The word 'rabbi' derives from the Semitic root R-B-B, in Hebrew script רַב rav, which in biblical Aramaic means "great" in many senses, including "revered", but appears primarily as a prefix in construct forms. Although the usage rabbim "many" (as 1 Kings 18:25, הָרַבִּים) "the majority, the multitude" occurs for the assembly of the community in the Dead Sea scrolls there is no evidence to support an association with the later title "Rabbi." The root is cognate to Arabic ربّ rabb, meaning "lord" (generally used when talking about God, but also about temporal lords). As a sign of great respect, some great rabbis are simply called "The Rav".
Rabbi is not an occupation found in the Hebrew Bible, and ancient generations did not employ related titles such as Rabban, Ribbi, or Rab to describe either the Babylonian sages or the sages in Israel. The titles "Rabban" and "Rabbi" are first mentioned in the Mishnah (c. 200 CE). 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. The title "Rabbi" occurs (in Greek transliteration ῥαββί rhabbi) in the books of Matthew, Mark, and John in the New Testament, where it is used in reference to "Scribes and Pharisees" as well as to Jesus.
Sephardic and Yemenite Jews pronounce this word רִבִּי ribbī ; the modern Israeli pronunciation רַבִּי rabi is derived from an 18th-century innovation in Ashkenazic prayer books, although this vocalization is also found in some ancient sources. Other variants are rəvī and, in Yiddish, rebbə. The word could be compared to the Syriac word ܪܒܝ rabi.
In ancient Hebrew, rabbi was a proper term of address while speaking to a superior, in the second person, similar to a vocative case. While speaking about a superior, in the third person one could say ha-rav ("the Master") or rabbo ("his Master"). Later, the term evolved into a formal title for members of the Patriarchate. Thus, the title gained an irregular plural form: רַבָּנִים rabbanim ("rabbis"), and not רַבָּי rabbay ("my Masters").
The governments of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were based on a system that included the Jewish kings, the Jewish prophets, the legal authority of the high court of Jerusalem, the Great Sanhedrin, and the ritual authority of the priesthood. Members of the Sanhedrin had to receive their ordination (semicha) in an uninterrupted line of transmission from Moses, yet rather than being referred to as rabbis they were called priests or scribes, like Ezra, who is called in the Bible "Ezra, the priest, the scribe, a scribe of the words of God's commandments and of His statutes unto Israel." "Rabbi" as a religious title does not appear in the Hebrew Bible.
All of the above personalities would have been expected to be steeped in the wisdom of the Torah and the commandments, which would have made them "rabbis" in the modern sense of the word. This is illustrated by a two-thousand-year-old teaching in the Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), which observed about King David,
"One who learns from their companion a single chapter, a single halakha, a single verse, a single Torah statement, or even a single letter, must treat them with honor. For so we find with David King of Israel, who learned nothing from Ahitophel except two things, yet called him his teacher [Hebrew text: rabbo
], his guide, his intimate, as it is said: 'You are a man of my measure, my guide, my intimate' (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, his guide, his intimate, one who learns from their companion a single chapter, a single halakha, a single verse, a single statement, or even a single letter, how much more must they treat them with honor. And honor is due only for Torah, as it is said: 'The wise shall inherit honor' (Proverbs 3:35), 'and the perfect shall inherit good' (Proverbs 28:10). And only Torah is truly good, as it is said: 'I have given you a good teaching, do not forsake My Torah' (Proverbs 4:2)." (Ethics of the Fathers
With the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, the end of the Jewish monarchy, and the decline of the dual institutions of prophets and the priesthood, the focus of scholarly and spiritual leadership within the Jewish people shifted to the sages of the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshe Knesset HaGedolah). This assembly was composed of the earliest group of "rabbis" in the more modern sense of the word, in large part because they began the formulation and explication of what became known as Judaism's "Oral Law" (Torah SheBe'al Peh). This was eventually encoded and codified within the Mishnah and Talmud and subsequent rabbinical scholarship, leading to what is known as Rabbinic Judaism.
The title "Rabbi" was borne by the sages of ancient Israel, who were ordained by the Sanhedrin in accordance with the custom handed down by the elders. They were titled Ribbi and received authority to judge penal cases. Rab was the title of the Babylonian sages who taught in the Babylonian academies.
After the suppression of the Patriarchate and Sanhedrin by Theodosius II in 425, there was no more formal ordination in the strict sense. A recognised scholar could be called Rab or Hacham, like the Babylonian sages. The transmission of learning from master to disciple remained of tremendous importance, but there was no formal rabbinic qualification as such.
