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Semicha and Sanhedrin Controversies of the 16th and 21st Centuries

By Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff

Posted on 08/23/20

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
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Last week, we learned what are the roles and responsibilities of the Sanhedrin, what exactly is semicha, and why is it such a central factor in the creation of the Sanhedrin. We also studied why there was an attempt in 16th century Tzfas to recreate the semicha, the method used, and the controversy it engendered. We are in the middle of discussing that dispute, which was between the rav of Yerushalayim at the time, the Maharalbach, who was opposed to the approach used to reintroduce the semicha, and the Mahari Beirav, who had introduced the idea. The Mahari Beirav wanted to reestablish semicha so that the anusim could achieve atonement by being punished with malkus.


The last point we discussed was that the Maharalbach noted that Beis Din could not punish someone unless two adult male Jews witnessed the entire procedure and testified in front of Beis Din.


RESPONSE FROM TZEFAS


The Mahari Beirav responded to the Maharalbach’s arguments. As far as the punishment of malkus is concerned, the Mahari Beirav held that if someone voluntarily asks an authorized Beis Din to give him malkus for his sin, the punishment is carried out, even though there were no warnings and no witnesses. Thus, the creation of a Beis Din of musmachim facilitates the atonement of these people.


As far as semicha is concerned, the Mahari Beirav did not accept the Maharalbach’s criticism that his semicha program was invalid. The Mahari Beirav explained that the Rambam’s ruling – that it is possible to appoint dayanim and grant semicha if all the chachamim in Eretz Yisroel agree to do so – is definitive, not theoretical or suggestive, and he questions whether the Ramban disputes this opinion. Even if the Ramban does question it, the Mahari Beirav contends that the halacha follows the Rambam. Furthermore, he contends that a simple majority of gedolim living in Eretz Yisroel is sufficient to create semicha, since the halacha in all other cases of jurisprudence is that we follow the majority. Thus, since all the gedolim of Tzefas, who were a majority of the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel at the time, had appointed him as dayan, the semicha could be renewed on this basis. In addition, the Mahari Beirav contends that correspondence with the other gedolei Yisroel is a sufficient method to determine whether a majority favor renewing semicha, and that it is not necessary for all the gedolim to attend a meeting together for this purpose.


A lengthy correspondence ensued between the Maharalbach and the rabbonim of Tzefas, which is referred to as the Kuntros Hasemicha and is appended to the end of the Shu’t Maharalbach.


Incidentally, the dispute between the Maharalbach and the Mahari Beirav, whether the gedolim can reinstitute semicha, dates back to the Rishonim. The Meiri (to Sanhedrin 14a) rules that semicha can be reintroduced by having all the gedolei Yisroel of Eretz Yisroel gather together and appoint someone to be a dayan. However, the Meiri rules that the gedolim must meet together in one group for this ruling, which precludes the Mahari Beirav’s method. The Rashba (Bava Kamma 36b) also cites the Rambam’s opinion, although he rules the opposite, that renewal of semicha must await the arrival of Moshiach, following the opinion of the Ramban, as explained by the Maharalbach. In addition, the Ritva and the Nemukei Yosef (both at the end of Yevamos) state that semicha must await the arrival of Moshiach.


Evidence to support the Mahari Beirav’s opinion, if not his method, can be drawn from the Gemara (Eruvin 43b) that states that Eliyahu will declare his arrival as the harbinger of Moshiach by coming to the Beis Din Hagadol. This Gemara implies that the Beis Din Hagadol will precede the arrival of Eliyahu, and not the other way around (see Maharatz Chayes ad loc.). However, the Ritva and the Nemukei Yosef appear to hold that there will be no Sanhedrin until Moshiach comes.


THE RADBAZ GETS INVOLVED


Both sides appealed to the Radbaz, the acknowledged gadol hador, who lived in Egypt at the time, for a ruling. (The Radbaz later moved to Eretz Yisroel, but at the time of this dispute he was outside of Eretz Yisroel and, therefore, had not been involved in the initial debate and discussion.)


The Radbaz ruled, like the Maharalbach, that the semicha was invalid, believing that the Rambam, himself, was uncertain whether his suggested method to reintroduce the semicha is a definitive ruling, and, furthermore, universal acceptance of such semicha would be necessary, even according to the Rambam’s approach. In addition, the Radbaz felt that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with enough proficiency in halacha to rule on any subject in Torah. He did not believe that his generation had any talmidei chachamim in this league, which means that, even if the Rambam had concluded that this system could be used to reintroduce the semicha, the ruling is no longerin effect.


HOW, THEN, WILL THE SANHEDRIN BE REESTABLISHED?


The Radbaz does discuss an issue – if we cannot create a new semicha, how, then, will we have semicha in the future? As mentioned above, semicha is necessary to create a Sanhedrin, and the Sanhedrin is necessary to appoint the Jewish king and judges, and for many other community activities. Radbaz presents three methods whereby semicha can be reestablished:



  1. Eliyahu HaNavi, who is a musmach (see Rambam, introduction to Mishneh Torah), will issue semicha to others, when he arrives as the harbinger of Moshiach’s arrival.


2. Descendants of Shevet Reuven, who have semicha, may reappear. Simply because we are unaware of anyone with semicha does not mean that members of other shevatim who have been separated from us since prior to the churban do not have semicha. (This approach creates a question. If semicha can only be given in Eretz Yisroel, how could members of these shevatim receive semicha, when we know that they were exiled from Eretz Yisroel? See below for an answer to this question.)


