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Rabbi and Rabbinism

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The special condition which prevailed in Palestine after the Restoration led to the gradually increasing importance of the Temple, and of the priesthood ministering in it. The spirit of Esdras's reform outlasted the reformer and survived in the authority henceforth attached to the Law, an authority soon to overshadow the prestige of the Temple and of the priesthood itself; and tended to put into prominence the teachers and expounders of the Law, the Scribes (Sopherim). Originally the word scribe meant "scrivener"; but rapidly it was accepted as a matter of course that the scribe who copies the Law knows the Law best, and is its most qualified expounder: accordingly the word came to mean more than it implies etymologically. Knowledge of the Law became the chief passport to fame and popularity. The earliest scribes, like Esdras, who came to be hailed as the model of the "ready scribe" (i.e. skilful) in the Law of Moses (Ezra 7:6), were priests; but in time a large body of lay teachers came to swell the ranks of the scribes. As gradually the spell of Hellenistic fashions fell upon the priesthood, the lay scribes found themselves more and more the only guardians and exponents of the Law. When the Pharisees began to be recognized as a distinct sect (about 150 B.C.) the scribes as a rule adhered to them as being the most scrupulous observers of the Law (yet Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30, and Acts 23:9, seem to imply that some scribes belonged to the party of the Sadducees). At any rate, from that time onwards the scribes were accepted as the accredited teachers of the people. Until the fall of Jerusalem they were chiefly congregated in Judea; but in later times we hear of their presence in Northern Palestine, even in Rome, and in every important centre of the Dispersion.

From the earliest times the scribes seem to have conceived an exalted opinion of their merits: "The wisdom [knowledge] of the scribe cometh by his time of leisure: and he that is less in action [less steeped in business] shall receive wisdom. With what wisdom shall he be furnished [what knowledge can he acquire] that holdeth the plough, and that glorieth in the goad, that driveth the oxen therewith, and is occupied in their labours, and his whole talk is about the offspring of bulls?" (thus Hebrew; Sirach 38:25-26). Evidently the scribe in his own estimation belonged to a higher caste. And so it was understood by the people who, after the time of Hillel introduced the custom of saluting them "Rabbi". The word, derived from the Hebrew Rab, "great", originally seems to have been equivalent to "my lord"; when it became the distinctive title of the scribes the specific force of its pronoun was lost, and "Rabbi" was used very much like our "Doctor". That this title was far from unpleasant in the ears of the scribes we know from Matthew 23:7. In point of fact a pupil never would omit it when speaking to or of his teacher (Berach., xxvii, 1), and it became a universal usage never to mention the name of a doctor of the Law without prefixing "Rabbi". Nay more, in order to show the person greater honour, this title was intensified into "Rabban", "Rabboni", so that in the course of time custom established a kind of hierarchy among these various forms: "Rabbi", the doctors said, "is more than Rab, Rabban more than Rabbi, and the proper name more than Rabban." The latter part of this traditional regulation has particularly in view the two great Doctors Hillel and Shammai, always designated by their unqualified proper names; the successors of Hillel, as Gamaliel were titled Rabban, and so also was by exception Johanan ben Zakkai; Palestinian doctors are commonly known as Rabbi So-and-so, yet Rabbi Judas the Saint, who composed the Mishna, is not infrequently called merely Rabbi (par excellence); in the same manner, Rab, without the proper name, designates Abba Arika (died A.D. 247), the founder of the School of Sora, while Rab is the title prefixed to the names of the Amoras of Babylon.

