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A Brief History of Rabbinic Ordination (Semicha)


The great Talmudic sage and physician Shmuel once visited Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, who was suffering from an ailment of the eyes. Shmuel wanted to insert medicine into the great man’s eyes, but Rabbi Yehuda said that he could not endure such a treatment. “In that case,” said Shmuel, “I will gently smear some of the medication on your eyes.” “I can’t endure that either” answered Rabbi Yehuda. Faced with this dilemma, Shmuel placed a tube of the medication under Rabbi Yehuda’s pillow, and sure enough, Rabbi Yehuda recovered.

Seeing that Shmuel was such a great expert in medical matters as well as a great sage, Rabbi Yehuda sought to ordain him as a rabbi. But every time he tried, he was unable to gather the requisite people to perform the ordination.1 Shmuel then said to Rabbi Yehuda, “Master, do not trouble yourself, for I have seen it written in the book of Adam Harishon2 that “Shmuel Yarchinaah3 will be called a great sage, but shall not bear the title “rabbi…”4

It was not until the second century that “rabbi,” which literally means “my master” or “my teacher,” became an official title. Until that time even the greatest Jewish sages and prophets were not given an honorific.5 Over the centuries, the meaning of the title and the requirements for receiving it have evolved significantly. In order to understand what “rabbi” means today, let’s take a look at the history of rabbinic ordination, or semicha.

The Origins of Semicha

Although the title itself is a more recent development, the ordination of spiritual leaders began at the dawn of Jewish history. The original form of ordination was passed down from teacher to student in an unbroken chain reaching all the way back to Moses. Classical semicha ensured that the student was the next link in the Sinaic tradition and authorized him to judge cases which involved any sort of punitive punishment.6

The first to be thus ordained was Joshua. Moses placed his hands upon him, as the verse states: "And he placed his hands upon him and commanded him, in accordance with what the L rd had spoken."7 (The word “semicha” literally means “laying of the hands.”) Similarly, we find that Moses ordained the 70 judges, albeit without any mention of “laying of the hands.”8

The physical laying of hands was not continued in later generations, and semicha came to be conveyed by simply addressing the person as “rabbi”9 and telling him: "You are ordained and you have the authority to render judgment, even in cases involving financial penalties.”10

Joshua and the 70 elders ordained others, and they in turn gave semicha to their disciples. This tradition continued until the Talmudic era, when the sages were able to trace a direct line all the way back to the courts of Joshua and Moses.11

Conditions for Classical Semicha

This first form of ordination could only be granted under very specific conditions:

● The one granting the semicha had to do so while accompanied by two others. For semicha cannot be conveyed by less than three ”judges.” However only one of these three, namely the person conveying the semicha, had to be ordained himself.12

● Both the ordaining rabbi and the one receiving ordination had to be present in the Land of Israel.13 But they were not required to be in each other’s presence. Ordination could be granted through an oral or written message.14

● While a person could be ordained to rule only in a specific area of Jewish law,15 he was required to be expert and qualified to rule in all areas.16 Ordination to rule in matters relating to kashrut was referred to as “Yoreh Yoreh,” “May he decide? He may decide!” To rule regarding monetary issues, one required “Yaddin Yaddin” “May he judge? He may judge!” 17

● Not only could a person be ordained to rule only in a specific area, he could also be ordained to rule only for a specified time period.18

● There was no limit on how many people could be ordained at one time. In fact, King David ordained 30,000 people at once!19

● Originally, whoever was ordained would in turn ordain his students. But during the times of Hillel the Elder (1st century BCE), as a gesture of respect to the remnants of the house of David, the sages instituted that semicha could be conveyed only with the express permission of the generation’s Jewish leader—the nasi.20

At the same time, the sages also instituted that the nasi should not convey semicha unless he was accompanied by the head of the rabbinical court, the av beit din, and that the av beit din should not convey semicha unless accompanied by the nasi. The other sages, however, could convey semicha by themselves after receiving license from the nasi, provided they were accompanied by two others.21

The First Rabbis

In the Mishnah and Talmud we find, for the first time, three titles: Rabbi, Rab and Rabban.22

Rabbi: The title “rabbi” was borne by the sages of the Land of Israel, who were ordained there in accordance with the custom handed down by the elders. As direct heirs to the Torah of Moses, they were granted authority to judge penal cases.23

Rab: The Babylonian sages, who received ordination in their own schools in the diaspora, went by the title “rab.” Since they were not ordained in Israel, their ability to rule was restricted and did not include cases involving punitive damages.

