Rabbi: Teacher, Preacher, Judge -- But Not Priest

The traditional rabbinate harks back to ancient practice, but is in fact a changing institution, first formalized in the fourteenth century.

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The Hebrew form of "Rabbi" is Ha-Rav. On the analogy of the Geonim [heads of the post-talmudic Babylonian academies of Torah study], certain especially distinguished rabbis were given the title "Gaon," for example Elijah, "Gaon of Vilna." Eventually, the title "Gaon" was given to practically every Orthodox Rabbi. Nowadays, the title Ha-Rav Ha-Gaon is used so extensively as to be meaningless, When everyone is a "Gaon," no one is.

The Rabbinate as Profession: a Tradition in Flux

The professional rabbi was unknown before the fourteenth century. Scholars capable of rendering decisions in Jewish law performed this function without receiving any salary, following the Talmudic injunction against obtaining financial gain from the Torah, except that scholars were exempted from communal taxation and had the right to be served first when buying in the market-place, so as to enable them to devote more time to their studies.

Many medieval sages, for example Maimonides [in twelfth century Spain and Egypt] and Nahmanides [in thirteenth century Catalonia], earned their living by practicing medicine and gave their services to the Torah voluntarily. As late as the sixteenth century, scholars were to be found who prided themselves on serving as communal rabbis without receiving any remuneration. But when economic conditions worsened, especially after the expulsion from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, there was no way in which the average scholar could adopt the rabbinic role unless he was supported by the community. The position of town rabbi became established, and the rabbi received emoluments from the townsfolk.

Once the rabbinate became a profession, proper contracts of service were drawn up and these are discussed in the later [law] codes under the heading of general financial undertakings. This pattern was preserved among the Ashkenazim in Eastern European communities, as was the institution of the Hakham among the Sephardi and Oriental communities, and it is still the norm in the State of Israel and in the Diaspora communities of the older Orthodox type.

Students and Rabbis

In communities that conform to this pattern, there are no special schools for the training of rabbis. Students in the yeshivah do not study in order to become rabbis, in obedience to the yeshivah ideal of studying the Torah "for its own sake." When a student wishes to become a rabbi he studies on his own the codes and other sources of practical halakhah and then presents himself for examination. Strictly speaking, the granting of the rabbinical diploma does not in itself entitle its holder to be called rabbi. The diploma testifies only that he is capable of serving as a rabbi. He actually becomes a rabbi only when appointed by a community to serve as such. Nevertheless, the convention is to refer to anyone who holds the rabbinical diploma as Rabbi. He is called to the Torah, for instance, as Morenu Ha-Rav, "Our Teacher, Rabbi X son of Y."

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.