3. Moshiach, himself, will grant semicha and thus create a Beis Din Hagadol. Radbaz does not explain where Moshiach gets his authorization to grant semicha.




RESULTS OF THE TZEFAS SEMICHA


The Mahari Beirav passed away three years after the semicha project began. Although Rav Yosef Karo had received this semicha and actually ordained Rav Moshe Alshich (author of the Alshich commentary to Tanach), by all indications, he never utilized the semicha in any other way. Nowhere in Shulchan Aruch does he refer to a renewal of semicha. Furthermore, several places in Shulchan Aruch assume that no Beis Din is authorized to rule on the laws of penalties and punishments. These passages would be written differently if its author assumed that a Beis Din of semuchim existed today.


This is even more intriguing in light of the fact that in his commentary, Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 295), he records as definitive halacha the Rambam’s opinion that semicha can be renewed.


Although Rav Moshe Alshich ordained Rav Chayim Vital (Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 1:7), who was renowned as the primary disciple of the Ari, z”l, the semicha trail appears to end at this point. There is no indication of anyone continuing the semicha project after this time. Thus, we can assume that the ruling of the Maharalbach and the Radbaz, that we should not introduce semicha on our own, was accepted.


SEARCHING FOR SEMICHA IN THE 1830’S


In the 1830’s, Rav Yisroel of Shklov, a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon who had settled in Yerushalayim, made another attempt to restart semicha. Rav Yisroel was interested in organizing a Sanhedrin, but he accepted the ruling of the Maharalbach and the Radbaz that we cannot create semicha by ourselves. Instead, he decided to utilize the suggestion of the Radbaz of receiving semicha from the tribes of Reuven and Gad. Rav Yisroel charted out where he thought the Bnei Reuven were probably located, and sent a certain Rav Baruch, as his emissary to find them (see Sefer Halikutim to Shabsei Frankel edition of Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11). Unfortunately, Rav Baruch did not succeed in locating the shevet of Reuven, and the plan came to naught.


It should be noted that Rav Yisroel raised the question how the Bnei Reuven could have kept semicha alive, since they were outside Eretz Yisroel and semicha can be granted only in Eretz Yisroel. He answered that since the Bnei Reuven had been distant from the rest of Klal Yisroel before this psak (that semicha can only be in Eretz Yisroel) had been accepted, there is no reason to assume that they accepted this psak, and they were probably still issuing semicha!!


Rav Yisroel’s vain search to locate a musmach was an attempt to reintroduce the Sanhedrin, a far more ambitious plan than the Mahari Beirav had considered. Apparently, Rav Yisroel also understood from the Gemara (Eruvin 43b) that the Sanhedrin will again exist before Eliyahu appears.


NAPOLEON’S SANHEDRIN


In 5567 (1807), Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, decreed the opening of what he called “The Sanhedrin,” consisting of 71 Jewish leaders, mostly Rabbonim, but including communal leaders, many of whom were not religious.


This group had nothing to do with being a Sanhedrin, other than that Napoleon had given it this name. Napoleon presented this group with a list of 12 inquiries to answer, which questioned whether the Jews were loyal to the French Empire and its laws, and about the interactions between Jews and non-Jewish Frenchmen. Of course, the “Sanhedrin” had to be very careful how they answered Napoleon’s questions, to make sure that they were not guilty of treason. This Sanhedrin met many times in the course of about a year and then disbanded. It was never called into session again.


THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY


Approximately twenty years ago, a group calling their organization the “Sanhedrin,” based themselves on the Mahari Beirav’s opinion that we can recreate semicha today, provided it is accepted by most of the gedolei Yisroel. On this basis, they claimed to have created semicha for one of the well-known poskim in Eretz Yisroel, who subsequently ordained a few others, who have ordained yet others, until they now claim several hundred “musmachim.”


At the time, I spoke to one of the “dayanim” of the “Sanhedrin” about the procedure used to appoint their musmachim. He told me that the organization mailed letters to every shul and settlement in Israel, requesting appointment of a certain, well-respected Rav as musmach. They then counted the votes of those who had responded and approved the appointment. Since those who replied approved of the appointment, they ruled this Rav to be a musmach whose semicha qualifies to serve on the Sanhedrin! To quote this “dayan,” those who chose not to respond do not count. We have a majority of those who responded!?!


Obviously, according to no opinion does this system carry any halachic validity.


When I spoke to the “dayan,” he asked me if I was interested in becoming one of their musmachim. He told me that he would send me the information necessary for an appointment by their committee that approves musmachim.


Consequently, I received a letter inviting me to the next meeting of their “Sanhedrin,” and a note that one of their members had vouched for me and, upon that basis, they were preparing a semicha that they would present to me personally at the next meeting of the “Sanhedrin”!! Above, I noted that the Radbaz ruled that the person receiving semicha must be a talmid chacham with the scholarship to rule on any subject in Torah. Since I do not qualify for semicha on that basis, I am curious what criteria they are applying to determine a minimum standard for semicha. Unfortunately, I think I know the answer.


Since I have not heard from this group in recent years, I presume that they are no longer active.


We should all daven with more kavanah when reciting the bracha Hoshiva shofeteinu kivarishonah, “Return to us judges like the ones we had originally,” as a result of Teka bishofar gadol licheiruseinu, “Blow the Great Shofar that will free us.”