Semicha, which connotes rabbinic ordination, as understood today, consists of passing proficiency exams and receiving permission from one’s teachers to rule on questions of Jewish law. But the actual term semicha literally means to lean. What does “leaning” have to do with becoming a rabbi?

The source for ordination is found in the Torah in parashat Pinchas (Numbers 27:18-20; 22-23): “And the Lord said to Moses, Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him. And set him before Elazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And you shall put some of your honor upon him, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may be obedient. And Moses did as the Lord commanded him; and he took Joshua, and set him before Elazar the priest, and before all the congregation. And he laid his hands upon him, and gave him a charge, as the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses.”

The concept of leaning or laying hands is first found as part of the rituals of animal sacrifice. In ancient times, when an individual donated an animal to the Temple, prior to sacrifice, the owner leaned his weight on the animal, implying that the animal is being sacrificed in lieu of the donor. Leaning is meant to be a conveyance from one to another. God therefore choses a similar way to ordain a student, to appoint one’s successor.

Rashi (Numbers 27:23) quoting the Sifrei #141, points out as we did in bold above, the difference between God’s command and Moses’ execution. Moses’ love for his disciple Joshua caused him to place both hands on his head in the presence of the Children of Israel, despite God’s command to place only one hand on his head. Based on Moses placing his second hand at Joshua’s ordination, our sages expressed the loving role between teacher and student. The Talmud (Ta’anit 7a) likens the Torah to a tree of life. Among many interpretations, the Talmud explains that just as a small tree lights a larger one, a student sharpens his or her master. In this context, Rabbi Hanina proclaims, “I have learned much from my teachers, I have learned even more from my colleagues, but I have learned the most from my students.” (The same aphorism is stated in the name of Rabbi Judah the Prince in Makkot 10a). A similar idea is also expressed in Sanhedrin 105b. Rabbi Yossi the son of Honi declares that a person is jealous of everyone except for one’s child and one’s student. The proof text for this passage? The verses that were quoted regarding Moses and Joshua, and the request that the prophet Elisha made of his master, Elijah the prophet, to be twice as great as his teacher. (Kings II 2:9).

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