A rabbi is a spiritual leader or religious teacher in Judaism. One becomes a rabbi by being ordained by another rabbi, following a course of study of Jewish texts such as the Talmud.
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 title "rabbi" was first used in the 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.
The Hebrew word רבrav[ˈʁav], (irregular plural רבניםrabanim[ʁabaˈnim]), which literally means "great one" or "master", 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: רַבִּיrabbi[ˈʁabi], 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), and to the Syriac word ܪܒܝrabi. As a sign of great respect, some great rabbis are simply called "The Rav".
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: רַבָּנִיםrabbanim ("rabbis"), and not רַבָּיrabbay ("my Masters").
Sephardic and Yemenite Jews have historically pronounced this word רִבִּיribbī rather than "rabbi", and this pronunciation also appears in the Talmud and in Ashkenazi texts prior to the late 18th century. The modern Israeli pronunciation רַבִּיrabi, and the English word "rabbi", are derived from an 18th-century innovation in Ashkenazicprayer books, although this vocalization is also found in some ancient sources. Other variants are rəvī and, in Yiddish, rebbə.
A rabbi is not an occupation found in the Hebrew Bible, and ancient generations did not employ related titles such as Rabban, Rabbi, or Rav to describe either the Babylonian sages or the sages in Israel. For example, Hillel I and Shammai (the religious leaders of the early first century, had no rabbinic title prefixed to their names. 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 1] 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.
According to some, the title "rabbi" or "rabban" was first used after 70 CE to refer to Yochanan ben Zakkai and his students, and references in rabbinic texts and the New Testament to rabbis earlier in the 1st century are anachronisms or retroactive honorifics. Other scholars believe that the term "rabbi" was a well-known informal title by the beginning of the first century CE, and thus that the Jewish and Christian references to rabbis reflect the titles in fact used in this period.
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 2]
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 2000-year-old teaching in the Mishnah, 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).
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.
Rabbi instructing children in 2004
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 centuries.). 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.
Study and teaching
Rabbis have always been the main links in the chain of transmission (masorah) whereby knowledge of the Torah has been passed down through the generations. Learning from their teachers, adding new insights of their own (hidushim), and teaching the public have always been the primary functions of the rabbinate. Studying the Torah is a rabbi's lifelong undertaking that does not end with receiving ordination. A rabbi is expected to set aside time daily for study. A rabbi that does not constantly replenish his or her store of Torah learning will lack the knowledge, inspiration and mastery of Jewish law and traditions required to perform all other rabbinic functions.
Once acquired, Torah knowledge must be passed on, because it is the heritage of all Israel. Teaching by rabbis occurs in many venues—the schoolroom of course, elementary (heder), intermediate (yeshivah) and advanced (kollel), but also, especially in antiquity, in the vineyard, the marketplace and the disciple circle. In many synagogues, the rabbi will give a short daily class to those who attend morning or evening services. The sermon is another form of public education, often integrating Biblical passages with a contemporary ethical message, and no Jewish meal or celebration is complete without the rabbi's "d'var Torah"—a short explanation of Biblical verses related to the event.
Apart from face to face instruction, rabbis who are inclined to authorship have composed an extensive rabbinic literature, dealing with all aspects of the Jewish tradition—Bible commentaries, codes of law, responsa, mystical and ethical tracts, and collections of sermons are examples of common genres of rabbinic literature.
Prior to emancipation, rulers delegated discipline and dispute settlement within the Jewish community (kahal) to the Jewish community itself. If a dispute, domestic or commercial, a tort or a petty crime, involved only Jewish residents, then it could be settled in the town's Jewish court according to Jewish law. The town rabbi, with his extensive knowledge of Torah law (halakhah), was expected to preside as Head of the Court (av beth din), although lay assessors might join him in judgment. The judgments were enforced with fines and various degrees of communal excommunication when necessary.
After emancipation, Jews, as citizens of their countries, turned to civil courts for dispute resolution. Today rabbinical courts remain active under the auspices of each Jewish denomination for religious matters, such as conversion and divorce, and even, on a voluntary basis, for civil matters when the parties voluntarily elect to have the rabbinical judges serve as their arbitrators. In Israel there are rabbinical courts for matters of personal status.
