Rabbis, Priests and
Other Religious Functionaries
A rabbi is not a priest, neither in the Jewish sense of the term nor in the
Christian sense of the term. In the Christian sense of the term, a priest
is a person with special authority to perform certain saced rituals. A rabbi,
on the other hand, has no more authority to perform rituals than any other
adult male member of the Jewish community. In the Jewish sense of the term,
a priest (kohein) is a descendant of
Aaron, charged with performing various rites
in the Temple in connection with religious
rituals and sacrifices. Although a kohein
can be a rabbi, a rabbi is not requied to be a kohein.
A rabbi is simply a teacher, a person sufficiently educated in
halakhah (Jewish law) and tradition to instruct
the community and to answer questions and resolve disputes regarding halakhah.
When a person has completed the necessary course of study, he is given a
written document known as a semikhah, which confirms his authority to make
When I speak generally of things that were said or decided by "the rabbis"
or "the sages," I am speaking of matters that have been generally agreed
upon by authoritative Jewish scholars over the centuries. When I speak of
rabbinical literature, I speak of the writings of the great rabbis on a wide
variety of subjects.
Since the destruction of the Temple, the role
of the kohanim has diminished, and rabbis have taken over the spiritual
leadership of the Jewish community. In this sense, the rabbi has much the
same role as a Protestant minister, ministering to the community, leading
community religious services and dealing with many of the administrative
matters related to the synagogue.
However, it is important to note that the rabbi's status as rabbi does not
give him any special authority to conduct religious services. Any Jew
sufficiently educated to know what he is doing can lead a religious service,
and a service led by such a Jew is every bit as valid as a service led by
a rabbi. It is not unusual for a community to be without a rabbi, or for
Jewish services to be conducted without a rabbi.
A chazzan (cantor) is the person who leads the congregation in prayer. Any
person with good moral character and thorough knowledge of the prayers and
melodies can lead the prayer services, and
in many synagogues, members of the community
lead some or all parts of the prayer service. In smaller congregations, the
rabbi often serves as both rabbi and chazzan. However, because music plays
such a large role in Jewish religious services, larger congregations usually
hire a professional chazzan, a person with both musical skills and training
as a religious leader and educator.
Professional chazzans are ordained clergy. One of their most important duties
is teaching young people to lead all or part of a Shabbat service and to
chant the Torah or
reading, which is the heart of the
bar mitzvah ceremony. But they can also perform
many of the pastoral duties once confined to rabbis, such as conducting
funerals, visiting sick congregants, and teaching
adult education classes. The rabbi and chazzan work as partners to educate
and inspire the congregation.
A gabbai is a lay person who volunteers to perform various duties in connection
with Torah readings at religious
services. Serving as a gabbai is a great
honor, and is bestowed on a person who is thoroughly versed in the Torah
and the Torah readings.
A gabbai may do one or more of the following:
choose people who will receive an aliyah (the
honor of reciting a blessing over the Torah reading)
read from the Torah
stand next to the person who is reading from the Torah, checking the reader's
pronunciation and chanting and correcting any mistakes in the reading
The kohanim are the descendants of Aaron, chosen
by G-d at the time of the incident with the Golden
Calf to perform certain saced work, particularly in connection with the
animal sacrifices and the rituals related
to the Temple. After the destruction of the
Temple, the role of the kohanim diminished significantly in favor of the
rabbis; however, we continue to keep track of kohein lineage. DNA research
supports their claims: a study published in Nature in June 1997 shows that
self-identified kohanim in three countries have common elements in the
Y-chromosome, indicating that they all have a common male ancestor. For more
information about this and other recent genetic studies, see
Cohanim/DNA Connection at Aish.com.
Kohanim are given the first aliyah on
Shabbat (i.e., the first opportunity to recite
a blessing over the Torah reading), which is consideed an honor. They are
also requied to recite a blessing over the congregation at certain times
of the year.
The term "Kohein" is the source of the common Jewish surname "Cohen," but
not all Cohens are koheins and not all koheins are Cohens. "Katz" is also
a common surname for a kohein (it is an acronym of "kohein tzadik," that
is, "righteous priest"), but not all Katzes are koheins.
The entire tribe of Levi was set aside to perform certain duties in connection
with the Temple. As with the Kohanim, their
importance was drastically diminished with the destruction of the Temple,
but we continue to keep track of their lineage. Levites are given the second
Shabbat (i.e., the second opportunity to recite
a blessing over the Torah reading), which is consideed an honor.
Rebbe is the term for the spiritual master and guide of a
Chasidic community. The term is sometimes
translated as "Grand Rabbi," but literally it simply means "my rabbi." A
rebbe is also consideed to be a tzaddik (see
below). The position is usually heeditary.
A rebbe has the final word over every decision in a chasid's life.
Outside of the Chasidic community, the term "rebbe" is sometimes used simply
to refer to ones own personal rabbi or any rabbi that a person has a close
The term "rebbe" should not be confused with the term "reb," which is simply
a Yiddish title of respect more or less equivalent to "Mister" in English.
The word " tzaddik" literally means "righteous one." The term refers to a
completely righteous individual, and generally indicates that the person
has spiritual or mystical power. A tzaddik is not necessarily a rebbe or
a rabbi, but the rebbe of a Chasidic community is consideed to be a tzaddik.
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