It is somewhat unclear how or why the “Rav U’manhig” semicha evolved. Rabbi Beryl Wein tells me that the Rav U’manhig semicha began in the early twentieth century for those wishing to enter Jewish communal work though not necessarily as pulpit rabbis. In this way, those in teaching and similar positions could legitimately be addressed with the title “rabbi” without having to go through the intensity of formal semicha studies. It was also widely used during the Korean and Vietnam Wars as a means for yeshiva students to avoid the draft under the “clergy” clause. Some have accredited the Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore for the popularization and proliferation of the Rav U’manhig semicha.
A humorous anecdote is told regarding semicha studies and the late Rabbi Shmuel Birnbaum. Rabbi Birnbaum once had a semicha student who was known to take shortcuts while studying toward his semicha. As a result, instead of issuing the student the Yoreh Yore semicha the student had been expecting, Rabbi Birnbaum issued him a Rav U’manhig semicha. Similarly, it is said that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein would give his phone number to every student to whom he issued semicha, as a manner of politely conveying to him that a person’s halachic authority is severely limited even after receiving semicha.
It is noted that in past generations there were very few individuals who had semicha, let alone were practicing rabbis, while today everyone seems to have semicha. It is explained that this is because in the past a person was required to know much of the Talmud and virtually the entire Tur and Shulchan Aruch before one could receive semicha. Today, the semicha curriculum has been significantly reduced and is essentially limited to but one component of the Yoreh Deah section. For better or for worse, this has made semicha much more accessible than it ever was.1 In fact, there are even online, correspondence, and take-home semicha tests (all of which have been endorsed by various eminent authorities.)
No one should receive semicha or serve as a rabbi until he is at least thirteen years old.2 According to most authorities, one should not serve as a rabbi, judge or halachic authority until one is at least 18 years old.3 Similarly, common custom is also not to allow a person to serve as a shochet until he is at least 18 years old.4 This is because it is assumed that before a person reaches the age of 18, he has not properly matured as needed for positions of authority. There have been rabbis in the past who would only issue semicha to those over forty for the same reason.5
The Talmud itself teaches that 40 is the minimum age for issuing halachic rulings,6 though the halacha is not in accordance with this view.7 Nevertheless, one who is under 40 years old should not issue halachic rulings in a community where there are greater scholars who are over the age of 40.8 Of course, if the greatest scholar in the area happens to be an individual who is under 40 years old he is permitted to serve as the local rabbinic authority and issue halachic rulings.9 There is a documented case of a six-year-old issuing halachic rulings.10
In Lithuania, it was common for semicha to only be given to those who were more than 30 years old and who had been married for quite some time.11 In some communities, the local rabbis would issue semicha to qualified individuals on their wedding day.12 Similarly, whenever the Chatam Sofer would issue semicha to an unmarried individual, he would stipulate that the semicha is only to take effect once the individual marries.13 Rabbi Akiva Eiger is said to have acted likewise.14
Scope of Authority
Even one who has semicha and is known to be knowledgeable in halacha is not permitted to rule on matters relating to divorce until he receives an additional semicha that specifically authorizes him to do so. One who has such authorization is traditionally referred to with the title “moreinu“15 though this has essentially fallen into disuse. Similarly, only one who is known to be well versed in the laws of kiddushin, marriage, should ever officiate at a wedding.16 The wording of a semicha should clearly state which areas of halacha the recipient studied and has been found to be proficient in.17 In fact, a person should have a separate semicha for each major area of halacha in which he is an expert.18
One should never issue a halachic ruling before first looking up the matter in a sefer, unless it is something quite obvious or simple.19 One should also never issue rulings that will be perceived as extreme or radical to the public unless there is ample justification for doing so.20 So too, a rabbi should not necessarily allow something even if it might be technically permitted. In many situations, a stricter ruling is often more appropriate than a lenient one.21 The rulings of a rabbi who demands payment for deciding halacha are null and void22 and all such monies must be returned.23 A rabbi must always make himself available to others for halachic guidance and consultation24 and must never decline a rabbinic assignment because he feels it is beneath his dignity.25
As a general rule, a rabbi is permitted to rule for himself in matters of ritual law, as there is no reason to assume that he will sway his decision for his own benefit.26 However, a rabbi should not rule leniently for himself on a matter that other rabbis have recently ruled stringently upon.27 A father is permitted to issue semicha to his son.(28) A visiting rabbi may not issue halachic rulings or officiate at life cycle events unless he first obtains permission from the local rabbi to do so.29
Although most congregational rabbis today have a formal semicha, and it is essentially required that they do,30 this was not always the case. This is because semicha is not necessarily a prerequisite for issuing halachic rulings. An individual who is a recognized scholar is permitted to issue halachic rulings even without a formal semicha.31 In fact, many chassidic rebbes and roshei yeshiva do not have or need a semicha as their reputations as advanced Torah scholars are simply beyond reproach. The Chafetz Chaim was a world-renowned halachic authority who never had a formal semicha until the end of his life when he needed one to prove that he was a rabbi for the purpose of a government registry. The Chazon Ish also never received any formal semicha.32
It matters little from where a person received his semicha. Rather, what is important is how the individual conducts himself and uses his semicha to further the honor of Torah. The semicha of a rabbi who has strayed from the path of Torah observance may be revoked33, though such a measure has historically rarely been taken. If such a person later repents and returns to Torah observance, he is required to receive semicha anew before he may serve as a rabbi.34 More important than his scholarship, a rabbi should be an individual who is wise, G-d-fearing, humble, modest and beloved among mankind.35
- Rabbi Shalom Shachna of Lublin in the introduction to the sefer “Or Yisrael.”