During the centuries of Jewish self-government, some problems were considered regional or universal and could not be solved by a single rabbi acting alone. At these times rabbinical synods were convened for concerted action, calling together the prominent rabbis of the region to debate solutions and enact binding regulations (takkanot) for their communities. The regulations involved matters as diverse as dowries and matrimonial law, relations with gentiles, utilizing civil courts, education of orphans, anti-counterfeiting measures, and the hiring of schoolteachers. The most famous of these ordinances is ascribed to Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz (c. 960-1040), but was probably enacted in a rabbinic synod he convened c. 1000 CE. The ordinance, still in effect today, prohibits polygamy among Jews in the West.
In the modern era rabbis have enacted takkanot in the State of Israel, and the major Jewish movements, such as Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist, enact takkanot for their members. Today most congregational rabbis are members of a national rabbinic organization related to their movement[note 3] and also an association of local rabbis in their city. When these bodies debate local and national questions, they function in a manner that is similar to the rabbinic synods of the past.
The Jewish community requires a number of religious institutions for daily life, and it falls to rabbis, with their knowledge of Jewish law, to supervise them to ensure they operate in accordance with Jewish law. Examples would be Jewish slaughter (shekhita), Jewish dietary laws in shops and institutions (kashrut), the ritual bath (mikveh), the elementary school (heder), the Sabbath boundaries (eruvin), and the burial society (hevra kadisha). Traditionally this function fell to the town's rabbi. In the modern era, rabbis who specialize in this type of supervision will find full-time employment as a Mashgiach (supervisor of ritual law), and some of these functions are now performed by national organizations, such as the Orthodox Union which offers kosher certification.
All rabbis will answer questions about Jewish law and Jewish rituals from their congregants. In addition, members of the Jewish community have always turned to rabbis for advice on personal matters. This is conducted in private on a one-to-one basis. In the pre-modern era, rabbis had no special training in counseling. Instead they relied on their personal qualities of empathy and caring as well as their knowledge of halakhic requirements. These factors continue to inform rabbinic advising in the modern era. However modern rabbinical seminaries have instituted courses in psychology and pastoral counseling as part of the required rabbinic curriculum and they offer internships in counseling and social services for their rabbinical students. Among Hasidic Jews, turning to the rebbe for advice on personal matters is common.
Leading prayer services
Traditionally rabbis did not lead prayer services in the modern sense. There is no requirement that a rabbi be present for public prayer. The Jewish liturgy is fixed and printed in prayer books (siddurim), the vocal portions are chanted by a cantor (hazan) and the Torah portion is read by a trained reader (ba'al koreh). If the rabbi was present, he would be seated in front near the Ark and as a matter of respect, the pace at which the rabbi recited his prayers might set the pace of the service. If halakhic questions arose about the prayer service, the rabbi would answer them.
In modern synagogues, the rabbi takes a more active role in leading prayer services. In some synagogues, it is permitted for the rabbi to select passages from the prayer book for public reading, to omit some passages for brevity and to add special prayers to the service. The rabbi may lead the congregation in responsive reading, announce page numbers and comment on the liturgy from time to time. At Sabbath and holiday services, the congregational rabbi will deliver a sermon either right before or right after the Torah is read.
Celebrating life's events
Jewish law does not require the presence of a rabbi at a marriage, bar or bat mitzvah, circumcision, funeral, house of mourning, or unveiling of a monument at a cemetery. At the same time, Jewish law has prescribed requirements for each of these events and rituals. It therefore became customary for rabbis to be present and to lead the community in celebration and in mourning. In the modern era, it is virtually obligatory to have the rabbi's participation at these events, and ministering to the congregation in these settings has become a major aspect of the modern rabbinate.
Jewish divorce, which requires a rabbinical court (beth din), will always have rabbis in attendance.
