrin 14a describes how the Romans decreed that semikhah no longer be conferred. The Talmud (ad loc.) relates how Yehudah ben Bava gave up his life to preserve semikhah:
One time, the evil empire [Rome] decreed a decree against the Jewish People: Anyone who confers semikhah will be killed, any town in which semikhah is conferred will be destroyed, and the surrounding teḥum [of the town which granted semikhah] will be uprooted. What did Yehudah ben Bava do? He went and sat between two large mountains, and between two large cities, and between two teḥumei Shabbat, between Usha and Shfaram, and ordained five zekeinim. They were: R. Meir, R. Yehudah, R. Shimon, R. Yossi, and R. Elazar ben Shamua. Rav Avya added R. Nechemiah as well. When their enemies discovered them, [Yehudah ben Bava] said to them, ‘My sons, run!’ They said to him, ‘Rebbe – what will become of you?’ He responded to them, ‘I am placed before them [my enemies] like a rock that cannot be turned.’ It was said: They [the Roman soldiers] did not move from there until they had driven through him three hundred iron spears and made him like a sieve.
With his tremendous act of self-sacrifice, Yehudah ben Bava ensured the continuity of semikhah for another two centuries. But eventually, the chain of semikhah dating back to Moshe Rabbeinu would be broken.
According to many, the chain of semikhah was finally broken around 360 CE, when Hillel II dissolved the Sanhedrin and fixed the Jewish calendar.[6. R. Avraham bar Ḥiyya ha-Nassi, Sefer ha-Ibbur, 3:7, in the name of Rav Hai Gaon; Ramban, Sefer ha-Zekhut, Gittin, Chap. 4; Ramban, Hasagot ha-Rambam L’Sefer Hamitzvot, aseh 153; Ran in the pages of the Rif, Gittin 20a; Tashbetz, Zohar ha-Rakiah, 54; Sefer ha-Terumot, Sha’ar 45; Azariah de Rossi, Me’or Einayim, 25. Cf. Ḥiddushei ha-Ramban to Gittin 36a.] There is evidence, however, which suggests that semikhah continued to be conferred in the Land of Israel for centuries.[7. See R. Ḥaim Yeḥiel Bornstein, Mishpat ha-Semikhah V’koroteha (Warsaw, 1919), pp. 404-419, and R. Dov Revel, “Ḥiddush ha-Semikhah Lifnei Arbah Mei’ot Shanah,” Ḥorev 5:9-10 (5699), pp. 1-26. See also J. Newman, Semikha (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1950), pp. 144-154, who suggests that semikhah continued until the death of R. Daniel ben Azaryah Gaon in 1062, and Yehuda ben Barzillai of Barcelona, Sefer ha-Shtarot, p. 132, where it is implied that even in his days (ca. 11th-12th C.) there was some form of semikhah in the Land of Israel.]
According to Rambam, with the consent of the ḥakhamim of the Land of Israel, semikhah may be renewed. In his Peirush ha-Mishnah, he writes:
I am of the opinion that if there were an agreement by all of the students and sages to choose a man from the yeshivah, meaning to appoint him as a head – on condition that this is in the Land of Israel, as we have mentioned – this man, with the support of the yeshivah, will be a samukh and can then ordain anyone he likes. For if it were not so, then it would be impossible to ever have the Beit Din ha-Gadol, for each of them must be a samukh, without a doubt. And Hashem has already promised their return, as it says, ‘I will restore your judges as at first.’ And lest you say that the moshiaḥ will appoint them even though they are not smukhin, that is invalid as we have already explained in the introduction to our work that the moshiaḥ will not add to the Torah nor will he take away from it – not from the Written Law, nor the Oral Law. And I believe that the Sanhedrin will return before the revelation of the moshiaḥ. And this will be one of its signs. As stated, ‘I will restore your judges as at first and your counselors as at the beginning…’[8. Sanhedrin 1:3 (Qafiḥ Edition). Cf. Peirush ha-Mishnah, Hil. Bekhorot 4:4.]
