The word rabbi means “my master” in Hebrew. A rabbi is a religious leader of Jewish people. Some rabbis lead congregations (synagogues), others are teachers, and yet others lead informally. Rabbinic ordination is known as semichah. In common parlance, a rabbi with advanced training in practical Jewish law (halachah) is known as a rav.

The great Talmudic sage and physician Shmuel once visited Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, who was suffering from an ailment of the eyes. Shmuel wanted to insert medicine into the great man’s eyes, but Rabbi Yehuda said that he could not endure such a treatment. “In that case,” said Shmuel, “I will gently smear some of the medication on your eyes.” “I can’t endure that either” answered Rabbi Yehuda. Faced with this dilemma, Shmuel placed a tube of the medication under Rabbi Yehuda’s pillow, and sure enough, Rabbi Yehuda recovered.

Seeing that Shmuel was such a great expert in medical matters as well as a great sage, Rabbi Yehuda sought to ordain him as a rabbi. But every time he tried, he was unable to gather the requisite people to perform the ordination.1 Shmuel then said to Rabbi Yehuda, “Master, do not trouble yourself, for I have seen it written in the book of Adam Harishon2 that “Shmuel Yarchinaah3 will be called a great sage, but shall not bear the title “rabbi…”4

It was not until the second century that “rabbi,” which literally means “my master” or “my teacher,” became an official title. Until that time even the greatest Jewish sages and prophets were not given an honorific.5 Over the centuries, the meaning of the title and the requirements for receiving it have evolved significantly. In order to understand what “rabbi” means today, let’s take a look at the history of rabbinic ordination, or semicha.

The Origins of Semicha

Although the title itself is a more recent development, the ordination of spiritual leaders began at the dawn of Jewish history. The original form of ordination was passed down from teacher to student in an unbroken chain reaching all the way back to Moses. Classical semicha ensured that the student was the next link in the Sinaic tradition and authorized him to judge cases which involved any sort of punitive punishment.6

The first to be thus ordained was Joshua. Moses placed his hands upon him, as the verse states: "And he placed his hands upon him and commanded him, in accordance with what the L rd had spoken."7 (The word “semicha” literally means “laying of the hands.”) Similarly, we find that Moses ordained the 70 judges, albeit without any mention of “laying of the hands.”8

The physical laying of hands was not continued in later generations, and semicha came to be conveyed by simply addressing the person as “rabbi”9 and telling him: "You are ordained and you have the authority to render judgment, even in cases involving financial penalties.”10

Joshua and the 70 elders ordained others, and they in turn gave semicha to their disciples. This tradition continued until the Talmudic era, when the sages were able to trace a direct line all the way back to the courts of Joshua and Moses.11

Conditions for Classical Semicha

This first form of ordination could only be granted under very specific conditions:

● The one granting the semicha had to do so while accompanied by two others. For semicha cannot be conveyed by less than three ”judges.” However only one of these three, namely the person conveying the semicha, had to be ordained himself.12

● Both the ordaining rabbi and the one receiving ordination had to be present in the Land of Israel.13 But they were not required to be in each other’s presence. Ordination could be granted through an oral or written message.14

● While a person could be ordained to rule only in a specific area of Jewish law,15 he was required to be expert and qualified to rule in all areas.16 Ordination to rule in matters relating to kashrut was referred to as “Yoreh Yoreh,” “May he decide? He may decide!” To rule regarding monetary issues, one required “Yaddin Yaddin” “May he judge? He may judge!” 17

● Not only could a person be ordained to rule only in a specific area, he could also be ordained to rule only for a specified time period.18

● There was no limit on how many people could be ordained at one time. In fact, King David ordained 30,000 people at once!19

● Originally, whoever was ordained would in turn ordain his students. But during the times of Hillel the Elder (1st century BCE), as a gesture of respect to the remnants of the house of David, the sages instituted that semicha could be conveyed only with the express permission of the generation’s Jewish leader—the nasi.20

At the same time, the sages also instituted that the nasi should not convey semicha unless he was accompanied by the head of the rabbinical court, the av beit din, and that the av beit din should not convey semicha unless accompanied by the nasi. The other sages, however, could convey semicha by themselves after receiving license from the nasi, provided they were accompanied by two others.21

The First Rabbis

In the Mishnah and Talmud we find, for the first time, three titles: Rabbi, Rab and Rabban.22

Rabbi: The title “rabbi” was borne by the sages of the Land of Israel, who were ordained there in accordance with the custom handed down by the elders. As direct heirs to the Torah of Moses, they were granted authority to judge penal cases.23

Rab: The Babylonian sages, who received ordination in their own schools in the diaspora, went by the title “rab.” Since they were not ordained in Israel, their ability to rule was restricted and did not include cases involving punitive damages.