The synagogue has been a place where charity is collected every weekday after services and then distributed to the needy before Sabbaths and holidays. It was not the rabbi who collected these sums; that task was assigned to the sexton, wardens of charity and charitable associations. But it was the rabbi's task to teach that charity (tzedakah) is a core Jewish value. The rabbi did this by preaching, teaching and by example—hosting poor out of town yeshiva students at the home table and offering Jewish travelers a kosher meal. Moses Maimonides formulated a ladder consisting of eight degrees of charity, starting with reluctant giving and ending with teaching someone a trade. Rabbi Israel Salanter (1809-1883) was once asked, "How do you provide for your spiritual needs?" He answered, "By providing for someone else's physical needs."
Today Jewish federations and foundations collect and distribute most charity within the Jewish community. However the rabbi retains the task of teaching the value of charity and often participates personally in appeals for the synagogue and for national and international causes.
The rabbi serves as a role model for the congregation by his or her conduct and deportment. Congregation members are keen observers of their rabbi's personality traits, family life, professional conduct, leisure activities and in general the way he or she treats others. Rabbis are aware of this and in the best case deliberately model their conduct so that it represents Jewish values to the community and to outsiders.
This aspect of the rabbinate, setting an example for the public, has a direct application in Jewish law. The way the greatest rabbis and Torah scholars conducted themselves can become a precedent in Jewish law, known as ma'aseh. For example, based on reports of what rabbis did in the Talmud, Moses Maimonides ruled that one engaged in public affairs should not break off his duties to recite certain prayers.
Outreach, also known as kiruv (bringing close)
Some rabbis program and guide activities designed to reach Jews who are unaffiliated with Judaism or lapsed in their observances. These include "Beginners' Services" where the Jewish liturgy is shortened and explained, and Shabbatons, where unaffiliated Jews are hosted by an observant family during Sabbath to experience the day in a religious setting and to learn about its rituals and customs. Chabad outreach sends many rabbis and their wives to be posted in Chabad Houses worldwide for the express purpose of reaching unaffiliated Jews.
Most rabbis will from time to time encounter someone who is not Jewish seeking information about Judaism or wishing to explore conversion to Judaism. This may happen when one member of a couple wishing to marry is seeking conversion or on other occasions when intermarriage is not involved. Based on the rabbi's training and assessment of the person's motivations and goals, the rabbi's approach may range from discouragement of the potential convert to mentoring and directing to a conversion class, in accordance with the policy on conversion of the rabbi's movement. One or three rabbis will serve on the beth din that performs a conversion. There are no rabbis serving as "Jewish missionaries" per se; there is no parallel in Judaism to the proselytizing of other faiths.
In periods when match-making was common, rabbis participated. Rabbis were well-acquainted with their community members and in particular with the young unmarried men attending their yeshivas. Parents did not hesitate to consult the rabbi for suitable matches. Today in Orthodox circles where socializing among the sexes is not common, this practice continues, and in all branches of Judaism, a rabbi who can help in this arena will not hesitate to do so.
The modern synagogue is a non-profit religious corporation run by a Board of Directors elected by the members. However, on a day-to-day basis, board members are not present. In most synagogues, it is the rabbi's task to administer the synagogue, supervise personnel, manage the physical plant, review (if not write) the newsletter, and interact with the brotherhood, the sisterhood and the youth organizations. Very large synagogues may employ a separate administrator or assistant rabbi to perform some or all of these functions.
Rabbis go into the field wherever members of the Jewish community may be found. This is most noticeable in the military services and on university campuses where some rabbis serve as Jewish chaplains on a full-time basis. All branches of the U. S. military have Jewish chaplains in their ranks and rabbis serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. The Hillel Foundation provides rabbis and Jewish services on 550 campuses  while Chabad operates Jewish centers with a rabbi near 150 college campuses. Local rabbis perform other chaplaincy functions on a part-time basis in hospitals, senior homes and prisons. Worthy of mention are the rabbis who accompanied Jews to concentration camps during the Nazi era; in dire circumstances they continued to provide rabbinic services, such as ritual observance, advice and counseling, to the victims of Nazi persecution, whenever it was possible to do so.
As leaders of the Jewish community, many rabbis devote a portion of their time to activities in the public arena, especially where Jewish interests are at stake. They dialogue with public officials and community groups, interact with school boards, advocate for and against legislation, engage in public debates, write newspaper columns, appear in the media and march in parades and demonstrations with others to show support for causes. The extent and tenor of these activities is dictated by the rabbi's own conscience and social and political leanings as informed by Jewish values.
