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In Judaism, a rabbi (//) is a teacher of Torah. The basic form of the rabbi developed in the Pharisaic and Talmudic era, when learned teachers assembled to codify Judaism's written and oral laws. The first sage for whom the Mishnah uses the title of rabbi was Yohanan ben Zakkai, active in the early-to-mid first century CE. In more recent centuries, the duties of a rabbi became increasingly influenced by the duties of the Protestant Christian minister, hence the title "pulpit rabbis", and in 19th-century Germany and the United States rabbinic activities including sermons, pastoral counseling, and representing the community to the outside, all increased in importance.
Within the various Jewish denominations there are different requirements for rabbinic ordination, and differences in opinion regarding who is to be recognized as a rabbi. For example, Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis. Non-Orthodox movements have chosen to do so for what they view as halakhic reasons (Conservative Judaism) as well as ethical reasons (Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism).
The Hebrew word "master" רב rav [ˈʀäv], (irregular plural רבנים rabanim [ʀäbäˈnim]), which literally means "great one", is the original Hebrew form of the title. The form of the title in English and many other languages derives from the possessive form in Hebrew of rav: רַבִּי rabbi [ˈʀäbbi], meaning "My Master", which is the way a student would address a master of Torah. The word Rav in turn derives from the Semitic root ר-ב-ב (R-B-B), which in biblical Aramaic means "great" in many senses, including "revered", but appears primarily as a prefix in construct forms. Although the usage rabbim "many" (as 1 Kings 18:25, הָרַבִּים) "the majority, the multitude" occurs for the assembly of the community in the Dead Sea scrolls there is no evidence to support an association with the later title "Rabbi." The root is cognate to Arabic ربّ rabb, meaning "lord" (generally used when talking about God, but also about temporal lords). As a sign of great respect, some great rabbis are simply called "The Rav".
Rabbi is not an occupation found in the Hebrew Bible, and ancient generations did not employ related titles such as Rabban, Ribbi, or Rab to describe either the Babylonian sages or the sages in Israel.[note 1] The titles "Rabban" and "Rabbi" are first mentioned in Jewish literature in the Mishnah. The term was first used for Rabban Gamaliel the elder, Rabban Simeon his son, and Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, all of whom were patriarchs or presidents of the Sanhedrin in the first century.[note 2] The title "Rabbi" occurs (in Greek transliteration ῥαββί rhabbi) in the books of Matthew, Mark, and John in the New Testament, where it is used in reference to "Scribes and Pharisees" as well as to Jesus.
Sephardic and Yemenite Jews pronounce this word רִבִּי ribbī ; the modern Israeli pronunciation רַבִּי rabi is derived from an 18th-century innovation in Ashkenazic prayer books, although this vocalization is also found in some ancient sources. Other variants are rəvī and, in Yiddish, rebbə. The word could be compared to the Syriac word ܪܒܝ rabi.
In ancient Hebrew, rabbi was a proper term of address while speaking to a superior, in the second person, similar to a vocative case. While speaking about a superior, in the third person one could say ha-rav ("the Master") or rabbo ("his Master"). Later, the term evolved into a formal title for members of the Patriarchate. Thus, the title gained an irregular plural form: רַבָּנִים rabbanim ("rabbis"), and not רַבָּי rabbay ("my Masters").
The governments of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were based on a system that included the Jewish kings, the Jewish prophets, the legal authority of the high court of Jerusalem, the Great Sanhedrin, and the ritual authority of the priesthood. Members of the Sanhedrin had to receive their ordination (semicha) in an uninterrupted line of transmission from Moses, yet rather than being referred to as rabbis they were called priests or scribes, like Ezra, who is called in the Bible "Ezra, the priest, the scribe, a scribe of the words of God's commandments and of His statutes unto Israel." "Rabbi" as a religious title does not appear in the Hebrew Bible.[note 3]
All of the above personalities would have been expected to be steeped in the wisdom of the Torah and the commandments, which would have made them "rabbis" in the modern sense of the word. This is illustrated by a two-thousand-year-old teaching in the Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), which observed about King David,
One who learns from their companion a single chapter, a single halakha, a single verse, a single Torah statement, or even a single letter, must treat them with honor. For so we find with David King of Israel, who learned nothing from Ahitophel except two things, yet called him his teacher [Hebrew text: rabbo], his guide, his intimate, as it is said: 'You are a man of my measure, my guide, my intimate' (Psalm 55:14). One can derive from this the following: If David King of Israel who learned nothing from Ahitophel except for two things, called him his teacher, his guide, his intimate, one who learns from their companion a single chapter, a single halakha, a single verse, a single statement, or even a single letter, how much more must they treat them with honor. And honor is due only for Torah, as it is said: 'The wise shall inherit honor' (Proverbs 3:35), 'and the perfect shall inherit good' (Proverbs 28:10). And only Torah is truly good, as it is said: 'I have given you a good teaching, do not forsake My Torah' (Proverbs 4:2).— Ethics of the Fathers 6:3
With the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, the end of the Jewish monarchy, and the decline of the dual institutions of prophets and the priesthood, the focus of scholarly and spiritual leadership within the Jewish people shifted to the sages of the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshe Knesset HaGedolah). This assembly was composed of the earliest group of "rabbis" in the more modern sense of the word, in large part because they began the formulation and explication of what became known as Judaism's "Oral Law" (Torah SheBe'al Peh). This was eventually encoded and codified within the Mishnah and Talmud and subsequent rabbinical scholarship, leading to what is known as Rabbinic Judaism.
