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What Is a Rebbe?

What Is a Rebbe?


A fundamental principle of the Jewish faith is that there are no intermediaries between G‑d and His world; our relationship with Him is not facilitated by any third party. In light of this, there are a number of statements by our sages that require explanation.

When the Torah speaks of Israel’s faith in G‑d in the wake of the miracles of the Exodus, it says, “They believed in G‑d and in Moses His servant” (Exodus 14:31). Noting that the Torah uses the very same verb (vayaaminu, “and they believed”) to refer to Israel’s belief in Moses and in the Almighty, the Mechilta declares: “One who believes in Moses believes in G‑d.”

Accordingly, the Zohar refers to Moses as the raaya meheimna of Israel—a phrase that translates both as “faithful shepherd” and “shepherd of faith.” The latter sense implies that Moses is Israel’s faith provider—a source of, and conduit for, their faith in G‑d.

The Talmud goes even further, applying the same to the sages and Torah scholars of all generations. Citing the verse (Deuteronomy 30:20), “To love the L‑rd your G‑d and to cleave to Him,” it asks, “Is it then possible to cleave to the divine?” and replies: “But whoever attaches himself to a Torah scholar, the Torah considers it as if he had attached himself to G‑d.”1

The Awareness Factor

The explanation, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya, lies in understanding the father/child metaphor employed by the Torah to describe our relationship with G‑d. “You are children to the L‑rd your G‑d,” says Moses (Deuteronomy 14:1). While we were still in Egypt, G‑d speaks of us as “My firstborn child, Israel” (Exodus 4:22).

In what way is G‑d our father? There are, of course, the obvious parallels. Like a father, G‑d creates us and provides us with sustenance and direction. He loves us with the boundless, all-forgiving love of a father. Rabbi Schneur Zalman delves further into the metaphor, examining the biological and psychological dynamics of the father-child model and employing them to better understand our relationship to each other and to our Father in Heaven.

A microscopic bit of matter, originating in the father’s body, triggers the generation of a life. In the mother’s womb, a single cell develops into a brain, heart, eyes, ears, arms, legs, toenails. Soon it emerges into the world to function as a thinking, feeling and achieving human being.

Physically, what has originated in the father’s body and psyche is now a separate, distinct and (eventually) independent individual. On a deeper level, however, the child remains inseparable from his begetter. In the words of the Talmud, “A son is a limb of his father.” At the very heart of the child’s consciousness lies an inescapable truth: he is his father’s child, an extension of his being, a projection of his personality. In body, they have become two distinct entities; in essence, they are one.

One may argue: perhaps in the child’s mind, the seat of his self-awareness and identity, the singularity of parent and offspring lives on. Here the child’s relationship with his father is sensed; here resides the recognition of their intrinsic oneness. But the brain is only one of the child’s many organs and limbs. The rest of him may indeed stem from its parental source, but is now a wholly separate entity.

Obviously, this is not the case—any more than it would be correct to say that the eyes alone see or that just the mouth speaks. The component parts of the human being comprise a single, integrated whole; it is the person who sees, the person who speaks, the person who is aware. The toenail of the child, by virtue of its interconnection with the brain, is no less one with the father than is the brain itself, the organ which facilitates this oneness.

But what if the toenail, or any other limb of the body, severs its connection with the brain? This would cut it off from its own center of vitality and consciousness, and as a result also from its parental origins. In other words, the unity of all the child’s limbs and organs with the father’s essence is dependent upon their maintaining their connection with their own mind, a connection which imbues them all with the awareness of this unity.

The Body Israel

Israel, too, is comprised of many “organs” and “limbs.” There are the great sages of each generation who devote their life to the assimilation of the divine essence of Torah, whose entire being is permeated with the awareness of G‑d’s truth. These are the mind of the nation. Israel has a heart, individuals whose lives exemplify compassion and piety; and hands, its great builders and achievers. Each and every individual, from the “Moses of the generation”2 to the ordinary “foot soldier,” forms an integral part of the body of G‑d’s firstborn—each is equally “the limb of the father.”

