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The Yiddish word has a trilingual etymology: Hebrew rebbə "master", plus the Slavic feminine suffix -itsa and the German feminine suffix -in.
In many Chassidic courts, Rebbetzins are considered to be spiritual counselors, and give blessings. In circles such as the Chassidic dynasty of Belz, the girls schools are run by the rebbetzin. There are also several recorded instances of female rebbes, who while technically rebbetzins, were full-fledged rebbes in their own right. One such famous case is the Maiden of Ludmir.
The rabbi's wife plays an important community role, especially in small communities. In many ways, she is called on to be as knowledgeable as the rabbi in the realm of woman's observances: in this manner, for something that does not require a psak (ruling), she can be approached when a woman does not feel comfortable approaching the rabbi, or where the rabbi maybe should not be approached. For instance, the rebbetzin may often be the "mikvah lady" and help with more mundane questions regarding the laws of niddah. Part of it, certainly, is that she always has the rabbi's ear, and that she would know if the question needs to be asked, in order to get a psak.
When a rabbi is a "pulpit rabbi," (versus a teacher or a "lay rabbi") his wife becomes something of a first lady of the community and performs social tasks and "outreach" roles, freeing her husband to attend to rabbinical duties.
With the growth of independent scholarship among Orthodox women, some women have informally received the title on their own merit, irrespective of their husbands.
In Liberal Judaism, women began being ordained in 1978. For congregations with a woman rabbi [or a gay man], the question of the role of the rabbi's husband is an interesting one.
Historically, liberal congregations have assumed that the wife of the rabbi would serve in an auxiliary, volunteer role to her husband's congregation. She might chair the sisterhood, maintain the synagogue kitchen, and/or host meals for congregants in their home. She and the family's children could be found each Shabbat seated in the sanctuary's front row, dressed impeccably and modeling appropriate behavior for the community.
This image is less true today for all partners of liberal rabbis, but especially so for rabbis' husbands, who are assumed to prefer to have their own career and areas of interest. Some do take time off to raise the family's children, so that their partners can put more time into the congregation. Others may find ways to involve themselves on a volunteer basis in the congregation, such as by playing musical accompaniment when their partners lead services. Still other partnerships involve two rabbis, or a rabbi and a cantor. If a congregation hires a couple with this pairing of skills it is understood that they will earn two salaries, not one.
And as to what to call the husband of a rabbi, there are three popular approaches.
Some say "rebbitzer," the masculine form of "rebbitzin."
Some say "hubbitzin," an Englishization that adds "hubby" to the mix of languages already involved.
But Rabbi Laura Geller, one of the first Reform Rabbis, when asked what the community should call her husband, offered the classic response known to most all women rabbis:
- Balabusta (Jewish homemaker)
- Jewish view of marriage
- Negiah (guidelines for physical contact)
- Niddah (menstruation laws)
- Ordination of women in Orthodoxy
- Role of women in Judaism
- Shalom bayit (peace and harmony in the relationship between husband and wife)
- Shidduch (finding a marriage partner)
- Tzniut (modest behavior)
- Yichud (prohibitions of secluding oneself with a stranger belonging to the opposite sex)