- See Semicha for article about "ordination" of rabbis.
Rabbi (Classical Hebrew רִבִּי ribbī; modern Ashkenazi and Israeli רַבִּי rabbī) in Judaism, commonly refers to the spiritual leader of a Jewish synagogue. The term means "teacher", or more literally "my master" (rav). The rabbi may, but is not required to, conduct prayer services. The rabbi's true role is as a spiritual consultant and teacher. A rabbi is the person to whom Jews turn for answers to questions about Jewish law and related matters and may or may not be formally "ordained" with semicha.
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.
In ancient times, Rabbi was a Hebrew term used as a title for those who were distinguished for learning, and who were the authoritative teachers of the Law, and who were the appointed spiritual heads of the community. Many Jews ordained as rabbis do not work as religious leaders, and some religious leaders such as Hasidic rebbes and Talmudic rosh yeshivas may not even be formally "ordained" (with semicha) as rabbis. The title is in some ways "academic" and "honorific", in some ways like a PhD; the title technically denotes mastering some serious level of study, not the job that one does.
Moses and Joshua: The first "rabbis"
Traditionally Moses is assumed to be the "first rabbi" of the Children of Israel. Until the present time he is still known to most Jews as Moshe Rabbeinu ("Moses our Teacher"). Moses was also a prophet and is considered to be the greatest of all the Hebrew Bible's prophets. 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  and Deuteronomy 34:9 
Era of the Tanakh
During the era of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah the system of government relied on Jewish kings, prophets, and the authority of the Sanhedrin and the priesthood. Members of the Sanhedrin required semicha ("ordination" derived in an uninterrupted line of transmission from Moses) yet they were not necessarily called "rabbis" more accurately being "judges" (dayanim) akin to the Shoftim or "Judges" as in the Book of Judges.
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 singel 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 demise of the two Temples in Jerusalem, and the end of the Jewish monarchy and 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 ") who are in fact the earliest "rabbis" as we know them to be over the last two thousand years because they began the formulation and explication of what became known as Judaism's Torah SheBe'al Peh ("The Oral Law") which was eventually encoded and codified within the Mishnah and Talmud and their related works of 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 basic form of the rabbi developed in the Pharisaic and Talmudic era. Rabbis are given authority to make interpretations of Jewish law and custom. Today, rabbis are also pastors and supervise Jewish prayer and ritual, although these functions are not mandated by Jewish law.
The title "Rabbi" was borne by the sages of ancient 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. 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.
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.
Almost all Orthodox scholars study in a yeshiva. In-depth Talmud is the always the main subject of study, this becomes the basis for further study of the Shulkhan Arukh (the "Code of Jewish Law") and the associated commentaries and responsa.
Traditionally, semicha requires an arduous learning program in the codes of Jewish law and responsa. Orthodox Judaism maintains these requirements. One does not need a bachelor's degree to enter most Orthodox rabbinical seminaries. 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.
Orthodox rabbinical students must work to gain an even deeper knowledge in Talmud, Rishonim and Acharonim (early and late medieval commentators) and Jewish law in order to work towards semicha. They study important sections of the Shulkhan Arukh and its main commentaries that pertain to daily-life questions, such as on kashruth (dietary laws), Shabbat (the weekly day of rest), and Niddah (menstrual impurity and purification).
No female rabbis in Orthodoxy
Codes of Jewish law are silent on the issue of women being ordained as rabbis. However, the consensus of the Orthodox community is that women are ineligible from becoming rabbis in Orthodoxy. In the last fifteen years, however, a number of Modern Orthodox Judaism institutions only have trained women to be advisors and teachers in Jewish law. Two Israeli Orthodox women are known to have been ordained as "rabbis" by male rabbis who claim to be "Orthodox", not much is known about the circumstances and reasons behind this move. However, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox rabbis and laypeople have not heard of these events at all and certainly do not view these ordinations as valid.
The duties of women halakhic court advisors and congregational advisors are seen as valid in some Orthodox communities. The Modern Orthodox Judaism Rabbi Avi Weiss Bronx, New York has written that the problem in recognizing women as Orthodox rabbis is "social and semantic", and not halakhic. As such, he holds that the Orthodox community should concentrate on training women to the same standards that male rabbinical students have, and allow the Orthodox community to slowly develop women's roles job function at a time. Rabbi Weiss is viewed as being "to the left" of the centrist Yeshiva University whith its own reputable rabbinical school (RIETS ), and with which he broke to set up his own small left-of-center institution. He hopes that his approach will be adopted, in a number of ways, within the Modern Orthodox community. However, no major Haredi posek ("decisor [of Jewish Law]") agrees with him, and no major Hasidic rebbe or notable Rosh yeshiva has openly agreed with the idea of "ordaining female rabbis" (which to them remains not only an alien but even a forbidden venture). In fact this is part of the clash between Modern Orthodoxy and the other more right-wing sectors of Haredi Judaism regarding the role of women in Judaism which are hotly contested issues.
The modern Orthodox 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, which has since trained nearly 70 such Orthodox women halakhic "advocates". 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." However, in reality, this still does not equate these female "advocates" with Orthodox "rabbis" of any sort in any legal or formal way, and no woman presently serves as rabbi, certainly not chief rabbi, nor dayan, nor posek, nor rebbe, nor rosh yeshiva anywhere in the world of Orthodox Judaism whatsoever.
Conservative and Masorti Judaism
Conservative Judaism holds that one may obtain rabbinic ordination after the completion of an arduous learning program in the codes of Jewish law and responsa. 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 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 rabbinical school. In addition studies are mandated in pastoral care and psychology, the historical development of Judaism; and academic biblical criticism.
Women are allowed to become rabbis and cantors in the Conservative 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.
Last updated: 07-31-2005 05:49:03