But as with the physical father-child relationship, it is the mind of the child which facilitates the bond with his father. As long as the many organs and limbs of his body remain a single integrated whole, they are all equally the father’s child. The mind is not serving as an “intermediary,” G‑d forbid—every part of the body, including the toenail, possesses the self-knowledge that makes the two ostensibly distinct bodies of the father and child a single entity. But it is only by virtue of their connection to their mind that this awareness resides within all the child’s parts.

The same applies to the “body” that is Israel. It is our life-bond with our “mind”—the sages and leaders of Israel—that both integrates us as a single whole and imbues us with our connection to our Creator and Source.

True, a Jew cannot ever sever his or her bond with G‑d, any more than even the lowliest toenail of the child’s body can choose to go off on its own and undo its relationship with its father. But while we cannot change what we are, we can determine to what extent our identity as G‑d’s child will be expressed in our daily life. We can choose, G‑d forbid, to disassociate ourselves from the leaders whom G‑d has implanted in our midst, thus banishing our relationship with Him to the subconscious of our soul. Or we can intensify our bond to the “mind” of Israel, thereby making our bond with the Almighty a tangible and vibrant reality in our lives.3

Talmud, Ketubot 111b.
As each generation’s leader is called—see Bereishit Rabbah 56:7; Tikkunei Zohar 114a; Rashi’s commentary to Talmud, Chullin 93a.
Based on Tanya, chapter 2, and a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sivan 26, 5711 (June 30, 1951).
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Phyllis New Zealand January 30, 2015

Thank you Bob Mark! I agree totally. I think that G-d gives men, and women, who have a knowledge that is needed by each generation, but those people do not or ever will stand between me and my Heavenly Father. Reply

Phillip South Africa January 10, 2014

Essay by Yank Tauber Since my last visit ti Eretz Yisrael three years ago when I first encountered a similar question, "How does the Lubaivtcher Rebbe differ from people like Rav Man Shach, Rav Kametzky etc." in that they too are Rebbes - my first and maintained answer is this:
While no one is denying the greatness of these rabbis, who are Rebbes only to the Jews within their frame of reference, their immediate communities ie their four cubit sqm of Jews. The Rebbe, - is the rosh bnei Yisrael and sees that every Jew, no matter his spiritual station in life is still a Jew, but as we know, - the Rebbe too, sees to the welfare of all other nations and other forms of life. He would be failing in his responsibility as Rebbe if these were not within his frame of reference. Reply

Anonymous July 31, 2013

I often struggle. The Torah. The Talmud. Just think we frequently make it too complicated. I will not bow before my majestic Creator in the End of this life with anyone. I appreciate the great work and interpretations of many yet none will stand with me on that day. None. Reply

Carmen January 14, 2011

Malchut The Rebbe is the Mind of Israel who is already living in a level of kingdom and is striving to all Parts to live also in that level as one Body.

May be now the time when the Rebbe doesn´t need anymore to "strive"for that, because all Parts will be already living in the same level and funcioning in harmony, without conlicts anymore.

May this be right now! Right now! Reply

david January 14, 2011

A single individual or many leaders? From this article and other quotes from Tanya, it sounds like there are many leaders in each generation. Is that the case? Is there any source for a singular leader or head of all Jews? It doesn't imply that way in Tanya!
Is there a source for the idea of one towering Rebbe of the generation? Reply

Yosef ben Eliaju Redwood City, CA January 13, 2011

Who is the Rebbe? Is he a special person placed on earth by G-D to be an emissary? Is he greater than a human being? Is the degree to which his wisdom surpasses others an accident or a divine plan? If so, how do you know? Is MY brain then of such a lower order that I could never comprehend what it means to be "one" with G-D? If I am a lesser being, do I then have less responsibility for the quantity or quality of my contribution to the world and my people? Surely, there is something mysterious about how some people seem to be so much more "evolved" than others, wiser, smarter, ("luckier"...) So, is the conscious entity of Israel only conscious because of the superior "brain" of our patriarchs or a rebbe? This is a very troubling idea because there are few things that we can really know, and few ways we can ultimately be close to truth accept by reaching for it ourselves. Wasn't it the BalShemTov himself who said something about being in a forest together finding the way? Reply

Bob Mark Paramus, NJ January 12, 2011

What is a Rebbe I am greatly disappointed but not surprised at the hidden message behind the what is a rebbe article.

