Awaiting Elijah‘Semicha… Is Performed By Three’(Sanhedrin 13b)
Our daf compares the semicha of rabbinical ordination to the semicha of elders laying their hands al rosh par he’elam, on the head of the bull that was brought for sins hidden from the majority of the congregation (see Rashi 22 s.v. “semichas zekenim”). Since the latter semicha requires three elders, perhaps the former semicha requires three people too.
One, Three Or 70?
The Gemara, however, suggests that perhaps one is sufficient based on Bamidbar 27:23: “Vayismach es yadav alav – And [Moshe] laid his hands upon [Yehoshua]…” Then again, Moshe conferred semicha on Yehoshua in the presence of the Sanhedrin, which was comprised of 70 elders. Perhaps, then, 70 are needed to confer semicha! The Gemara leaves this matter unresolved.
The Gemara relates that R. Yehuda b. Bava risked his life (for which he was ultimately killed by the Romans) to continue the unbroken chain of semicha from Moshe. Because of his efforts, the rabbanim were able to continue adjudicating penalty cases (kenasos). Tosafos (5a s.v. “Naktina”) explains that semicha can only be conferred by someone who is himself “samuch,” ordained.
Semicha Did Cease
Notwithstanding, since semicha can only be conferred in Eretz Yisrael, once the Jewish people were exiled, the chain of semicha was broken and thus no longer exists. (Our modern-day semicha is not the same as the original semicha.)
The Rambam (Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11) postulates that it is possible to reinstate semicha even after the interruption of many years. He suggests that if all the sages in Eretz Yisrael agree to ordain certain individuals as judges, they have the collective authority to confer semicha on others by general consent.
The Radbaz (to Rambam ad loc.) explains that the Rambam based his theory on Isaiah 1:25: “Ve’ashiva shoftayich ke’barishonah… – Then [in the days of Moshiach] I will restore your judges…” The Rambam, however, leaves the matter open as in need of further clarification.Taking Action
The Radbaz (to Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 4:11) relates the following: In the 16th century, a group of leading rabbis in the city of Tzefas, then the center of Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael, took their cue from the Rambam and ordained Mahari Beirav. Mahari Beirav subsequently conferred semicha on some of his leading disciples, including Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch.Strong Opposition
When Maharlbach, a leading sage in Jerusalem at the time, was informed of this remarkable development, he adamantly refused to sanction it (see his numerous responsa at the end of Responsa Maharlbach). He argued that the Rambam left this matter unresolved and, even if we accept his position, every rabbi in Eretz Yisrael is required to give his consent, which simply was not the case concerning Mahari Beirav.
He argued that semicha will be restored, as Radbaz (ad loc.) notes, through Elijah the prophet before the arrival of Moshiach. He will confer semicha (as he himself was a samuch) on others and will be able to do so because he ascended to heaven alive and thus retained the power and right to confer semicha on others.