And in his Mishneh Torah, Rambam writes:
It appears to me that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint judges and grant them semikhah – they are smukhim and they can judge penalty cases and are able to grant semikhah to others. If so, why did Chazal bemoan [the loss of] semikhah? So penalty cases would not disappear from among Israel – for Israel is spread out and it is not possible that they would all consent. If someone were to receive semikhah from someone who already has semikhah – he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone, since he received semikhah from a beit din. And the matter requires a decision (v’hadavar tzarikh hekhre’ah).[9. Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11.]
It is unclear what Rambam’s source for renewing semikhah is. By beginning, “it appears to me,” it would seem that Rambam admits that this is his own ḥiddush.[10. See Rambam’s letter to R. Pinḥas HaDayan, published in Igrot ha-Rambam (R. Yitzḥak Shilat Edition), vol. 2, p. 443, where he writes that whenever he rules based on his own conclusions, he begins with “it appears to me.”] In addition, many are troubled by Rambam’s concluding words, “the matter requires a decision.” In fact, this last sentence has been the subject of controversy for centuries.
V’hadavar Tzarikh Hekhre’ah
What does Rambam mean when he writes “v’hadavar tzarich hekhre’ah – and the matter requires a decision?” Was he himself uncertain? Was he looking for consensus? Was a decision ever reached?
Some contend Rambam himself was unconvinced.[11. R. Levi ibn Ḥabib, Kuntres ha-Semikhah published as an appendix to Shu”t Maharalbaḥ (Lemberg, 5735); Radbaz to Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11; Bartenura to Sanhedrin 1:3; Tosfot Yom Tov to Sanhedrin 1:3; Shu”t Mishpitei Uziel, vol. 3, 2:1. Cf. Leḥem Mishneh and Kesef Mishneh to Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11. See also Ḥazon Ish, Ḥoshen Mishpat, Likutim, 1, where he writes that since many great rabbis decided on Rambam’s intent, “there is no reason to be in doubt concerning this at all.”] In his Peirush ha-Mishnah he writes with certitude, but in the Mishneh Torah, his Code of Law, he ends with uncertainty – indicating that he is not willing to rule definitively on the matter.[12. See Kuntres ha-Semikhah.]
Others explain that when Rambam writes, “the matter requires a decision,” he is referring to what he wrote previously – that one samukh may grant semikhah together with two hedyotot.[13. This is the position of Mahari Beirav as cited in Kuntres ha-Semikhah. See also R. Tzvi Makovsky, Va’ashiva Shoftayikh (Tel Aviv: A. Moses, 1938), pp. 31-32.] It is plausible to suggest that Rambam would admit this particular issue requires further analysis, as the notion of one samukh alone granting semikhah appears to contradict Sanhedrin 13b-14a, and what Rambam himself writes in Hil. Sanhedrin 4:5. Radbaz, however, disagrees and writes that the Rambam already ruled explicitly (Hil. Sanhedrin 4:3), that as long as one of the three dayanim is a samukh, semikhah may be granted. Therefore, Radbaz contends that when Rambam writes, “and the matter requires a decision,” he is indeed expressing his uncertainty about renewing semikhah.[14. Radbaz to Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11.]
Some suggest that Rambam, when writing, “and the matter requires a decision,” refers to what he wrote immediately prior – that a samukh mi’pi samukh does not require the consent of other dayanim when sitting in judgement.[15. Ibid.]
Yet others understand Rambam’s last sentence in a completely different way. R. Ben Tzion Meir Ḥai Uziel[16. Mishp’tei Uziel, Ḥoshen Mishpat, no. 2.] and R. Ḥaim Dovid HaLevi[17. D’var Hamishpat, Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11.] explain that renewing semikhah in then future will require careful consideration and much deliberation. Simply gathering together all of the sages of Israel and reaching a consensus will require “hekhre’ah.”
