In Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher of Torah.
This title derives from the Hebrew word רַבִּי rabbi, meaning “My Master”, which is the way a student would address a master of Torah. The word “master” (רב rav) literally means “great one”.
The basic form of the rabbi developed in the Pharisaic and Talmudic era, when learned teachers assembled to codify Judaism’s written and oral laws. The first sage for whom the Mishnah uses the title of rabbi was Yohanan ben Zakkai, active in the early to mid-first century CE. In more recent centuries, the duties of the rabbi became increasingly influenced by the duties of the Protestant Christian minister, hence the title “pulpit rabbis”, and in 19th-century Germany and the United States rabbinic activities including sermons, pastoral counseling, and representing the community to the outside, all increased in importance.
Within the various Jewish denominations there are different requirements for rabbinic ordination, and differences in opinion regarding who is to be recognized as a rabbi. For example, Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis, but other movements have chosen to do so for halakhic reasons (Conservative Judaism) as well as ethical reasons (Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism).
The governments of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were based on a system of Jewish kings, prophets, the legal authority of the court of the Sanhedrin and the ritual authority of priesthood. Members of the Sanhedrin had to receive their ordination (semicha) derived in an uninterrupted line of transmission from Moses, yet rather than being referred to as “rabbis” they were more frequently called judges (dayanim) akin to the Shoftim or “Judges” as in the Book of Judges.
All of these leaders 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.
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 ages of the rabbis are divided into seven separate time periods.
Zugot (“pairs”) refers to the hundred-year period during the time of the Second Temple (515 BCE – 70 CE), in which the spiritual leadership of the Jews was in the hands of five successive generations of zugot (“pairs”) of religious teachers. In Hebrew, the word “zugot” indicates a plural of two identical objects and refers to 5 pairs of scholars who ruled a Beit Din HaGadol (Supreme Court). Afterwards, the positions Nasi (President) and Av Beit Din (Chief Justice) remained, but they were not Zugot.
Tannaim (“repeaters”) were the Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah, from approximately 10-220 CE. The period of the Tannaim, also referred to as the Mishnaic period, lasted about 210 years. It came after the period of the Zugot (“pairs”), and was immediately followed by the period of the Amoraim (“interpreters”). The Mishnaic period is commonly divided up into five periods according to generations. There are approximately 120 known Tannaim. The Tannaim lived in several areas of the Land of Israel. The spiritual center of Judaism at that time was Jerusalem, but after the destruction of the city and the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and his students founded a new religious center in Yavne. Other places of Judaic learning were founded by his students in Lod and in Bnei Brak.
Amoraim (“those who say” or “those who speak over the people”, or “spokesmen”) refers to the Jewish scholars of the period from about 200 to 500 CE, who “said” or “told over” the teachings of the Oral Torah. They were concentrated in Babylonia and the Land of Israel. Their legal discussions and debates were eventually codified in the Gemara. The Amoraim followed the Tannaim in the sequence of ancient Jewish scholars. The Tannaim were direct transmitters of uncodified oral tradition; the Amoraim expounded upon and clarified the oral law after its initial codification.
Savora’im (“reasoner”) is a term used in Jewish law and history to signify one among the leading rabbis living from the end of period of the Amoraim (around 500 CE) to the beginning of the Geonim (around 600 CE). As a group they are also referred to as the Rabbeinu Sevorai or Rabanan Saborai, and may have played a large role in giving the Talmud its current structure. Modern scholars also use the plural term Stammaim (closed, vague or unattributed sources) for the authors of unattributed statements in the Gemara.
Geonim (“splendor”) refers to the presidents of the two great Babylonian, Talmudic Academies of Sura and Pumbedita, in the Abbasid Caliphate, and were the generally accepted spiritual leaders of the Jewish community worldwide in the early medieval era, in contrast to the Resh Galuta (Exilarch) who wielded secular authority over the Jews in Islamic lands. The Geonim played a prominent and decisive role in the transmission and teaching of Torah and Jewish law. They taught Talmud and decided on issues on which no ruling had been rendered during the period of the Talmud. The Geonim were also spiritual leaders of the Jewish community of their time.
Rishonim (“the first ones”) were the leading rabbis and poskim who lived approximately during the 11th to 15th centuries, in the era before the writing of the Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew: שׁוּלחָן עָרוּך, “Set Table”, a common printed code of Jewish law, 1563 CE) and following the Geonim (589-1038 CE). Rabbinic scholars subsequent to the Shulkhan Arukh are generally known as acharonim (“the latter ones”). The distinction between the rishonim and the geonim is meaningful historically; in halakha (Jewish Law) the distinction is less important. According to a widely held view in Orthodox Judaism, the acharonim generally cannot dispute the rulings of rabbis of previous eras unless they find support from other rabbis in previous eras. On the other hand, this view is not formally a part of halakha itself and according to some rabbis is a violation of the halakhic system.
Acharonim (“the last ones” is a term used in Jewish law and history, to signify the leading rabbis and poskim (Jewish legal decisors) living from roughly the 16th century to the present, and more specifically since the writing of the Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew: שׁוּלחָן עָרוּך, “Set Table”, a code of Jewish law) in 1563 CE. The Acharonim follow the Rishonim, the “first ones”—the rabbinic scholars between the 11th and the 16th century following the Geonim and preceding the Shulchan Aruch. The publication of the Shulchan Aruch thus marks the transition from the era of Rishonim to that of Acharonim.
The title “Rabbi” was borne by the sages of ancient Israel, who were ordained by the Sanhedrin in accordance with the custom handed down by the elders. They were titled Rabbi and received authority to judge penal cases. Rav 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 recognized scholar could be called Rav or Chacham, 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 chukkat 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 became increasingly influenced by the duties of the Protestant Christian minister, hence the title “pulpit rabbis”. 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.
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.
Traditionally, a person 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 Yore yore (“he shall teach”). Most Rabbis hold this qualification; they are sometimes called a moreh hora’ah (“a teacher of rulings”). 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. Although the recipient can now be formally addressed as a dayan (“judge”), the vast majority retain the title rabbi. Only a small percentage of rabbis earn this ordination. Although not strictly necessary, many Orthodox rabbis hold that a beth din (court of Jewish law) should be made up of dayanim.
Orthodox and Haredi Judaism
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 Shulkhan Arukh (codified Jewish law) and its main commentaries that pertain to daily-life questions (such as the laws of keeping kosher, Shabbat, and the laws of 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.
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.
Conservative Judaism confers semicha 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 semicha 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.
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.
Reconstructionist Judaism’s, like Reform Judaism’s, rabbinic studies include 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.
With some rare exceptions, women historically have generally not served as rabbis until the 1970s when the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion first ordained women rabbis. Today, female rabbis are ordained within all branches of Liberal 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.
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. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first female rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism in 1974 (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College); and Amy Eilberg became the first female rabbi in Conservative Judaism in 1985 (Jewish Theological Seminary).
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.
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.
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 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.
In 2013, the first class of female halakhic 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.