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Rebbe (רבי) //, is a Yiddish word derived from the Hebrew word Rabbi, which means master, teacher, or mentor. In accordance with Yiddish pronunciation norms, the stress is on the first syllable and the final vowel is sometimes reduced to a schwa (//), but is other times pronounced "ee" (//).
While the title Rabbi and its Yiddish equivalent Rebbe are terms that refer to many teachers of Torah or leaders of Jewry, 'Rebbe' (//) or 'Rebbi' (//) when mentioned in the Talmud is a reference to the redactor of the Mishna, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi ("Yehuda the Prince").
In common parlance of modern times, the term 'The Rebbe' is often used specifically by Ḥasidim to refer to the leader of a Ḥasidic movement, for example, by Lubavitcher Ḥasidim referring to their 7th Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Terminology and origin
The Yiddish term Rebbe comes from the Hebrew word rabbi, meaning "My Master", which is the way a student would address a master of Torah. It was an honorific originally given to those who had Smicha in the Pharisaic and Talmudic era. Though because vowels were not written at the time, it is impossible to know historically if it was pronounced rah-bee (//) or r-bee (//). The English word rabbi (//) directly comes from this form. In Yiddish, the word became reb-eh (//) - now commonly spelled rebbe (//) or just reb (//). The word "master" רב rav [ˈʁäv] literally means "great one".
The Sages of the Mishnah known as the Tannaim, from the 1st and 2nd centuries of the common era, were known by the title Rabbi (//), for example Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochoy. Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, the leader of Jewry in Mishnaic Times, was simply called Rabbi (//), meaning "The Rav of the Generation".
The Sages of the Talmud known as the Amoraim from the 3rd, 4th and early 5th centuries, those born in the Land of Israel, are called Rabbi (//); those born in the diaspora are known by the title Rav (//).
Today, Rebbe is used in the following ways:
- Rabbi, a teacher of Torah -- Yeshiva students or cheider (elementary school) students, when talking to their Teacher, would address him with the honorific Rebbe, as the Yiddish-German equivalent to the Hebrew word Rabbi (רַבִּי rabi [ˈʁäbi]).
- Personal mentor and teacher—A person's main Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva teacher or mentor, who teaches him/her Talmud & Torah and gives religious guidance, is referred to as Rebbe (//), also as an equivalent to the term "Rabbi".
- Spiritual leader—The spiritual head of a Chasidus (Chasidic movement) is called a rebbe (//). His followers would address him as "The Rebbe" or refer to him when speaking to others as "the Rebbe" or "my Rebbe". He is referred to by others as the Rebbe of a particular Chasidus. In Hebrew, a Chasidic Rebbe is often referred to as an AdMoR, which is an abbreviation for Adoneinu, Moreinu, veRabbenu ("Our Master, our Teacher, and our Rabbi"). In writing, this title is placed before the name of the Chasidus, as in "Admor of Belz"; while the title Rebbe comes after the name of the Chasidus when used as an adjective, as in "Lubavitcher Rebbe," "Amshinever Rebbe," and every Rebbe of every Chassidic Dynasty. In the Litvishe world, when not referring to a Chasidic Rebbe(//), the word may be pronounced "Rebbee"(//). Sephardic Jews may pronounce it as "Ribbi"(//). The Lubavitcher chasidim have a tradition that the Hebrew letters that make up the word rebbe (//) are also an acronym for "Rosh Bnei Yisroel", meaning "a spiritual head of the Children of Israel".
Disambiguation Rabbi Rebbe Reb Rav
An ordinary communal Rabbi (//), or Rebbe (//) in Yiddish, is sometimes distinct from a 'Rav' (//, also pronounced 'Rov' // by Jews of eastern-European or Russian origin), who is a more authoritative Halachic decider. A significant function of a Rav is to answer questions of Halacha (corpus of Jewish law), but he is not as authoritative as a posek. The short form Reb is a honorific for Orthodox Jewish men, who are most likely to be profound knowledgeable in Talmud and Torah, as opposed to Reconstructionist, Reform or Conservative Judaism. Originally this title was added to the names of Jews at the time of the schism with the Karaite sect, as a sign of loyalty to the original Rabbinic tradition - known today as Orthodox Judaism.
As a rule, among all Chasids, Rebbe (//) is referred to in Hebrew as "Admor" (pl. admorim), an abbreviation for Hebrew "Adoneinu Moreinu V'Rabeinu", meaning "our Master our Teacher and our Rabbi", which is now the modern Hebrew word in Israel for "rebbe".