According to R. Eliezer Waldenberg, Rambam is addressing whether or not the individual receiving semikhah would require authorization to adjudicate cases in the Diaspora, as well.[18. Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 2, no. 27; Hilkhot Medinah (Jerusalem, 1952), vol. 1, pp. 109-116.] R. Yisrael Yehoshua Trunk of Kutno also suggests that the opinions of the sages outside the Land, who desire to live in the Land of Israel, should be considered – something that will require deliberation.[19. Yeshuot Malko, Likutim, Terumah, published in R. Ḥaim Elazar Wacks, Nefesh Ḥayah (Jerusalem, 1965), pp. 9-10.]
R. Tzvi Idan explains that Rambam is reiterating that even after renewing semikhah, the beit din must be a beit din noteh, consisting of an odd number of dayyanim, so that there can always be a majority.[20. MS Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, heb. 348, fol. 293b. Cf. MS Parma, Biblioteca Palatine, no. 626.] This view is supported by similar language used by Ramban in his comments to Bava Batra 167b, as well as an alternate manuscript of the Mishneh Torah, which reads: “v’hadavar yadua she’tzarikh hekhre’ah.”[21. MS Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, heb. 348, fol. 293b. Cf. MS Parma, Biblioteca Palatine, no. 626.]
R. Dov Revel suggests that this phrase was not even written by Rambam himself, but added in later by a copyist expressing his own doubts about Rambam’s ruling.[22. R. Dov Revel, “Ḥiddush ha-Semikhah Lifnei Arbah Mei’ot Shanah,” p. 15. See, however, Eliav Shochetman, “V’hadavar Tzarikh Hekhre’ah,” Shnaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri 14-15 (5748-5749), pp. 234-235, where he shows that aside from some minor variants, all extant manuscripts include the phrase. See also R. Menaḥem Mendel Kasher, Torah Sheleimah, vol. 15, p. 182.] However, Professor Eliav Shochetman contends that aside from some minor variants, all extant manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah include the phrase.[23. “V’hadavar Tzarikh Hekhre’ah,” Shnaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri 14-15 (5748-5749), pp. 234-235. See also R. Menaḥem Mendel Kasher, Torah Sheleimah, vol. 15, p. 182.]
But even according to the opinion that Rambam himself may have been uncertain, it would seem that a “decision” has been reached. A consensus of Rishonim and Aḥaronim agree with Rambam and cite his ḥiddush as halakha, without any reservations, and without the addition of, “and the matter requires a decision.” Among them: Rashba,[24. Bava Kamma 36b.] Meiri,[25. Sanhedrin 14a.] R. Yaakov Ḥazan of London,[26. Etz Ḥayyim (Mossad Harav Kook), vol. 3, p. 264.] Semag,[27. Asin, 97.] Kaftor Vaferaḥ,[28. Chap. 10.] Mahari Beirav,[29. Kuntres ha-Semikhah.] R. Yosef Karo,[30. Beit Yosef, Ḥoshen Mishpat 295. Taz,[31. Ḥoshen Mishpat 1:5.] Mabit,[32. Kiryat Sefer, Hil. Sanhedrin, Chap. 4. R. Moshe Alshikh,[33. See Birkei Yosef, Ḥoshen Mishpat 1:7.] Ḥida,[34. Ibid. See also Birkei Yosef, Oraḥ Ḥayyim 575:5 and Yoreh De’ah 242:15.] R. Yonatan Eybeschutz,[35. Urim V’tumim, Ḥoshen Mishpat 1.] R. Elḥanan Wasserman,[36. Kuntres Divrei Sofrim 2:3, published in Kovetz Shiurim, vol. 2.] and R. Isser Zalman Meltzer.[37. Even ha-Ezel, Hil. Avadim 5:13.]
Interestingly, Raavad does not argue with Rambam on this issue, suggesting that Raavad too is in agreement.
In addition, based on what he writes in passing elsewhere in his Mishneh Torah, it would appear that Rambam himself rules on the matter. Both in Hil. Sanhedrin 16:2, and Hil. Shofar 8:2, the assumption is made unequivocally that semikhah today is possible.[38. See R. Dov Revel, “Ḥiddush ha-Semikhah Lifnei Arbah Mei’ot Shanah,” p. 16.]