The title "Rabbi" was borne by the sages of ancient Israel, who were ordained by the Sanhedrin in accordance with the custom handed down by the elders. They were titled Ribbi and received authority to judge penal cases. Rab was the title of the Babylonian sages who taught in the Babylonian academies.
After the suppression of the Patriarchate and Sanhedrin by Theodosius II in 425, there was no more formal ordination in the strict sense. A recognised scholar could be called Rab or Hacham, like the Babylonian sages. The transmission of learning from master to disciple remained of tremendous importance, but there was no formal rabbinic qualification as such.
Maimonides ruled that every congregation is obliged to appoint a preacher and scholar to admonish the community and teach Torah, and the social institution he describes is the germ of the modern congregational rabbinate. In the fifteenth century in Central Europe, the custom grew up of licensing scholars with a diploma entitling them to be called Mori (my teacher). At the time this was objected to as hukkat ha-goy (imitating the ways of the Gentiles), as it was felt to resemble the conferring of doctorates in Christian universities. However, the system spread, and it is this diploma that is referred to as semicha (ordination) at the present day.
In 19th-century Germany and the United States, the duties of the rabbi in some respects became increasingly similar to the duties of other clergy, like the Protestant Christian minister, and the title "pulpit rabbis" appeared to describe this phenomenon. Sermons, pastoral counseling, representing the community to the outside, all increased in importance. Non-Orthodox rabbis, on a day-to-day business basis, now spend more time on these functions than they do teaching or answering questions on Jewish law and philosophy. Within the Modern Orthodox community, many rabbis still mainly deal with teaching and questions of Jewish law, but many are increasingly dealing with these same pastoral functions. Orthodox Judaism's National Council of Young Israel and Modern Orthodox Judaism's Rabbinical Council of America have set up supplemental pastoral training programs for their rabbis.
Traditionally, rabbis have never been an intermediary between God and humans. This idea was traditionally considered outside the bounds of Jewish theology. Unlike spiritual leaders in many other faiths, they are not considered to be imbued with special powers or abilities.
Rabbis serve the Jewish community. Hence their functions vary as the needs of the Jewish community vary over time and from place to place.
A dramatic change in rabbinic functions occurred with Jewish emancipation (18th-19th cents.). Tasks that were once the primary focus for rabbis, such as settling disputes by presiding over a Jewish court, became less prominent, while other tasks that were secondary, like delivering sermons, increased in importance.
In antiquity those who performed rabbinic functions, such as judging a case or teaching Torah to students, did not receive compensation for their services. Being a rabbi was not a full-time profession and those who served had other occupations to support themselves and their families, such as woodchopper, sandal-maker, carpenter, water-carrier, farmer and tanner. A respected scholar, Rabbi Zadok (1st cent. CE), had said "never to use the Torah as a spade for digging," and this was understood to mean never to use one's Torah knowledge for an inappropriate purpose, such as earning a fee. Still, as honored members of the community, Torah sages were allowed a series of privileges and exemptions that alleviated their financial burdens somewhat. These included such things as tax exemption from communal levies, marketplace priority (first in, first out regarding their trade), receiving personal services from their students (shimush talmedei hakhamim), silent business partnerships with wealthy merchants, and a substitute fee to replace their lost earnings when they had to leave work to perform a rabbinic function (sekhar battalah).
