ז׳ באב ה׳תשע״ז (July 30, 2017)

Sanhedrin 14a-b: To Ordain Or Not To Ordain

On yesterday’s daf we learned about the importance of semikha – of receiving rabbinic ordination. Yet our Gemara discusses a number of situations where people could not receive semikha, or even tried to avoid receiving ordination.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught that no semikha can be given outside of the land of Israel. In explanation of this ruling, the Talmud Yerushalmi says that the Torah requires that the Jewish court system should be be-khol moshvoteikhem – in all of your settlements – and that the Jewish communities in the Diaspora do not fully meet that requirement. The Ge’onim suggest that given its source, which is entrenched in a relationship reaching back to Moshe Rabbeinu, semikha contains an element of ru’aḥ ha-kodesh – some level of prophecy. Given the accepted dictum that ein ha-Shekhina shorah be-ḥutz la’aretz – that God’s presence does not dwell in the Diaspora, semikha cannot be given there.

The Gemara relates that the Babylonian amora, Rabbi Zeira, who moved to Israel and was deserving of semikha, tried to avoid receiving ordination due to his modesty, following the teaching of Rabbi Elazar that it is advisable to remain modest and unknown. When he heard, however, another teaching of Rabbi Elazar, that someone who rises to greatness receives forgiveness for all of his sins, he agreed to receive ordination.

The Talmud Yerushalmi offers a source for the idea that someone who is recognized as a sage, someone who becomes a groom, and someone who is anointed as king receives forgiveness for all of his sins from the juxtaposition of the passage ve-hadarta pnei zaken – “and you should honor the elder” (Vayikra 19:32) – with ve-khi yagur itkha ger – “and when a convert lives among you” (Vayikra 19:33). Since a convert is considered to have begun a new life with a clean slate, so someone recognized as an elder also is perceived as having a new beginning. The Maharsha suggests that if God decreed that this individual should be recognized as a leader, we must assume that He has forgiven his sins.

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