Still some object in principle to Rambam’s concept of renewing semikhah. The Vilna Gaon, for example, disagrees with Rambam and writes that even in the Land of Israel, semikhah cannot be granted without a true samukh, who can trace his ordination back to Moshe Rabbeinu.[39. Biur ha-Gra, Yoreh De’ah, 242:30. The Gaon mentions this is as the opinion of Tosafot and Rosh. But see R. Dov Revel, “Ḥiddush ha-Semikhah Lifnei Arbah Mei’ot Shanah,” p. 16, note 37, where he questions the Gaon’s citation, as it does not appear to be the position of Tosafot or Rosh found in our printed editions. In fact, R. Revel cites Beit Yosef, Ḥoshen Mishpat 295, where according to the Beit Yosef, Rosh agrees with Rambam.] Additionally, some believe that the Ramban disagrees with Rambam, as Ramban is of the opinion that semikhah, together with Kiddush ha-Ḥodesh, will be restored with the arrival of the messiah.[40. Kuntres ha-Semikhah. See also R. Menaḥem Mendel Kasher, Torah Sheleimah, vol. 15, p. 192.]
Attempts at Renewing Semikhah
Over the centuries, there have been a number of attempts to renew semikhah, based on Rambam’s ruling. While these movements were unsuccessful and short-lived, they express a sincere desire to return the crown of Torah to its former glory.
The first attempt at restoring semikhah since the chain of transmission was broken, is recorded by R. Evyatar Gaon. He writes how his father, R. Eliyahu HaKohen Gaon, the head of Yeshivat Gaon Yaakov, travelled from Tyre to Haifa in 1083 in an attempt to renew semikhah.[41. Megillat Evyatar, published by Moshe Gil in Perakim B’toldot Yerushalayim B’yemei ha-Beinayyim (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 1979), pp. 81-106. See also R. Tzvi Makovsky, Va’ashivah Shoftayikh, p. 28; R. Ḥaim Yeḥiel Bornstein, Maḥloket Rav Sa’adiah Gaon V’ben Meir (New York, 1969), p. 152; R. Menaḥem Mendel Kasher, Torah Sheleimah, vol. 15, p. 186.]
The second, and most famous, attempt at renewing semikhah took place in Safed in 1538. At the time, many Jews living in the Land of Israel had fled Spain and Portugal during the Expulsion, and in the years that followed. Many of them were anusim or conversos, having been forcibly converted to Christianity. R. Yaakov (Mahari) Beirav, one of the leading authorities at the time, and himself a refugee from Spain, decided to convene a beit din of smukhin to administer makkot to those anusim who had committed idolatry by living as Christians.[42. Kuntres ha-Semikhah.] Mahari Beirav believed this would expiate them of the punishment of kareit, as the Mishnah states (Makkot 3:15), “All those obligated in kareit who are lashed – they are exempt from kareit.”[43. Ibid. Maharlbaḥ objected to this premise as the exemption from kareit only applies if one was warned and witnesses were present. Mahari Beirav responded that if administering makkot is effective for removing kareit in a case where there are witnesses and warning, kal va-ḥomer it should work without witnesses and warning. But it is still unclear that one may “volunteer” himself up for makkot. In addition, one may question whether these anusim were ever liable, as their conversion to Christianity was forced upon them. It would seem that the desire to give these anusim lashes was extralegal; a way to provide them a sense of being purified from sin and obviate them from the pangs of conscience, having lived as Christians.]