Rabban: This title was reserved for the patriarchate, the nasi or the president of the rabbinical court, the av beis din of the Sanhedrin.24

The first to be called “rabban” were Rabban Gamaliel the Elder25 (died around 50 CE), Rabban Shimeon his son,26 and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai27 (died around 74 CE).

The first to be called “rabbi” were Rabbi Tzadok, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, and other disciples of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossei HaKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Nethanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.28

Keeping in mind that before these titles were used, even the greatest leaders and prophets were not called “rabbi,” it emerges that while the title “rabbi” is greater than ”rab,” “rabban” is greater than ”rabbi,” and the simple name without any title is greater than them all (provided of course that the person was deserving of an honorific).29

The Roman Ban and the End of Classical Semicha

At the time that these titles developed the Jewish nation was in turmoil. The first to bear them saw the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, and the institution of an oppressive Roman occupation in Israel. After the failed revolution by Bar Kokhba (132–135 CE), the emperor Hadrian tried to put a permanent end to the Sanhedrin and to semicha, which he saw as the Jews’ persistent attempt at self-rule.

The emperor decreed that whoever performed or received ordination should be put to death. In addition, the city in which the ordination took place was to be demolished, and all within 2000 amah uprooted. The tradition of semicha would indeed have been completely lost at that time were it not for the self-sacrifice of the great sage Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava.

Hearing the decree, Rabbi Yehuda took five students of Rabbi Akiva, the great sage who had just been martyred by the Romans, and sat between two mountains that served as the ”Shabbat boundary”30 between two large cities, Usha and Shifarum.

When the Romans discovered them, Rabbi Yehuda cried out to the students, “My children, flee!” The students replied “Our teacher, what will become of you?” He responded, “I am placed before them like a rock that cannot be overturned.” It is said that the Romans did not leave the spot where they had found Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava until they had pierced him with three hundred spears, rendering him like a sieve. But by then, the newly-ordained rabbis were out of reach.

The names of the five students were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda (bar Ilay), Rabbi Shimoen, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. According to some, Rabbi Nechemiah was ordained there as well.31

Although semicha had been temporarily saved, it became increasingly difficult to fulfill all its requirements, particularly because a large portion of the sages were living in Babylonia, and as mentioned, a rabbi could only be ordained in the Land of Israel.

It is not clear exactly when the classical semicha ceased completely. According to some, it ended in the days of Rabbi Hillel the Second, who became the leader of the Jews around 359 CE. Rabbi Hillel foresaw the end of the classic rabbinic ordination, and, seeing that the method used to sanctify the new month, which required ordained rabbis, was in peril, he established the set calendar that we use to this very day.32

Others are of the opinion that some form of the classical ordination continued for many years after that. They point to letters from Rabbi Tzemach Gaon (9th century) and Rabbi Chaninia Gaon (10th century) which imply that in their days, punitive damages were still judged in the Land of Israel, something which only one with semicha could do.33 Yet others point to letters from Rabbi Yehuda ben-Barzillai of Barcelona (11th-12th centuries) which seem to imply that even in his days there was some sort of semicha in Israel.34

Attempted Renewal of Classical Semicha

After the Spanish expulsion of 1492, many Jews remained in Spain, nominally accepting Christianity while practicing their Judaism in secret. Thousands of these converso Jews eventually escaped Spain, immigrating to Israel and other countries, where they could again practice Judaism openly. These Jews were haunted by the sins they had committed in their previous lives. Many were concerned that they might never fully atone for their more serious sins, some of which carried the punishment of karet--spiritual excision from G‑d.

