Rav, Rebbe, Rabbi

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published September 19, 2003, issue of September 19, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.