WHAT IS A RABBI?
The "zugoth" are the pairs of ancient teachers, predecessors of the Rabbis, who are recorded in the Talmud. The earliest zugoth appear in the early Maccabean period, about 250 years after the last period described in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Talmud does not give them the title 'Rabbi'. That title is not used until the time of R. Johanan b. Zakkai, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
In Tanakh, the word "Rabbi" does not appear. The various leaders of Israel were identified with designations like prophet, priest, king, or redeemer. The Rabbis themselves speak of some of the great leaders in Israel's past, like Moses and Ezra, as rabbis, but they are never identified that way in Tanakh. Moses was a Levite; his brother Aaron was the first high priest. "Scribe" is used to describe Ezra four times, but each time, he is first described immediately before as a priest.
The word "Rab" is used in Tanakh, but it is used to describe "Nebuzaradan the captain [rab] of the guard of the king of Babylon;" and "Daniel...ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief [rab] prefect over all the wise men of Babylon;" and "the captain [rab]" of the ship on which Jonah fled.
There are about 150 references in Tanakh to "being wise," "wise men," or "sages." However, none of these references mention anything that would specifically designate a rabbi. The term is used for gentiles as well as Jews, including the wise men of Egypt, those of Babylon, and those of Persia. It is also used for skilled artisans of different types, those considered wise in heart or learned in the law of God, whether king or counselor, son or servant. For that matter, Elihu the son of Barachel tells Job, "It is not the great [Rabbim] that are wise [yekhcamu], nor the aged that discern judgment." Job 32:9
In short, in the Judaism of the Bible, there is neither place, position, nor authority for the Rabbis. They are not even mentioned.
In the Talmud
In rabbinic Judaism, the Rabbis stand at the opposite pole. Here the Rabbis, at least the leading scholars among them, are the judges, prophets, priests, redeemers, and lawgivers. They exercise authority over the king. They have ultimate authority, an authority which even extends to the world to come. Not even God can contradict them.
They are to be the most honored and the most obeyed. Failure to honor the Rabbis leads to excommunication from the community of Israel, destruction, and eternal punishment.
The Talmud speaks very clearly on rabbinic authority and position. For example, it speaks of a descending scale which determines the importance of different individuals in life or death situations, or in situations of lesser danger: "A scholar takes precedence over a king of Israel, for if a scholar dies there is none to replace him while if a king of Israel dies, all Israel are eligible for kingship. A king takes precedence over a High Priest...A High Priest takes precedence over a prophet...
"A priest takes precedence over a Levite, a Levite over an Israelite, an Israelite over a bastard, a bastard over a Nathin [a descendant of the Gibeonites], a nathin over a proselyte, and a proselyte over an emancipated slave. This order of precedence applies only when all these were in other respects equal. If the bastard, however, was a scholar and the high priest an ignoramus, the learned bastard takes precedence over the ignorant High Priest."7
"Any man who marries his daughter to a scholar, or carries on a trade on behalf of scholars, or benefits scholars from his estate is regarded by Scripture as if he had clung to the divine presence."8
"R. Hiyya b. Abba also said in R. Johanan's name: All the prophets prophesied only in respect of him who marries his daughter to a scholar, or engages in business on behalf of a scholar, or benefits a scholar with his possessions; but as for scholars themselves, 'the eye hath not seen, O God, beside thee etc.' "9
There is greater reward for one who feeds a scholar than for one who houses the ark of the Tabernacle. "R. Eliezer the son of R. Jose the Galilean began to speak in praise of hospitality, expounding the verse, And the Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his house....because of the Ark of God. Have we not here an argument a fortiori? If such was the reward for attending to the ark which did not eat or drink, but before which he merely swept and laid the dust, how much more will it be for one who entertains a scholar in his house and gives him to eat and drink and allows him the use of his possessions!"10
"For R. Johanan said: Whoever casts merchandise into the pockets of scholars will be privileged to sit in the Heavenly Academy, for it is said, for wisdom is a defence even as money is a defence. "11
In his day, Maimonides criticized the sages who "fixed for themselves monetary demands from individuals and communitites and caused people to think, in utter foolishness, that it is obligatory and proper that they should help sages and scholars and people studying Torah." 12
Those who did not honor the Rabbis or accept their teachings were part of the despised am ha'aretz--the ignorant, common people. "Our Rabbis taught: Even if one has learnt Scripture and Mishnah, if he has not ministered to the disciples of the wise, he is an 'am ha-arez.' "13
"A rabbinical scholar may assert, I am a rabbinical scholar; let my business receive first attention..."14 "A rabbinical scholar may declare, I will not pay poll-tax, . . ."15 "A Rabbinic scholar may strip men of their cloaks? But we do not attend to his case.... A scholar, if he has obtained his money by force from the debtor, is allowed to retain it; but an ordinary person is compelled by the court to return it."16 "The Rabbis have power to expropriate."17
That is so because, "The disciples of the sages increase peace throughout the world..."18 "Thus, the masters of the Talmud were, so to speak, as essential to Israel as bread itself."19 They sustained life in this world, and their teachings provided the way of entry into the world to come. "It was taught in the Tanna debe Eliyyahu: 'Whoever repeats halachoth may rest assured that he is destined for the future world, as it says, His goings [halikoth ] are to eternity. Read not halikoth but halachoth '."20
Because of the greater importance assigned to the lives of certain rabbis, protecting or prospering them could even guarantee an individual a place in the world to come. Such great rabbis can provide the guarantee themselves.
