Semikhah(Hebrew: סמיכה, “leaning [of the hands]“), also semichut (Hebrew: סמיכות, “ordination”) is derived from a Hebrew word which means to “rely on” or “to be authorized”. It generally refers to the ordination of a rabbi within Judaism, but can also apply to Christian groups who have preserved the lines of Semikhah. In the Jewish sense it is the “transmission” of rabbinic authority to give advice or judgment in Jewish law. In Judeo-Christian groups it is the simple transmission of ordination.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses ordained Joshua through semikhah. (Num. 27:15-23, Deut. 34:9). Moses also ordained the 70 elders (Num. 11:16-25). The elders later ordained their successors in this way. Their successors in turn ordained others. This chain of hands-on semikhah continued through the time of the Second Temple, survived the persecutions prior to the twelve century, and is said to remain intact in the twenty first century.
According to tradition a chain of unbroken Semikhah was passed down from Enoch down to Jethro and from Jethro to Moses.
Traditionally Moses is also assumed to be the “first rabbi” of the Children of Israel. He is still known to most Jews as Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moses our Teacher”). Moses was also a prophet and is considered to be the greatest of all the Hebrew Bible’s prophets. Moses passed his leadership on to Joshua as commanded by God in the Book of Numbers where the subject of semikhah (“laying [of hands]” or “ordination”) is first mentioned in the Torah:
Book of Numbers: “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 Eleazar 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. Let him stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall seek the decision of the Urim before God on his behalf. By this word, along with all the Israelites and the entire community shall he come and go.’ Moses did as God had ordered him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar 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) *Book of Deuteronomy: “Joshua son of Nun was filled with a spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him. The Israelites therefore listened to him, doing as God had commanded Moses.” (Deuteronomy 34:9)
Classical semikhah was granted by a court of three judges (Mishnah Sanhedrin 2a), and it later required the participation of at least one who had attained this status, himself. According to Rambam (hil. Sanherin 4:3) the other two did need not be semukhim. Semikhah represents an unbroken chain of authority and an unbroken line of ordination dating back to the time of Moshe (Moses) and Yehoshua (Joshua). It is believed that God taught the Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu on Mt. Sinai in 1312 BCE and that since that time, the knowledge of Torah has been passed from generation to generation by the conferment of semikhah, rabbinic ordination, and the unbroken transmission of authority dating back to the time of Moshe (Moses). This unbroken chain is believed by many to have continued for over 3,300 years and continues to this day.
Classical semikhah refers to a specific type of ordination that, according to traditional Jewish teaching, traces a line of authority back to Moses and the seventy elders. The line of classical semikhah was formerly thought to have died out in the fourth or fifth century CE. However evidence exists that classical semicha was existent during the 12th century when semuchim from Lebanon and Syria were traveling to Israel in order to pass on semikhah to their students. In the mid-12th century there were 10 yeshivot in Baghdad, which had the largest concentration of Jews. There is evidence that lines of unbroken Semikhah have survived intact into the twenty first century. Many Orthodox Jews, however, do not accept these lines believing them to have been contaminated with semikhah being handed down through Jews who were Christian converts.
A LOST TRIBE OF ISRAEL: THE LEMBA
Rav Yisroel of Shklov (1770-1839), believed that classical Semikhah continued outside of the land of Israel, specifically in Yemen.
Modern day research discoveries reveal Rav Yisroel may have been in the right area at the wrong time. Dr. Tudar Parfitt discovered evidence that a group of Jewish people left Israel 2,500 years ago settling in Yemen and populating a city their oral tradition remembered as Senna. Unfavorable conditions forced them to travel onward ultimately settling around the area of Zimbabwe. They began to assimilate with the surrounding gene pool. They passed down from generation to generation the tradition that they were Jewish and had an unbroken ordination succession (both Cohanim and some non-Cohanim Lemba claim Semikhah). Magdel le Roux quotes a Lemba saying, “The succession is just from our forefathers right up to this generation.” For many years scientists laughed at this group of black people who called themselves Jewish.
Skepticism gave way to research when the Lemba were tested and found to share the same genes as Jewish people in Israel as well as having the Y chromosomal genetic markers, known as the Cohen Modal Haplotype.
