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The Difference Between a Rabbi and a Rav

The Difference Between a Rabbi and a Rav

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Hi Rabbi,

I am a frequent user of the Ask the Rabbi service on your site. Often you answer my query with no problem. But sometimes I’m told that this question needs to be taken to a “rav” or my “personal halachic authority.” I thought that when I ask a rabbi at Chabad.org, I am asking a halachic authority. Why do I need a personal “rav”? Are “rav” and “rabbi” not synonyms? And why do I need a personal rav? Isn’t it one Torah for everyone? Can you please clear this up for me?

Answer:

First, to clarify some terms. In common parlance, “rabbi” is the catch-all term for anyone who has semichah, rabbinical ordination (read more about that here). “Rav” on the other hand, has come to refer to someone who has had more extensive training and experience in providing guidance related to practical halachah (Jewish law). A rav also gets appointed by a community to answer halachic questions.

Nurse vs. Doctor

Ever wonder why are there all those people working in the doctor’s office, and yet there are only three names emblazoned on the door? What makes a doctor more qualified than a nurse, for example? Why can’t a nurse examine you while you sit on a long scroll of parchment paper somewhat like an oversized croissant?

Perhaps it is about on-the-job experience. Doctors have to go through rigorous training and residency under supervision before they can qualify.

But if the difference is just experience, shouldn’t a nurse be able to diagnose and prescribe? A nurse might have seen more ear infections in 40 years of work than any specialist around. However, while a nurse can tell you what certain symptoms mean, and even the methods of treating illnesses, he or she cannot diagnose or prescribe medication. Nurses might have the book learning and experience of doctors, but nurses don’t have the same expertise: their on-the-job training is not as rigorous, they don’t go through an intensive supervised residency, and they are not given the same authority or responsibility when it comes to diagnosing or treating patients.

Your Doctor

Also, this is not just any old doctor’s office. This is your doctor’s office. The person who is going to examine you is not just another someone with a medical degree. This is your primary care physician. You might ask, like I did, why do I need a primary care physician? If I’m sick, I’m sick. Why do I need to go to the same person each time, just so that he can do exactly what every other doctor would do?

It’s because illnesses don’t occur in a vacuum. The things that you have gone through affect the person you are now. So you go back to the same doctor so she can tell you that your frequent ear infections might be a sign of a deeper issue, or that your fourth disease of the week is actually a symptom of hypochondria, and you need to see a therapist.

Back to the Rabbis

Medical expertise and halachic expertise have a lot of similarities. In the halachic arena, rabbis are the medical professionals. They can tell you if what you are doing is healthy or unhealthy. They answer your questions, suggest remedies and provide treatments. And, like medical professionals, there are rabbis with different degrees of knowledge:

There are rabbis who have learned the books and can answer most questions. If you give them very specific symptoms, or health inquiries that don’t require any prescription, they can help you.

If all you need is information that has already been ruled on and can be found clearly in Jewish law, then these are your guys. But if your question is one that is not so clear cut, if more inferences or personal evaluations need to be made, you are going to need someone with more qualifications.

For these issues there is the rav. This is someone who has learned much more, and on top of that had an internship for a few years with an established rav to get on-the-job experience. His training and experience, along with the power that has been vested in him by a community that trusts him, gives him the power you need. He was given the authority, and the responsibility, to make evaluations and decide on more complicated issues of Jewish law.

Then, finally, there are the primary care rabbis. Sometimes, they are referred to as “personal halachic authorities,” or “your rav.” You acquire them for life. They know you. They can deal with you, not just your question.

Rabbi vs. Rav

The reason that sometimes only a rav can answer your question is because there are two types of questions. There are questions that are clear. They are dealt with in books of Jewish law, and all we need to do is find the answer and relay the information. In that arena, anyone who knows the answer is qualified.

Then there are questions that are not found inside the books. These are the questions that are not black and white. To answer that type of question requires comparing cases and making inferences. Sometimes there are multiple opinions about what Jewish law says, and the rav’s job is to evaluate which opinion to follow. That is something that only a rav, who was given that power and responsibility by a community, can do.

Three things a rav needs: Expertise, Experience & Authority. Authority requires a significant community.

So to sum it all up, why can’t the Ask the Rabbi people be good enough all the time? Because they aren’t qualified to make certain decisions. They might have knowledge and experience, but only a rav has the authority to make certain rulings. On top of that, they don’t really know who you are, and so cannot give you custom-tailored answers. You can still ask them questions, but sometimes, they will send you up the chain to a rav.

All of that was a surface-level answer. If you are satisfied with that, great—you can stop here. But for those who want to dig some more, there is actually a much deeper reason why certain issues can be dealt with only by a qualified rav.

Why Rabbis Are Not Like Doctors

This is because a rav is actually not like a doctor at all.

We go to primary care physicians as opposed to random doctors or nurses because they have a smaller chance of being wrong about how to treat us. Their experience and personal knowledge of our situation makes it less likely that they will misdiagnose us. So a doctor is all about damage control.

The value in a rav is not in the better chances of a correct diagnosis. The value in a rav is that going to him is the healing in and of itself. G‑d set up a system.1 That system is that when we have a question, we are to go to a rav and listen to what he says. So we are not going to the rav for information; we are going to the rav because G‑d said to go to a rav.

