Words cause a lot of confusion. “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). If every person’s imagination is unique, how can any “melody” cross from one mind to another? Someone else has said, “It’s a miracle that any communication at all takes place!” But what are the options? Grunts and gestures don’t lead to fewer misunderstandings. Pictures take a long time to draw. Music and dance convey feelings wonderfully but are less suitable for discussing the history of manuscripts or pregnancy in elephants.
The meaning of the word “rabbi” has changed significantly over time, which often creates confusion. Nowadays many people think of a rabbi as a Jewish congregational leader, parallel to a pastor or priest in the Christian tradition or an imam in Islam. However, this is a relatively recent meaning and not applicable to most of Jewish history.
Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), one of the most esteemed rabbis of the twentieth century, had this to say: “I am a descendant of a rabbinic family…. On both the paternal and maternal sides, they were all rabbis. If you should ask me what the rabbinate stands for, I cannot give you an answer…. What is a rabbi? I do not know.” How could this erudite man be speechless about a word so central to his own origins, activity, and identity? The answer lies in its history. Unlike many basic concepts of Judaism, the idea of a “rabbi” as such is not found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. The word consists of two Hebrew elements: רב (rav) “great, master”; and the suffix -י (-i) “my.” The combination רבי (rabbi) therefore means something like “my master.”
The word “rabbi” was used to mean a teacher of Torah (God’s instruction/law) probably beginning in the first century CE/AD. This made sense in the ancient setting, where education often meant that students or “disciples” literally followed around and tried to imitate their teachers or “masters.” Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth was a “rabbi” in this sense of the word (Matt 26:25, 26:49; Mk. 9:5, 11:21, 14:45; Jn 1:38, 1:49, 3:2, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8). So was John/Yokhanan, who had immersed him (Jn. 3:26). And furthermore, Jesus/Yeshua contrasted the Pharisaic aspiration to attain the status of “rabbi” with the different community lifestyle he wanted for his own followers – a brotherhood of equals (Mt. 23:7-8).
This first-century meaning of the word “rabbi” should not be confused with later meanings within “rabbinic” Judaism. Robert Bonfil, a professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has explained that in the Middle Ages rabbinical ordination meant something very similar to the doctoral degree awarded by European universities. Through most of Modernity as well, a “rabbi” was someone who had passed a long and intensive course of study to become an “expert” in questions of Judaism. In short: the meaning of “rabbi” depends a lot on the particular historical time and place being discussed!