Rabban: This title was reserved for the patriarchate, the nasi or the president of the rabbinical court, the av beis din of the Sanhedrin.24

The first to be called “rabban” were Rabban Gamaliel the Elder25 (died around 50 CE), Rabban Shimeon his son,26 and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai27 (died around 74 CE).

The first to be called “rabbi” were Rabbi Tzadok, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, and other disciples of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossei HaKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Nethanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.28

Keeping in mind that before these titles were used, even the greatest leaders and prophets were not called “rabbi,” it emerges that while the title “rabbi” is greater than ”rab,” “rabban” is greater than ”rabbi,” and the simple name without any title is greater than them all (provided of course that the person was deserving of an honorific).29

The Roman Ban and the End of Classical Semicha

At the time that these titles developed the Jewish nation was in turmoil. The first to bear them saw the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, and the institution of an oppressive Roman occupation in Israel. After the failed revolution by Bar Kokhba (132–135 CE), the emperor Hadrian tried to put a permanent end to the Sanhedrin and to semicha, which he saw as the Jews’ persistent attempt at self-rule.

The emperor decreed that whoever performed or received ordination should be put to death. In addition, the city in which the ordination took place was to be demolished, and all within 2000 amah uprooted. The tradition of semicha would indeed have been completely lost at that time were it not for the self-sacrifice of the great sage Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava.

Hearing the decree, Rabbi Yehuda took five students of Rabbi Akiva, the great sage who had just been martyred by the Romans, and sat between two mountains that served as the ”Shabbat boundary”30 between two large cities, Usha and Shifarum.

When the Romans discovered them, Rabbi Yehuda cried out to the students, “My children, flee!” The students replied “Our teacher, what will become of you?” He responded, “I am placed before them like a rock that cannot be overturned.” It is said that the Romans did not leave the spot where they had found Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava until they had pierced him with three hundred spears, rendering him like a sieve. But by then, the newly-ordained rabbis were out of reach.

The names of the five students were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda (bar Ilay), Rabbi Shimoen, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. According to some, Rabbi Nechemiah was ordained there as well.31

Although semicha had been temporarily saved, it became increasingly difficult to fulfill all its requirements, particularly because a large portion of the sages were living in Babylonia, and as mentioned, a rabbi could only be ordained in the Land of Israel.

It is not clear exactly when the classical semicha ceased completely. According to some, it ended in the days of Rabbi Hillel the Second, who became the leader of the Jews around 359 CE. Rabbi Hillel foresaw the end of the classic rabbinic ordination, and, seeing that the method used to sanctify the new month, which required ordained rabbis, was in peril, he established the set calendar that we use to this very day.32

Others are of the opinion that some form of the classical ordination continued for many years after that. They point to letters from Rabbi Tzemach Gaon (9th century) and Rabbi Chaninia Gaon (10th century) which imply that in their days, punitive damages were still judged in the Land of Israel, something which only one with semicha could do.33 Yet others point to letters from Rabbi Yehuda ben-Barzillai of Barcelona (11th-12th centuries) which seem to imply that even in his days there was some sort of semicha in Israel.34

Attempted Renewal of Classical Semicha

After the Spanish expulsion of 1492, many Jews remained in Spain, nominally accepting Christianity while practicing their Judaism in secret. Thousands of these converso Jews eventually escaped Spain, immigrating to Israel and other countries, where they could again practice Judaism openly. These Jews were haunted by the sins they had committed in their previous lives. Many were concerned that they might never fully atone for their more serious sins, some of which carried the punishment of karet--spiritual excision from G‑d.