Maimonides ruled that every congregation is obliged to appoint a preacher and scholar to admonish the community and teach Torah, and the social institution he describes is the germ of the modern congregational rabbinate. In the fifteenth century in Central Europe, the custom grew up of licensing scholars with a diploma entitling them to be called Mori (my teacher). At the time this was objected to as hukkat ha-goy (imitating the ways of the Gentiles), as it was felt to resemble the conferring of doctorates in Christian universities. However, the system spread, and it is this diploma that is referred to as semicha (ordination) at the present day.
In 19th-century Germany and the United States, the duties of the rabbi in some respects became increasingly similar to the duties of other clergy, like the Protestant Christian minister, and the title "pulpit rabbis" appeared to describe this phenomenon. Sermons, pastoral counseling, representing the community to the outside, all increased in importance. Non-Orthodox rabbis, on a day-to-day business basis, now spend more time on these functions than they do teaching or answering questions on Jewish law and philosophy. Within the Modern Orthodox community, many rabbis still mainly deal with teaching and questions of Jewish law, but many are increasingly dealing with these same pastoral functions. Orthodox Judaism's National Council of Young Israel and Modern Orthodox Judaism's Rabbinical Council of America have set up supplemental pastoral training programs for their rabbis.
Traditionally, rabbis have never been an intermediary between God and humans. This idea was traditionally considered outside the bounds of Jewish theology. Unlike spiritual leaders in many other faiths, they are not considered to be imbued with special powers or abilities.
Rabbis serve the Jewish community. Hence their functions vary as the needs of the Jewish community vary over time and from place to place.
A dramatic change in rabbinic functions occurred with Jewish emancipation (18th-19th cents.). Tasks that were once the primary focus for rabbis, such as settling disputes by presiding over a Jewish court, became less prominent, while other tasks that were secondary, like delivering sermons, increased in importance.
1. 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.
2. Judging. 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.
3. Legislating. 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 C.E. 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 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.
4. Religious supervision. 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 (superviser of ritual law), and some of these functions are now performed by national organizations, such as the Orthodox Union which offers kosher certification.
5. Pastoral counseling. 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.
6. 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 kriah). 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.
7. 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.
8. Charitable works. 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.
9. Role-modeling. 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.
10. Outreach. 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, known as kiruv (bringing close), finds many rabbis and their spouses posted in Chabad Houses worldwide for the express purpose of reaching unaffiliated Jews.
11. Conversions. 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.
12. Match-making. 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.
13. Synagogue administration. 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.
15. Public affairs. 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.
16. 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.
17. Interfaith activities. 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.
18. Non-practicing rabbis. There is a segment of the rabbinate that does not engage in rabbinic functions on a daily basis, except perhaps to study. Because ordination (semicha) 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. C.E.), 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 C.E.), 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 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.
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 semicha ("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-20's. 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 semicha is Yore yore ("He may teach, he may teach," sometimes rendered as a question and answer, "May he teach? He may teach."). Most Rabbis hold this qualification; they are sometimes called a moreh le-hora'ah ("a teacher of rulings"). A more advanced form of semicha 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 HaSemicha, the festival of ordination. Today in most branches of Judaism, there is no laying on of hands; ordination is conferred as an academic degree with a diploma, signed by the officiating rabbis, often hand-written on parchment.
An Orthodox semicha requires the successful completion of a program encompassing Jewish law and responsa in keeping with longstanding tradition. Orthodox rabbinical students work to gain knowledge in Talmud, Rishonim and Acharonim (early and late medieval commentators) and Jewish law. They study sections of the Shulchan Aruch (codified Jewish law) and its main commentaries that pertain to daily-life questions (such as the laws of keeping kosher, Shabbat, and the laws of family purity). Orthodox rabbis typically study at yeshivas, which are dedicated religious schools. Modern Orthodox rabbinical students, such as those at Yeshiva University, study some elements of modern theology or philosophy, as well as the classical rabbinic works on such subjects.
The entrance requirements for an Orthodox yeshiva include a strong background within Jewish law, liturgy, Talmudic study, and attendant languages (e.g., Hebrew, Aramaic and in some cases Yiddish). Since rabbinical studies typically flow from other yeshiva studies, those who seek a semicha are typically not required to have completed a university education. There are some exceptions to this rule, including Yeshiva University, which requires all rabbinical students to complete an undergraduate degree before entering the program and a Masters or equivalent before ordination.
