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What Is a Rebbe?

What Is a Rebbe?


Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Hecht had been the Chabad presence in New Haven, Connecticut, since 1941. The demands on him grew year by year, with a synagogue, a school, a yeshivah, and many other responsibilities that required a staff several times that which he could afford.

In 1974, he wrote to the Rebbe complaining that in 33 years of work he felt he was back at the same place as when he started, and that he simply could not continue.

He signed off the letter with a heartrending plea that “the Rebbe should help and do all he can.”

The Rebbe responded—not with counsel, but with light:

I’ve already followed your advice. I’ve sent there Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Hecht. But it appears from your letter and from those preceding it that you still are not familiar with him and with the capabilities with which this person is endowed.

Whatever the case, you should get to know him now. Immediately, everything will change—your mood, your trust in G‑d, everyday happiness, etc., etc.

Who Is a Rebbe?

Rebbe means “my master” or “my teacher.” Whether you are a small child learning the alef-bet, or an expert scholar sailing the seas of the Talmud, you call your teacher “rebbe.”

There’s another meaning to the title “rebbe,” one especially associated with a rabbi they called the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov was a teacher who not only touched your mind and heart, Before you can understand “what is a rebbe,” you must first ask, “What am I?”but could reach into your essential being and guide you to find yourself there.

A rebbe, then, is a guide to your true self. Which means that before you can understand “what is a rebbe” and “who is a rebbe,” you must first ask, “What am I” and “who am I?”

Who Needs a Rebbe?

Imagine a rebbe as a ray of light. Light is not a thing for itself. Light is light only when it illuminates. Think of the space beyond our planet’s atmosphere: between the brilliant sun and the glowing earth is only darkness. For light to be light, you must provide something for it to enlighten.

If your major concern is getting from today to tomorrow, there is nothing to enlighten. If you consider yourself nothing more than a two-legged creature with an excess of neurons, Wikipedia and TED may be all you need.

But if you seek that which transcends physical sensation and satisfaction, if you feel a need to make sense of life, if you have ever asked yourself, “What am I doing here?” and you are looking for something deep inside yourself—then you need a rebbe to get you in touch with that inner self.

Context and Liberation

How does a rebbe do that? How could he show you something about you that you yourself could not discover?1

Because as soon as you are connected to a rebbe, you are connected to a higher, wider context. A context in which you are no longer a lonely speck of dust in the vast, empty space, but a vital part of a greater whole. There, within that context, you discover where you are needed, what you are here to accomplish, and how you have the powers to fulfill that mission.

Context is everything. A sentence fallen out of a book can never make sense of itself without its story. Out of context, all meaning is distorted—often into its opposite. A precious ring in the snout of a boar, King Solomon the Wise tells us, just renders the beast yet more beastly. A swan out of context is an ugly duckling.

Life out of context is called exile. Connecting to a rebbe connects you to the whole.Without your context, it’s not just that your place is missing. Without knowing your place, you cannot find your center, the very core of who you are.

Connecting to a rebbe connects you to the whole. And within that whole, you are liberated from exile.

Nucleus and Bonding

A rebbe is capable of doing that because he himself stands at the nucleus of that context.

All beauty in our universe begins with a nucleus. For a crystal to form, whether it be a snowflake or a diamond, a tiny nucleus of molecules must first become the basic structure from which a marvelous symmetry may extend. The same with life—whether it be a single cell, an entire tree or a human being: all begins with a tiny seed carrying the information that will unfold to form the limbs and organs of a mature organism.All beauty and all life in our universe begins with a nucleus.

And we all form a single organism. Our bodies may be separate, but our souls are one. What makes them one? That they have a single nucleus. In that nucleus all of us find our origin, and from it we continue to be nurtured. Nurtured and bonded in a perfect union with one another and with the origin of all things. For that nucleus is the place where G‑d enters His universe. It is the place of a rebbe’s soul, and from there he invites you to join him.

We and G‑d

After all, what is a soul? It is G‑d breathing inside you; it is the divine presence invested within your physical body. It is what we call a neshamah—meaning “a breath,” as in the story of the creation of the first human being, when “G‑d blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” At every moment G‑d breathes within us, and through that breath we are one with Him and He is one with us. G‑d is one, and so He is found in our oneness.In that breath, we are our Creator.

G‑d is one, and so He is found in our oneness. Not as individuals, but as a whole, a singularity. Not as I, but as we. As a harmony of multifarious parts becoming one.

Which means that to find that oneness, that place inside you in which you are one with your G‑d, you must first connect your soul with other souls, which connect with yet more networks of souls, all forming a single cell around a single nucleus. That nucleus, in turn, is the nodal point at which G‑d’s breath enters. It is where all things become one.

In that nucleus a rebbe stands, and from there he brings us together as one, to feel one another, to know us, to know ourselves, and to know our center, our core, the place where G‑d enters each of our souls. A rebbe connects us with our G‑d—and then gets out of the way.

Heads and Heads

Rebbe, they say, stands for rosh b’nei Yisrael. That means “a head of the Jewish people.”

