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Title of a Jewish religious teacher. The word is derived from the Hebrew rabbî (literally, "my master"), which in New Testament times was used only as a term of address. In time the force of the possessive adjective fell away and the word came to be used as title in the third person (cf. monsignor, literally "my elder").

In the New Testament. Although the term rabbi does not occur in the Old Testament, by the first Christian century it must have become common, for the Gospels frequently show the disciples of Jesus (Mt 26.25, 49; Mk9.5; 11.21; 14.45; Jn 1.49; 4.31; 9.2; 11.8) and other people (Jn 3.2; 6.25) addressing Him as "Rabbi" (αββί). In Jn 1.38 the term is explained as equivalent to διδάσκαλε (teacher), and this word is often used in the Gospels as a substitute for it in addressing Jesus (Mt 8.19;12.38; etc.; Mk 4.38; 9.17, 38; etc.; Lk 7.40; 9.38; etc.; Jn8.4). In Luke, where the word rabbi does not occur, Jesus is often addressed by another Greek equivalent πιστάτα (master: L.k 5.5; 8.24, 45; etc.). A heightened form of Semitic rab (chief, master) is Aramaic rabbān, Hebrew rabbôn, and the latter with the suffix -î (my) is rabbônî; Jesus is thus addressed in Mk 10.51; Jn 20.16 (usually written αββουνεί in the Greek MSS). Except in addressing Jesus, the term rabbi is used in the Gospels only once in addressing John the Baptist (Jn 3.26) and twice in Our Lord's condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees, who loved to be addressed by this title (Mt 23.78).

In Judaism. In current English, the word rabbi designates the spiritual leader of a Jewish community, Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. The office of rabbi reached its present development through stages that are not always easy to pinpoint in history. In Talmudic times (roughly from 200 b.c. to a.d. 500) there were two categories of rabbi, the rabbi teachers and the rabbi judges (dayyānîm ). The former qualified for their teaching function by their learning and ability to interpret. They did not receive a salary for their teaching activity, but supported themselves by the pursuit of some trade or profession. The rabbi judge was empowered by the Palestinian authorities on the basis of his understanding of the law and his personal integrity. He was paid a fee for the time he consumed in adjudicating a case. At times the function of teaching and judging merged in the person of one rabbi.

In the 12th century there emerged a type of rabbi comparable in position and function to the modern rabbi. To permit the rabbi to devote more time to rabbinical activity it became common to pay him for his services to the community and thereby free him from the need of working to sustain himself. In the wake of salaried rabbis it came to be customary to stipulate in writing the specific services that a given congregation anticipated from its rabbi. Among other things, a rabbi was expected to set up and preside over a community court, organize and supervise a lower school and an academy, and to participate in circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage, and other ceremonies. On occasion rabbis have been charged with the performance of civil functions; for example, the collection of taxes for the government. This usage eventually grew into the office of chief rabbi maintained at various times in certain countries of Europe, e.g., Spain, Portugal, and England. The chief rabbi was in effect a government appointee authorized to oversee the taxation of Jews and to represent their interests in the particular country.

In the past the training of a rabbi consisted almost exclusively in Jewish studies. However, from the 19th century on, chiefly under the influence of Leopold Zunz (17941886) and Abraham Geiger (181074) in Germany, considerably more stress has been put upon the secular sciences. This new emphasis on the profane disciplines was intensified in some instances by civil government; for certain European states, among them France and Austria, began to require a general education of rabbinical aspirants. The main rabbinical seminaries in the United States are the Yeshiva University, New York City (Orthodox), the Hebrew Theological Seminary, New York City (Conservative), and the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati (Reform).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 197475. h. erharter, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 8:957. e. l. dietrich, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 5:759. m. m. berman, The Role of the Rabbi (New York 1941). a. j. feldman, The Rabbi and His Early Ministry (New York 1941).

[j. c. turro]

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Title derived from rav, which in Hebrew denotes a master.