Defending the faith
Rabbis are often called upon to defend the Jewish faith. During the Middle Ages, the Church arranged a series of public disputations between rabbis and priests that were intended to "disprove" the Jewish faith and condemn its religious texts, including the Talmud. The rabbis acquitted themselves well in debate with their superior understanding of Jewish texts and mass conversions to Christianity did not take place. However following these disputations local rulers at the Church's behest consigned cartloads of precious Hebrew manuscripts to the flames. Today rabbis are involved in countering the activities of missionaries aimed at converting Jews to other religions, explaining for example that one cannot be of the Jewish faith while believing in either the Christian God or the Christian messiah.
Some rabbis engage in interfaith dialogues with clergy of other faiths. They may host student groups from the religious schools of other faiths and participate in interfaith services. They will view these activities as a means of deepening understanding and reducing misconceptions in a diverse society. Other rabbis, especially those affiliated with Orthodox Judaism, will generally not participate in interfaith dialogues about theology. They will however engage in discussions with the clergy of other faiths about matters of mutual social concern.
There is a segment of the rabbinate that does not engage in rabbinic functions on a daily basis, except perhaps to study. Because Semikhah (Hebrew: "ordination) has the features of a post-graduate academic degree, some study to receive ordination but then follow a different career in secular business, education or the professions. These rabbis may be asked from time to time to perform a rabbinic function on an ad hoc and voluntary basis, e.g. to perform a marriage ceremony or answer a religious question. At other times, they act as regular members of the Jewish community. No negative attitudes attach to rabbis who do not practice the profession. They are likely admired in their communities for their decision to spend years engaged in advanced Torah study for its own sake.
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 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.
Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Judaism
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading Rabbinical authority for Orthodox Judaism of the second half of the twentieth century.
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).
See: Yeshiva#Talmud study and #Jewish law.
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). Specifically, students are expected to have acquired deep analytic skills, and breadth, in Talmud before commencing their rabbinic studies. At the same time, since rabbinical studies typically flow from other yeshiva studies, those who seek semichah are typically not required to have completed a university education. Exceptions exist, such as Yeshiva University, which requires all rabbinical students to complete an undergraduate degree before entering the program, and a Masters or equivalent before ordination.
Historically, women could not become Orthodox rabbis. Starting in 2009, some Modern Orthodox institutions began ordaining women with the title of "Maharat", and later with titles including "Rabbah" and "Rabbi". This has met with opposition from many other Orthodox institutions (see Women rabbis).
While some Haredi (including Hasidic) yeshivas (also known as "Talmudical/Rabbinical schools or academies") do grant official 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 ordination as rabbis for Haredi 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 "rabbi"), HaRav ("the rabbi"), Moreinu HaRav ("our teacher the rabbi"), Moreinu ("our teacher"), Moreinu VeRabeinu HaRav ("our teacher and our rabbi/master the 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.
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 accration requirements, Conservative rabbinical students earn a Master of Arts in Rabbinic Literature in addition to receiving ordination. 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.
All Reform seminaries ordain women and openly LGBT people as rabbis and cantors.
In Latin America, the Reform Movement maintains the Instituto Iberoamericano de Formación Rabinica Reformista (Iberoamerican Institute of Reform Rabbinical Formation), based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The IIFRR serves the Latin American Reform communities and has had online teaching as part of its curriculum, counting as teachers and supporting lecturers rabbis from the Reform communities throughout Latin America, North America, Israel and Europe.
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.
Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary offers a two-year online rabbinical ordination program. It trains men and women. Rabbinic educators are Conservative, Reform and Orthodox rabbis, but the semicha is postdenominational.
Jewish Renewal has an ordination program, ALEPH, but no central campus. ALEPH ordains women as well as men as rabbis and cantors. It also ordains openly LGBT people.