In the year 1538, Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, the leading rabbi of Safed Israel and himself a refugee from the Spanish expulsion, came up with an original solution to this problem. He proposed the creation of Jewish courts that would carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases someone from the decree of karet.35

This punishment, however, could only be administered by a rabbi ordained with the original, classical form of semicha. As part of his plan, Rabbi Beirav sought to reinstate classical semicha based on a ruling by Maimonides that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint judges and grant them ordination, the semicha is binding. These judges may then adjudicate cases involving penalties and convey semicha upon others.36 37

After much deliberation, 25 sages of Safed ordained Rabbi Yakov Beirav with the newly-minted semicha. Rabbi Beirav then sent Rabbi Shlomo Chazan to Jerusalem to inform the sages there of the reinstitution of semicha and to ordain Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv, (known as the Ralbach), with the same powers bestowed on him.

But Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv rejected the newly established semicha, claiming, among many other things, that when they reinstituted the semicha, they did not have the consent of all the sages of Israel. A bitter exchange between the two rabbis ensued, and a passionate debate erupted between their two camps.38

In the midst of this debate, members of the opposition informed the Turkish government that by reviving the semicha, Rabbi Beirav intended to reestablish the kingdom of Israel and rebel against them. Fearing for his life, Rabbi Beirav decided to flee to Egypt. Before doing so, however, he granted semicha to four of his leading disciples:39 Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch), Rabbi Moshe of Trani, Rabbi Abraham Shalom and Rabbi Israel de Curial.40 Rabbi Yosef Karo passed this semicha on to Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, and Rabbi Moshe Alsheich later ordained Rabbi Chaim Vital (the prime disciple of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal)41.

There is no record of this renewed ordination proceeding any further than Rabbi Chaim Vital. And although there have been a number of additional attempts at renewing the classical semicha, none of them gained as much traction or included such prominent sages as this attempt by Rabbi Yaakov Beirav. It seems that Jewish leaders have not embraced these attempts in deference to the opinion that classical ordination will only be reestablished during the messianic era.42

It is clear that classical semicha does not—or cannot—exist nowadays. This brings us to the obvious question: We still have plenty of rabbis, so what exactly is the modern-day semicha? Who gets to be called a rabbi?

Rabbinical Ordination Today

Despite the cessation of classical semicha, rabbis continued to be ordained throughout the generations. This diminished form of ordination was necessary because it is forbidden for a student to establish himself as an authority in Jewish law without his teacher’s explicit permission.43 Thus rabbinical ordination came to mean simply that the student had received permission from his teacher to make halachic rulings.

Some are of the opinion that rabbinic ordination nowadays is a remembrance of the ancient classical semicha. Therefore they believe that when granting rabbinic ordination we should try to fulfill as many requirements of the original semicha as possible, such as the requirement that only one qualified to rule in all areas of Jewish law should be ordained.44

Most, however, believe that ordination nowadays has no connection to the original semicha. According to this opinion, there is no need to be qualified in all other areas of the law in order to receive a limited ordination.45 46

While one can receive permission to rule in any one particular area of Jewish law, nowadays, for the most part, there are two levels of ordination. The most basic one, called “Yoreh Yoreh,” authorizes the recipient to rule on matters of kashrut and similar areas of Jewish law that pertain to basic daily life. The more advanced level of semicha is called “Yoddin Yoddin,” and authorizes its recipient to rule as a dayan – a judge in financial matters.47

The Lubavitcher Rebbe strongly encouraged young men to study and receive at least the basic level of semicha, Yoreh Yoreh, before their wedding. This ensures that there is someone in each Jewish home who is able to answer the day-to-day halachik questions that are sure to arise.48

Finally, it should be pointed out that while many who use the title today are indeed qualified to give rulings and answer questions, “rabbis” have proliferated greatly over the last century. Nowadays the title may be used for one who has a very limited form of ordination (i.e. he can only rule in a very specific area of Jewish law) or simply as a title of respect for a person who is a teacher or has some position of authority. For this reason one should be careful when seeking guidance from a rabbi that he is truly qualified to render a decision in the area of Jewish law one is asking about.