During the period of the Geonim (c. 650-1050 CE), opinions on compensation shifted. It was deemed inappropriate for the leaders of the Jewish community to appear in the marketplace as laborers or vendors of merchandise, and leading a Jewish community was becoming a full-time occupation. Under these conditions, the Geonim collected taxes and donations at home and abroad to fund their schools (yeshivot) and paid salaries to teachers, officials and judges of the Jewish community, whom they appointed. Moses Maimonides (Rambam, 1135-1204), who supported himself as a physician, reasserted the traditional view of offering rabbinic service to the Jewish community without compensation. It remains the ideal. But circumstances had changed. Jewish communities required full-time rabbis, and the rabbis themselves preferred to spend their days studying and teaching Torah rather than working at a secular trade.
By the fifteenth century it was the norm for Jewish communities to compensate their rabbis, although the rabbi's contract might well refer to a "suspension fee" (sekhar battalah) rather than a salary, as if he were relinquishing a salary from secular employment. The size of salaries varied, depending on the size of the community served, with rabbis in large cities being well-compensated while rabbis in small towns might receive a small stipend. Rabbis were able to supplement their rabbinic incomes by engaging in associated functions and accepting fees for them, like serving as the community's scribe, notary and archivist, teaching in the elementary school or yeshivah, publishing books, arbitrating civil litigations, or even serving as a matchmaker.
With the formation of rabbinical seminaries starting in the nineteenth century, the rabbinate experienced a degree of professionalization that is still underway. At the present time, an ordained graduate of a rabbinical seminary that is affiliated with one of the modern branches of Judaism, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or modern Orthodox, will find employment—whether as a congregational rabbi, teacher, chaplain, Hillel director, camp director, social worker or administrator—through the placement office of his or her seminary. Like any modern professional, he or she will negotiate the terms of employment with potential employers and sign a contract specifying duties, duration of service, salary, benefits, pension and the like. A rabbi's salary and benefits today tend to be similar to those of other modern professionals, such as lawyers and accountants, with similar levels of post-graduate education. It is also possible to engage in the rabbinate part-time, e.g. at a synagogue with a small membership; the rabbi's salary will be proportionate to the services rendered and he or she will likely have additional employment outside the synagogue.
Acceptance of rabbinic credentials involves both issues of practicality and principle. As a practical matter, communities and individuals typically tend to follow the authority of the rabbi they have chosen as their leader (called by some the mara d'atra) on issues of Jewish law. They may recognize that other rabbis have the same authority elsewhere, but for decisions and opinions important to them they will work through their own rabbi.
The rabbi derives authority from achievements within a meritocratic system. Rabbis' authority is neither nominal nor spiritual — it is based on credentials. Typically the rabbi receives an institutional stamp of approval. It is this authority that allows them to engage in the halakhic process and make legal prescriptions.
The same pattern is true within broader communities, ranging from Hasidic communities to rabbinical or congregational organizations: there will be a formal or de facto structure of rabbinic authority that is responsible for the members of the community. However, Hasidic communities do not have a mere rabbi: they have a Rebbe, who plays a similar role but is thought to have a special connection to God. The Rebbes' authority, then, is based on a spiritual connection to God and so they are venerated in a different way from rabbis.
According to the Talmud, it is a commandment (mitzvah) to honor a rabbi and a Torah scholar, along with the elderly, as it is written in Leviticus 19:32, "Rise up before the elderly, and honor the aged." One should stand in their presence and address them with respect. Kohanim (priests) are required to honor rabbis and Torah scholars like the general public. However, if one is more learned than the rabbi or the scholar there is no need to stand. The spouse of a Torah scholar must also be shown deference. It is also a commandment for teachers and rabbis to honor their students. Rabbis and Torah scholars, in order to ensure discipline within the Jewish community, have the authority to place individuals who insult them under a ban of excommunication.
A rabbinical student is awarded semikhah ("rabbinic ordination") after the completion of a learning program in a yeshiva or modern rabbinical seminary or under the guidance of an individual rabbi. The exact course of study varies by denomination, but most are in the range of 3–6 years. The programs all include study of Talmud, the codes of Jewish law and responsa to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the branch of Judaism. In addition to rabbinical literature, modern seminaries offer courses in pastoral subjects such as counseling, education, comparative religion and delivering sermons. Most rabbinical students will complete their studies in their mid-20s. There is no hierarchy and no central authority in Judaism that either supervises rabbinic education or records ordinations; each branch of Judaism regulates the ordination of the rabbis affiliated with it.