Mahari Beirav assembled the rabbis of Safed, twenty-five in all, who then conferred upon him semikhah.[44. Ibid.] He then, in turn, conferred semikhah upon four individuals,[45. Ibid.] including R. Yosef Karo,[46. See Maggid Meisharim, Vayikra, where almost prophetically the Maggid speaks to R. Yosef Karo, telling him to go the Land of Israel, where he will be ordained and restore semikhah.] and R. Moshe di Trani. The identities of the other two are believed to be R. Avraham Shalom and R. Yisrael de Curial.[47. See the letter of R. Shmuel Salant published in R. Yehudah Leib Maimon, “Gedolei Yerushalayim Al Ḥiddush ha-Semikhah,” Sinai 32 (5713), p. 136, where he includes R. Moshe Cordovero, R. Yosef Sagis, and R. Elazar Azikri, as well. See also R. Tzvi Makovsky, Va’ashivah Shoftayikh (Tel Aviv, 1938), pp. 10-11; R. Menaḥem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shleimah, vol. 15, p. 180; Meir Benayahu, “Ḥidushah Shel ha-Semikhah B’Tzefat,” Sefer Yovel L’Yitzchak Baer (Jerusalem: The Historical Society of Israel, 1961), pp. 248-269; R. Yeḥiel Halperin, Seder ha-Dorot (Warsaw, 1878), p. 241; R. Aryeh Leib Frumkin, Even Shmuel (Vilna, 1874), p. 37; R. Gedaliah ben Yeḥiyeh, Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1962) p. 147.] R. Yosef Karo then gave semikhah to R. Moshe Alshikh, who in turn gave it to R. Ḥaim Vital.[48. R. Ḥaim Yosef David Azulai, Birkei Yosef, Ḥoshen Mishpat 1:7. See also the letter of R. Shmuel Salant, ibid., where he writes that additionally, R. Yosef Karo ordained Maharam Galanti, who in turn ordained several others as well.]
R. Levi ibn Ḥaviv (Maharalbaḥ), rabbi of Jerusalem, fiercely opposed the renewal of semikhah. In his Kuntres ha-Semikhah, a strong polemic published together with his responsa in Venice in 1565, he voices many objections. The Maharalbaḥ perceived the renewal of semikhah in Safed as a slight to the honor of Jerusalem and its rabbis. After all, he argued, Rambam himself writes that a consensus is necessary among “all the sages of the Land of Israel,” and he (Maharalbaḥ) was not consulted.[49. Kuntres ha-Semikhah.] Maharalbaḥ also believed that Rambam was not convinced that semikhah can be renewed as he writes, “And the matter requires a decision.”[50. Ibid.] These are just some of the many objections the Maharlbaḥ puts forth in his kuntres. In addition, there is some speculation that the Maharlbaḥ may have sensed messianic undertones in the attempt to renew semikhah, which would explain his strong opposition.[51. See R. Dov Revel, “Ḥiddush ha-Semikhah Lifnei Arbah Mei’ot Shanah,” p. 21.]
Mahari Beirav responded to the objections of Maharalbaḥ in a series of responsa. He explains that Rambam’s intent when writing, “all the sages of the Land of Israel,” is not to be taken literally. Instead a majority is sufficient, like in many areas of halakha.[52. Kuntres ha-Semikhah.] He also explains that Rambam’s conclusion, “and the matter requires a decision,” was written concerning his second statement, namely that a samukh can act alone.[53. Ibid.] Mahari Beirav also points out that many later authorities agreed with the Rambam, or at the very least did not voice an objection.[54. Ibid.]
A letter was sent to R. Dovid ibn Zimra (Radbaz), Chief Rabbi of Egypt, seeking his opinion on the matter. In both a responsum and in his Commentary to the Mishneh Torah, Radbaz ruled in accord with Maharalbaḥ. Radbaz was convinced that Rambam was uncertain about his ruling on renewing semikhah.[55. Radbaz to Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11.] In addition, he writes that even if it were possible to gather all the rabbis together in agreement, semikhah may only be granted to, “one who is able to rule on the entire Torah, and it is distant in my eyes that in this generation that there is anyone fitting to rule on the entire Torah.”[56. Ibid. See Rambam, Hil. Sanhedrin 2:1.]
Due to Maharalbaḥ’s fiery opposition, as well as difficult conditions in Safed in the years that followed, the fledgling movement to renew semikhah soon dissolved.[57. R. Dov Revel, “Ḥiddush ha-Semikhah Lifnei Arbah Mei’ot Shanah,” p. 21.]
