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Updated: 2013.10.10

Rabi (my great, or my Rav), popularly Anglicized to "Rabbi". While Rabi derives from the noun Rav, there is no evidence that the latter was used as a title before 135 C.E. Contrary to popular misconceptions, these terms have no linguistic relationship to "teacher" (which is the family of cognates to and Mori).

    Since three similar titles are regularly confused, they should be differentiated and understood according to the order of their historical chronological evolution:
  1. Ribi,

  2. Rabi ("rabbi"),

  3. Rav.

Other titles, like "Rebbe," are far more recent – 19th or 20th century C.E. – and European, not of Biblical (Middle Eastern) origins.

Rabi ("Rabbi")

"Since the title [Rabi] was accorded only to those who had been properly ordained [granted sᵊmikh•âh], and such [sᵊmikh•âh] was not granted in talmudic times outside Ërëtz Yi•sᵊrâ•eil, it was not borne by the Babylonian sages (the Âmor•âyim) who adopted, or were granted, the alternative title of Rav. In the Tal•mud, therefore, the title Rabi refers either to a Tan•â or to [an Âmor•â of Yᵊhud•âh], while Rav refers to a Babylonian Âmor•â." (Ency. Jud., "Rabbi, Rabbinate," 13.1445).

"It was only during the Tanaitic period, in the generation after [Ribi] Hi•leil, that [Rabi] was employed as a title for the sages. The passage in the New Testament (Matt. 23:7) in which the Scribes and Pharisees are criticized because they 'love… to be called of men, ραββι, ραββι' probably reflects the fact of its recent introduction" ("Rabbi, Rabbinate," Ency. Jud., 13:1445).

There are no extant early papyri witnesses of Mt. 23.7. Contrary to this timeline anachronistically suggested in the Ency. Jud., the earliest extant mss. of Mt. 23.7, and, therefore, the earliest attestation of the title ραββι that is found in the Διαθηκη Καινη (NT) , is in the 4th century CE codices and β. The Christian Διαθηκη Καινη (NT) reflects 4th century CE language of Hellenist gentile Christians – not 1st or 2nd century CE language of anti-Hellenist Yᵊhud•im Pᵊrush•im.


Accordingly, it seems clear that, by 135 C.E., Ribi was no longer conferred, adopting a lesser sᵊmikh•âh and title of Rab•iꞋ , which was then Hellenized among the Romans – and Hellenist Jews – in Greek as ραββιrabbi.

By the 4th century CE, when the Διαθηκη Καινη (NT) was compiled, Hellenist Roman (gentile) Christians, lacking any awareness of the 1st century CE title, Ribi, assumed ραββι. Ergo, if the language in Mt. 23.7 "probably reflects the fact of its recent introduction," then the 4th century codices point to a later degradation of sᵊmikh•âh and titles from Ribi to Rabi. 135 CE, the birth year of Yᵊhud•âh ha-Nâ•si – "Rabi" (see below), the most likely year for this degradation, is, yet again, found to be a pivotal year.

Out of the Dark Ages

It was in the Dark Ages that "the rabbi" became–in addition to, or instead of, the interpreter and decisor of Ha•lâkh•âhꞋ –the teacher, preacher, and spiritual head of the Jewish congregation or community.

In modern usage the word "rabbi" in Hebrew has sometimes become the equivalent of "mister." Thus every Jew called up to the reading of the Tor•âh is invited to do so as "Rabbi So-and-So the son of Rabbi So-and-So," and for the rabbi as spiritual head the title ha-Rav is employed. (Jewish Virtual Library).

Variants like "Rebbe," etc. are modern European (German-Yiddish) assimilation innovations of Ash•kәnazꞋ im Kha•sid•imꞋ  or Qabâlist mystics lacking any historical authenticity and such titles are, therefore, to be shunned. (The Tor•âhꞋ  teachers called by these historically unauthentic titles may still be upright Rabân•imꞋ .)

In Tal•mud When used alone in Tal•mud (e.g., "One day, Rabi went…," or "a servant in Rabi's house…" and the like), Rabi refers to Yᵊhud•âh ha-Nâ•si (135-219 CE). This should not be confused with Rav, which, when used alone in Tal•mud, refers to a particular tal•mid of Yᵊhud•âh ha-Nâ•si.

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