M r. Rosenberg writes from Kansas City: “A group of us were discussing the derivation of the word ‘rabbi.’ We know what it means, obviously, and are aware of its various permutations — rov, reb, rebbe, rebenyu. But what is the root meaning of the word?”
The root meaning of the Hebrew word rav, “rabbi,” is “large,” “great” or “much,” and in the Bible it can have to do with number, magnitude, age or other things. If we take number, for instance, rav means “many” in its plural form of rabim, as in yamim rabim, “many days,” and batim rabim, “many houses.” If we take magnitude, we have the Psalmist’s “ma rav tuvcha,” “How great is Your goodness.” If age, rav means “older” or “senior,” as when Isaac blesses Jacob by saying, “ve-rav ya’avod tsa’ir,” “And the older [son, i.e., Esau] will obey the younger.”
In the first and second of these cases rav is an adjective, while in the third it is a noun. But the word can be used other ways in biblical Hebrew, too, including as a prefix similar to the English “arch-” in the sense of “chief.” Thus, we have such biblical combinations as rav-h.ovel, the “chief rigger” or captain of a ship; rav-mag, “chief magician”; rav-sarisim, “chief eunuch” (i.e., official in charge of the king’s harem), and so forth. And in one place in the Bible we find, albeit in the genitive plural, rav standing by itself in this sense. This is in Jeremiah 39:13, where we read of “all the chiefs of” — kol rabbei — the king of Babylon.
In the post-biblical period, beginning with mishnaic times, this meaning of rav became common. At first, rav was a general word for “master,” whether of a slave or of a trade; then it took on the additional sense of a spiritual or religious master, that is, of a teacher of disciples. It is at this point that it can be translated as “rabbi,” as when the mishnaic tractate of Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, states: “Aseh lecha rav” — “Find yourself a master,” i.e., a rabbinic sage. And yet throughout mishnaic times, rav continued to retain its more general meaning of “master” as well. Thus, we are told by the Talmud how the great rabbi Resh Lakish, who gave up a career as a bandit chief to study Torah, says in a moment of pique to his father-in-law Rabbi Yochanan, “What good have you done me [by encouraging me to become a rabbi]? There [among the bandits] I was called rabi [my master] and here [among my students] I am called no differently?”
It is from the inflected form of rabi, “my teacher,” that our English word “rabbi” derives. While rabi was originally a direct form of address on the part of a student to his teacher, it eventually became in the Palestine of the early centuries C.E. a general title, so that we have Rabi Akiva, Rabi Tarfon, Rabi Yehoshua and dozens more in the Mishna and the Palestinian Talmud. Rav, on the other hand, was a title mainly used by the Amoraim of Babylon, the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud. There we have Rav Huna, Rav Hisda, Rav Papa and many others.
You may be wondering where the “n” in our English “rabbinic” and “rabbinate” comes from. In a purely English context, the answer is that it goes back to “rabbin,” an old and now archaic form of “rabbi” that was no longer being used by the second half of the 19th century. But this merely pushes the question back a stage further. Where did the “n” in “rabbin” come from?
Although the Oxford English Dictionary, the most august authority in the field of English etymology, declares that “the source of the ‘n’ [in ‘rabbin’] is obscure,” it is actually not such a mystery. “Rabbin” derives from raban, an inflected Aramaic form of rav, meaning “our master,” that was used in ancient Palestine for a rabbinic leader, such as Raban Gamliel, or Raban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was recognized as the teacher of an entire generation. It is this same Aramaic ending that gives us the Hebrew plural form of rabanim, “rabbis,” and the Hebrew adjective rabani, “rabbinic.”
On the other hand, the “n” cited by Mr. Rosenberg in the Yiddish rebbenyu, a term of endearment meaning “dear rabbi,” has its source in the Slavic suffix -nyu, which also appears in such words as gottenyu, “dear God,” and tatenyu, “dear father.” Of the other Yiddish forms mentioned by Mr. Rosenberg, rov obviously descends from the Hebrew rav, and rebbe from the Hebrew rabi. While both of these words designate a rabbi, the two were not at all the same thing in the world of Eastern European Jewry since rebbe referred specifically to a chasidic rabbi and rov to a mitnagdic, or nonchasidic, one. And reb, of course, was a title of respect or affection that could be given to any Jew at all, though it was mandatory when a person of lesser status addressed a social superior and optional when it was the other way around.