What is a rabbi?[1]



Moses begins a statistical summary of the materials used for the tabernacle in the biblical portion beginning in Exodus 38:21 and ending in Exodus 40:38. Jewish tradition refers to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, which can be translated as “Moses our rabbi” or “Moses our teacher.”



1. Was Moses a rabbi?

2. When did the institution of the rabbinate begin?

3. Is the rabbi of today ordained like the rabbi of old?


The origin of the rabbi

Moses was not a rabbi. The institution of the rabbinate began after the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70 of the Common Era. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the far-sighted spiritual leader of that generation, realized that Temple-oriented Judaism with its animal sacrifices, the hallmark of Judaism since the days of Moses, had ceased when the Temple was destroyed.

Yohanan ben Zakkai established “Rabbinic Judaism” in its place. This is a Judaism centered in the synagogue, rather than the Temple. Prayers are recited in place of sacrifices. Instead of kohanim, “priests,” as religious leaders, he inaugurated the idea of rabbis, teachers of the people. He assumed for himself the title “Rabban” at that time. The term signified the leading rabbi.

The religious authorities and scholars before Yohanan ben Zakkai were not called rabbi. Hillel who lived at the beginning of the Common Era had no title; neither did any of the sages listed in the Mishnah Pirke Avot who lived before the destruction of the second Temple.


Rabbinical functions

The first rabbis were assigned two community functions, a teaching and a court position. We are familiar with the first: the rabbi teaches the traditions of past generations and informs congregations of the halakhah, the Jewish law. The second task, which does not exist today, was the authority to impose certain judicial fines for misconduct. This job was restricted to the rabbis living in the land of Israel; those outside of Israel had only the first responsibility. The rabbis in Israel were called rabee in Hebrew, while those outside of Israel, primarily in Babylon, held the title rav.


The end of semicha, the ordination of rabbis ceases

A rabbi was “ordained” – that is, recognized as a rabbi – by having another rabbi acknowledge that the newcomer was worthy. The rabbi “passed on” the role. The Hebrew term for this ordination is semicha, literally: “lying on (of hands). In essence, semicha is the recognition or certification by a rabbi that a person is also qualified to serve as a rabbi. In the year 415 of the Common Era, another post-Temple institution, the secular community leadership called the patriarchate,[2] was suppressed by the Romans who controlled Israel and its people since the destruction of the Temple. Many, but not all, scholars believe that semicha, the formal tradition of religious leadership, was also abolished by the Romans at that time.

Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel disagreed. He emphasized that despite the cessation of the secular patriarchate, Israel continued to be a vibrant center of learning until the period of the crusades in the eleventh century. He was convinced that it is inconceivable to think that the Israel scholars would relinquish the semicha when there were great scholars learning and teaching Torah in the country. Revel argues that when the spiritual leader Gaon Daniel died in Israel in 1062, there was bitter hostile community struggle over the designation of his successor, causing academic instability and stagnation. The crusaders pillaged Israel several decades later and devastated communal life. The semicha, which was in limbo, did not survive.


Revival of semicha?

About a hundred years later, the scholars of the twelfth century argued whether semicha could be revived. Maimonides (1138–1204) contended that it could be renewed if the Israeli scholars would consent. Other sages disagreed with Maimonides, and, as a result, no action was taken.

In 1528, in the city of Safed in Israel, Jacob Berab gave semicha to twenty-five of his students, based on Maimonides’ opinion. Later, he ordained an additional four scholars. He wanted to reestablish Israel as the center of Jewry. The idea was well intentioned and timely. Jews had just been expelled from Spain in 1492 and were seeking a homeland and a place of solace.

However, this rabbi of Safed did not consult the rabbis of Jerusalem before he acted. When they heard what he did, they opposed it. Revel believed that their opposition was not personal: they feared that the reintroduction of semicha would precipitate a pseudo-messianic movement. Thus, the practice of the rabbinate instituted by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai ceased after the fifth or twelfth century.

Nevertheless, in some countries, such as Italy, France and Germany, teachers started a new idea of issuing a “writ of semicha” to their students. This document, like the ancient semicha, also certified that in the teacher’s opinion the student had the knowledge to teach and function as a “rabbi.” The teachers knew, of course, that their semicha was not a continuation of the ancient ben Zakkai institution, but they felt that the times required something similar, and it was appropriate to give the new activity the name used by the custom of old.

However, countries such as Spain and other Sephardic lands did not renew the semicha. There was no “ordination.” As a result, they had no rabbis until the present day. They called their knowledgeable students and religious leaders hakham, “knowledgeable ones.”


[1] A version of this essay appeared in my book “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary,” published by Urim Publications.

[2] When Jews were unable to have a king or another kind of secular leader, the Jews in Israel developed the Patriarch and the Jews in Babylon the Exilarch. These were individuals who claimed descent from King David. They exercised civil authority over the Jews.