What Is a Rabbi?

The Role of the Rabbi in the Jewish Community

A Rabbi reading from the Torah.

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Among the local spiritual leaders in major world religions, the Jewish rabbi occupies a somewhat different role for a synagogue than does, for example, a priest for a Roman Catholic church, the pastor of a Protestant church, or the Lama of a Buddhist temple. 

The word Rabbi translates as “teacher” in Hebrew. In the Jewish community, a rabbi is viewed not only as a spiritual leader but as a counselor, a role model and an educator. Education of the young is, in fact, the principle role of a rabbi. The rabbi may also lead spiritual services, such as Shabbat services and High Holy Day services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. He or she will also officiate at life-cycle events such as Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, baby naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals. However, unlike the leaders of other religious denominations, many Jewish ceremonies can take place without the presence of a rabbi. The rabbi does not hold the kind of ritual authority granted clerics in other religions, but serves a more important role as revered leader, advisor and educator. 

Training for Rabbis

Traditionally, rabbis were always men, but since 1972, women have been able to become rabbis in all but the Orthodox movement. Rabbis usually train for about five years at seminaries such as Hebrew Union College (Reform) or The Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative). Orthodox rabbis will usually train at Orthodox seminaries called yeshivot. Whereas scholarly training for leaders in other religions focuses on purely religious training, rabbis are expected to receive a very broad education. 

When someone completes his or her training, they are ordained as a rabbi, a ceremony that is called receiving s’michah. The term s’michah refers to the laying on of hands that occurs when the rabbinic mantle is passed on to the newly ordained rabbi.

A Rabbi is usually addressed as “Rabbi [insert last name here]” but they can also be called simply “rabbi,” “rebbe” or “reb.” The Hebrew word for rabbi is “rav,” which is another term sometimes used to refer to a rabbi.

Though the rabbi is an important part of the Jewish community, not all synagogues have rabbis. In smaller synagogues that do not have a rabbi, honored lay leaders are responsible for leading religious services. In smaller synagogues, it is also common for the rabbi to be a part-time position; he or she may well pursue an outside occupation. 

The Synagogue

The synagogue is the Rabbi's house of worship, where he or she serves as the spiritual leader and advisor of the congregation. The synagogue contains many features that are unique to the Jewish religion, including the following:

  • Bimah. The raised platform at the front of the sanctuary. Generally, this is located on the eastern side of the building, because Jews usually face east towards Israel and Jerusalem while praying. 
  • Ark (Aron kodesh in Hebrew) is the central feature of the sanctuary. Contained within the ark will be the congregation's Torah scroll(s). Above the ark is the Ner Tamid (Hebrew for "Eternal Flame"), which is a light that remains lit constantly, even when the sanctuary is not in use.
  • Torah Scrolls. Contained within the ark, the Torah scrolls are enshrined in the place of greatest honor within the sanctuary. A Torah scroll contains the Hebrew text of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). 
  • Artwork. Many sanctuaries will be decorated with artwork or stained glass windows. The artwork and motifs will vary widely from congregation to congregation.
  • Memorial Boards. These usually contain plaques with names of people of the congregation who have died, along with the Hebrew and English dates of their death.
  • Siddur. This is the main prayer book of the congregation containing the Hebrew liturgy read during the prayer service. 
  • Chumash. This is a copy of the Torah in Hebrew. It usually contains an English translation of the Torah, as well as the Hebrew and English text of the Haftarot read after the weekly Torah portion.
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Pelaia, Ariela. "What Is a Rabbi?" Learn Religions, Sep. 9, 2021, learnreligions.com/what-is-a-rabbi-2076767. Pelaia, Ariela. (2021, September 9). What Is a Rabbi? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-rabbi-2076767 Pelaia, Ariela. "What Is a Rabbi?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-rabbi-2076767 (accessed May 28, 2023).