The most common formula used on a certificate of semikhah is Yore yore ("He may teach, he may teach", sometimes rendered as a question and answer, "May he teach? He may teach."). Most Rabbis hold this qualification; they are sometimes called a moreh le-hora'ah ("a teacher of rulings"). A more advanced form of semikhah is yadin yadin ("He may judge, he may judge" or "May he judge? He may judge."). This enables the recipient to serve as a judge on a rabbinical court and adjudicate cases of monetary law, among other responsibilities. The recipient of this ordination can be formally addressed as a dayan ("judge") and also retain the title of rabbi. Only a small percentage of rabbis earn the yadin yadin ordination. Although not strictly necessary, many Orthodox rabbis hold that a beth din (court of Jewish law) should be made up of dayanim with this ordination.
Receiving ordination has been a festive occasion accompanied by celebration since Talmudic times. According to the Talmud, when the rabbis ordained Rabbi Zera, they sang a bridal song in his honor: "No mascara, and no rouge, and no dyeing [of the hair] -- and [yet] a graceful gazelle." They also sang at the ordination of Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi: "Just like these, just like these, ordain for us!" The ceremony where ordination is conferred is known as Chag HaSemikhah, the festival of ordination. Today in most branches of Judaism, there is no laying on of hands; ordination is conferred as an academic degree with a diploma, signed by the officiating rabbis, often hand-written on parchment.
An Orthodox semikhah requires the successful completion of a program encompassing Jewish law and responsa in keeping with longstanding tradition. Orthodox rabbinical students work to gain knowledge in Talmud, Rishonim and Acharonim (early and late medieval commentators) and Jewish law. They study sections of the Shulchan Aruch (codified Jewish law) and its main commentaries that pertain to daily-life questions (such as the laws of keeping kosher, Shabbat, and the laws of family purity). Orthodox rabbis typically study at yeshivas, which are dedicated religious schools. Modern Orthodox rabbinical students, such as those at Yeshiva University, study some elements of modern theology or philosophy, as well as the classical rabbinic works on such subjects.
The entrance requirements for an Orthodox yeshiva include a strong background within Jewish law, liturgy, Talmudic study, and attendant languages (e.g., Hebrew, Aramaic and in some cases Yiddish). Since rabbinical studies typically flow from other yeshiva studies, those who seek a semichah are typically not required to have completed a university education. There are some exceptions to this rule, including Yeshiva University, which requires all rabbinical students to complete an undergraduate degree before entering the program and a Masters or equivalent before ordination.
On March 22, 2009, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Synagogue, held a formal ceremony officially giving Sara Hurwitz the title Maharat – Manhigah Halakhtit Ruchanit Toranit. However, some Orthodox leaders, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and the Agudath Israel of America, opposed this move and said it was not in keeping with Orthodoxy; in any case, Hurwitz was not given the title "rabbi". However, she is considered by some the first Orthodox woman rabbi. In February 2010, Avi Weiss announced that he was changing her title of Maharat to a more familiar-sounding title "Rabba". The goal of this shift was to clarify Hurwitz's position as a full member of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale rabbinic staff. The change was criticised by both Agudath Yisrael and the Rabbinical Council of America, who called the move "beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism". Indeed, women's ordination has come to be a focal point of division between YCT and the rest of the spectrum of Orthodoxy, as most of Orthodoxy does not view YCT as normative Orthodoxy. Weiss announced amidst criticism that the term "Rabba" would not be used anymore for his future students. However, in June 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat and in keeping with newer policies, was given the freedom to choose her own title, and she chose to be addressed as "Rabbi". In 2018, Dina Brawer, born in Italy but living in Britain, was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat; she chose the title Rabba.
In 2017 the Orthodox Union adopted a policy banning women from serving as clergy, from holding titles such as "rabbi", or from doing common clergy functions even without a title, in its congregations in the United States.
While some Haredi (including Hasidic) yeshivas (also known as "Talmudical/Rabbinical schools or academies") do grant official semichah ("ordination") to many students wishing to become rabbis, most of the students within the yeshivas engage in learning Torah or Talmud without the goal of becoming rabbis or holding any official positions.
The curriculum for obtaining semichah ("ordination") as rabbis for Haredi and Hasidic scholars is the same as described above for all Orthodox students wishing to obtain the official title of "Rabbi" and to be recognized as such.
