See Semicha for article about "ordination" of rabbis.

Rabbi (Classical Hebrew רִבִּי ribbī; modern Ashkenazi and Israeli רַבִּי rabbī) in Judaism, means teacher, or more literally "great one". The word "Rabbi" is derived from the Hebrew root-word RaV, which in biblical Hebrew means "great" or "distinguished,". In the ancient Judean schools the sages were addressed as רִבִּי (Ribbi or Rebbi) — in recent centuries being re-vocalized to Rabbi ("my master"). This term of respectful address gradually came to be used as a title, the pronominal suffix "i" ("my") losing its significance with the frequent use of the term.

The role of rabbis within Jewish communities has been and continues to be multifaceted. In ancient times, Rabbi was a Hebrew term used as a title for those who were distinguished for learning, who were the authoritative teachers of the Law, or who were the appointed religious leaders of their community. Today rabbis are still responsible for teaching on matters of Jewish religion in general and law in particular; and are qualified to determine the applicability of Jewish law.

Rabbis often work as religious leaders. Synagogue rabbis typically speak on behalf of their communities on a wide range of issues, offer spiritual leadership for their congregation, and are usually involved in Jewish lifecycle events. Nevertheless, rabbis do not play any essential role in Jewish liturgy and ritual, and Jewish congregations can persist indefinitely without a rabbi assigned to them.

Some religious leaders such as Hasidic rebbes and Talmudic rosh yeshivas may not even have a formal semicha. In any event, the title is a credential, not a particular job.



Moses and Joshua: The first "rabbis"

By tradition Moses was the first rabbi of the Children of Israel. To this day he is known to most Jews as Moshe Rabbeinu ("Moses our Teacher"). Moses is also considered the greatest prophet in the Hebrew Bible. Moses passed his leadership on to Joshua as commanded by God in the Book of Numbers, where the subject of semicha ("laying [of hands]" or "ordination") is first mentioned in the Torah in Numbers 27:15-23 [1] (http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=4&CHAPTER=27) and Deuteronomy 34:9 [2] (http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=5&CHAPTER=34). By Jewish tradition, the authority granted by semicha has been passed from rabbi to rabbi from Moses to the present day.

Era of the Tanakh

The governments of the kingdoms of Israel and the Judah were based on a system of Jewish kings, prophets, the legal authority of the court of the Sanhedrin and the ritual authority of priesthood. Members of the Sanhedrin all had to have awarded their semicha ("ordination" derived in an uninterrupted line of transmission from Moses) yet they were more frequently referred to as judges (dayanim) akin to the Shoftim or "Judges" as in the Book of Judges, rather than rabbis.

All of the above personalities would have been expected and assumed to be steeped in the wisdom of the Torah and the commandments which would have made them "rabbis" to our way of thinking. This is illustrated by an important two thousand year old teaching in Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) of the Mishnah which cites King David by saying:

"He who learns from his fellowman a single chapter, a single halakha, a single verse, a single Torah statement, or even a single letter, must treat him with honor. For so we find with David King of Israel, who learned nothing from Ahitophel except two things, yet called him his teacher (in Hebrew rabbo -- meaning his "rabbi"), his guide, his intimate, as it is said: 'You are a man of my measure, my guide, my intimate' (Psalms 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 (i.e. rabbo -- his "rabbi"), his guide, his intimate, one who learns from his fellowman a single chapter, a single halakha, a single verse, a single statement, or even a single letter, how much more must he treat him 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' (Psalms 128:2)." (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 instititutions of prophets and the priesthood, the focus of scholarly and spiritual leadership within the Jewish people shifted to the sages of the Anshe Knesset HaGedolah ("Men of the Great Assembly"). This assembly was composed by the earliest "rabbis" as we know them for the last two thousand years, in large part because they began the formulation and explication of what became known as Judaism's Torah SheBe'al Peh ("The Oral Law"). This was eventually encoded and codified within the Mishnah and Talmud and subsequent rabbinical scholarship, producing what is known as "Rabbinical Judaism".

Sages as rabbis

The rabbi is not an occupation found in the Torah (i.e the Pentateuch) as such; the first time this word is mentioned is in the Mishnah.

The more ancient generations had no such titles as Rabban, Rabbi, or Rab , for either the Babylonian sages or the sages in Israel. This is evident from the fact that Hillel I, who came from Babylon, did not have the title Rabban prefixed to his name. Of the prophets, also, who were very eminent, it is simply said, "Haggai the prophet" etc., "Ezra did not come up from Babylon" etc., the title Rabban not being used. Indeed, this title is not met with earlier than the time of the patriarchate.

This title was first used of Rabban Gamaliel the elder, Rabban Simeon his son, and Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, all of whom were patriarchs or presidents of the Sanhedrin. The title Rabbi too, came into vogue among those who received the laying on of hands at this period, as, for instance, Rabbi Zadok, Rabbi 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: Rabbi is greater than Rab; Rabban again, is greater than Rabbi; while the simple name is greater than Rabban. Besides the presidents of the Sanhedrin no one is called Rabban.