The Academy for Jewish Religion, in New York City, since 1956, and the unrelated Academy for Jewish Religion-California, in Los Angeles, since 2000, have been rabbinic (and cantorial) seminaries unaffiliated with any denomination or movement. Hebrew College, near Boston, includes a similarly unaffiliated rabbinic school, opened in the Fall of 2003. These seminaries are accepted by all non-Orthodox rabbis as valid rabbinical seminaries, and they all ordain women as well as men (and openly LGBT people) as rabbis and cantors. Orthodox Jews do not consider these ordinations valid, because these seminaries do not consider Orthodox halacha to be binding.
The Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute offers a training program, meets in weekly online classes via the Internet and ordains women as well as men as unaffiliated rabbis to meet the needs of unaffiliated Jews as well as interfaith couples and their families. It subscribes to Jewish Universalism, promoting religious tolerance and asserting that there are many paths to 'the One.' JSLI ordained its first class of rabbis in August 2011. It does ordain openly LGBT people.
The Rabbinical Seminary International is a rabbinical seminary in New York, which ordains women as well as men (and openly LGBT people) as rabbis; it does not ordain cantors. It is a transdenominational rabbinical seminary in the Neo-Hasidic tradition.
The Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ), an offshoot of the left-wing of Orthodoxy and the right-wing of Conservative Judaism, has a non-denominational seminary in New Jersey; the seminary is accepted by all non-Orthodox rabbis as a valid, traditional rabbinical seminary. The vast majority of Orthodox Jews do not recognize ordination from UTJ. However, it bridges Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, and Modern Orthodox synagogues have hired UTJ rabbis. Though the more mainstream body of Modern Orthodox Judaism, such as the Rabbinical Council of America, does not recognize ordination from UTJ. UTJ only ordains men as rabbis and cantors, and does not ordain openly LGBT men.
The Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf is a non-denominational rabbinical seminary in Illinois, which ordains women as well as men (and openly LGBT people) as rabbis, and does not ordain cantors of either sex.
Historically and until the present, recognition of a rabbi relates to a community's perception of the rabbi's competence to interpret Jewish law and act as a teacher on central matters within Judaism. More broadly speaking, it is also an issue of being a worthy successor to a sacred legacy.
As a result, there have always been greater or lesser disputes about the legitimacy and authority of rabbis. Historical examples include Samaritans and Karaites.
The divisions between the various religious branches within Judaism may have their most pronounced manifestation on whether rabbis from one movement recognize the legitimacy or the authority of rabbis in another.
As a general rule within Orthodoxy and among some in the Conservative movement, rabbis are reluctant to accept the authority of other rabbis whose Halakhic standards are not as strict as their own. In some cases, this leads to an outright rejection of even the legitimacy of other rabbis; in others, the more lenient rabbi may be recognized as a spiritual leader of a particular community but may not be accepted as a credible authority on Jewish law.
The Orthodox rabbinical establishment rejects the validity of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis on the grounds that their movements' teachings are in violation of traditional Jewish tenets. Some Modern Orthodox rabbis are respectful toward non-Orthodox rabbis and focus on commonalities even as they disagree on interpretation of some areas of Halakha (with Conservative rabbis) or the authority of Halakha (with Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis).
Conservative rabbis accept the legitimacy of Orthodox rabbis, though they are often critical of Orthodox positions. Although they would rarely look to Reform or Reconstructionist rabbis for Halakhic decisions, they accept the legitimacy of these rabbis' religious leadership.
Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, on the premise that all the main movements are legitimate expressions of Judaism, will accept the legitimacy of other rabbis' leadership, though will not accept their views on Jewish law, since Reform and Reconstructionists reject Halakha as binding.
These debates cause great problems for recognition of Jewish marriages, conversions, and other life decisions that are touched by Jewish law. Orthodox rabbis do not recognize conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis. Conservative rabbis recognise all conversions done according to Halakha. Finally, the North American Reform and Reconstructionists recognize patrilineality, under certain circumstances, as a valid claim towards Judaism, whereas Conservative and Orthodox maintain the position expressed in the Talmud and Codes that one can be a Jew only through matrilineality (born of a Jewish mother) or through conversion to Judaism.
^The title Ribbi too, came into vogue among those who received the laying on of hands at this period, as, for instance, Ribbi Zadok, Ribbi Eliezer ben Jacob, and others, and dates from the time of the disciples of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai downward. Now the order of these titles is as follows: Ribbi is greater than Rab; Rabban again, is greater than Ribbi; while the simple name is greater than Rabban. Besides the presidents of the Sanhedrin no one is called Rabban.