Most of us think of a head as a control center. The head tells the heart, the lungs, the stomach, the fingers and the toes what to do. Certainly, I am not interested in handing myself over to one who controls me. G‑d gave me my life to be me, not to be controlled by someone else.

But if you think of your own head, it is certainly not like that. That is, unless you are the philosopher who complained at the end of his days, “My whole problem, it turns out, is that I have no body, only a head.”

The head we are talking about here is not a philosopher’s head, or an artificial head. A head, before it is a head, is first part of a body. It is the head of an organism, a body. Which means that before it is a head, it is first a part of this body. And so, the head is not concerned with consuming all other body parts into the head’s agenda. The head is concerned with the heart being a healthy heart, the stomach being a healthy stomach, the fingers doing what fingers are supposed to do, and the toes keeping well within their own domain as well. The head is concerned with each body part fulfilling its own agenda.

So too, a rebbe is firstly a servant of his people.

Knowing Your Name

Jerry Levine was an anchorman for Miami’s Channel 10 News, and a good one. He had won an Emmy for producing programs encouraging Floridians to participate in regular medical examinations. In 1989, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar asked him to work for his organization, Aleph, assisting Jewish prisoners and military personnel and their families.

Jerry was young, and thought, “Hey, here’s a great opportunity to try something new and different. And I can always get back into the news business if it doesn’t work out.”

So, at Rabbi Lipskar’s suggestion, Jerry wrote to the Rebbe to ask his advice, providing many details about himself and his personal goals.

The Rebbe’s response? A fax arrived on Rabbi Lipskar’s desk: “Tell me all his names.”

Jerry thought he had told the Rebbe all his names: Yosef ben Hirsch Leib ha-Levi. But when he went to talk with his mother about it, she told him it was Yosef Mordechai ben Hirsch Leib ha-Levi.

So he wrote again, this time with his full name. The Rebbe responded, telling him to ask the advice of a good friend.

“What I got from that,” Jerry says, “is that this is a different sort of leader.”

Any other leader would have been concerned with “What can this person provide my organization? How can he get us better media exposure?”

The Rebbe’s concern, in Jerry’s words, was that a Jewish boy didn’t know his own name. How did he know that? How did he recognize something was missing?

Why shouldn’t he? That is the job of a rebbe—to help you find your name, your true self, and where you belong.As a brain knows what the stomach needs, so a rebbe knows a Jew better than the Jew knows his own self.

But it is not the knowing that is relevant here. It is the caring. That was the Rebbe’s first concern, because that is the job of a rebbe—to help you find your name, your true self and where you belong.

Nothing For Yourself

Freddy Hager came as a young man to see the Rebbe. He showed the Rebbe a picture of his grandfather, who had been a chassidic rebbe in Galicia.

The Rebbe asked him, “Do you know what it means to be a rebbe?” But Freddy didn’t respond. So the Rebbe answered.

“The Baal Shem Tov was the first rebbe. He would not go to sleep at night as long as he had anything of value left in his house. Whatever he had, he gave away to those who needed it.”

“That’s what it means to be a rebbe,” concluded the Rebbe. “Whatever you have, you have for others.”

The following is based on Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, chapter 2.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous June 17, 2015

Your words took me to a place of gratitude and longing so unexpected. Tears filled my eyes and the Rabbis faces filled my vision, while I heard their names. Reply

Chana Boas Jerusalem June 29, 2014

was looking for an article to inspire two classes - one of well-learned women and one of kind-of -affiliated. This will suit both - remarkable. thank you Rabbi for dependable quality writing and inspiration Reply

Hadassah North Miami Beach May 4, 2014

enlightening! Just found this old link in my mailbox and took the time to read this article. What a wonderfully expressed message. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous Europe March 3, 2014

Of course we need and intermediary, teacher, leader ! Are you smart like Solomon was? No! I think we need teachers and leaders it was also Hashem´s plan for the Jewsish nation to have few.
We can´t rely on our understanding , sometimes we are faithful jews, keeping Torah but doing some mistakes and thinking we are right.
Sometimes we can't exactly understand what things mean it's why we need teachers and leaders who will direct us to the right path and who will show us what Hashem really mean with this or that ..
And yes, I think we need an intermediary, we are not Moshe.

And those big Tzadikim like the Rebbe and others are helping us with our service and with understanding G-d. I am not on the level that I can serve G-d based on my feeling and understanding.
The Tzadik is here to help you with it, we don't serve them, we do not pray to them but we learn from them and they can guide us and help us more connect to our One and Only Great G-d.
Happy Adar II! Reply

Gene Colorado February 27, 2014

Thank you so much These true Rabbis are amazing ! helping us to see within ourselves what we have trouble accepting. Giving sometimes in a way we think we cannot contain,but if we listen in fascination or contemplation maybe with meditation we can embrace our G-d
Ness ? Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles January 13, 2014

So well-explained Thank you for this beautiful article. It is so clarifying. Reply

peter sweden January 11, 2014

All You need is a Rebbe Thank You for the article.....I know after Thirty years of trifles that all You need is an onion and a piece of bread, and sometimes not even that. Thousands will fall on Your left side and thousands will fall on Your right side. Blessed be He the only one.
The Baal Shem once came to a prayer house in a little village. The house where crowded and the voices where high, filled with laughter and arguments. The Rebbe backed off and said : I can see that there are no room for Me here. One of the attendant asks Why is that and the Rebbe answered. His presence is everywhere, but Who listens. Reply