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 Rabbi and received authority to judge penal cases. Rab was the title of the Babylonian sages who received their ordination in colleges.

The basic form of the rabbi developed in the Pharisaic and Talmudic era.

The role of the rabbi in the last 200 years

In 19th century Germany and the United States, the duties of the rabbi became increasingly influenced by the duties of the Protestant Christian Minister. 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 traditionally non-rabbinic functions than they do teaching, or answering questions on Jewish law and philosophy. Within the Modern Orthodox community, rabbis still mainly deal with teaching and questions of Jewish law, but are increasingly dealing with these same pastoral functions. Orthodox Judaism's National Council of Young Israel and the 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 man. This idea was traditionally considered outside the bounds of Jewish theology.

Women and the rabbinical credential

Jewish tradition and law does not presume that women have more or less of an aptitude or moral standing required of rabbis. However, it has been the longstanding practice that only men become rabbis. This practice is continued to this day within the Orthodox community but has been revised within non-Orthodox organizations, including the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, where women are routinely granted semicha on an equal basis with men.

The issue of allowing women to become rabbis is not under active debate within the Orthodox community, though there is widespread agreement that women may often be consulted on matters of Jewish religious law. There are reports that a small number of Orthodox yeshivas have unofficially granted semicha to women, but the prevailing consensus among Orthodox leaders and a small number of Conservative communities is that it is not appropriate for women to become rabbis.

The idea that women could eventually be ordained as rabbis sparks widespread opposition among the Orthodox rabbinate. Norman Lamm, one of the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, totally opposes giving semicha to women. "It shakes the boundaries of tradition, and I would never allow it." (Helmreich, 1997) Writing in an article in the Jewish Observer, Moshe Y'chiail Friedman states that Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from being given semicha and serving as rabbis. He holds that the trend towards this goal is driven by sociology, and not halakha ("Jewish law".)

On the other hand, several efforts are underway within Orthodox communities to include qualified women in activities traditionally limited to rabbis:

  • Historically, the first woman ordained and working as a rabbi was Regina Jonas, active in the first half of the 20th century in Germany and through the Holocaust.
  • In the United States, Modern Orthodox rabbis Avi Weiss and Saul Berman created an advanced educational institute for women called Torat Miriam. They do not claim that the graduates of this institute are rabbis, but that the long term goal is to have women "work on a professional level in the synagogue," he said. (Helmreich, 1997)
  • Rabbi Aryeh Strikovski (Mahanayim Yeshiva and Pardes Institute) worked in the 1990s with Rabbi Avraham Shapira (then a co-Chief rabbi of Israel) to initiate the program for training Orthodox women as halakhic Toanot ("advocates") in rabbinic courts. They have since trained nearly seventy women. Strikovski states that "The knowledge one requires to become a court advocate is more than a regular ordination, and now to pass certification is much more difficult than to get ordination." The use of Toanot is not restricted to any one segment of Orthodoxy; In Israel they have worked with Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews.
  • In Israel a growing number of Orthodox women are being trained as yoatzot halachah, who serve many in the Israeli Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.
  • Orthodox women may study the laws of family purity at the same level of detail that Orthodox males do at Nishmat, the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women. The purpose is for them to be able to act as halakhic advisors for other women, a role that traditionally was limited to male rabbis. This course of study is overseen by Rabbi Yaakov Varhaftig.
  • Rahel Berkovits, an Orthodox Talmud teacher at Jerusalem's Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, states that as a result of such changes in Haredi and Modern Orthodox Judaism, "Orthodox women found and oversee prayer communities, argue cases in rabbinic courts, advise on halachic issues, and dominate in social work activities that are all very associated with the role a rabbi performs, even though these women do not have the official title of rabbi."

Becoming a rabbi

Traditionally, a man obtains semicha ("rabbinic ordination") after the completion of an arduous learning program in the codes of Jewish law and responsa.

The most general form of semicha is Yorei yorei ("he shall teach"). Most Orthodox rabbis hold this qualification; they are sometimes called a moreh hora'ah ("a teacher of lessons"). A more advanced form of semicha is Yadin yadin ("he shall judge"). This enables the recipient to adjudicate cases of monetary law, amongst other responsibilities. He is addressed as a dayan ("judge"). Few rabbis earn this ordination. Although not strictly necessary, many Orthodox rabbis hold that a beth din (court of Jewish law) should be made up of dayanim.

Orthodox Judaism

An Orthodox semicha requires the successful completion of a rigorous 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 Shulkhan Arukh (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 sex and family purity. Orthodox rabbis typically study at yeshivas, which are dedicated religious schools. Modern Orthodox rabbinical students such as 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 semicha are typically not required to have completed a university education.

Conservative and Masorti Judaism

Conservative Judaism holds that one may obtain rabbinic ordination after the completion of a rigorous program in the codes of Jewish law and responsa in keeping with Jewish tradition. It adds to these requirements by adding the study of: the Hebrew Bible, Mishna and Talmud, the Midrash literature, Jewish ethics and lore, the codes of Jewish law, the Conservative responsa literature, both traditional and modern Jewish works on theology and philosophy.

