The Hebrew word “semikhah” in various forms alludes to drawing close, leaning into or supporting another, or laying on of hands. In that purposeful contact there is a transfer of energy and the establishment of connection between two living beings. When Moses lays hands on Joshua, he confers spiritual power, ordaining Joshua as his successor. Like one candle lighting another, there is no sense of diminishment in the power of Moses as he ordains Joshua.
At other times, however, the practice of semikhah (or the transitive hasmakhah) is understood to transfer a quality from one being to another. This week we read that the priest is to lay hands on the burnt offering, “that it may be acceptable on his behalf, in expiation for him” (Lev. 1:4, trans. NJPS). How exactly does this work? It seems from another context, Lev. 16:21, that physical contact was not the only component of the ritual. There was also a spoken intention, a confession of sin, that effected the transfer of negative energy, allowing for the priest and the community that he served to achieve atonement.
This brings us to the role of confession in the ritual offering. One would expect to find this verbal pairing only with regard to the hattat, or purification offering (and the similar asham). After all, the other sacrifices such as olah and minhah are about dedication, while the shelamim are about thanksgiving. For such offerings it would seem that confession is inappropriate. And yet, our text about the burnt offering implies a confession even if it is not explicit. Moreover, in Second Chronicles 30:22, we are told that in the days of King Hezekiah the Levites offered sacrifices of well-being (shelamim) and “confessed to the Lord.” Maimonides understands this not to be so much a confession (for wrong doing) but rather an expression of praise. But it is the same word!Continue reading