See L. Ginzberg, Students, Scholars, and Saints (1985); J. R. Marcus and A. J. Peck, The American Rabbinate (1985).
Rabbi (pronunciation: [rəb.biː], although in English usually [ˈɹæ.baɪ]), in Judaism, means a religious ‘teacher’, or more literally, ‘my great one’, when addressing any master. The word rabbi derives from the Hebrew root word , rav, which in biblical Hebrew means ‘great’, used in many senses, including the sense of a ‘master’ and apprentice, whence someone who is a distinguished ‘teacher’. Sephardic and Yemenite Jews pronounce this word ribbī; the modern Israeli pronunciation rabbī is derived from a recent (18th century) innovation in Ashkenazic prayer books, although this vocalization is also found in some ancient sources. Other varieties of pronunciation are rəvī, rubbī, and, in Yiddish, rebbə.
Originally in Hebrew, rabbi (‘my Master’) 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, where it no longer means ‘my’ Master. Thus, the title gained an irregular plural form: רַבָּנִים Rabbanim (‘rabbis’), and not רַבָּי Rabbai (‘my Masters’).
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 - in modern language - “rabbis”. 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:
With the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, the end of the Jewish monarchy, and the decline of 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 Men of the Great Assembly (Anshe Knesset HaGedolah). This assembly was composed by the earliest "rabbis" as we know them for the last two thousand years, 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, producing what is known as Rabbinic Judaism.
The more ancient generations had no such titles as Rabban, Ribbi, or Rab, for either the Babylonian sages or the sages in Israel. This is evident from the fact that Hillel I, who came from Babylon, did not have 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 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 Ribbi too, came into vogue among those who received the laying on of hands at this period, as, for instance, Ribbi Zadok, Ribbi 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: Ribbi is greater than Rab; Rabban again, is greater than Ribbi; while the simple name is greater than Rabban. Besides the presidents of the Sanhedrin no one is called Rabban.
The title "Rabbies" 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 rules 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.
The most general form of semicha is Yore yore ("he shall teach"). Most Orthodox 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 he 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.
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.
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.
Women do not, and cannot, become rabbis in Orthodox Judaism. Only men can do so, and only after a long process of study in, and recognition by, their own yeshivas.
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 Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim (in New York) and Yeshiva Ner Yisrael (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 needs" basis if and when one of their senior students is offered a rabbinical position but only with the approval of their rosh yeshivas.
Consequently, within the world of Haredi Judaism, the English word and title of "Rabbi" for anyone is often scorned and derided, because in their view the once-lofty title of "Rabbi" has been debased in modern times. This is one reason that 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 has less stringent study requirements for Talmud and responsa study compared to Orthodoxy but adds following subjects as requirements for rabbinic ordination: pastoral care and psychology, the historical development of Judaism; and academic biblical criticism.
Entrance requirements to a Conservative rabbinical study include a strong background within Jewish law and liturgy, knowledge of Hebrew, familiarity with rabbinic literature, Talmud, etc., and the completion of an undergraduate university degree. Rabbinical students usually earn a secular degree (e.g., Master of Hebrew Letters) upon graduation. Ordination is granted at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, the Jewish Theological Seminary of Budapest and the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires (Argentina).
Conservative seminaries are now ordaining female rabbis and training female cantors. There are still traditional Conservative congregations that resist this development.
The Reform and Reconstructionist rabbinical seminaries require students to first earn a bachelor's degree before entering the rabbinate as well as have a basic knowledge of Hebrew. Studies are mandated in pastoral care and psychology, the historical development of Judaism; and academic biblical criticism. In addition, practical rabbinic experience, such as working at a small congregation as a student rabbi one weekend or month or interning at a larger synagogue as a student rabbi is required.
In Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism, both men and women may be rabbis.
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 the United Kingdom the Reform and Liberal movements maintain Leo Baeck College for the training of rabbis, and in Germany the progressive Abraham Geiger College trains Europeans for the rabbinate.
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. 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 man. 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. In fact, all rituals in Judaism can be performed by any Jew of age.
In an ironic twist, the secular system in most states requires that a Jewish wedding be performed by an ordained rabbi in order to be legally recognised, even though there is no such requirement in Jewish law. In other words, the secular system treats Rabbis as the Jewish equivalent to Catholic Priests or Protestant Ministers, although they are not religious equivalents.
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 as 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.
The divisions between the various religious branches within Judaism may have their most pronounced manifestation on whether rabbis from one movement recognizes the legitimacy and/or 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.
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. Likewise, the North American Reform rabbinate does not accept the offspring of a Jewish mother and Gentile father to be Jewish unless raised unambiguously as Jews.
However, in Modern Orthodox Judaism, there is a general consensus that women may and are encouraged to study Torah, and that they have the same ability as men. Previous thought was that women would twist the words of the Torah, but modern thought is that it lead to misunderstandings among women for women not to learn Torah. It has been the longstanding practice that only men become rabbis. This practice is continued to this day within the Orthodox community. Within the non-Orthodox organizations, including the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, women are routinely granted semicha on an equal basis with men.
The first female rabbi was Regina Jonas, ordained in Germany in 1935. Since 1972, when Sally Priesand was ordained in the Reform movement, the Hebrew Union College has ordained 520 women rabbis (as of 2007). Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first female Reconstructionist rabbi in 1974 (of 110 by 2006); and Amy Eilberg the first woman Conservative ordained rabbi in 1985 (of 177 by 2006). 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 issue of allowing women to become rabbis is not under debate within the Orthodox community. The prevailing consensus among Orthodox leaders and even a small number of Conservative communities is that it is not appropriate for women to become rabbis.
The idea of ordaining women as rabbis has sparked 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, totally 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").