In its Talmudic origins, the mastery to which rabbi referred was a knowledge of both Scripture and Jewish oral tradition, including competence in interpreting law and recalling legends. Although at first the title was honorific, it evolved into something more formal. Always connected with a level of superior scholarship and familiarity with sacred Jewish texts, it has in contemporary times also come to signify general religious leadership.

Although the requirements for acquiring the title are not stipulated in Jewish law, semikha or ordinationin which another rabbi attests to the scholarship and learning of the initiatehas become an assumed prerequisite of being called rabbi. Throughout much of Jewish history, this process occurred in the context
of yeshivas; currently, it also takes place in theological seminaries.

Generally, civil authorities have recognized the right of the Jews to decide for themselves who may be called rabbi. This became more complicated after Jews ceased to speak with a single communal voice in the modern period, with the consequence that different groups of Jews set various criteria for deciding who would be entitled to be called rabbi. Thus in the modern period in the United States, for example, there are four types of rabbis being ordained, to represent the four different denominations: Reformed, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox. The Orthodox denomination, although it represents a minority of world Jewry, produces the most rabbis. Throughout Jewish history, the title has been granted only to men, but in the late twentieth century, non-Orthodox Jews began to ordain women as well. In Israel, only Orthodox rabbis are officially recognized, even though Reformed and Conservative rabbis are also there.

Two general categories of rabbis evolved in modern times: those who were primarily teachers, scholars, or issuers of legal decisions and remained in the academy of Jewish learning or sometimes served on a religious court, and those who ministered in the community and the synagogue. Rabbis have also become ratifiers of changes in personal status by officiating at weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage.

The rabbinate in modern Israel is unique in several important respects. Because there is no strict separation of religion and state in Israel, Halakhah is the governing law in all matters of personal status. Accordingly, the Orthodox rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law is dominant. In Israel, many rabbis exert their authority as officials of the state Ministry of Religion and the office of the Chief Rabbinate. Headed by two national chief rabbis elected by a board of fellow rabbis for a term of ten years, the Chief Rabbinate is divided into Ashkenazic and Sephardic wings. Ostensibly empowered to make all ultimate religious decisions, it also provides parish rabbis and chief rabbis for major municipal regions.

There are other rabbis in Israel, particularly within Hasidic and yeshiva circles. Unlike the state rabbis whose authority is official, these rabbis dominate by virtue of their charisma or perceived scholarship. The relatively few non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel have a limited following. During the last few decades, the chief rabbis and their subordinates have steadily lost moral authority. Today the majority of secular Israelis consider them irrelevant, and the minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews guide themselves by their own sages whom they endow with greater rabbinic authority. This leaves only a narrow band of Orthodox Jewsprimarily religious Zionistswho recognize the moral preeminence of the Chief Rabbinate. Nevertheless, the Chief Rabbinate is assured of influence as long as it continues to control matters of personal status and religious certification in the state.

see also halakhah.


Heilman, Samuel C. "Jewish Unity and Diversity: A Survey of American Rabbis and Rabbinical Students." In Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 13. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

samuel c. heilman

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Title derived from Aramaic rabban (Hebrew rav,) which means "master," given by Jews to scholars familiar with sacred Jewish texts. In modern times there are two general categories of rabbis: those who are primarily teachers and scholars or serve on religious courts, and those who minister in synagogues and in the community, officiating at religious rituals, weddings, and funerals. Traditionally the title has been given only to men, but in recent times non-Orthodox Jews have begun to ordain women. Different Jewish denominations have different criteria for determining who is entitled to be called a rabbi; in the United States at present, there are four types: Reform; Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox. Only Orthodox rabbis are officially recognized in Israel, although those of other denominations exist there.

