Rabbinate: The Rabbinate in Pre-Modern Judaism

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The rabbinate as an institution of intellectual, spiritual, and religious leadership developed relatively late in the history of the Jewish people. It is found neither in the Bible nor in other Jewish literature from the biblical period. In Mishnaic parlance, the term rav (which means "great" or "distinguished" in biblical Hebrew) connotes a teacher of students, and this is its primary usage during the Talmudic period in Babylonia. The derivative term rabbi (rebbe, my master) is an honorific used originally to address sages in the Land of Israel following the destruction of the Second Temple. The title "Rabban" was used at this time to designate singularly important scholar-leaders of the generation, such as the patriarch (Nasi). The term rabbinate is perhaps derived from this title, if not from a form of the titles rav or rabbi. Prior to the destruction, even the greatest sages (such as Hillel and Shammai) were referred to without any honorific title.

The references in the Gospels to Jesus as rabbi (which occur for the most part in John, and not at all in Luke) have been explained in different ways. Some have suggested that this is an anachronism that was applied after the destruction of the Second Temple. Others have argued that it was an unofficial title for a personal teacher or spiritual leader, a usage that was to be found in the pre-destruction period. Within Talmudic literature, the title "rabbi" sometimes referred to those with high standing in the community who were not religious authorities, such as individuals of great wealth or lay leaders.

Rabbinic ordination (semikhah or minnui ) had its origins in the biblical account of Moses placing his hands on Joshua. Ordination was conferred by sages in the Land of Israel (according to tradition, in an unbroken chain) through the period of the Second Temple, as a means of allowing or authorizing a worthy student to issue judicial rulings or to otherwise decide matters of Jewish law. After the destruction of the Temple, ordination was still conferred (despite attempts by the Roman Emperor Hadrian to prohibit it) at least until the suppression of the patriarchate in 425 ce.

The rabbis of the Talmudic period in both Israel and Babylonia were best known and venerated for their mastery of the Torah and for their devotion to its study and observance. They conducted themselves modestly and concerned themselves with communal mores and needs such as the proper burial of the dead, the support of widows and orphans, and the ability of the people to pursue livelihoods that were consonant with Jewish law. Some rabbis were appointed as parnasim, an office that charged them with various charity functions or more general communal leadership. Rabbis were approached with all kinds of religious, economic, and personal questions and requests, ranging from the nullification of oaths to the laws of inheritance, and from Sabbath observance to permitted contact with Gentiles, to note but a few.

There was a degree of tension between the rabbis and the less learned (ʾammei ha-aretz ), and religious laxity led to rebuke. Certain rabbis were well known and quite adept as preachers, although the extent of public sermons varied widely. At the same time, the tax exemptions and other privileges to which Torah scholars and rabbinic figures were entitled during this period could sometimes arouse the ire of the communities. Rabbinic arrogance, borne for the most part of a rabbi's superior knowledge of Torah scholarship, also manifested itself on occasion. Nonetheless, the strong and sustained influence of the rabbinate during the Talmudic period was directly linked to the fact that the majority of the larger Jewish community accepted its authority.

Established rabbis served their teachers in both the educational and personal spheres, and expected their students to do likewise. Rabbinic teachers encouraged the practice of praising their able disciples and attempted to moderate academic and personal disagreements. Debates in the academies of the Tannaim and Amoraim were often conducted in a spirited manner. Although deep intellectual clashes and sharp words sometimes ensued, students and teachers alike were bidden to conduct themselves with mutual friendship and respect.

Until medieval times, rabbis received no salaries for their religious and judicial services and leadership, in accordance with a Mishnaic dictum which prohibited the deriving of any income or benefit from the Torah. Rabbis typically had other occupations. Talmudic literature does endorse the concept of sekhar batalah, whereby a rabbi or judge was permitted to receive monetary compensation for his rabbinic services in lieu of the money that he could have earned had he been able to devote that time to his regular occupation.