Conservative Judaism has less stringent study requirements for Talmud and responsa study compared to Orthodoxy but adds following subjects as requirements for rabbinic ordination: pastoral care and psychology, the historical development of Judaism; and academic biblical criticism.

Entrance requirements to a Conservative rabbinical study include a strong background within Jewish law and liturgy, knowledge of Hebrew, familiarity with rabbinic literature, Talmud, etc., and the completion of an undergraduate university degree. Rabbinical students usually earn a secular degree (e.g., Master of Hebrew Letters) upon graduation.

Conservative seminaries are now ordaining female rabbis and training female cantors. There are still traditional conservative congregations (many found in Ontario, Canada) that resist this movement.

Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism and Reform Judaism do not maintain the traditional requirements for study. In the four years of study it takes to become a Reform or Reconstructionist rabbi, they only learn the amount of Jewish law, Talmud, and responsa that Orthodox rabbis generally learn within their first year. Emphasis is placed not on Jewish law, but rather on sociology, cultural studies, and modern Jewish philosophy.

The Reform or Reconstructionist rabbinical seminaries hold that one must first earn a bachelor's degree before entering the rabbinate. In addition studies are mandated in pastoral care and psychology, the historical development of Judaism; and academic biblical criticism.

Both men and women may be rabbis or cantors.

Acceptance of who is a rabbi

Orthodox Judaism generally rejects the validity of non-Orthodox rabbis. Some within Modern Orthodoxy are willing to accept that non-Orthodox rabbis have legitimacy (e.g. Norman Lamm), although to what extent is argued.

All non-Orthodox forms of Judaism generally accept the legitimacy of each other's rabbis, as well as accept the legitimacy of Orthodox rabbis.

Rabbinic seminaries unrelated to the major Jewish 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.

  • The Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ), an offshoot of the right-wing of Conservative Judaism and the left-wing of Orthodoxy, has a seminary in New Jersey; the seminary is accepted by all non-Orthodox rabbis as a valid, traditional rabbinical seminary. Orthodox Jews are divided on the legitimacy of this seminary, as they usually view all non-Orthodox seminaries as heretical; this seminary, however, bridges Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, and some Orthodox synagogues have hired UTJ rabbis.
  • The Jewish Renewal movement has an ordination program, ALEPH, but no central campus. The ordination of rabbis by this program is highly controversial. Many rabbis with Conservative and Reform Judaism, and some within Reconstructionist Judaism, reject this program as insufficiently rigorous. They advocate that their rabbis not be accepted in professional rabbinic organizations. The Rabbinical Assembly, the body of Conservative rabbis, rejects the validity of this program. All Orthodox groups reject the validity of this organization.
  • The Academy for Jewish Religion, in New York City, has, since 1956, been a rabbinic (and cantorial) seminary not affiliated 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. Orthodox Jews are divided on the legitimacy of these seminaries; most consider their ordinations invalid.
  • Shema Yisrael Torah Network is an organization that helps Jews from all over the world learn Halacha from the most basic levels up until rabbinical smicha exams that are performed by the Chief Rabbinical office in Jerusalem, Israel

Becoming a rabbi: To have or not to have ordination

There is no formal requirement to have semicha in order to be known as a "rabbi". Haredi Judaism and Hasidic Judaism hold that becoming a rabbi in and of itself is not important. Rather, they encourage their students and disciples within the yeshivas they control to become great scholars, so that the students will have an innate knowledge of the Talmud, Halakha, the Tanakh and of course the Torah, combined with a commitment to the highest standards of the Shulkhan Arukh ("The Code of Jewish Law") that should be the basis and guide for all Jewish life from cradle to grave.

See also



  • Rabbi, article in the Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing

Women in Orthodoxy

  • Debra Nussbau, Cohen, Jewish tradition vs. the modern-day female, March 17, 2000, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
  • Lauren Gelfond Feldinger, The Next Feminist Revolution, The Jerusalem Post, March 17, 2005
  • Moshe Y'chiail Freidman, Women in the Rabbinate, Jewish Observer, 17:8, 1984, 28-29.
  • Laurie Goodstein, Causing a Stir, 2 Synagogues Hire Women to Aid Rabbis, February 6, 1998, New York Times
  • Jeff Helmreich, Orthodox women moving toward religious leadership, Friday June 6, 1997, Long Island Jewish World
  • Marilyn Henry, Orthodox women crossing threshold into synagogue, Jerusalem Post Service, May 15, 1998
  • Jonathan Mark, Women Take Giant Step In Orthodox Community: Prominent Manhattan shul hires Ďcongregational interní for wide-ranging spiritual duties, The Jewish Week Dec. 19, 1997
  • Emanuel Rackman, (Women as Rabbis) Suggestions for Alternatives, Judaism , Vol.33,No.1, 1990, p.66-69.

External links

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