Ask The Rabbi: What is the origin of the rabbinate?

The ordination of an unworthy person was deemed a terrible sin, especially when done for nefarious motives.

The rabbinate has a fascinating history, having greatly evolved in different ways in various locales. By late antiquity, scholars had emerged as the leading spiritual (and occasionally political) figures. These authorities, modeled after the biblical elders (Numbers 11) and judges (Deuteronomy 16-17), served as authorized transmitters of oral teachings, biblical interpreters and legislators of new law. They comprised the judicial system, including the Sanhedrin, the supreme rabbinic court of 71 elders. Different-level courts were created to pronounce law related to civil suits, criminal cases, corporal punishment and fines, calendar calculations, firstborn animals and nullification of vows.
To become a certified authority, one required smicha (ordination) from a previously ordained figure (Sanhedrin 5b). These men were required to be first-rate scholars, primarily in Jewish law but also in languages, sciences and general theology (Sanhedrin 17a), as well as bearers of impeccable morals. While the scholars required requisite eligibility and knowledge for all areas, their judicial mandate could be limited to specific areas of law (Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:8-10). The ordination of an unworthy person was deemed a terrible sin, especially when done for nefarious motives (Sanhedrin 7b). Power disputes over judicial appointments occasionally exploded between the judiciary and patriarch (the Jewish political leader in Roman times), and at times each body retained veto power over selections (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 19a).
Smicha was only authorized within the land of Israel, and following the political turmoil after the Temple’s destruction, the institution of smicha ended, at the latest by 425 CE. The significance of this institution was understood by despotic Roman emperors like Hadrian, who sought to weaken the Jewish community by forbidding ordination and killing all violators of the decree (Sanhedrin 14a).
In the 16th century, when prominent theologians emigrated to Israel amid messianic fervor, Rabbi Jacob Berab of Safed attempted to restore the ancient smicha through a unanimous declaration of Israel’s greatest scholars (Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:11). While the ordainees included figures like Rabbis Joseph Karo and Moses of Trani, the demurral of Jerusalem’s prominent sage, Rabbi Levi ibn Habib, ultimately ended this movement.
Already in talmudic times, when Jews moved to Babylonia and classic ordination ceased, the sages authorized contemporary scholars to issue rulings of law (hora’a) and to formally adjudicate in common financial disputes (Bava Kama 84b). Scholars debated which laws fell within these categories, but definitively included matters of inheritance, torts and financial transactions (Beit Yosef CH 1). Additionally, the sages permitted social sanctions like excommunication and even corporal punishment, a tool occasionally used by medieval governments with limited
self-autonomy (CH 2). These latter powers were frequently held byseven-men political councils (sheva tovei ha’ir),who were not necessarily rabbis.
Rabbinic scholars were accorded by their colleagues and communitieswith various positions and titles, including haver, hachamand rav.
A FORMAL PROCESS for ordaining students following a period of studyonly emerged in France and Germany in the 13th or 14th century. Thisordination, given by one’s teacher, certified the student’s eruditionand virtues (higia le-hora’a) and further grantedhim license (reshut) to issue legal rulings withinthe presence or locale of the teacher (Rivash 271). This license couldbe limited to specific areas of law (YD 242:14), with furthercertification frequently required for more specialized fields,including divorces (gitin) and the judiciary(dayan). This form of ordination was not practicedin medieval Spain, where rabbis like Isaac Abravanel questioned whetherit represented an imitation of non-Jewish doctoral titles(Nahalat Avot 6:2). Prof. Mordechai Breuer has morereasonably speculated that this development occurred to help reviveJewish communities and clarify normative practices following thetraumas of various plagues and expulsions.
This system of certification created problems since no distinction wasreserved for figures of supreme erudition and piety, while thoseunworthy of the title could usurp its powers. Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein(15th century Vienna) and others attempted to restrict the number ofordinations, lamenting, “The ordained are many, yet the scholars arefew” (Trumat Hadeshen Pessahim 255). Additionally,the granting of titles to people without clerical positions increasedrabbinic competition and led to numerous questions of professionalencroachment. In many locations, restrictions were enacted thatrequired other rabbis to receive permission from the town’s electedrabbinic authority to perform clerical functions (AruchHashulhan YD 242:29). This phenomenon has largely dissipatedtoday, replaced by new professional regulations and communal standardsto ensure rabbinic training, collegiality and effectiveness.
The writer, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog, Text& Texture (, teaches at YeshivatHakotel.