Within the Hasidic world, the positions of spiritual leadership are dynastically transmitted within established families, usually from fathers to sons, while a small number of students obtain official ordination to become dayanim ("judges") on religious courts, poskim ("decisors" of Jewish law), as well as teachers in the Hasidic schools. The same is true for the non-Hasidic Litvish yeshivas that are controlled by dynastically transmitted rosh yeshivas and the majority of students will not become rabbis, even after many years of post-graduate kollel study.
Some yeshivas, such as Yeshivas Chafetz Chaim and Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, Maryland, may encourage their students to obtain semichah and mostly serve as rabbis who teach in other yeshivas or Hebrew day schools. Other yeshivas, such as Yeshiva Chaim Berlin (Brooklyn, New York) or the Mirrer Yeshiva (in Brooklyn and Jerusalem), do not have an official "semichah/rabbinical program" to train rabbis, but provide semichah on an "as needed" basis if and when one of their senior students is offered a rabbinical position but only with the approval of their rosh yeshivas.
Haredim will often prefer using Hebrew names for rabbinic titles based on older traditions, such as: Rav (denoting "[great] rabbi"), HaRav ("the [great] rabbi"), Moreinu HaRav ("our teacher the [great] rabbi"), Moreinu ("our teacher"), Moreinu VeRabeinu HaRav ("our teacher and our rabbi/master the [great] rabbi"), Moreinu VeRabeinu ("our teacher and our rabbi/master"), Rosh yeshiva ("[the] head [of the] yeshiva"), Rosh HaYeshiva ("head [of] the yeshiva"), "Mashgiach" (for Mashgiach ruchani) ("spiritual supervsor/guide"), Mora DeAsra ("teacher/decisor" [of] the/this place"), HaGaon ("the genius"), Rebbe ("[our/my] rabbi"), HaTzadik ("the righteous/saintly"), "ADMOR" ("Adoneinu Moreinu VeRabeinu") ("our master, our teacher and our rabbi/master") or often just plain Reb which is a shortened form of rebbe that can be used by, or applied to, any married Jewish male as the situation applies.
Note: A rebbetzin (a Yiddish usage common among Ashkenazim) or a rabbanit (in Hebrew and used among Sephardim) is the official "title" used for, or by, the wife of any Orthodox, Haredi, or Hasidic rabbi. Rebbetzin may also be used as the equivalent of Reb and is sometimes abbreviated as such as well.
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Conservative Judaism confers semikhah after the completion of a program in the codes of Jewish law and responsa in keeping with Jewish tradition. In addition to knowledge and mastery of the study of Talmud and halakhah, Conservative semikhah also requires that its rabbinical students receive intensive training in Tanakh, classical biblical commentaries, biblical criticism, Midrash, Kabbalah and Hasidut, the historical development of Judaism from antiquity to modernity, Jewish ethics, the halakhic methodology of Conservative responsa, classical and modern works of Jewish theology and philosophy, synagogue administration, pastoral care, chaplaincy, non-profit management, and navigating the modern world in a Jewish context.
Entrance requirements to Conservative rabbinical study centers include a background within Jewish law and liturgy, familiarity with rabbinic literature, Talmud, etc., ritual observance according to Conservative halakha, and the completion of an undergraduate university degree. In accordance with national collegiate accreditation requirements, Conservative rabbinical students earn a Master of Arts in Rabbinic Literature in addition to receiving semikhah. Ordination is granted at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, the Budapest University of Jewish Studies, the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, and the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires (Argentina). Most Conservative seminaries ordain women and openly LGBT people as rabbis and cantors.
In Reform Judaism rabbinic studies are mandated in pastoral care, the historical development of Judaism, academic biblical criticism, in addition to the study of traditional rabbinic texts. Rabbinical students also are required to gain practical rabbinic experience by working at a congregation as a rabbinic intern during each year of study from year one onwards.
In the United Kingdom the Reform and Liberal movements maintain Leo Baeck College for the training and ordination of rabbis, and in Germany the progressive Abraham Geiger College trains and ordains candidates for the rabbinate.
Reconstructionist Judaism has the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which is located in Pennsylvania and ordains women as well as men (and openly LGBT people) as rabbis and cantors. In 2015 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College voted to accept rabbinical students in interfaith relationships, making Reconstructionist Judaism the first type of Judaism to officially allow rabbis in relationships with non-Jewish partners.
Non-orthodox seminaries unaffiliated with main denominations
There are several possibilities for receiving rabbinic ordination in addition to seminaries maintained by the large Jewish denominations. These include seminaries maintained by smaller denominational movements, and nondenominational (also called "transdenominational" or "postdenominational") Jewish seminaries.