Chasidim use the term Rebbe (//) also in a more elevated manner, to denote someone that they perceive not only as the religious leader or nasi of their congregation, but as their spiritual adviser and mentor. "The Rebbe" or "My Rebbe" in this sense is a rav or rabbi whose views and advice are accepted not only on issues of religious law and practice, but in all arenas of life, including political and social issues. Sometimes a Chasid has a Rebbe as his spiritual guide and an additional Rav for rulings on issues of Halachah, that is, Jewish law.
Sprouting Chasidim use the concept of a (non-Chasidic) Rebbe in the simple sense of Rabbi, as the Yiddish-German equivalent to the Hebrew word רַבִּי rabi [ˈʁäbi]. Example: "I will ask my Rebbe (//), Rabbi (//) Ploni (so-and-so), for advice about this personal matter."
The Ḥasidic Rebbe 
A Chasidic Rebbe (//) is generally taken to mean a great leader of a Ḥasidic dynasty, also referred to as Grand Rabbi in English or an ADMOR, a Hebrew abbreviation for Adoneinu-Moreinu-veRabbeinu ("our lord/master, teacher and rabbi"). Outside of Ḥasidic circles the term "Grand Rabbi" has been used to refer to a rabbi with a higher spiritual status. The practice became widespread in America in the early 1900s when Ḥasidic rebbes began to emigrate to the United States and was derived from the German Grossrabbiner.
Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Ḥasidism, is regarded by Ḥasidim as the first Ḥasidic rebbe. During his lifetime he was referred to mainly as "The holy" rather than as "Rebbe," and his disciples were "magidim" or "preachers", such as the Magid of Chernobyl or the Magid of Mezritsh.
The first "rebbe" to be known as such was the Baal Shem Tov's grandson, Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibozh who was referred to as "The Rebbe" during his lifetime. After him, those who rose to positions of leadership and their successors began to be called rebbe. The title gradually came to suggest a higher spiritual status.
Each Ḥasidic group refers to its leader as "the rebbe".
Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, also known as the Maiden of Ludmir or the "Ludmirer Moyd", was the only female rebbe in the history of the Ḥasidic movement; she lived in the nineteenth century in Ukraine and Israel.
Relationship of ḥasidim to their rebbe
- The Rebbe as Tzadik
According to Maimonides, a tzadik is "one whose merit surpasses [his/her] iniquity," and every person can reach the level of a Tzadik. According to the Tanya, a Tzadik has no evil inclination, and only a select few predestined to attain this level can attain it. According to Kabbalah (and particularly the chasidic understanding of Kabbalah), the world is sustained on the "shoulders" of Tzadikim Nistarim, divinely predestined exceptionally righteous people in a generation. Nobody has knowledge about who was such a tzaddik, even one of these exceptionally righteous people would not know that they really are such a tzaddik. These people are understood to have perfected their personal service of God to such an extent that they become literally and physically aware of God. These righteous people's perception (of both spiritual and physical, not to mention temporal matters) transcends the apparent boundaries of existence.
However, a ḥasidic rebbe is generally said to be a righteous person, called a "tzaddik". Furthermore, a rebbe is said to be able to affect divine providence, and a Rebbe is said to be able to "see the future," or at least have strong insight into the life and trials of another.
As a result, ḥasidim in some ḥasidic circles seek their rebbe's advice for a variety of concerns: spiritual, physical, and even business concerns. Furthermore, many people seek the blessing (bracha) of a rebbe (and a chasid will specifically seek the blessing of his own rebbe) for anything from minor (and all the more so major) physical troubles, to grand spiritual concerns. Many famous and common stories of a rebbe's intervention involve women who successfully seek a rebbe's blessing for fertility so that they can conceive after having been barren for many years.
- The Tzadik HaDor - Tzadik of the Generation
In some movements the ḥasidim believe that their rebbe is the "tzadik hador" (tzaddik of the generation) and would regard any thought that detracts from his perfection and holiness as heresy. Other sects lessen this idealization to some degree or another. Since many rebbes are sons-in-law or students of other rebbes, it makes sense that they would view themselves as subordinate to those other rebbes. Nonetheless, their ḥasidim remain loyal to them because of their special loyalty, a family connection, or a belief that a specific tzaddik or Nasi HaDor (though there may be others of greater spiritual stature) connects best with one's soul. For example, the Kosover Rebbe makes yearly pilgrimages to the Tosher Rebbe. Nonetheless, his followers remain very loyal to him.
