Rabbi Definition: What is a Rabbi?

A rabbi is a recognized leader within Judaism. Ideally, a rabbi helps to provide guidance, comfort and support, and to make the many ancient and modern resources of Jewish tradition relevant to the lives of modern people.

Other important points about rabbis:

  • Rabbis fill many different roles, including teaching, writing, public speaking/preaching, organizational guidance, counseling, pastoral care, lifecycle officiation (weddings, funerals, etc)
  • A rabbi may work in many professional settings today, including synagogues (Jewish congregations), schools, hospitals, universities, and many different organizations that employ rabbis for their scholarship, ritual knowledge, leadership and counseling abilities.
  • In some cases and contexts, rabbis are expected to judge and decide on issues of disagreement or uncertainty. In most modern settings, the judicial role/expectation for rabbis has diminished or disappeared, but historically this was a very important role.
  • The word ‘rabbi’ became a common expression for Jewish religious leaders approximately 2000 years ago. The ancient text the Mishna refers to some of the leaders by this title. The word simply means ‘great’ or ‘distinguished’ one.
  • Many people today incorrectly explain that ‘rabbi’ means a teacher. I imagine that the persistent power of this myth stems from the desire to show that Judaism is not an hierarchical tradition. While some other religious traditions place clergy in an authoritarian hierarchy, Judaism does not. When people say that a rabbi is simply ‘a teacher’, perhaps they are trying to explain that Jewish clergy don’t fit into a parallel hierarchical structure like clergy of other religious traditions.
  • Most rabbis in the United States today receive authorization (‘ordination’) to serve as a rabbi  from established seminary programs such as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the American Jewish University Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.
  • Some other rabbis receive private ‘smicha’ (ordination or authorization) from renowned senior rabbis who vouch for their student’s knowledge and abilities.

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