In modern Israel, despite an ostensible commitment to religious freedom, halakhah (Jewish religious law) governs in all matters related to the personal status of citizens, and Orthodox rabbinical interpretation of that law is dominant. Only Orthodox rabbis have the legal authority to perform marriages, divorces, and conversions and thus to determine who is entitled to immigrate (although marriages and conversions performed by other rabbis outside Israel are recognized by the state). Many Israeli rabbis are officials of the state ministry of religion and the office of the chief rabbinate, which is divided into Ashkenazic and Sephardic wings. Though there are other rabbis in Israel, particularly within Hasidic and yeshiva circles, their authority is not official. During the last few decades, the official rabbis have steadily lost moral authority; secular Jews consider them irrelevant, while a small minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews, as well as a growing number of Reform (progressive) and Conservative (Masorti) Jews, look to their own rabbis for guidance.

SEE ALSO Ashkenazi; Bible; Halakhah; Haredi; Hasidism; Masorti; Orthodox Judaism; Reform Jew; Sephardim; Yeshiva.

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Rabbi, Rabbinate (Heb., ‘my master’). Hence ‘Rabbinic Judaism’. Jewish learned man who has received ordination (see SEMIKHAH). The term rabbi was not used as a title until the time of Hillel. In Talmudic times, this was not granted outside Erez Israel, so that the Babylonian sages bore the title of ‘Rav’. During this period rabbis were interpreters and expounders of the scriptures and oral law. It was not until the Middle Ages that a rabbi became the spiritual leader of a particular Jewish community. Originally rabbis were not paid. By the 14th cent. there is evidence of payment, not for teaching the law, but as compensation for loss of time taken up with rabbinical duties. In order to serve, the Ashkenazim in particular insisted that rabbis should have a diploma of Semikhah; and his duties were laid down in a letter of appointment (ketav rabbanut). As community leader, he was asked to give responsa on legal problems and ambiguities, and to serve in Jewish courts; later, in E. Europe, the office was frequently combined with that of ‘rosh yeshivah’ (head of the yeshivah). Nowadays the role of the rabbi varies from community to community. Among Reform congregations, he (and since 1972 possibly she) performs a function analogous to that of a Christian minister. The Orthodox rabbi has also taken on these duties, but has retained his role as legal consultant and interpreter of the written and oral law.

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rabbi [Heb.,=my master; my teacher], the title of a Jewish spiritual leader. The role of the rabbi has undergone a number of transformations. In the Talmudic period, rabbis were primarily teachers and interpreters of the Torah. They developed the liturgy, calendar, and other aspects of post-Temple Judaism. During the Middle Ages, the post of rabbi became a professional one, with the incumbent taking on the additional role of supervision of the religious life of the community. Rabbis of the Reform and Conservative movements pay considerable attention to pastoral and administrative duties, as well as preaching. Orthodox rabbis have to some extent also taken on such duties, although they continue to stress the traditional roles of judging, teaching, and studying Torah. The state of Israel has a dual chief rabbinate, representing the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. Rabbis have traditionally been male, but in the 20th cent. the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements began to ordain women.

See L. Ginzberg, Students, Scholars, and Saints (1985); J. R. Marcus and A. J. Peck, The American Rabbinate (1985).

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rab·bi / ˈrabˌī/ • n. (pl. -bis ) a Jewish scholar or teacher, esp. one who studies or teaches Jewish law. ∎  a person appointed as a Jewish religious leader. DERIVATIVES: rab·bin·ate / ˈrabənət; -ˌnāt/ n.

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rabbi Person qualified through study of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud to be the chief religious leader of a Jewish congregation and the person responsible for education and spiritual guidance. In some countries, such as the UK, Jews are led on a national basis by a chief rabbi. Modern Israel has a rabbinic council with two chief rabbis, one representing the Sephardim tradition, the other representing the Ashkenazim.

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rabbi (title of respect given to) a Jewish doctor of the law. XIV (raby). — OF. rab(b)i (mod. rabbin), ecclL. rabbi — Heb. rabbī my master, f. rabh master, with pronominal suffix.
So rabbin XVI. — F. rabbin or medL. rabbīnus. Hence rabbinic(al) XVII.

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rabbi a Jewish scholar or teacher, especially one who studies or teaches Jewish law. Recorded from late Old English, the word comes via ecclesiastical Latin and Greek from Hebrew rabbī ‘my master’.

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