What Is the Role of the Rabbi?

The traditional rabbinate harks back to ancient practice, but is in fact a changing institution, first formalized in the fourteenth century.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Rabbi and Ribbi

A rabbi is a teacher of Judaism qualified to render decisions in Jewish law. The term is derived from rav, meaning “great man” or “teacher;” Moses is called Moshe Rabbenu. (“Moses our teacher”). The suffix “i,” meaning “my,” is somewhat strange. Why “my teacher?” It has been suggested that the letters rbi [which form the Hebrew word without vowel-pointing] should be vocalized, as they are among Sephardi Jews, as “Ribbi,” “great one,” and that the “i” is not, in fact, a [possessive pronoun] suffix at all.

It has also been conjectured that the term Ribbi originally denoted a fully ordained teacher, one who received the ordination reaching back to Joshua on whom Moses laid his hands. When full ordination came to an end (in the fourth century CE) the title “Rabbi” was given to every teacher of the Torah and was a purely honorific one.

Rav, Rabbi, Rabban: Who, When, Where

When full ordination was still in vogue, it was limited to Palestinian teachers who alone were called Rabbi. The Babylonian teachers appear in the Babylonian Talmud simply as “Rav [So-and-So].” In the period of the Geonim [the post-Talmudic age, sixth to eleventh centuries CE] the distinction between the various Rabbinic titles was described as: “Greater than Rav is Rabbi; greater than Rabbi is Rabban (‘our teacher” — reserved for the Princes [those who held the Jewish community leadership post of Nasi, recognized for some centuries by the Roman rulers of Eretz Yisrael], as in Rabban Gamaliel); greater than Rabban is the name (itself, e.g. Hillel or Shammai).” Historically considered, “Rabbi” as a title is not found before the beginning of the present era. There is a Rabbi Hillel in the Talmud, but the title is never used for the famous Hillel.

Hakhamim, Rabbanim, Rabbanim Geonim

In post-Talmudic times, the conventional title among Sephardi Jews was Hakham, “sage,” and this title is still used by the Sephardim. The Ashkenazim preferred the term “Rabbi” and developed a new form of ordination, in which a prominent scholar subjected a candidate for the rabbinate to an examination in order to determine his proficiency in Jewish law. The successful candidate was then given what came to be called Heter Hora’ah, “Permission to Render Decisions.” Abravanel (commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, Ch. 6) suggested that the Ashkenazim adopt this new type of rabbinic ordination and the granting of a diploma under the influence of the Gentile universities, which awarded doctorates to their graduates.

The Hebrew form of “Rabbi” is Ha-Rav. On the analogy of the Geonim [heads of the post-talmudic Babylonian academies of Torah study], certain especially distinguished rabbis were given the title “Gaon,” for example Elijah, “Gaon of Vilna.” Eventually, the title “Gaon” was given to practically every Orthodox Rabbi. Nowadays, the title Ha-Rav Ha-Gaon is used so extensively as to be meaningless, When everyone is a “Gaon,” no one is.

The Rabbinate as Profession: a Tradition in Flux

The professional rabbi was unknown before the fourteenth century. Scholars capable of rendering decisions in Jewish law performed this function without receiving any salary, following the Talmudic injunction against obtaining financial gain from the Torah, except that scholars were exempted from communal taxation and had the right to be served first when buying in the market-place, so as to enable them to devote more time to their studies.

Many medieval sages, for example Maimonides [in twelfth century Spain and Egypt] and Nahmanides [in thirteenth century Catalonia], earned their living by practicing medicine and gave their services to the Torah voluntarily. As late as the sixteenth century, scholars were to be found who prided themselves on serving as communal rabbis without receiving any remuneration. But when economic conditions worsened, especially after the expulsion from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, there was no way in which the average scholar could adopt the rabbinic role unless he was supported by the community. The position of town rabbi became established, and the rabbi received emoluments from the townsfolk.

Once the rabbinate became a profession, proper contracts of service were drawn up and these are discussed in the later [law] codes under the heading of general financial undertakings. This pattern was preserved among the Ashkenazim in Eastern European communities, as was the institution of the Hakham among the Sephardi and Oriental communities, and it is still the norm in the State of Israel and in the Diaspora communities of the older Orthodox type.