At some point in the post-Talmudic period, the original chain of rabbinic ordination was broken. Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/81204) writes that this form of semikhah may possibly be restored just prior to the coming of the Messiah. Nonetheless, other means of licensing judges, masters, and religious heads of the communities were developed in both Palestine and Babylonia during the Geonic period. The scope of these forms of (quasi-) ordination was considered to be more limited than the original semikhah, and there were differing views about who had the right to grant them.

In the medieval Muslim world, the synagogue, study hall, and rabbinic court (beit din ) shared the same space and were interconnected. As such, the rabbis who served as the judges at the court and as the heads of the study halls also regulated synagogue life and ritual. Rabbis were involved with maintaining and disbursing the assets of the communities for charitable and other purposes, and even with quality of life issues. Throughout the Geonic period, the relationship between the local rabbinic authorities and the academies of the Geonim was governed by a series of understandings or regulations. In some instances rabbinic judges were appointed by the head of the Geonic academy, while in others they were appointed by the local community in which they served. Local rabbinic judges often reviewed their cases with the students who studied in their beit midrash and sought the counsel of the Geonim when they were unsure of the ruling at hand. Ordination in the Orient during the period of the Cairo geniza was viewed as a license to issue authoritative legal rulings and to act as a judge. The title haver was used to signify that a rabbinic scholar was ordained.

Rabbinic judges and courts did not only hear cases that involved litigation of economic matters and transactions. They also drafted legal documents for various kinds of transactions as well as bills of divorce, and they regulated and supervised ritual slaughter (shehitah ). Judges typically received a yearly fee from all the members of the community, although some of the services that they provided required additional payments. There was extensive discussion among medieval rabbinic authorities about whether litigants had to appear before the rabbinic court in their own area or whether one litigant could compel the other to have their case heard before a rabbinic court of greater repute in another locale.

In medieval Spain, ordination was regarded as a sign of rabbinic authority, based on the Talmudic tradition. Rabbi Judah ben Barzillai of Barcelona (c. 1100) describes the procedure of ordination in his day. The direct result of ordination (which is characterized by Judah as a mere vestige, zekher, of the earlier institution) was that its incumbent would henceforth bear the title Rabbi and that he would be initiated into the ranks of the scholars. In addition, individual rabbinic masters in Spain at this time ordained their outstanding disciples. The duties of the communal rabbi, however, were not always clearly defined, and there were regional differences. In Aragon, for example, rabbis served as preachers, teachers, cantors, ritual slaughterers, scribes, and judges, in addition to providing general religious guidance to the community.

A formulation of Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (13261408; Ribash [the leading Spanish rabbinic authority of his day]) suggests that the traditional semikhah was unknown in Spain by his day, though it was still in vogue (since at least the early twelfth century) in Franco-Germany. The communal rabbinate in medieval Spain had begun to become professionalized and salaried as early as the eleventh century, and it remained so, despite Maimonides' strong objections concerning direct payment for any rabbinic services (in accordance with his understanding of what had been practiced during the Talmudic period). Communal appointments of salaried academy heads, judges, and masters, based on the recommendation of established authorities, were regarded ipso facto as a form of rabbinic authorization.

In Ashkenazic communities, on the other hand, the formation of a professionalized rabbinate did not occur until at least the end of the thirteenth century (in the face of a spate of persecutions), due to the relative weakness of communal organization in these matters. This state of affairs was predicated on the ready availability of capable rabbinic scholars in Ashkenaz who could respond to a broad range of queries and halakic problems, and who could voluntarily undertake various regular rabbinic functions, such as supervision of ritual slaughter and the ritual bath (miqveh ) and the establishment of communal ʿeruvin. In any case, the delay in establishing a professionalized rabbinate in Ashkenaz meant that there was still a need for individual masters to give their students semikhah, as a means of testifying to the student's worthiness to serve as master and rabbi, a need that was not felt as keenly in Spain.