"R. Gamaliel was condemned to death....Thereupon the officer went up secretly to him and said, 'If I save you will you bring me into the world to come?' He replied: 'Yes.' He then asked him, 'Will you swear it unto me?' And the latter took an oath. The officer then mounted the roof and threw himself down and died. Now there was a tradition [amongst the Romans] that when a decree is made and one of their own [leaders] dies, then that decree is annulled. Thereupon a Voice from Heaven was heard declaring, This high officer is destined to enter into the world to come."21
The greatest possible blessings in this world and in the world to come are gained by serving the Rabbis. Likewise, the greatest possible misfortunes or curses come from not serving them.
"R. Joshua b. Levi further said: In twenty-four places we find that the Beth din inflicted excommunication for an insult to a teacher, and they are all recorded in the Mishnah."22 "Has not R. Papa said: A certain man made derogatory remarks about Mar Samuel and a log fell from the roof and broke his skull?...R. Joshua b. Levi said: Whoever makes derogatory remarks about scholars after their death is cast into Gehinnom, as it says, But as for such as turn aside unto their crooked ways, the Lord will lead them away with the workers of iniquity." 23
At the end of an halachic discussion, "R. Tarfon remained silent, and at once the face of Judah b. Nehemiah brightened with joy. Thereupon R. Akiba said to him, 'Judah, your face has brightened with joy because you have refuted the Sage; I wonder whether you will live long' Said R. Judah b. Ila'i, 'This happened a fortnight before the Passover, and when I came up for the 'Azereth festival I enquired after Judah b. Nehemiah and was told that he had passed away'."24
"R. Eliezer, furthermore, had a disciple who once gave a legal decision in his presence. 'I wonder', remarked R. Eliezer to his wife, Imma Shalom, 'whether this man will live through the year'; and he actually did not live through the year. 'Are you', she asked him, 'a prophet?' 'I', he replied: 'am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I have this tradition: Whosoever gives a legal decision in the presence of his Master incurs the penalty of death'."25
"Has it not been taught: Why were the bazaars of Beth Hini destroyed? Because they based their actions upon Scripture, [disregarding Rabbinical law.]"26
"Every man who forgets a single word of his mishnah (i.e. what he has learned [from the Rabbis]), Scripture accounts it unto him as if he had forfeited his soul!"27
"Rab Judah said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because scholars were despised therein: for it is said, but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy. What does 'till there was no remedy' intimate? He who despises a scholar, has no remedy for his wounds."28 "The sword comes to the world...on account of those who interpret the Torah not in accordance with the accepted law."29
The preeminent role assigned to the Rabbis and to the system that surrounded and supported that role is not found in the Scriptures. They transformed themselves from a group of unauthorized outsiders to the holders and/or guardians of all authority in heaven and earth.
1. Shab.14b, Note 13
2. Ez.7:5-6,11,12, 21
3. 2 Kings 25:8; Dan.2:48; Jon.1:6
4. E.g. Ex.7:11 & 36:4; Dan.2:14, Esth.1:13
5. Job 32:9
6. S.A. Cohen, p.151
In the Talmud
7. Horayoth 13a
8. Ket. 111b
9. Sanh.99a quoting Is.64:4, which continues, "who acts on behalf of those who
wait for him."
11. Pes.53b quoting Eccl. 7:12
12. "Maimonidean Controversy", Ency. Judaica, Vol.11, P.746
14. Ned. 62a
15. Ned. 62b
16. Shevu'oth 41a and note.
18. Naz. 66a
19. Hag.14a, n.31
21. Ta'anith 29b
24. Men. 68b
25. Eruvin 63a
26. B.M. 88a
27. Ab. 3.9, cf.Men.99b & Gerhardson, Memory and Manuscript, P.168
29. Avoth 5. 8
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What Is A Rabbi
Tanakh And Oral Law
The Oral Law As Interpretation
The Historical Development Of Oral Law
A Fence Around The Torah
Confronting The Scriptures
Uprooting the Scriptures