(Worth noting, Ḥazon Ish writes that Mahari Beirav and his students were never invested with real semikhah d’orayta. Compelling, for the Ḥazon Ish, is the absence of evidence that those who received semichah at the time ever adjudicated dinei k’nasot.[58. Ḥazon Ish, Choshen Mishpat, Likutim, 1. See also Yaakov Katz, “Maḥloket ha-Semikhah Bein R. Yaakov Beirav V’ha-Ralbaḥ, Tzion 16 (5711), pp. 36-17, and the response to the Ḥazon Ish in R. Tzvi Idan, Asot Mishpat, pp. 56-61, 233-250.] Additionally, R. Yosef Karo, a samukh himself, writes in many places in his Shulḥan Arukh that there is no semikhah today.[59. Ḥazon Ish, ibid. See also Eyal Davidson, “Lamah Shatak Maran?,” Moreshet Yisrael 9 (2011), pp. 36-63.])
In the first half of the 19th Century, many of the students of the Vilna Gaon ascended to the Land of Israel. Among them was R. Yisrael of Shklov, author of Pe’at ha-Shulḥan. In 1830, R. Yisrael of Shklov tried to renew semikhah in order to restore the Sanhedrin in hopes of bringing about the Final Redemption.[60. Aryeh Morgenstern, Hastening Redemption, trans. Joel A. Linsider (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 102-110. See also his “Nisyono Shel R. Yisrael Mishklov L’chadesh Et ha-Semikhah L’or Mekorot Chadashim,” Sinai 100 (5747), pp. 548-565.] He went as far as sending an emissary to search for remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes, hoping that they had continued the chain of semikhah ish mi’pi ish, and could now confer semikhah upon others as well.[61. Hastening Redemption, ibid. See also Avraham Ya’ari, Iggerot Eretz Yisrael (Ramat Gan: Massada, 1971), pp. 342-357. Interestingly, a special attempt was made to locate members of the Tribe of Reuven, as Radbaz to Hil. Sanhedrin 4:11, writes, “In the future, the children of Reuven will come and fight a war before the coming of the messiah – and who is to say that there is not among them a samuch mi’pi samuch who will grant semikhah to others?”]
In 1901, R. Aharon Menaḥem Mendel HaKohen, rabbi of the Ashkenazic community in Cairo, issued a kol koreh to the rabbis of his generation, urging them to form a worldwide rabbinic organization, in hopes of forming a Sanhedrin. The organization’s charter, which describes the restoration of the Sanhedrin as one of its goals, features a list of hundreds of rabbis from across the globe in support.[62. See his Sefer ha-Agudah (Cairo, 1913), republished in his collected works, Yad Re’em (Tel Aviv, 1960), pp. 69-79, and as an appendix in R. Tzv Idan, Asot Mishpat. See also R. Yishai Babad, Ha-Sanhedrin: ha-Samkhut V’ha-Ḥiddush (Jerusalem, 2005), pp. 138-149.] In 1911, he published Semikhat Ḥakhamim, a treatise on the topic of renewing semikhah and restoring the Sanhedrin. R. Aharon Menaḥem Mendel HaKohen too met with opposition,[63. See, for example, the letters of R. Chaim Berlin, published in Tzfunot (Tevet, 5749), pp. 72-74.] but did receive some support – including support from R. Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky (Ridbaz), one of the leading rabbinic figures at the time. In a letter, Ridbaz writes that the restoration of the Sanhedrin is the medicine that will heal the Jewish People and restore Torah and Judaism to Israel.[64. Published in R. Tzvi Idan, Asot Mishpat, p. 292.]
The major aliyah to Israel in the early 20th Century stirred renewed interest in renewing semikhah once again. Some even saw the institution of the Chief Rabbinate as a step towards restoring the Sanhedrin.
R. Tzvi Makovsky, a member of the Tel Aviv rabbinate, authored a comprehensive study on the topic, Va’ashivah Shoftayikh, published in 1938, exactly 400 years since the failed attempt in Safed. He too sent letters to leading rabbinic figures in his day, with the goal of restoring the Sanhedrin in pre-state Palestine. Many of the responses he received were published in his work, and his efforts generated a flurry of scholarship on the topic.
