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A Rabbi is a religious Jewish scholar who is an expert in Jewish law. The term means teacher.

The term rabbi commonly refers to the spiritual leader of a Jewish synagogue. The rabbi may, but is not required to, conduct prayer services. Their true role is as a spiritual consultant and teacher. A rabbi is the person to whom Jews turn for answers to questions about Jewish laws and related matters.

Many Jews ordained as rabbis do not work as religious leaders. The title is academic and honorific, in some ways like a Ph.D.; the title technically only denotes mastering a high level of study, not the job that one does.

Table of contents
1 History
2 The role of the rabbi in the last 200 years
3 Becoming a rabbi
4 Rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic era
5 Rabbis of the classical rabbinic period
6 18th century
7 19th century
8 20th and 21st century


The rabbi is not an occupation found in the Torah (Five books of Moses); the first time this word is mentioned is in the Mishnah. The modern form of the rabbi developed in the Talmudic era. Rabbis are given authority to make interpretations of Jewish law and custom.

Rabbi is a Hebrew term used as a title for those who are distinguished for learning, who are the authoritative teachers of the Law, and who are the appointed spiritual heads of the community. The word Rabbi is derived from the Hebrew word RV, which in biblical Hebrew means "great" or "distinguished,". In the ancient Judean schools the sages were addressed as "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 title 'Rabbi' was borne by the sages of Israel, who were ordained there by the Sanhedrin in accordance with the custom handed down by the elders, and were denominated 'Rabbi,' and received authority to judge penal cases; while 'Rab' was the title of the Babylonian sages, who received their ordination in their colleges. The more ancient generations had no such titles as 'Rabban,' 'Rabbi,' or 'Rab,' for either the Babylonian or Israeli sages. This is evident from the fact that Hillel I, who came from Babylon, had not 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 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. The Orthodox National Council of Young Israel and the Modern Orthodox 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. However, the role of rabbi underwent a significant evolution within Hasidic Judaism. Within Hasidism, each Hasidic sect has a primary religious leader known as a Rebbe. The followers of a given sect view their rebbe as an intermediary between themselves as God. This idea is extremely controversial within Judaism; it is rejected by non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews, and by non-Orthodox Jews.

Becoming a rabbi

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

Orthodox Judaism maintains all of these requirements. Women are ineligible from becoming rabbis in Orthodoxy. One does not need a bachelor's degree to enter most Orthodox rabbinical seminaries. Modern Orthodox rabbinical students study some elements of modern theology or philosophy, as well as the classical rabbinic works on such subjects.

Conservative Judaism maintains these requirements. It expands them to include the study of: Torah, Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), Mishnah and Talmud, Midrash, Jewish ethics and lore, the codes of Jewish law, responsa, both traditional and modern Jewish works on theology and philosophy. Women are allowed to become rabbis and cantors in the Conservative movement. Conservative Judaism differs with Orthodoxy in that it has less stringent study requirements for Talmud and responsa study as compared to Orthodoxy. Conservative Judaism adds the following subjects as requirements for rabbinic ordination: 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.

Reconstructionist Judaism and Reform Judaism do not maintain the traditional requirements for study. Both men and women may be rabbis or cantors. The level of Jewish law, Talmud and responsa studied in four years of these denominations is similar to that learned in the first year of Orthodox Jewish seminaries. The rabbinical seminaries of these movements 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. Emphasis is placed not on Jewish law, but rather on sociology, cultural studies, and modern Jewish philosophy.

Orthodox Judaism generally rejects the validity of all non-Orthodox rabbis; some within the liberal wing of Modern Orthodoxy are willing to accept that non-Orthodox rabbis have some legitimacy, although to what extent is still being argued. All major branches of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism generally accept the legitimacy of each other's rabbis, as well as accept the legitimacy of Orthodox rabbis.

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, an offshoot of the Conservative denomination has a seminary in New Jersey; the seminary is accepted by all non-Orthodox rabbis as 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 Reform Judaism and some within Reconstructionist Judaism reject this program as insufficiently rigorous, and 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.

The small, atheist Society for Humanistic Judaism has a seminary, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, near Detroit, Michigan. Many other denominations of Judaism question whether this sect is authentically Jewish, and this seminary's ordainees can have a difficult time gaining acceptance as rabbis in the mainstream Jewish community.

Rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic era



Yohanan ben Zakkai

Judah haNasi (Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah)

Abba Mari

Rabbis of the classical rabbinic period

Asher ben Jehiel

Abraham ibn Ezra

Bahya ibn Paquda 11th century Spanish Jewish philosopher

Abraham ibn Daud

Gersonides, Levi ben Gershom, the Ralbag

Maimonides Moshe Ben Maimon, aka the Rambam

Nahmanides Moshe ben Nahman of Gerondi, aka the Ramban

18th century

Jacob Emden

Yair Bacharach

Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht. The founder of Hasidic Judaism

Dovber of Mezeritch

Elijah ben Solomon, the Vilna Gaon

Shneur Zalman

19th century

Jacob Abendana

Jacob Ettlinger - Neo-Orthodox Judaism

Nosson Zvi Finkel - Orthodox

Zecharias Frankel - Founder of the positive-historical school of Judaism

Samuel Holdheim A founder of classic German Reform Judaism

Samson Raphael Hirsch - Founder of neo-Orthodox Judaism

Abraham Isaac Kook - Orthodox

Moses Chaim Luzzato - Kabbalist, mystic

The Malbim, Meir Lob ben Jehiel Michael

Solomon Schechter - Founder of Conservative Judaism as a distinct movement

20th and 21st century

Elliot N. Dorff - Conservative

Nosson Zvi Finkel - Orthodox

Louis Finkelstein - Conservative

Robert Gordis - Conservative

Abraham Joshua Heschel - Hasidic, Conservative

Jules Harlow - Conservative

Yitzchok Hutner - Orthodox

Meir Kahane - Orthodox

Aryeh Kaplan - Orthodox (1934 - 1983), his works continue to attract a wide readership.

Mordecai Kaplan - Reconstructionist

Isaac Klein - Conservative

Harold Kushner - Conservative

Jacob Neusner - Conservative

Joel Roth - Conservative

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi - Jewish Renewal

Menachem Mendel Schneerson Last Rebbe of Lubavitch (Chabad) Hasidic Judaism

Joseph Soloveitchik - Leading figure in American Modern Orthodoxy

Adin Steinsaltz - Orthodox

Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl - Orthodox

See also: Judaism -- Cantor -- Clergy