Q. What is the origin of rabbinic ordination?
A. Rabbinic ordination began with Moses, who “placed his hands” on Joshua (Num. 27:22-23) and the 70 elders (Num. 11:16). In every generation, their authority in turn passed down to their successors (Avot 1:1; Maimonides, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:1). During the period of the Second Temple, ordination became a set procedure which raised a person’s status from talmid chacham (“student of the wise” or “wise student”) to zaken (“elder”). At times ordination was denied, e.g. to keep the Sadducees out of the Sanhedrin.
The laying on of hands (s’michah) gave way to a proclamation of the name of the candidate by his teacher and later by the nasi, the head of the Sanhedrin. The candidate, wearing a special robe, was announced as “Rabbi” and his praises sung. To evidence his ability to make decisions, he would then give a learned discourse. The ordination had to take place in the Land of Israel, though the rabbi could function in the Diaspora as well as in the Holy Land.
However, when the great Talmudic academies in Israel came to an end in the 4th century CE traditional ordination went into abeyance. In the 16th century, Jacob Berab attempted to revive it in Tz’fat (Safed) but the rabbis of Jerusalem objected and within a few years the innovation was abandoned.Even without s’michah there have of course always been rabbis. The title chacham has often been used among Sephardim and some Ashkenazim. Though the terms ordination and s’michah are colloquially employed, strictly speaking they are not appropriate and the authority the rabbi receives is hattarat hora’ah, “permission to teach”. Despite the popular view, the role of the rabbi is not so much as a minister and/or officiant but as a teacher.
Rabbinic training began to be structured in Germany in the 14th century and was professionalised with the establishment of rabbinic seminaries in the 19th century; in many such institutions, rabbinic studies went along with university courses. For many decades, however, students of Jews’ College in London were awarded the title “Reverend”, not Rabbi, because the British Chief Rabbinate wished to concentrate rabbinic authority in itself. This changed as the 20th century progressed.
In Israel, a number of colleges in Israel train rabbis for Diaspora communities. They include Yad Avi HaYishuv (the Rothschild Foundation) and Touro College, which aims to produce rabbis “not only well versed in Torah and halachah, but with a broad vision of the Western humanistic tradition as well as the practical skills needed for a rabbi to function in modern society”.