The Law, of course, must be the exclusive study of a Rabbi, as it is the one source of religious knowledge, the perfect embodiment of the will of God, and the people's sole binding rule of daily life. But the Law does not cover explicitly every possible case; yet, as it is a Divinely-given Law, it must, in the mind of the learned Rabbi, participate in the infinitude of the Divine Lawgiver; therefore, not only the sentences but the individual words, even the number of letters, nay more, the "jots and tittles", must convey a meaning, since God willed every one of them, and since in all that He does He acts for a reason: thus does the Law apply itself to all possible occurrences. Hence arose in the schools that immense mass of inferential teaching deduced from the written word according to the rules of a special process of reasoning, handed down for generations in the esoteric teaching of the faithful scribes as the official interpretation of the Law, and finally committed to writing, particularly in the Mishnas and Talmuds. Under this parasitic vegetation of traditional teaching the Law itself came gradually almost to be entirely lost sight of and stifled; yet every word designating the tradition was calculated to remind the Rabbi of the connexion of this tradition with the Law. Mishna means "repetition of the Law": its sources were the sayings of the Tannaite or "repeating" doctors; a baraitha is a saying of some early doctor not included in the Mishna; the baraithoth are gathered either into the Tosephta (addition) or in the Ghemara (complement), the Mishna and the Ghemara constituting the Talmud or "teaching" (of the Law). This teaching is either halaka (way) or "customary law", or agada, "information", given by or about the Law. The Law is therefore understood to be at the root of every tradition, even when, in practice, tradition as good as makes void the letter of the Law (Matthew 15:1-6; Mark 7:8-13); nay more, we hear of Rabbis pretending to prove by the Law itself (Exodus 34:37) that oral traditions should be preferred to the written word (Megill., iv, 74d; cf. Sanhedr., xi, 3). This exaggerated authority these oral traditions obtained on account of the origin attributed to them. They generally purported to have been handed down from Esdras, who received them by Divine inspiration as esoteric wisdom to be imparted to the initiated disciples. Some claimed for them a still higher antiquity, going back to Moses himself (thus at least is usually understood the opening sentence of the "Pirqe Abhoth"; cf. "Peah", tr. Schwab, ii, 37), even in part to the twelve Patriarchs, Enoch, and Adam. This voluminous body of exegetical traditions, the logical system according to which inferences are drawn and the theological conceptions upon which this whole oral teaching is grounded, are commonly designated as a whole by the name of Rabbinism. What has been said above of its theological basis may suffice to show the two radical errors which lie at the bottom of it: infinity of the Scriptures, and necessity of interpreting them in every detail in accordance with that severe precision which alone is worthy of God.

A few words on the principles of Rabbinical logic may not be useless to help form a judgment of the whole system. The traditional exegesis was of two kinds. The one, the Halaka, was legal and casuistic: the Halaka it was that so "fenced about the Law" as to render it impossible; the other, the Hagada, was illustrative and practical, embracing innumerable legends and allegories intended to illustrate and enlarge Biblical history, but in reality obscuring it in a maze of idle and fanciful inventions. Hillel is credited with having codified the rules of the Halaka; his original seven rules were later on enlarged to thirteen by R. Israel. Some of these rules are excellent, as when, for instance, it is stated that the meaning of a word is determined by the context, and the sentence by the scope of the passage (rule 12); others, good in themselves, do not sufficiently take into account the vast differences of times which separate the inspired writers and the dissimilar religious and social conditions which prevailed at different periods; others, finally, are the expression of a somewhat fallacious mode of reasoning. As a whole the Halaka is an artificial system, jaundiced by its evident purpose to offer the means of engrafting the tradition on the stem of Scripture (Mielziner). The Hagada method, still more extravagant, was elaborated by R. Eliezer into thirty-two rules, on which it is useless to dwell at any length.

From the Halaka and Hagada were subsequently derived the Peshat, or determination of the literal sense, and the Sodh, or determination of the mystical or allegorical sense. The Peshat, used in ancient times only in the Targum of Onkelos and the Greek version of Aquila, acquired prominence later on, seemingly owing to the influence of Arabic learning, especially among the Qaraites. The Sodh first found favour among the Essenes and the Zealots, but attained its full development only in the Kabbalistic system of the thirteenth century. If the tree should be judged by its fruits, the vagaries of the Kabbala, the last term of the natural evolution of the Hagada, make evident the falsity of the principles underlying the method of Rabbinical exegesis.


BRIGGS, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture (Edinburgh, 1899); EDERSHEIM, Life and Times of Jesus, the Messiah; ETHERIDGE, Jerusalem and Tiberias, Sora and Cordova (1856); MIELZINER, Introduction to the Talmud (Cincinnati, 1894); CHIARINI, Le Talmud de Babylone, I (Leipzig, 1831); LAGRANGE, Le Messianinme chez les Juifs (Paris, 1909); STAPPER, Les idées religieuses en Palestine à l'époque de J.-C. (Paris, 1878); IDEM, La Palestine au temps de Jésus Christ (Paris, s. d.); WOGUE, Histoire de la Bible (Paris, 1881); BACHER, Die Agada der Tannaiten, I (2nd ed., 1909); II, 1890; IDEM, Die Agada der Palästinischen Amoräer, I (1892); II (1898); III (1899); IDEM, Die Agada der Babylonischen Amoräer (1878); HAUSRATH, Die Zeit Christi (Heidelberg, 1868-72); SCHÜRER, Gesch. des Judischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi, I [(Leipzig), 4; WEBER, System der Altsynagogalen Palästinischen Theologie (Leipzig, 1880); HILL, De Hebræorum Rabbinis seu Magistris (Jena, 1746); WÄHNER, Antiquitates Ebræorum (Göttingen, 1743).

About this page

APA citation. Souvay, C. (1911). Rabbi and Rabbinism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Souvay, Charles. "Rabbi and Rabbinism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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