- Pri Megadim, Seder Hanhagot Hashoel V’hanishal, #2.
- CM 7:3.
- YD 1:5.
- Beit Yosef, YD 242, Avoda Zara 5b.
- Avoda Zara 19b; Sota 22b. It is explained that the ban on issuing halachic rulings before one is at least forty years old only applied in past times when people learned solely from rabbis without the benefit of sefarim to consult with. In our day, however, with the proliferation and availability of sefarim, one is permitted to make a halachic decision at any age as long as one has attained the requisite knowledge. Lechem Mishna to Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:4.
- Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:4; Beit Yosef, YD 242.
- Rema, YD 242:31
- Rashi, Sota 22b.
- Avoda Zara 56b.
- Pinkas Medinat Lita, cited in Chikrei Minhagim (Gurary) p.190. See there for a review of the different customs which existed as to when a rabbi should issue semicha to someone.
- Olelot Efraim 366, cited in Chikrei Minhagim (Gurary) p.190. This was the tradition in which Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg received his semicha from Rabbi Bernard Revel.
- Igeret Sofrim, cited in Chikrei Minhagim (Gurary) p.190.
- Devar Yehoshua 5:13, cited in Chikrei Minhagim (Gurary) p.190.
- Rema, YD 242:14; Chatam Sofer, OC 206; Haradach 18:10; Mahari Weil 85, 128.
- Kiddushin 6a; EH 49:3.
- Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:8.
- Birkei Yosef, YD 242, Shiyorei Bracha 8.
- Pitchei Teshuva, YD 242:3. See Minhag Yisrael Torah, YD 242:2 for extensive elaboration on this.
- Taz, YD 92:22; YD 242:10; Shach, YD 242:17, Mishne Halachot 3:111, Minhag Yisrael Torah, YD 242:3.
- Menachot 99b; Chullin 15a; YD 124:24,160:16.
- Bechorot 29a.
- Bach, CM 9.
- Minhag Yisrael Torah, YD 242:8.
- Berachot 4a.
- Maharach, Or Zarua 93; Yabia Omer, YD 6:18.
- Taz, YD 18:16.
- Halachot Ketanot 1:30; Teshurat Shai 580.
- Rema, YD 245:22; Aruch Hashulchan, YD 242:57, 245:29; Aruch Hashulchan E.H. 49:8 .
- Chatam Sofer, OC 206, CM 21; Maharam Schik,YD 18.
- Chatam Sofer, OC 206, CM 163. See also Shach, Y.D. 244:11.
- On the history of modern semicha, including the various cultural and legal debates involved in these ordinations, see Mordechai Breuer, “Ha-Semicha Ha-Ashkenazit,” Zion 33 (5728), p. 15-46 (also reprinted in his collection of articles, Assif). On the concept of heter horaah, see Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Blidstein, “Heter Hora’ah Be-Mishnat Ha-Rambam U-Mashmuato Ha-Chevratit,” in his Iyyunim Be-Machshevet Ha-Halakha Ve-Ha-Aggada, Ben Gurion University Press, p. 103-113, and the sources cited in Encyclopedia Talmudit, “Hora’ah” (Vol 8), p. 486-494. Source provided to me by Rabbi Michael Broyde.
- Yehuda Yaaleh, OC 1:37. See also YD 246:8, 334:43,44 and Maharik 83.
- Rivevot V’yovlot 1:90.
- Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:8.