Because he was the Nasi (leader) besides for the regular requirement of having two other people join when ordaining someone, Rabbi Yehuda needed to be accompanied by the head of the rabbinical court, the av beit din.


The Talmud in Avoda Zarah 5a states that Adam was shown by G‑d all the sages and leaders of the subsequent generations. In a dream Shmuel was shown a book which recorded what Adam saw in order to convey to Shmuel that he should not be troubled when there were obstacles to his being ordained, see Ben Yehoyada on Bava Metzia 85b-86a.


He was called Yarchinaah, from the root word “Yerech,” ‘moon.’ Shmuel was called Yarchinaah on account of his great expertise in astronomy and the secret of intercalation.


Talmud Bava Metzia 85b-86a. Rabbi Reuben Margolies in Margolios Hayam on Talmud Sanhedrin 14a speculates that Shmuel was a descendant of the high priest Eli about whom the Talmud ibid tells us were cursed by G‑d that they will never be ordained to sit in judgement on the Sanhedrin.


See letter by Rabbi Sherira Gaon quoted by Rabbi Nathan bar Yechiel in Sefer Haruch, s.v. Abaye.


Talmud Sanhedrin 13b. The reason a judge required Semicha to judge in punitive cases is because the verses (Exodus 22:1-8) refer to the judge as ‘Elokim’ which the Talmud explains is a honorific meaning an expert and ordained Judge, see Rashi L’emeidan ibid (see also Talmud Sanhedrin 2b-3a; Rashi Elokim on Talmud Bava Kama 84b; Talmud Gitin 88b).


Numbers 11:16, 25. It is postulated that this is the source that in later generation the ordination need not be done by literally placing ones hands on the recipient, See Responsa Tzis Eliezer 16:54.


This was meant in the literal meaning of “my master,” or “my teacher, but not as a title.”


Maimonides, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:2.


Maimonides, ibid 4:1.


Talmud Sanhedrin 13b-14a ; Maimonides, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:5 . See however, the Yad Rama on Sanhedrin 14a where he is of the opinion that all three need to have been ordained themselves.


This rule only came into effect once the Jews entered the land of Israel for the first time. This similar to other laws that pertain to the land of Israel, for example, once the Jews entered Israel, it was prohibited to bring offering to G‑d outside of Israel (even before the Temple was built). It is for this reason that Joshua was ordained outside of Israel, see Rabbi Shmuel Tuvia Shtern in Sefer Chukas Olam 70 for an extensive discussion on this topic.


Maimonides Hil. Sanhedrin 4:6; Talmud ibid.


Talmud Sanhedrin 5a-b.


Maimonides ibid 4:8, See commentaries ad loc as to what the source for Maimonides assertion that person receiving ordination, regardless of whether it is only in a specific area of Jewish law, had to be qualified to rule in all areas. An example of a scneirio in which one was qualified to rule in all areas of Jewish law, but was nevertheless not granted permission to do so, can be found in the Talmud (ibid) in which Rabbi Yehuda the prince granted his student Rav to rule in all areas besides for whether a first-born animal is fit to be brought as an offering. The Talmud offers two reasons why he was not granted permission to rule in this area A) in order to increase the stature of another sage, Rabah bar Chanah who was granted permission to rule in this area B) Because of Rav’s great expertise in this specific area of discerning blemishes of animals, Rav may end up permitting a certain animal and others, not as expert as he, may not fully discern the reason he permitted it, and they too will permit erroneously a seemingly similar animal.


Talmud Sanhedrin 5a.


Talmud ibid 5b.


Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 10:2. This is based on the verse in Samuel II 6:1 “And David continued [to gather] all the chosen of Israel, thirty thousand.” While in many edition of the Jerusalem Talmud it has the figure at 90,000, the figure 30,000 is based on the edition that Maimonides (ibid 4:7) had.


Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 1:2.


See Jerusalem Talmud ibid and Maimonides ibid 4:5.


The following explanation of the terms as well as the listing of who was the first to be called by these titles, is from the letter by Rabbi Sherira Gaon ibid.


Already at this time the Sanhedrin – rabbinical court- had moved and it no longer sat in judgment on the Temple mount. Therefore, although one may have been ordained, he could not met out capital punishment.


The Tosefta to Ediyot 3:4 gives an alternative explanations of the titles “He who has disciples and whose disciples again have disciples is called 'rabbi'; when his disciples are forgotten [i.e., if he is so old that even his immediate disciples belong to the past age] he is called 'Rabban'; and when the disciples of his disciples are also forgotten he is called simply by his own name."


See for example Avot-Ethics of our fathers 1:16. While the following sages are quoted many times throughout the Mishnah and Talmud, the advantage of citing Avot is that it is easy to discern the chronology of who came after whom.


Ibid 1:18 . Both Rabban Gamlial and his son Rabban shimoen were the Nossi.


Ibid 2:8. RAbban Yochanan served as Av Beis Din while Rabban Gamilal and his son were alive. Additionally, he also served as Nossi for a couple of years, See Seder Hadoros s.v Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai.


See letter by Rabbi Sherira Gaon quoted by Rabbi Nathan bar Yechiel in Sefer Haruch, s.v. Abaye; Avot 2:9.




On Shabbat, one is not allowed to go more than 2000 Amot outside of the city they are currently residing in.


Talmud Sanhedrin 14a.


Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, Nachmonidies, in Sefer HaZechus Talmud Gitin 18a of the Rif and his commentary to Talmud ibid 36a; Sefer Haterumah Shaar 45; Rabbeinu Nissim 20a of Rif to Talmud Gittin.


See Responsa printed in Kovets Shaarei Tzedek p. 29-30.


See Sefer ha-Sheṭarot p 132.


Talmud Makot 23a.


Maimonides laws of the Sanhedrin 4:11; commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 1:3. Maimonides explains that although it is possible to reinstate classical Semichah, the sages bemoaned the loss of semichah and with it the ability to judge penalty cases. They felt that the Jews are so dispersed, it's not possible to get everyone’s consent to authorize a judge. However, If someone were to have already received semicha from an ordained rabbi, then he does not require everyone’s consent and he may judge penalty cases for everyone since he received semicha from a rabbinical court.


See ‘Kunteres hasemichah’ printed in Responsa by Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv, Kunteres 1 – 3 and Igeres Hasemicha by Rabbi Yaakov beirav printed in Kunteres hasemichah.’


The following are some of the main point of their disagreement (see Responsa of Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv, Kunteres Hasemichah). A)The re-establishment of semicha will result in the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin. This is considered to be hastening the final redemption, which is not permitted. B) Maimonides closing words, "This matter requires a final decision" show that he was not fully decided on this ruling. Therefore the halacha follows Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Gerondi - Nahmanides in Sefer Hamitzvos, Aseh 153 C) If the Sanhedrin were to be reestablished, they would be required to set the Calendar for the months and festivals. Because most Jews were following the set calendar established by Hillel, this would cause needless divisions among the Jewish people. D) Even if Maimonides was correct, because the scholars of Jerusalem were not present, the election was invalid.

Rabbi Yaakov Beirav countered (Iggeret Hasemicha) that A) The re-establishment semicha is not hastening the process of redemption, rather it is simply the fulfillment of a positive mitzvah. B) Maimonides' closing words "This matter requires a final decision" refer to a different legal matter. C) There was no problem leaving the Jewish calendar unchanged. D) The most learned scholars lived in Safed and that was sufficient; in Jewish law the word "all" means the "main part" not “everybody” See Kunteres Hasemicha ibid for a lengthy lively exchange between the two rabbis.


As Rabbi Yaakob Beirav writes at the end of his Iggeret HaSemicha. See however Rabbi Gedaliya ibn Chiya in Shasheles Hakabbala where he list additional Rabbis that were ordained and says that in all there were ten Rabbis (although he does not list all ten).