- The Rebbe as Conduit
Unlike rabbis or non-chasidic rebbes in other Jewish movements, Ḥasidic Judaism considers a 'chasidic rebbe' to be a conduit between Jews and God. On the basis of traditional Kabbalistic concepts and terminology, Hasidic philosophy bridged deveikut, a Jewish concept referring to closeness to God, to the Chasidic Rebbe, embodying and channeling the Divine flow of blessing to the world, because Creation is dependent on the continuous flow of Divine lifeforce, without which it would revert to nothingness.
- Ḥasidic Followers of a Rebbe
Given a rebbe's physical awareness of God, and the Rebbe's transcendent perception of Godliness, many ḥasidim take special care to observe the specific and sometimes minute practices of their Rebbe. Even things that seem mundane may nonetheless be seen by chasidim as incredibly significant. For example, Lubavitcher ḥasidim frequently shape their fedoras to match the way that the Lubavitcher Rebbe shaped his hat-which was more flat than many others. Many Skverer ḥasidim (of the Skverer Rebbe in New Square) wear their peyos identical to those of the Skverer Rebbe. While ḥasidim do not always follow the specific practices of their rebbe, the rebbe is able to create practices that may be specific and unique to his ḥasidim. For example, Rabbi Aaron Roth (Reb Areleh, as he was called) the first rebbe of Shomer Emunim, told his ḥasidim to pause frequently while eating their meals in order to keep them from overindulging. A ḥasid will usually love his rebbe like a close family member, if not more so. But the degree and nature of this belief varies depending on the movement.
Functions of a Ḥasidic Rebbe
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There are some functions which are exclusively the domain of ḥasidic rebbes:
Others are not exclusive to Ḥasidic rebbes, but are often an important part of their role:
- Participating in family celebrations of the ḥasidim, such as weddings and brisim (circumcision ceremony)
- Performing mitzvos etc. in the presence of their ḥasidim, such as kindling the Chanuka lights and drawing water to bake matzos with
- Leading the prayers on Shabbos, Holy Days and other special occasions
- Delivering learned or inspirational discourses (in Chabad Ḥasidut, this is one of the main roles of a Rebbe)
A rebbe has times when Ḥasidim (and other petitioners) may come for a private audience. A kvitel (Yiddish for "note", plural kvitlach) is a note with the name of the petitioner and a short request for which the rebbe is asked to pray. The formula in which a person's name is written is one's own Hebrew name, the son/daughter of one's mother's Hebrew name, such as Shimon ben Rivkah (Simeon the son of Rebecca). Ḥasidim believe that rebbes read supernaturally "between the lines" of a kvitel, and in every Ḥasidic movement there are numerous anecdotes relating how the rebbe saw things that were not written in the kvitel. In most Ḥasidic groups, the kvitel is written by the rebbe's gabbai (secretary), however sometimes the petitioner writes it on his own. Usually, but with some exceptions, a pidyon (redemption) of cash is customarily handed to the rebbe under the kvitel, however this is not obligatory. This is considered to be the conduit through which the blessing is given, and a redemption for the soul of the petitioner. ("A gift makes its receiver glad" is given as an explanation: a blessing only comes from a joyous heart.) It is also customary to tip the gabbai, although this too is not obligatory.
Tish and Farbrengen
A rebbe conducts a tish (Yiddish: פֿירט טיש: feert tish, literally, "to run [a] table") or a farbrengen—a communal festive meal with highly mystical overtones—on Shabbat and other occasions. At a tish, the rebbe distributes shirayim (lit. remnants) to the Ḥasidim seated at or gathered round the table. When a gathering similar to a tish is led by a rabbi who is not a rebbe, it may be referred to as a botte (esp. amongst groups from Romania) or sheves achim.
- Oxford Dictionary of English, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
- Heilman, Samuel. "The Rebbe and the Resurgence of Orthodox Judaism." Religion and Spirituality (Audio). UCTV, 20 Oct 2011. web. 31 Jul 2013.
- Schneerson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel. "The Head". Kabbalah and the Mystical. Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center. Retrieved 25 August 2013.
- Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Halikhot Shlomo 1:370-373;
Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. 5 p. 283
- Tractate Yevamot of the Babylonian Talmud 49b-50a: "One whose merit surpasses his iniquity is a tzadik".Mishneh Torah, Sefer Madda, Laws of Repentance 3:1
- God and the Zaddik as the two focal points of Hasidic worship Ada Rapoport-Albert, in Essential Papers on Hasidism edited by Gershon Hundert, NYU Press 1991