When a rav tells you something, it is not an opinion. It isn’t take-it-or-leave-it advice. He is telling you what G‑d wants you to do, because G‑d said to listen to your rav. When it comes to halachah, there is no going to another doctor for a second opinion. The opinion you get from your rav is final and indisputable.

It gets even deeper than that.

How so? Let’s begin with a story that I have personally confirmed:

Veteran kosher slaughterer, Rabbi Leibel Turk was always the last one to leave the meat plant. One of his jobs as a kosher slaughterer was to take a final inventory and close up. Along with a group of other kosher slaughterers, he had been doing a kosher run in a meat plant. Today, he was flying back to his home to Brooklyn.

Rabbi Turk began his final inventory check, counting the sealed packages and comparing them to his inventory sheet, as he did every day. He finished counting, and stopped short. He checked again, making sure that the error was not his. His suspicions were right. There was one more item than his sheet said there should be.

He quickly surmised what must have happened. What the slaughterers would do is they would put the kosher sticker on all the animals and then send them to be checked. If any were checked and found to be non-kosher, they would take the sticker off. It was a convenient system, if not the most error-free. What must have happened was that one of the animals that had not yet been checked had gotten mixed up with the already-checked group. That is why there was one more than his list said there should be.

But now what to do? One of the animals was possibly not kosher, and he had no idea which one.

So, as you might expect, he called his rav, Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dworkin (1901-1985).

After Rabbi Turk explained the situation, Rabbi Zalman Shimon told him that since the animals were mixed up, the possibly non-kosher animal was nullified (battel), and did not pose an issue. However, the custom in such a scenario is to throw out one of the group to symbolize the non-kosher one.2

Satisfied with the answer, Rabbi Turk followed instructions, selected a package at random and threw it out. Satisfied, he drove directly to the airport to catch his flight.

When he got to the airport, he met another one of the kosher slaughterers, a Bobover chassid who worked with him. Naturally, Rabbi Turk related the whole story to him.

The other fellow looked at him quizzically. “Don’t you know that you could have easily figured out which one it was by checking the tags?” he asked.

In addition to the stickers, the plant had a system whereby each animal was given a unique barcode. Only the animals that had gone through the entire checking procedure would have been put into the system. So, all Rabbi Turk needed to do was see which animal had a barcode that wasn’t on the list.

The other man decided that he would run back to the plant to take out the non-kosher package. After all, how could you let a potentially non-kosher animal be sold as a kosher one?

Less than an hour later, the man returned to the airport. He walked over to Rabbi Turk and said, “Your rav is a miracle worker! I checked through all the tags, and the one that was not checked was the one that you had discarded!”

That’s the story. And while it may be the exception as opposed to the rule, it does give over the fundamental point that must be understood when asking a rav a question.

Since asking a rav is part of G‑d’s system, He upholds whatever decision the rav makes. If the rav says the food is kosher, then that is exactly what it is. We trust that as long as the rav follows the guidelines of the Torah, his decision is backed by G‑d.

What he says is the answer that is right for your soul.

It gets even deeper. Kind of.

But first, another story. (Who doesn’t love a good story?)

This is a story of the Baal Shem Tov.

One day a man came in to him with a very serious question. He had just been to a Jewish court for a monetary dispute. After reviewing the case, the presiding rav ruled that he was obligated to pay. He had lost the court case.

He told the Baal Shem Tov that he was not upset with the ruling, he was just confused. He knew in his heart that he did not owe the money. The claims against him were false. But he also knew that the rav had followed all the laws of the Torah and had justly ruled against him. How could the Torah of truth support a ruling that was itself untrue and unjust?

The Baal Shem Tov listened to his question, stroked his beard for a minute, and told him the answer.

“Your soul,” the Baal Shem Tov related, “actually owed money to the soul of that other man in a previous lifetime. Unfortunately, you passed away without ever being able to repay your debt. It was therefore decreed that in this lifetime, in your time back on earth, you would be obligated by the Torah to pay him back the money you owe. But you could not have owed the money to him in this life, for then it would not count for your previous life. It is only because you truly do not owe him anything that the money you gave him can repay the debt of your previous incarnation.”

Pretty crazy, huh?

So, the ruling of a rav that is based on the methods of Torah is not only a just decision in this life, but it is justice that transcends the limitations of just one body or plane.

So, what are you waiting for!? Go find yourself one!

Footnotes
2.
Rema, Yoreh Deah 109:2.
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SG Ohio August 17, 2017

Thank you very much, this article truly clarified the entire topic very nicely. Beautifuly writen as well. Reply

arthur yanoff August 21, 2017

the rav some things stick with us. when i was a young kindele ,my bubbe ,speaking of her zada ,said that he was a a big rav. because of this i often use the term interchangeable with rabbi . but it is emes, the way my bubbe expressed it, the implication was that a rav was on a very chai plane. still, we yiddin must be careful to not let titles cause us to feel puffed up. what i take from the story of the BESHT siding with the judgment of the rav is that the Besht had an insight that the rav was a chocham with a very great dimension. some yids like our own Rebbe had a very great ,all encompassing dimension. Reply

Anonymous August 20, 2017

I understand why it is important to find a Rav. But how does one do that? Reply

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