Semikhah as Hekhsher Mitzvah

Rabbi Daniel Landes

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

These remarks were originally delivered by R. Daniel Landes at the Capstone Celebration of Hadar's Advanced Kollel on June 26, 2023.

A hundred years ago, in 1923, Agudath Israel held its K'nessiah Gedolah in Vienna with the goal of uniting the Orthodoxies of Eastern and Western Europe. The opening speaker and draw was scheduled to be Israel Meir Kohen Kagan, the author of the Mishnah Berurah and of the Hafetz Hayyim. Everyone wanted to hear him.

There were two problems. The first: crossing the Lithuanian-Austrian border was open to clergymen. But it turns out that the Hafetz Hayyim had never received semikhah! The second problem: who would give the most learned, most humble of all men, semikhah?

The Rav of Vilna, R. Hayyim Ozer Gordinsky, author of the Responsa Ahiezer, a large personality, a genius who, being ambidextrous, would write two different teshuvot with his two hands simultaneously, undertook the task. The semikhah came as a telegram – I saw a copy owned by my great uncle, a student of the Hafetz Hayyim. Six words: (to) Kagan, stop; Yoreh, Yoreh, stop; Yadin, Yadin, stop; Gordinsky.

What do we learn? Two things: 1) You don’t need semikhah to be the tzadik and gadol ha-dor. 2) But: now that each of you has (is) achieving semikhah, why should we not expect moral, spiritual, intellectual greatness!? We do, for we need it, Klal Yisrael needs it. Why shouldn’t your students’ students argue amongst themselves over a shalosh seudos, who of this class was the greatest!?

Your arduous learning up to now has been, in some significant way, a הכשר מצוה – the preparation for doing something really big. The Talmud Yerushalmi sees the הכשר מצוה, mitzvah prep, as a mitzvah unto itself. However, the Babylonian Talmud disagrees, seeing the performance of mitzvah prep as a necessary but profane act. No berekhah needed, and if you made one up and benedicted it, that is a berakhah l'vatalah, a wasted blessing.

Nonetheless, the power of the Yerushalmi view has a reverberance in halakhah. Thus, the principle of העוסק במצוה פטור מן המצוה (one who engages in mitzvah A is exempt from doing mitzvah B) also applies to הכשר מצוה, for mitzvah prep is inextricably connected to the mitzvah you are set to perform.

And – a secret – having gotten your travel papers in the form of semikhah so that you can cross all borders, most of your service will be a הכשר מצוה on the way to doing those amazing things that you must accomplish! And you shall!