Bracha Meshchaninov Monsey, NY January 10, 2014

Love it I really love this article... One of the best explanations of what a Rebbe is that I have come across in my 35 plus minus years of trying to understand this mysterious nature of leadership... Thank you and Yasher Koach!! Reply

Marlene Lewis Mtl. January 9, 2014

Beautiful piece of work, thank you for posting. It is something that I will read several times. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman via January 9, 2014

To Alexander Please read the article at this link.
This is similar to the statement of Moses (the first rebbe): "Behold, I stand between you and your G‑d."
Obviously, Moses also doesn't get in the way. Neither is his statement idolatrous. Reply

Anonymous Henderson, NV January 8, 2014

The definition of a Rebbe, is one who has the heart of G-d?! Raymond Bastarache in NB Canada, It is impossible for anyone to have the heart of G-d. We all can be like King David and be a person after G-d's own heart, but G-d is the only one who is pure, holy, and perfect, all knowing, all seeing, and can be everywhere at all times. We can only submit to Him, worship Him, and obey Him, and live for Him as best we can day by day. Don't be fooled by what other's say and their opinions. Get into Torah for yourself and find out the truth. Ask G-d to guide you and teach you as you read. If you draw close to Him, He will draw close to you. If he doesn't seem close, guess who moved ! Reply

Yossi Israel January 8, 2014

It bothers me... I feel, after going over so many countless comments the type of which appeared here several times, an obligation of sorts to respond, at least once, because I know that Rabbi Freeman and the other authors on this site won't bother giving answers to those who seek none.

I find it...annoying, to put it nicely, the way in which some respond to the beautiful, deep expressions of love of G-d and His Torah, and the leaders He has granted us unworthy people as a gift. It is based on long traditions, and not from our own puny minds, but from the same leaders who you yourselves praise! I am talking about their position amongst the Jewish people--these leaders--discussed extensively in their Sichos, farbrengens, and so forth--as is it is not enough what our own eyes, spiritual and fleshy, witnessed over hundreds of years.

A chutzpa for some to come and express their discontent with a power of G-dliness that itself is the source of literally innumerable acts of Torah, holding the world up.... Reply

jamie moran London January 8, 2014

i always enjoy your statements, for their light! but for a moment, to help with 'context', i would like to ask you a humbler factual question. i take it the calling/name of rabbi did not exist in the era of the First Temple, when some or much of what "rabbi" does/is was enacted by the priest figure.. it is my impression that the rabbi role did not really get going until after the Second Temple [after the Babylon Exile], but is that so? i may be in the dark on this. please clear up= when the calling of rabbi really began [post Babylon, during Babylon, pre Babylon, etc] and why it began. this is confusing... thank you.
jamie [john poorwolf] Reply

Anonymous EU January 8, 2014

our Rebbe it is unbelievable how the Rebbe, his soul is here still with us and how he is guiding us .

Thank You Hashem for giving us so special Tzadik.
And thank you Rebbe for all. Reply

Christina January 8, 2014

What is.... Someone that can see with and without asking the wrong questions.... Reply

Helen Australia January 7, 2014

Very well said I agree about the oneness with God, I have come to the same conclusion myself or better said I have been enlightened and blessed with the feeling. It is powerful and has to be used wisely and I now feel that I have a higher sense of responsibility in sharing the light as a human. Reply

Anonymous Henderson, NV January 7, 2014

Definition of Rebbe A Rebbe is simply a Rabbi of the strictest sect of Judaism. that's mystical magical explanation necessary. To be enlightened means that you have to have a personal relationship with G-d, and He will give you guidance and illumination in your studies of Torah and dealing with other people. He does not expect perfection from us. He just wants us to put Him first in all of our ways and acknowledge Him in every step of our lives. We need to align ourselves with G-d, and all the rest will follow you just need to get into the habit of it and please G-d, and don't stress on anything. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma January 7, 2014

My Rebbe has always been G-d. Every rebbe I ever went to was too busy illuminating me to let me illuminate them. So G-d taught me to go into the world, to tend The Garden with tenderness, to find answers to the deepest questions in every corner of the world, including Wikipedia, to be a healing force in the lives of others, to frequent and love all subjects, to listen to the music as it exists everywhere, to admire people around the world of all faiths, all persuadions, and to find G-d in every face, in every blade of grass, in the deep metaphoruc truths that came to dominate a life illuminated by LOVE. Reply

Ron Sharpe California USA January 7, 2014

What is a Rebbe ? A Rebbe in my opinion, is a Rabbi who has learnt that the State of Israel is the most important thing on his agenda. Praying and observing the Torah of course is important .However if it does not lead us, as Moses led his people to the Promised Land, without waiting for the Messiah, it is not even scratch the surface of what it means to be Jewish. Reply

Matt Oakwood, GA January 7, 2014

Rebbe/rabbi Do these spelling and pronunciation distinctions matter? - are they separate words or synonyms? Reply

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