One would be forgiven for thinking that like other religions were there is a clear and strict hierarchy of different titles and positions, Judaism uses lots to indicate different positions as well. In truth, there are a handful of different titles and variations of different words, but any variation is, nowadays, more or less as a community-signifier and not much more.
Let’s explore the differences between these terms in the context of Jewish leadership and education:
- Rav: “Rav” (רַב) is a Hebrew term that translates to “teacher” or “master”. It has been used historically to refer to someone who possesses deep knowledge of Jewish law and tradition. In some cases, a “Rav” may have received rabbinic ordination, but the term itself doesn’t necessarily indicate formal ordination, “smicha”, in a halachic sense, which we’ll get to in a minute. The title “Rav” is often used as a sign of respect for a community leader who provides guidance on Jewish matters and is well-versed in Torah study, and given that there is no formal halachic “smicha”for nearly two thousand years, it is technically a more accurate term. In modern times, “Rav” might be a communal leader or a religious scholar and is used in usually traditional and Orthodox circles almost entirely instead of Rabbi, which is only reserved now for the Sages when it applies.
- Rabbi: “Rabbi” (רַבִּי) is a term that comes from the same root as “Rav”. Over time, “Rabbi” specifically came to denote someone who has received formal rabbinic ordination through the “smicha” process, which involves receiving authorization to teach and adjudicate matters of Jewish law. In ancient times, “smicha” referred to the act of physically leaning hands on the student (smicha means to “lean on” or “rely on”) as a symbolic gesture of passing on authority, which can only be done 1) by someone with smicha and 2) in the Land of Israel, based on its biblical boundaries. This is one reason why we particularly anticipate the prophet Eliyahu as a signal for the arrival of Moshiach; since he never died and has smicha, he can restore it. Today, a “Rabbi”, though not the most authentic term on a technical level, is typically someone who has completed a course of study in Jewish law, possibly along with other ethics, and philosophy, and has been officially ordained by recognized rabbinical authorities. Generally, in less traditional circles “rabbi” is prefered over “rav”.
- Rebbe: “Rebbe” (רֶבִּי) is a Yiddish term derived from the Hebrew “Rabbi.” In traditional Jewish communities, particularly in Chassidic and certain Orthodox circles, a “Rebbe” is not just a teacher or leader, but often a spiritual guide of a movement. Followers of a specific Chassidic dynasty have a deep connection with their Rebbe, seeking his guidance not only on matters of Jewish law but also on personal and spiritual growth, meaning someone can be a Chabad Rabbi for example without being the Lubavitcher Rebbe as they were known. In Yiddish, there is also a term “Reb” like an equivalent to “Mr.” or “Sir” as a matter of respect, but nothing to do with Torah.
- Rabon: “Rabon” (רַבּוֹן) is a title that can be used to address someone with great expertise in Jewish knowledge and scholarship. It’s a term of honor and respect. Like Rabbi, it indicates smicha, and is used in the Mishne along with Rabi. Not only does it acknowledge a person’s mastery of Jewish teachings, but those who have the title like Rabon Gamaliel or Rabon Yohanan ben Zakai were leaders of the Sanhedrin, who formalized Jewish law. This term is not used for anyone today.
- No Title: While those terms are certainly honorable, a select few have no titles, like the well known Hillel and Shammai. Though these two giants of Torah had smicha, the lack of honorific is actually a signal of their unrivaled authority.
- Other Terms:
- “Moreh Hora’ah”: This term refers to a teacher of Jewish law who can provide authoritative rulings on legal matters.
- “Mar”: Another term of respect, like “Mister” in English, is sometimes used even in ancient contexts as a term of respect.
- “Dayan”: A religious judge who specializes in adjudicating matters of Jewish law, often in a rabbinical court.
- “Rosh Yeshiva”: The head of a yeshiva, an educational institution focused on advanced Jewish studies.
In summary, these terms all pertain to figures of authority and leadership within the Jewish community, but their nuances lie in their historical origins, the specific roles they represent, and the level of formal education and ordination they denote.