On March 22, 2009, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Synagogue, held a formal ceremony officially giving Sara Hurwitz the title Maharat – Manhigah Halakhtit Ruchanit Toranit. However, some Orthodox leaders, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and the Agudath Israel of America, opposed this move and said it was not in keeping with Orthodoxy; in any case, Hurwitz was not given the title "rabbi". However, in June 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat and in keeping with newer policies, was given the freedom to choose her own title, and she chose to be addressed as "Rabbi". However, this has come to be a focal point of division between YCT and the rest of the spectrum of Orthodoxy, as most of Orthodoxy does not view YCT as normative Orthodoxy. In 2017 the Orthodox Union adopted a policy banning women from serving as clergy, from holding titles such as "rabbi", or from doing common clergy functions even without a title, in its congregations in the United States.
While some Haredi (including Hasidic) yeshivas (also known as "Talmudical/Rabbinical schools or academies") do grant official semicha ("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 semicha ("ordination") as rabbis for Haredi and Hasidic scholars is the same as described above for all Orthodox students wishing to obtain the official title of "Rabbi" and to be recognized as such.
Within the Hasidic world, the positions of spiritual leadership are dynastically transmitted within established families, usually from fathers to sons, while a small number of students obtain official ordination to become dayanim ("judges") on religious courts, poskim ("decisors" of Jewish law), as well as teachers in the Hasidic schools. The same is true for the non-Hasidic Litvish yeshivas that are controlled by dynastically transmitted rosh yeshivas and the majority of students will not become rabbis, even after many years of post-graduate kollel study.
Some yeshivas, such as Yeshivas Chafetz Chaim and Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, Maryland, may encourage their students to obtain semicha 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 "semicha/rabbinical program" to train rabbis, but provide semicha on an "as needed" basis if and when one of their senior students is offered a rabbinical position but only with the approval of their rosh yeshivas.
Haredim will often prefer using Hebrew names for rabbinic titles based on older traditions, such as: Rav (denoting "[great] rabbi"), HaRav ("the [great] rabbi"), Moreinu HaRav ("our teacher the [great] rabbi"), Moreinu ("our teacher"), Moreinu VeRabeinu HaRav ("our teacher and our rabbi/master the [great] rabbi"), Moreinu VeRabeinu ("our teacher and our rabbi/master"), Rosh yeshiva ("[the] head [of the] yeshiva"), Rosh HaYeshiva ("head [of] the yeshiva"), "Mashgiach" (for Mashgiach ruchani) ("spiritual supervsor/guide"), Mora DeAsra ("teacher/decisor" [of] the/this place"), HaGaon ("the genius"), Rebbe ("[our/my] rabbi"), HaTzadik ("the righteous/saintly"), "ADMOR" ("Adoneinu Moreinu VeRabeinu") ("our master, our teacher and our rabbi/master") or often just plain Reb which is a shortened form of rebbe that can be used by, or applied to, any married Jewish male as the situation applies.
Note: A rebbetzin (a Yiddish usage common among Ashkenazim) or a rabbanit (in Hebrew and used among Sephardim) is the official "title" used for, or by, the wife of any Orthodox, Haredi, or Hasidic rabbi. Rebbetzin may also be used as the equivalent of Reb and is sometimes abbreviated as such as well.
Conservative Judaism confers semikhah after the completion of a program in the codes of Jewish law and responsa in keeping with Jewish tradition. In addition to knowledge and mastery of the study of Talmud and halakhah, Conservative semikhah also requires that its rabbinical students receive intensive training in Tanakh, classical biblical commentaries, biblical criticism, Midrash, Kabbalah and Hasidut, the historical development of Judaism from antiquity to modernity, Jewish ethics, the halakhic methodology of Conservative responsa, classical and modern works of Jewish theology and philosophy, synagogue administration, pastoral care, chaplaincy, non-profit management, and navigating the modern world in a Jewish context.
Entrance requirements to Conservative rabbinical study centers include a background within Jewish law and liturgy, familiarity with rabbinic literature, Talmud, etc., ritual observance according to Conservative halakha, and the completion of an undergraduate university degree. In accordance with national collegiate accreditation requirements, Conservative rabbinical students earn a Master of Arts in Rabbinic Literature in addition to receiving semikhah. Ordination is granted at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, the Budapest University of Jewish Studies, the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, and the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires (Argentina). Most Conservative seminaries ordain women and openly LGBT people as rabbis and cantors.
In Reform Judaism rabbinic studies are mandated in pastoral care, the historical development of Judaism, academic biblical criticism, in addition to the study of traditional rabbinic texts. Rabbinical students also are required to gain practical rabbinic experience by working at a congregation as a rabbinic intern during each year of study from year one onwards.
All Reform seminaries ordain women and openly LGBT people as rabbis and cantors.