A protracted controversy erupted in the late fourteenth century (13861387), between Rabbi Yoanan Treves and Rabbi Meir ben Barukh of Vienna about the nature and extent of Ashkenazic semikhah (occasioning the formulation of Ribash just mentioned). A certain Rabbi Isaiah (who had been ordained by Rabbi Matatyah, father of Yoanan Treves and the de facto chief rabbi of northern France), arrogated for himself the right to appoint all rabbis in France, invalidating the bills of divorce (and halizah ) ceremonies executed by anyone who did not accept this condition. Rabbi Isaiah was supported in his action by Rabbi Meir ben Barukh of Vienna, an important rabbinic leader of the day. Yoanan of Treves, as the successor to his father's office, appealed to the rabbis of Catalonia (and especially to Ribash) for help.

Rabbi Meir of Vienna's apparent desire to oust Rabbi Yoanan, and to replace him from afar with a less-qualified scholar (Rabbi Isaiah), has been understood by some as a reaction to the intervention of the king of France, who had confirmed Rabbi Yoanan's appointment as his father's successor. In fact, however, royal confirmation (and interference) in rabbinic appointments was already common in Spain. It is more likely that this controversy centered on Rabbi Meir's plan to introduce a rabbinic diploma that would regulate the rabbinic office and its functions (in light of the deteriorating conditions following the Black Death), an innovation that Rabbi Yoanan resisted. As opposed to the prevalent practice in which a community appointed an able rabbinic figure to serve as its rabbi, Rabbi Meir held that the certification of ability granted by a teacher to his student should also regulate all commercial appointments. References to appointments of rabbis in Germany and Austria by leading rabbinic figures (without any discussion of the role of the community in the appointment) are found in the responsa of two fifteenth-century authorities, Jacob Weil and Israel Bruna.

The formalizing of semikhah in Ashkenaz from the late fourteenth century onward is marked by the exclusive use of the title Morenu ha-Rav (our teacher and rabbi) for one who had been ordained. This title gave the candidate the right to teach and to decide matters of Jewish law (heter horaʾah ). Writs of this ordination were issued in the middle of the fifteenth century by Israel Bruna and Israel Isserlein. These documents conveyed the formal title and status indicated, and also included the rights to open a yeshivah, to teach and to judge, and to deal with all matters of marriage, divorce, and halizah. As this form of semikhah spread, it became common for a candidate to receive such writs from more than one authority. Eventually, communal acceptance of a rabbi depended on his presenting a formal writ of semikhah. At the same time, both younger and more mature students and scholars in Germany and Austria who did not earn or receive documents of ordination were often called haverim (or even simply lomdim ) to signify that they were learned and accomplished to some degree, even though they did not hold the title of Morenu.

In the aftermath of the controversy between Rabbi Yoanan Treves and Rabbi Meir of Vienna, Rabbi Moses Mintz was moved to characterize the ordination of his day as a direct continuation of the original (Palestinian) institution of old. The controversy replayed itself in several respects in Valona, Italy, in the period following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Rabbi David Messer Leon's overarching authority, which was based on his Ashkenazic semikhah, was called into question by Spanish exiles. Messer Leon was supported in his position by Rabbi David ha-Kohen of Corfu. In Safed during the 1530s, Rabbi Jacob Berab ordained four of his most outstanding students (including Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the Shulhan Arukh ) with the aim of reestablishing the original semikhah as it had been granted by leading Torah scholars in the land of Israel. This development might have allowed for the reconstitution of the Sanhedrin as well, but Berab could not convince the rabbis of Jerusalem to support his initiative, and it ultimately failed.

First in Spainand later in France, Germany, Italy, and eastern Europerabbinic elections or appointments had to be confirmed by kings or other rulers, who often designated certain rabbinic figures as chief rabbis. These rabbis typically collected taxes on behalf of the crown and, at the same time, were granted by the crown to rule in both civil and criminal matters. In instances where lawsuits and other disputes remained unsettled by the local dayyanim, the crown itself sometimes reached out to leading scholars with whom it had a relationship. Thus, King Pedro III of Aragon (12761285), consulted several of the most outstanding Catalan halakhists including Rabbi Solomon ibn Adret (12351310; Rashba), and Rabbi Yom Tov Ashivili (Ritba). The well-known Polish rabbinic scholar and commentator Samuel Edels (15551631; Maharsha) wrote that "It would be fitting that the scholars and rabbis themselves elect a chief," but this was never achieved.