Following the founding of the State of Israel, R. Yehudah Leib Maimon, a Mizrachi leader who served as Minister of Religion in Israel’s First Knesset, began an initiative to restore the Sanhedrin. He too wrote a comprehensive work on the laws and history of renewing semikhah and restoring the Sanhedrin.[65. Ḥiddush ha-Sanhedrin B’medinateinu ha-M’ḥudeshet (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1951).] In Shevat of 1951, he organized a conference in Tiberias, but few rabbis attended as the opposition at the time was heavy. Among those opposed was Chief Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog.[66. See Shlomo Zalman Shragai, “Yaḥaso Shel ha-Griyah Herzog zt”l L’Ḥiddush ha-Sanhedrin B’yameinu,” Sinai 73 (5738), pp. 88-94. For the attitude of R. Avraham Yitzḥak HaKohen Kook towards the renewal of semikhah and the establishment of a Sanhedrin, see R. Moshe Tzuriel, “Sanhedrin Akhshav,” Teḥumin 18 (5758), pp. 457-461.] The Ḥazon Ish, who was also strongly opposed to the notion of renewing semikhah wrote, “Radbaz, writing in his day, writes that we are not worthy – all the more so we, who are orphans of orphans. The give and take concerning this is laughable.”[67. Ḥazon Ish, Ḥoshen Mishpat, Likutim 1.]
R. Maimon’s choice in holding the conference in Tiberias was not incidental. The seat of the Sanhedrin was last in Tiberias, and as Rambam writes, “There is a tradition that in the future it [the Sanhedrin] will return first to Tiberias, and from there it will be transferred the Temple.”[68. Hil. Sanhedrin 14:12. See also Rosh ha-Shanah 31a-31b, and Rashi, ad loc.]
In 2004, a group of rabbis in Israel joined together in Tiberias to once again renew semikhah and restore the Sanhedrin. The group chose to confer semikhah upon R. Moshe Halberstam, scion of a Chassidic dynasty and prominent member of the Beit Din Tzedek of the Eidah Ḥaredit, who served as Rosh Yeshivah of the Tschakava Yeshiva in Jerusalem and rabbi of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital. In turn, he conferred semikhah upon the other dayanim. R. Adin Steinsaltz was appointed Nasi, but later left the group. According to the nascent Sanhedrin’s website, “Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and many others gave their blessing but did not join the Sanhedrin.”[69. http://www.thesanhedrin.org/en/index.php?title=Sanhedrin_Initiative (accessed November 6, 2013).] Their website also reports that the current members are placeholders, so to speak, and “any scholar, at any time, may gain a place on the legislature by proving a greater level of scholarship in Jewish Law than a current member of the legislature.”[70. http://www.thesanhedrin.org/en/index.php?title=The_Re-established_Jewish_Sanhedrin (accessed November 6, 2013).] To date, the group is still active and looking for greater acceptance.
R. Yeḥiel Mikhel Tukachinsky, in the years following the establishment of the State of Israel, writes, “it is not yet the proper time to return the crown to its former glory and establish a Sanhedrin befitting of its name.”[71. Ir ha-Kodesh V’ha-Mikdash (Jerusalem, 1970), vol. 4, p. 129.] But then he concludes that given the unique moment in history we are living in, we should indeed prepare by establishing a “Beit Din ha-Gadol in Jerusalem to adjudicate all questions of life in Israel.”[72. Ibid., p. 131.] He continues that this body should consist of the leading rabbinic authorities, and will “have the power to strengthen the place of Torah and the foundations of Judaism with its influence on the spirit of our People.”[73. Ibid., p. 132.] His statement is especially relevant, given the social and political climate in the State of Israel, today.
The controversial, yet ambitious attempts at renewing semikhah did not succeed. But given the significance of the topic, the issues raised should continue to be discussed and debated by scholars. In the meantime, we await the day when we will see the realization of our hope and prayer, “Restore our judges as in earliest times and our counselors as at first.”[74. Weekday Amidah.]