The seminary of Reform Judaism in the United States is Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. It has campuses in Cincinnati, New York City, Los Angeles, and in Jerusalem. In addition to training and ordaining women and openly LGBT people as rabbis and cantors, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has trained and ordained openly transgender people as rabbis (see Elliot Kukla and Reuben Zellman).
In the United Kingdom the Reform and Liberal movements maintain Leo Baeck College for the training and ordination of rabbis, and in Germany the progressive Abraham Geiger College trains and ordains Europeans for the rabbinate.
Reconstructionist Judaism has the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which is located in Pennsylvania and ordains women as well as men (and openly LGBT people) as rabbis and cantors. In 2015 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College voted to accept rabbinical students in interfaith relationships, making Reconstructionist Judaism the first type of Judaism to officially allow rabbis in relationships with non-Jewish partners.
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.Humanistic Judaism has the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which currently has two centers of activity: one in Jerusalem and the other in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Both places ordain women as well as men as rabbis, and do not ordain cantors of either sex. Both places ordain openly LGBT people.
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, and does not ordain cantors of either sex. 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 nondenominational 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 Reconstructionism 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 Reconstructionst movemements 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.
With some rare exceptions (see below), women historically have generally not served as rabbis until the 1970s and the influence of second-wave feminism, when the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion first ordained women rabbis. Today, female rabbis are ordained within all branches of Progressive Judaism, while in Orthodox Judaism, women cannot become rabbis.
While there is no prohibition against women learning halakhah that pertains to them, nor is it any more problematic for a woman to rule on such issues than it is for any lay person to do so, the issue lies in the rabbi's position of communal authority. Following the ruling of the Talmud, the decisors of Jewish law held that women were not allowed to serve in positions of authority over a community, such as judges or kings. The position of official rabbi of a community, mara de'atra ("master of the place"), has generally been treated in the responsa as such a position. This ruling is still followed in traditional and orthodox circles but has been relaxed in branches like Conservative and Reform Judaism that are less strict in their adherence to traditional Jewish law.
There were some rare cases of women acting as rabbis in earlier centuries, such as the 17th century Asenath Barzani, who acted as a rabbi among Kurdish Jews. Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, also known as the Maiden of Ludmir, was a 19th-century Hasidic rebbe, the only female rebbe in the history of Hasidism.
The first formally ordained female rabbi was Regina Jonas, ordained in Germany in 1935. Since 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first female rabbi in Reform Judaism, Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College has ordained 552 women rabbis (as of 2008).
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first female rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism in 1974 (one of 110 by 2006); and Amy Eilberg became the first female rabbi in Conservative Judaism in 1985 (one of 177 by 2006). Lynn Gottlieb became the first female rabbi in Jewish Renewal in 1981, and Tamara Kolton became the very first rabbi (and therefore, since she was female, the first female rabbi) in Humanistic Judaism in 1999. In 2009 Alysa Stanton became the world's first African-American female rabbi.
The Conservative movement appointed a special commission to study the issue of ordaining women as rabbis, The commission met between 1977 and 1978, and consisted of eleven men and three women. In 1983, the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, voted, without accompanying opinion, to ordain women as rabbis and as cantors.
In Europe, Leo Baeck College had ordained 30 female rabbis by 2006 (out of 158 ordinations in total since 1956), starting with Jackie Tabick in 1975.
The Orthodox Jewish tradition and communal consensus is that the rabbinate is the province of men; the growing calls for Orthodox yeshivas to admit women as rabbinical students have resulted in widespread opposition among the Orthodox rabbinate. Rabbi Norman Lamm, one of the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, 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"). In his words, the idea is a "quirky fad." No Orthodox rabbinical association (e.g. Agudath Yisrael, Rabbinical Council of America) has allowed women to be ordained using the term rabbi.
However, in the last twenty years Orthodox Judaism has begun to develop roles for women as halakhic court advisors and congregational advisors. Rabbi Aryeh Strikovski (Machanaim 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 in Israel. 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." In 2012 Ephraim Mirvis appointed Lauren Levin as Britain’s first Orthodox female halakhic adviser, at Finchley Synagogue in London.
Some Orthodox Jewish women now serve in Orthodox Jewish congregations in roles that previously were reserved for males. The grammatically correct Hebrew feminine parallel to the masculine title rabbi is rabbanit (רבנית) sometimes used for women in this role. Sara Hurwitz, considered by some the first Orthodox woman rabbi, following correct Hebrew feminized grammar of rav (רב), used the title rabba (רבה). Some use another variant, rabet, for a female rabbi. Other women in Jewish leadership, like Rachel Kohl Finegold and Lynn Kaye function as de facto assistant rabbis.The newer title of Maharat has been used by those who receive this title at Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox seminary for women to confer an equivalent to rabbinic ordination.