In the year 1538, Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, the leading rabbi of Safed Israel and himself a refugee from the Spanish expulsion, came up with an original solution to this problem. He proposed the creation of Jewish courts that would carry out the punishment of malkos, lashes, which releases someone from the decree of karet.35

This punishment, however, could only be administered by a rabbi ordained with the original, classical form of semicha. As part of his plan, Rabbi Beirav sought to reinstate classical semicha based on a ruling by Maimonides that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint judges and grant them ordination, the semicha is binding. These judges may then adjudicate cases involving penalties and convey semicha upon others.36 37

After much deliberation, 25 sages of Safed ordained Rabbi Yakov Beirav with the newly-minted semicha. Rabbi Beirav then sent Rabbi Shlomo Chazan to Jerusalem to inform the sages there of the reinstitution of semicha and to ordain Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv, (known as the Ralbach), with the same powers bestowed on him.

But Rabbi Levi ibn Chaviv rejected the newly established semicha, claiming, among many other things, that when they reinstituted the semicha, they did not have the consent of all the sages of Israel. A bitter exchange between the two rabbis ensued, and a passionate debate erupted between their two camps.38

In the midst of this debate, members of the opposition informed the Turkish government that by reviving the semicha, Rabbi Beirav intended to reestablish the kingdom of Israel and rebel against them. Fearing for his life, Rabbi Beirav decided to flee to Egypt. Before doing so, however, he granted semicha to four of his leading disciples:39 Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch), Rabbi Moshe of Trani, Rabbi Abraham Shalom and Rabbi Israel de Curial.40 Rabbi Yosef Karo passed this semicha on to Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, and Rabbi Moshe Alsheich later ordained Rabbi Chaim Vital (the prime disciple of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal)41.

There is no record of this renewed ordination proceeding any further than Rabbi Chaim Vital. And although there have been a number of additional attempts at renewing the classical semicha, none of them gained as much traction or included such prominent sages as this attempt by Rabbi Yaakov Beirav. It seems that Jewish leaders have not embraced these attempts in deference to the opinion that classical ordination will only be reestablished during the messianic era.42

It is clear that classical semicha does not—or cannot—exist nowadays. This brings us to the obvious question: We still have plenty of rabbis, so what exactly is the modern-day semicha? Who gets to be called a rabbi?

Rabbinical Ordination Today

Despite the cessation of classical semicha, rabbis continued to be ordained throughout the generations. This diminished form of ordination was necessary because it is forbidden for a student to establish himself as an authority in Jewish law without his teacher’s explicit permission.43 Thus rabbinical ordination came to mean simply that the student had received permission from his teacher to make halachic rulings.

Some are of the opinion that rabbinic ordination nowadays is a remembrance of the ancient classical semicha. Therefore they believe that when granting rabbinic ordination we should try to fulfill as many requirements of the original semicha as possible, such as the requirement that only one qualified to rule in all areas of Jewish law should be ordained.44

Most, however, believe that ordination nowadays has no connection to the original semicha. According to this opinion, there is no need to be qualified in all other areas of the law in order to receive a limited ordination.45 46

While one can receive permission to rule in any one particular area of Jewish law, nowadays, for the most part, there are two levels of ordination. The most basic one, called “Yoreh Yoreh,” authorizes the recipient to rule on matters of kashrut and similar areas of Jewish law that pertain to basic daily life. The more advanced level of semicha is called “Yoddin Yoddin,” and authorizes its recipient to rule as a dayan – a judge in financial matters.47

The Lubavitcher Rebbe strongly encouraged young men to study and receive at least the basic level of semicha, Yoreh Yoreh, before their wedding. This ensures that there is someone in each Jewish home who is able to answer the day-to-day halachik questions that are sure to arise.48

Finally, it should be pointed out that while many who use the title today are indeed qualified to give rulings and answer questions, “rabbis” have proliferated greatly over the last century. Nowadays the title may be used for one who has a very limited form of ordination (i.e. he can only rule in a very specific area of Jewish law) or simply as a title of respect for a person who is a teacher or has some position of authority. For this reason one should be careful when seeking guidance from a rabbi that he is truly qualified to render a decision in the area of Jewish law one is asking about.