First of all it is clear that if one reads the lines the rebbe is being compared to a modern day Moses. Secondly, it is further implied that by believing in the rebbe, one is maximizing his belief in G-d.

In fact, the only solid part of the article - discounting all the nonsense about toenails and bodies etc which is silliness - is that in Judaism there are no intermediaries. That includes rebbes, rabbis, rebbetzins and all manner of other religious personnel. Reply

Sam Sacks August 6, 2010

Hang ups The problem is getting hung up on the metaphor.. it's meant to describe relationships. The mind/soul is ultimately a non-physical being and the Tanya is describing the level of conscious awareness of the receiver as a child receives life from the father(then mother and each progressive step into a seemingly separate entity albeit with a connection to it's source.) It has nothing to do with physicality except as a tool for understanding. Reply

Yanki Tauber February 8, 2007

Response to onionmix You are aware of who your father is and of your relationship with him. Which part of you is aware? Just your brain, but not your hand? Is your brain an "intermediary" between your father and the "rest" of you?

You could phrase it that way. But it would be more correct to say that YOU -- all of you -- is aware. Your brain is the part of yourself that is the primary seat of this awareness. Your whole self is aware because you have a brain--(if you didn't have a brain, then you might still be aware on some primal level, but not on a conscious one)--but it's the whole person who is aware.

Now, if your hand would detach itself from the rest of you--and thus also from your brain--it would lose this (conscious) awareness. Again, you could use that as an indication that the brain is an "intermediary." But somehow, my brain doesn't feel like an intermediary between myself and something else. Perhaps "facilitator" would be a better term. But even that rings false. It's ME who knows, because my awareness is not something that's exclusive to any part of me.

As I understand it, this is the implication of the "mind of the child" metaphor in the 2nd chapter of Tanya. The point is twofold: 1) Every part of the child's body is equally an extension of the father's being. The only difference between the brain and the other body parts is the degree of *conscious awareness* of this connection. 2) When the other limbs are connected to the brain, they all share this awareness by virtue of this connection. The point is not that the brain is an "intermediary" but that the body now constitutes a single entity, and it is this holistic entity that is now consciously aware that it is an extension of the father's being. Reply

Linda Scharfman Graham Powder Springs, Ga. via February 5, 2007

Article:The Head The womb contains the body and gives the soul through the Mother. Is there not a danger of imbalance by constantly ignoring the Mother principle as equal with a metophor of Her own? If I am correct, the soul comes through the Mother. Where would Israel exist without Her soul? Is that not the most important element of all?Although, I do acknowledge Chabad as more balanced than I have found elsewhere and am extremely happy to have found such wonderful teachers. Reply

onionsoupmix February 4, 2007

I am not clear at all on how the analogy of the mind to the other parts of the body does not indicate an intermediary relationship. Without the mind, the body would cease to function and if our connection to Hashem would lessen or cease to function without the gedolim of the generation, then it sounds exactly like an intermediary. Please clarify. Reply

Lisa Edelman Chicago, IL via February 16, 2005

Article: The Head I am curious: The article mainains the metaphor of the connection of a child with his father as "A microscopic bit of matter, originating in the father's body, triggers the generation of a life. In the mother's womb,.." The rest of the metophor is that of a Child to his Father because of this- but the microscopic bit of matter cannot form into anything without the womb in which to grow. So why then is there no metaphor concerning the womb or the Mother? Why is G-d not considered as our Mother? Or where does the womb/Mother enter into all of this metaporically ie- Israel, the individual, etc? Reply

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