In Israel, the Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman, opened a program in 2009 that will grant semicha to women and men of all Jewish denominations, including Orthodox Judaism, although the students are meant to "assume the role of 'rabbi-educators' – not pulpit rabbis- in North American community day schools.
In Israel a growing number of Orthodox women are being trained as yoatzot halakhah (halakhic advisers).
…Strikovski and his colleagues aren't willing to confer a title commensurate with experience. Clarifying his position, he laughs, "If a man passed such a test [on Halakha] we would call him a rabbi – but who cares what you call it?" he says. "Rav Soloveitchik, my teacher, always used to say: 'If you know [Jewish law], then you don't need ordination; and if you don't know, then ordination won't make a difference.'" Further, the title of rabbi only had meaning during the time of the Sanhedrin, he argues. "Later titles were modified from generation to generation and community to community, and now the important thing is not the title but that there is a revolution where women can and do study the oral law." + – :(Feldinger, 2005)
In June 2009, Avi Weiss ordained Sara Hurwitz with the title "maharat" (an acronym of manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit Toranit) rather than "Rabbi". In February 2010, Weiss announced that he was changing Maharat to a more familiar-sounding title "Rabba". The goal of this shift was to clarify Hurwitz's position as a full member of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale rabbinic staff. The change was criticised by both Agudath Yisrael and the Rabbinical Council of America, who called the move "beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism". Weiss announced amidst criticism that the term "Rabba" would not be used anymore for his future students. Also in 2009, Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat, a school which "is dedicated to giving Orthodox women proficiency in learning and teaching Talmud, understanding Jewish law and its application to everyday life as well as the other tools necessary to be Jewish communal leaders." In 2015 Yaffa Epstein was ordained as Rabba by the Yeshivat Maharat. Also in 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained as Rabbi by that same organization, making her their first graduate to take the title Rabbi. Hurwitz continues to use the title Rabba and is considered by some to be the first female Orthodox rabbi. However, in the fall of 2015 Rabbinical Council of America passed a resolution which states, "RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution." Similarly in the fall of 2015 Agudath Israel of America denounced moves to ordain women, and went even further, declaring Yeshivat Maharat, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Open Orthodoxy, and other affiliated entities to be similar to other dissident movements throughout Jewish history in having rejected basic tenets of Judaism.
In 2013, the first class of female halachic advisers trained to practice in the US graduated; they graduated from the North American branch of Nishmat’s yoetzet halacha program in a ceremony at Congregation Sheartith Israel, Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan.
The use of Toanot is not restricted to any one segment of Orthodoxy; In Israel they have worked with Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews. 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.
Furthermore, several efforts are underway within Modern Orthodox communities to include qualified women in activities traditionally limited to rabbis: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. Furthermore, Rav Strikovsky granted ordination to Haviva Ner-David (who is American) in 2006, although she has not been able to find a job as a rabbi.
In Israel and America a growing number of Orthodox women are being trained as yoatzot halacha ("halachic advisors"), who serve many in communities ranging from Haredi to Modern Orthodox. In 2013, the first class of female halachic advisors trained to practice in the US graduated; they graduated from the North American branch of Nishmat’s yoetzet halacha program in a ceremony at Congregation Sheartith Israel, Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan.
At Nishmat, the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women, Orthodox women may study the laws of family purity at the same level of detail that Orthodox males do. 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 have founded and overseen 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."
In 2009, Rabbi Avi Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat, a school which "is dedicated to giving Orthodox women proficiency in learning and teaching Talmud, understanding Jewish law and its application to everyday life as well as the other tools necessary to be Jewish communal leaders." Those women who graduate from Yeshivat Maharat were given the title of Maharat, which "is an acronym, in Hebrew, for 'manhigot hilkhatiot, rukhaniot vTorahniot', meaning, someone who is a spiritual leader trained in Torah and the intricacies of Jewish law." The first women graduated from Yeshivat Maharat on June 16, 2013. In 2015 Yaffa Epstein was ordained as Rabba by the Yeshivat Maharat. Also that year, Lila Kagedan was ordained as Rabbi by the Yeshivat Maharat, making her their first graduate to take the title Rabbi.
In 2016, it was announced that Ephraim Mirvis created the job of ma’ayan by which women would be advisers on Jewish law in the area of family purity and as adult educators in Orthodox synagogues. This requires a part-time training course for 18 months, which is the first such course in the United Kingdom.