See Eretz Chaim by Rabbi Yosef Chaim S’thon, Choshen Mishpat 1 where he writes that there is a tradition that Rabbi Yaakov Beirav was referring to those four Rabbis.


Birkei Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 1:7.


Ramban, Ashe 153 (as understood by Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv in Kunteres Hasemicha), Rabbi Sholomo ben Aderes – Rashba on Talmud Bava Kama 36b, Rabbi Yom Tov ibn Asevilli – Ritva, and Nemukei Yosef on Talmud Yevomos 122b. See also commentary by Rabbi Dovid ibn Zimra- Radbaz to Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:11 where he writes that the reason this new ordination ceased was because of the opposition of Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv.


Maimonidies, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:2-3; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreah Deiah 242:4.


Respnsa by Rabbi Moshe Isserlis 24 and Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Chasam Sofer) Even Haozer vol. 2 94.


Responsa by Rabbi Yitzchak bar Sheshet, Rivash, 271; gloss of Rabbi Moshe Isserlis to Shulcan Aruch, Yoreh Deiah 242:14; Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh Deiah 242:29. See also Responsa by Rabbi Meshulam Rothe, Kol Mevaser,1: 12 in which he notes the apparent contradiction between the two views expressed by Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (see notes 26-27) and explains that the view of Rabbi Isserlis’ that is found in the gloss of the Shulchan Aruch is his final say on the matter.


Arukh HaShulchan Yoreh Deiah 242:29. See Aruch Hashulchan (ibid) where he goes further and writes that in addition, the primary function of Semicha nowadays is permission to serve as a communal Rabbi. And no one living in a city which has such an ordained Rabbi may render halachik rulings without said Rabbis consent.


See Talmud Sanhedrin 5a. An additional type of ordination mentioned in the Talmud ibid no longer obtainable today, is called yatir bechoros and authorizes its recipient to rule on whether a first-born animal is blemished and no longer appropriate to offer as a sacrifice.


See Shaar Halacha Uminhag vol. 4 p 104-5; sefer Haminhagim p. 75.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Anonymous Alameda January 28, 2013

Rabbi nice Reply

elisheva kadoch miami, fl August 23, 2012

question So how does one verify someone is a rabbi and the areas of expertise? Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for August 22, 2012

Re: Priestly office Aaron was anointed with both oil and blood (see Leviticus ch. 8). However, the anointment of the high priest as well as king is Independent of Rabbinic ordination. Reply

SZE AUST August 22, 2012

Re: Priestly office (Posted by Chezo on 21/8/2012) I do not believe so. It may be a tradition of yours, or it may be lies/rumours. As far as I am concerned, the answer is No. Reply

John Nocera Calhoun, LA August 21, 2012

Rabbinic ordination Excellent article. Teaches us the origin and development of the rabbinical office.

Question: Today, would a proper ordination need to take place in the land of Israel? Reply

Anonymous RoundLake, IL August 21, 2012

enlightment Thank you for the enlightment on Rabbis. Reply

Beverly Margolis-Kurtin Hurst, tx August 21, 2012

Thank you! That information was very helpful, thank you very much!

My rabbi is about half my age, but I do respect him very much and actually love the man and his entire family; they are warm, loving and accepting. But more, he KNOWS his stuff.

Having gone over the three score and ten mark, I find that I do not always agree with him, but then again, I don't always agree with my own conclusions <G>.

During my life I have had many rabbis as I have moved all around the country both as a member of the armed forces and as a traveling salesperson. But this rabbi, although he is reformed, is the first one I can say I feel close to. Why? Because some of my other rabbis are as warm as the inside of a refrigerator and others were aloof. None of us is perfect, but to me, the ONE thing that a rabbi should be is approachable and loving. Both of these things he is. Reply

Chezo Jhb, SA August 21, 2012

Priestly office Is it true that Moses and/or Aaron were anointed with blood and not oil? Reply

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