^The term rabbi as a religious title does appear in the New Testament.
^These include the Central Council of American Rabbis for Reform rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America for Orthodox rabbis, and the Rabbinical Assembly for Conservative rabbis.
^Heinz-Josef Fabry entry Rab in Theological dictionary of the Old Testament Vol.13 p273-5 ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, sv:Helmer Ringgren, Fabry 2004 p273 "RAB... is also well attested in Phoenician.9 Here too rab functions as a title; its specific meaning can be determined only by its relationship to other offices and functions.10 Aramaic in all its dialects makes copious use of this root."
^Fabry entry Rab in Theological dictionary of the Old Testament Volume 13 – Page 298 G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, Heinz-Josef Fabry – 2004 "There is no evidence to support an association, commonly cited in discussions of this usage.160 with the use of the title "Rabbi" ... Already suggested by M. Burrows and repeated by Carmignac, 584"
^Siddur Azor Eliyahu, p.18 (on "Ribbi Yishmael Omer" before Pesukei deZimra). Text with acronyms expanded according to its glossary (parentheses in original, square brackets added based on the glossary): רִבי ישמעאל. בחיריק - כך הוא בכל סידורים ישנים [הכוונה לסידורי אשכנז שנדפסו עד לסידור ר' שבתי סופר מפרעמישלא] (כמו שקלאוו תקמ"ח, דיהרנפורט תקמ"ח, תקנ"ב, תקס"ב, זולצבאך תקנ"ג), כך הוא בהגדה של פסח על ביאור הגר"א שהדפיס רמ"מ משקלאוו בהוראדנא בשנת תקס"ה (וכן הוא בסידורי הספרדים והתימנים). והשינוי לרַבי בפתח הוא משינויי ויעתר יצחק (ספר הגהות על סידור אשכנז וסידור תפילה מאת יצחק סאטאנוב, ברלין תקמ"ד) ובעקבותיו ניקד כן גם ר' וואלף היידנהיים (ויעב"ץ ניקד רְבי בשווא והאריך בזה בלוח ארש). בגמרא מופיע בריבי מלא (מכות ה' ב' חולין פ"ד ב' קל"ז א' שבת קט"ו א' ערובין נ"ג א') וחסר (חולין י"א ב', כ"ח א') ומשמע מכך שאמרו רִבי בחיריק, וגם מפירוש רבינו חננאל (פסחים נ"ב ב' וסוכה מ"ה א') משמע כן.
^Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament by Wigram, George V.; citing Matthew 26:25, Mark 9:5 and John 3:2 (among others)
^Catherine Hezser, The social structure of the rabbinic movement in Roman Palestine, 1997, page 59 "b – Rabbi as an Honorary Address ... Since Jesus was called "Rabbi" but did not conform to the traditional image of post-70 Jewish rabbis, and since pre-70 sages do not bear the title "Rabbi" in the Mishnah, 29 most scholars assume that the meaning and usage of the term "Rabbi" at the time of Jesus differed from the meaning which it acquired after the destruction of the Temple: in pre-70 times, "Rabbi" was used as an unofficial honorary address for any person held in high esteem; after 70 it was almost exclusively applied to ordained teachers of the Law."
^Hezser, Catherine (1997). The Social Structure of the Rabbinic Movement in Roman Palestine. Mohr Siebeck. pp. 64–. ISBN978-3-16-146797-4. Archived from the original on February 8, 2018. We suggest that the avoidance of the title "Rabbi" for pre-70 sages may have originated with the ors of the Mishnah. The ors attributed the title to some sages and not to others. The avoidance of the title for pre-70 sages may perhaps be seen as a deliberate program on the part of these ors who wanted to create the impression that the “rabbinic movement" began with R. Yochanan b. Zakkai and that the Yavnean "academy" was something new, a notion that is sometimes already implicitly or explicitly suggested by some of the traditions available to them. This notion is not diminished by the occasional claim to continuity with the past which was limited to individual teachers and institutions and served to legitimize rabbinic authority.