If you are a student of the New Testament then you will immediately recognize the phrase “the laying on of hands,” but you may wonder where this practice came from. Once we read through the Gospels and arrive in Acts we find this peculiar act where the Apostles lay their hands on people and they receive either the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18), or it is some sort of giving of authority (Acts 6:6). Perhaps the most peculiar thing about this is that people seemed to know what was going on when they did it. In other words: it wasn’t a brand-new process. Rather, this was an established tradition that dates back to the time of the Patriarchs, known as giving s’mikhah.
S’mikhah in the Bible
S’mikhah is a Hebrew word which means authority, and it is given when a person lays their hands on the head of another. The Bible is absolutely full of examples of giving of S’mikhah, including when Isaac blesses Jacob by putting his right hand upon him (Genesis 27) and when Jacob in turn blesses Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:18-20). This is the beginning of the tradition that would span thousands of years. And now for some specific examples.
When Moses couldn’t handle all the daily requests of the people and act as arbiter for them, his father-in-law gave him some advice. And so in Exodus 18:13-27 we find Moses appointing judges and passing his authority to make rulings to them. The Biblical account does not give a number of how many judges were appointed, but the Jewish tradition places it at 70, probably linking it to the 70 elders in Numbers 11.
Another special occasion where s’mikhah is given out is when Moses named his successor, and passed on his authority to him.
“So the LORD said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him.’”
And so the practice developed that if you wanted to pass on your authority to someone, you laid your hands on them and pronounced that authority.
The Symbolism Behind S’mikhah
But there is more than meets the eye about s’mikhah. It’s not just passing on authority – there is a deep symbolism behind it. Not only would you transmit your authority to someone by laying your hands on them, but you were also required to do the same thing before killing an animal for sacrifice to God (Exodus 29:10, Leviticus 16:21, Numbers 8:12, etc). Before you slit the throat of the animal in sacrifice to God you were required to lay your hands on its head and confess your sins (the reason for the sacrifice).
“In his explanation of the meaning behind animal offerings, Ramban (commentary to Vayyikra 1:9) suggests that the person bringing the offering should view himself as if he were on the altar. The catharsis of Korbanot is achieved when the owner experiences his own sacrifice vicariously through the offering. S’mikhah, performed immediately before the offering is slaughtered, is the process by which the owner transmits his energy into the animal in order that the offering truly represent him on the altar.”
–Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
The idea, as Rabbi Yitzchak wrote, is to pass yourself into the animal so as to experience your own death upon the altar which is the price for sin (Romans 6:23). And so s’mikhah therefore is not just merely passing authority into a person, but rather passing yourself into them, so that when they speak it is not they who speak, but it is the person who gave them that s’mikhah! And therefore each person who in turn received the authority from Joshua and on down the chain, all had a link to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Each person had a piece of the revelation given to Moses. This is why the sages and the rabbis around the time of Jesus were allowed to come up with additional rules and rulings – because if they had the authority, it was like Moses himself was speaking. This sacrifice symbolism embedded in s’mikhah is very rich indeed and paints an interesting picture when reading about how the Apostles laid their hands on people to pass on s’mikhah.
The New Testament and S’mikhah
Without going into all that Ray Vander Laan does, I think it’s interesting to note that Jesus had s’mikhah (Matthew 7:28-29) and that he passed it on to his disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). This is where we pick up in Acts where we see the Apostles laying their hands on people and giving authority (Acts 6:6), the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17), or even gifts of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:6). And we even see Paul warning Timothy to be careful about who he lays his hands on.
Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.
–1 Timothy 5:22
I find it highly interesting that in the same breath Paul warns Timothy not to lay his hands on just anyone and also not to share in the sins of others. Paul here makes a fascinating connection between giving of s’mikhah and the sin offerings of the temple. The laying on of hands, Paul writes, is too important to be given to anyone. Why? Because all s’mikhah came from Jesus, and it was passed down by his disciples. First the Apostles, then others, and on down the line it went – but it all linked back to the Messiah, just like the old s’mikhah had linked back to Moses. Now you, the believer of today, have a link back to the Messiah, passed down through the generations. And it’s not just a mental link. When Jesus gave s’mikhah to his Apostles, he put into them a piece of himself as you would before slaughtering an animal for sacrifice at the temple. And the Apostles did the same thing when they passed it on. Now you, the believer of today, have a piece of the Messiah’s s’mikhah in you. I think that’s incredible!
Peace to you,
Note: If you want to do more research on s’mikhah, it is difficult to find. This is partly because not everyone spells it the same (that’s the problem with a transliterated language). I’ve seen it spelled: s’mikah, s’mikhah, s’michah, semicha, semikhah, and several other variations. If you happen to find anything about it, please, share it with me. Thanks.