There were more than a few instances in which a candidate for rabbi or dayyan supported by the king was deemed unacceptable by the community. As in earlier periods, however, the rabbinate existed and functioned in many Jewish communities irrespective of any formal communal or external appointments. Questions in matters such as prayer customs, laws of kashrut, economic interactions, and marriage law received authoritative answers from rabbinic decisors, formally appointed or not. In eastern Europe, on the other hand, communities paid specially appointed yeshivah heads handsome salaries so that they could faithfully discharge their instructional duties and spend their remaining time completely immersed in Torah study.

Recorded decisions taken by Italian Jewish communities to appoint a communal rabbi are extant for Verona in 1539, and subsequently for Cremona and Padua. Nonetheless, a communal ordinance in Ferrara dated 1554 distinguishes (with respect to promulgating edicts) between "a rabbi of the city" (i.e., a rabbi who simply lived in that city) and "a rabbi appointed by the community." The earliest extant rabbinic contract (ketav rabbanut ), dated 1575, was established between Rabbi Todros (Theodorus) and the Jewish community of Friedberg (Hessen, Germany). One copy of the contract was given to the rabbi, the other was incorporated into the communal ledger (pinkas ). The contract specified the length of the appointment, the salary, and other financial benefits that were to be extended (including a fee for performing weddings and for executing marriage contracts and bills of divorce), as well as support for the students who studied with the rabbi, and other responsibilities and prerogatives. In addition to overseeing the procedures for marriage and divorce, and for appointing and supervising the ritual slaughterers, the rabbi directed the rabbinic court in the city that adjudicated all kinds of disputes. Although the rabbi was granted the power to issue various kinds of warnings (and bans) to members of the community, these had to be authorized by the communal board.

The salary specified in Rabbi Todros' contract appears rather inadequate, although it was supplemented by the fees indicated for other rabbinic services. The same held true for Italy in the late sixteenth century. Certain yeshivah heads were well paid, but many communal rabbis had other sources of income. Some Italian rabbis engaged in private tutoring in the homes of wealthy benefactors or in the writing of rabbinic works in honor of their patrons.

The rabbinic contract of Rabbi Asher Loeb (known as Sha'agat Aryeh, the title of his best-known work), who was appointed rabbi of Metz in 1765, provides a window into the nature of the rabbinate in Europe at the end of the early modern period. Rabbis were typically appointed (and reappointed) for fixed periods of time (between three and six years) and were not granted tenure. The community provided suitable housing for the rabbi and his family, exempted the rabbi from taxes, indemnified him from suits that might result from the performance of his duties, and provided for housing and support of his widow in the event that the rabbi passed away. The rabbi was the only one who could preach publicly, although he served primarily as the chief judge (av beit din ) of the community, and as the "judge of the widows and the keeper of the orphans," monitoring their needs and protecting their interests. The rabbi would also teach local yeshivah students (whom the community supported), as well as members of the community. The rabbi was to be honored by being called to the Torah on special Sabbaths throughout the year. In the case of Rabbi Asher Loeb, at least, the salary level appears to be rather satisfactory.

The rabbinate in the pre-modern period was characterized by an ill-defined hierarchy that culminated (at least in theory), with the leading scholars of the generation (gedolei ha-dor ). This lack of formal structure contributed to tensions between different groups of rabbinic figures (e.g., heads of academies and communal rabbis) and between rabbis and the lay leadership of the communities. At the same time, it enabled the rabbinate to overcome numerous challenges and obstacles in providing ritual, judicial, and educational services, as well as spiritual and intellectual leadership, for an ever-changing array of communities throughout the Jewish world.

See Also

Conservative Judaism; Hasidism; Orthodox Judaism; Reconstructionist Judaism; Reform Judaism; Synagogue; Yeshivah.


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Ephraim Kanarfogel (2005)

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Rabbinate: The Rabbinate in Pre-Modern Judaism