In Jewish populations in general the frequency rate for these genes is 3 to 5 percent. When they tested the priestly tribe of Lemba they were astonished to discover they had 53 percent! They had unique genetic markers found only in the Jewish communities.
Dr. Tudar Parfitt says “It turned out what they are saying about themselves is substantially correct.” Geneticist Trevor Jenkins said the tests turned out to “prove consistent with Lemba oral history.” Science had conclusively proven the Lemba carried the Priestly genes dating back to the time of Aaron and Moses just as they had always proclaimed.
Many of their other historical traditions have turned out to be true. The unknown city that the Lemba claimed they journeyed from was discovered (“Journey to the Vanished City”, Dr. Tudor Parfitt). An artifact they claimed they possessed and lost hundreds of years ago was discovered in a an ancient cave. Dr. Mathiva said, “Old maps of the Holy Land have now revealed that there was a place called Lemba way back BCE.” She further stated that the Jewish community was left with a moral dilemma as to their responsibility and future obligations to the Lemba and concluded saying, “Now that we know, can we continue to pretend they do not exist?”
Dr. Rudo Mathiva stated, “We, the Jewish community are guilty–guilty because we never accepted what the Lemba had always maintained…until [the] genetic proof recently; that their story was a part of ours. We are guilty because we rejected them.
Many now believe that if their oral tradition was indeed accurate concerning their origins, there is also merit for their claim of possessing an unbroken chain of Semikhah.
HABBANI JEWS OF YEMEN
There are other communities making claims, some with DNA tests backing their claims, of descent from the lost tribes and keeping Torah the whole time: Jews of Kurdistan, gruzia, mountain Jews, and most notably : the Habbani Jews from Yemen as well as other Yemenite Jewish tribes.
MESSIANIC NASARINI ’S
Another group with claims of being one of the Ten Lost Tribes, the Nasarini’s of Malabar and Kerela, are said to indeed be of Hebrew heritage . (Ref. Dr. Asahel Grants’ ‘The Nestorians or the Lost Tribes of Israel’ ). Variously known as known as Nasranies, Nestorians, Jacobites, or Saint Thomas Christians, they follow a Hebrew-Syriac Christian tradition saturated with many Jewish elements. They are some of the earliest people who joined Christianity in India and also with many Malabar Jews from the pre-Christian Diaspora as well as the post Christian Diaspora (40 AD to the fourth century). The Saint Thomas Nasarani’s themselves have a consistent tradition that their church was founded by the very early original Nazarene Church, most specifically by Saint Thomas. Many Pharisee’s also converted to Christianity and joined the early Nazarene Church.
REMNANT IN EUROPE
It is claimed that Semikhah survived intact in a remnant of Jewish people in Europe. A small group of Messianic Jews as well as independent orthodox groups claim to have received preserved Semikhah from this and other lines.
ISRAELI AND AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITIES
There are Jewish and Christian Messianic groups in Israel and in the United States that claim an unbroken Chain of Semikhah.
In areas and times when persecution prohibited the existence of ordained Rabbi’s the father automatically became Rabbi of the home and passed his rabbinical blessing to his son (or children)until such time the classical form of Semikhah was able to be resumed (Rabbi simply means “teacher”).
THE SEAT OF MOSES
The seat of Moses was not merely “where the person [man actually] sat and read from the Torah.”
In fact, the phrase “chair of Moses” is an essential element of the “semikhah”–which was the only form of authority that existed among the judges, elders, scribes, and rabbisduring Jesus’ time.
John the Baptist was son of a Temple Priest and had the respect of the more radical Jews of the day. He would not have had this respect had he not been given Semikhah.
Jesus Christ was referred to as “Rabbi” and “teacher” and was listened to by Jewish multitudes. These things would not have occurred if Christ had not fulfilled the Jewish need for Semikhah. The same applies to the disciples.
Apostle Paul obviously had Semikhah since he studied under Gamaliel and was a Jewish leader of the highest order.
WHY CHRISTIANS ARE CONCERNED WITH SEMIKHAH
Semikhah is essential in the rebuilding of the third Temple, the restoration of the Jewish priesthood, and the restoration of the Sanhedrin. Without Semikhah the Temple cannot be rebuilt. Many Christians feel that Biblical prophecy teaches that the rebuilding of the third Temple in Jerusalem is one of the prophetic factors indicating the return of Jesus Christ and end time revival among the Jewish people.