Students and Rabbis

In communities that conform to this pattern, there are no special schools for the training of rabbis. Students in the yeshivah do not study in order to become rabbis, in obedience to the yeshivah ideal of studying the Torah “for its own sake.” When a student wishes to become a rabbi he studies on his own the codes and other sources of practical halakhah and then presents himself for examination. Strictly speaking, the granting of the rabbinical diploma does not in itself entitle its holder to be called rabbi. The diploma testifies only that he is capable of serving as a rabbi. He actually becomes a rabbi only when appointed by a community to serve as such. Nevertheless, the convention is to refer to anyone who holds the rabbinical diploma as Rabbi. He is called to the Torah, for instance, as Morenu Ha-Rav, “Our Teacher, Rabbi X son of Y.”

In the traditional pattern, the Rabbi is a scholar-saint, devoting himself entirely to learning (the study of the Torah is a never-ending occupation from which no one ever graduates), to guiding the community in spiritual affairs, and, especially, to acting as judge in civil cases and rendering decisions in matters of religious law. Some rabbis were more powerful and more autocratic than others. There are many recorded instances of rabbis at loggerheads with the lay leaders of the community. Although in modem times the English expression “laymen” is often used, the term is basically inappropriate. The rabbi is also a “layman,” occupying no sacerdotal role. It is consequently quite erroneous, as is often done by non-Jews, to describe the rabbi as a Jewish priest.

Town Rabbis and Other Functionaries

There were other religious functionaries in addition to the town rabbi, and these were also usually given the title Ha-Rav. The town rabbi, with a few exceptions, only preached sermons on rare occasions, normally on the Sabbath before Passover and the Sabbath before Yom Kippur. Preaching was the prerogative of the maggid. The maggid was usually a wandering preacher who visited various towns where the congregation would give him a remuneration for his services. But the larger towns, like Vilna, had, in addition to the town rabbi, a permanent town maggid, who received a regular stipend from the community chest. Following the founding of the great yeshivah in Volozhyn [in Lithuania] in the early nineteenth century, yeshivot were established in some Lithuanian and Russian towns and villages. In former times, the yeshivah was under the control of the town rabbi, students would come to the town to study at the feet of a renowned rabbi who would then have the dual function of rabbi and rosh yeshivah (“yeshivah head”). With the proliferation of yeshivot, the office of rosh yeshivah was detached from that of town rabbi. The position of rosh yeshivah was held by a scholar whose particular skills and expertise lay in the field of purely theoretical study rather than practical law. After the Holocaust, an unparalleled number of yeshivot sprang up, and a degree of rivalry emerged between the official rabbis and the yeshivah principals. Increasingly, in the Orthodox world, former students of a yeshivah, while they will turn to the local Orthodox rabbi for practical decisions, tend to look upon their rosh yeshivah as their true spiritual guide. Conflicts erupt sporadically between the practical rabbis, who know the community and which demands they can and cannot make, and the yeshivah heads, secure in their ivory towers.

Rebbes and Rabbis

Hasidism developed a new type of leader, the Hasidic zaddik. To distinguish the zaddik from the rabbi proper, the former is usually called a “rebbe,” though a few rebbes also served as town rabbis. The Rebbe of BeIz, for example, served as the rabbi of this Galician town and was thus the Belzer Rav (or Rov in the Ashkenazi pronunciation) so far as his town was concerned, but the Belzer Rebbe so far as his widespread Hasidic fraternity was concerned A Hasid owed his ultimate allegiance to his rebbe, but in matters of practical religious law would usually follow the decisions of the rabbi of his town. Rebbes often had a good deal of influence on the appointment of a town rabbi through the votes of their particular Hasidim It was not unknown for the Hasidim in a town to be so divided on the choice of a rabbi that, in order to avoid contention, they would vote for a rabbi to be appointed who was not a Hasid at all. Belonging to no Hasidic group, the rabbi was acceptable to all the groups in that he did not belong, at least, to a rival group.

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