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One rabbi will say this, and another rabbi will say that. Why?

The title phrase is not only a well-known saying that some people use as an answer if they are asked a question, but also an invitation to think about who the rabbi is, what his tasks are, and why one of them will say "yes" and another "no". It is also a beautiful Jewish saying that, regrettably, is sometimes used pejoratively and mockingly.

Who is a rabbi?

Rabbi is the Hebrew word for teacher, master, and host. According to Religion: Encyclopedia PWN a rabbi is "in Judaism a person who has received an education in the yeshiva in the field of knowledge of Tory and Talmudu and is qualified (confirmed by the rite of ordination - smicha) to religiously and spiritually lead the local Jewish community or congregation." [1]Rabin, [in:] Religia: Encyklopedia PWN, red. Gadacz, T., Milerski, B., t. 8, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2003, s. 338.A rabbi is therefore not only a title, but also the function that some men (in non-orthodox Judaism also women) perform in Jewish society. Historically, a rabbi could be a man to whom the second rabbi gave this title officially, giving him a smicha (the best equivalent may be "ordination", which was bestowed by the laying on of hands). The first such transmission was made by God, who gave the Torah to Moses. Nowadays, the classical smicha has a more formal and "conventional" character, because during historical events and persecutions the sequence of its transmission was interrupted.
Today, a rabbi is not only a leader of a religious community but can also be a judge in the Jewish court. A man who has obtained the formal title of a rabbi can, based on Jewish law, settle disputes, divide property, and conduct divorces. His tasks also include supervision of ritual slaughter, overseeing the correctness of religious rituals, issuing decisions regarding the burial of the dead and adjudicating on the kosher nature of food products. A rabbi can also make decisions about someone’s conversion to Judaism. A man who understands Jewish law perfectly, enjoys universal respect, and whose knowledge is confirmed by several decades of experience, can become a posek. Posek makes halachic decisions, resolves misunderstandings that arise in the case of ambiguities in Jewish law, or when the contentious issue concerns the problems of the modern world (transplantology, novelties on the food market). Function of the chief rabbi, which is a formal function, often results from the constitutional provision of a given state. It is also a representative of the entire Jewish community. As we can see, the functions and tasks of the rabbi are extremely extensive, and the person holding this title enjoys great respect and social trust.
It should be noted, however, that the functions and roles I have described refer to Orthodox Judaism. Judaism is not uniform in its views, and different movements represent their full spectrum (from Reform Judaism to ultra-Orthodox Judaism), and the nature of religious practices varies depending on which movement we focus our attention on. Traditionally, women could not become rabbis, but this is changing. In progressive Judaism, women can obtain the academic title of rabbi. In one of the conversations with Tanja Segal, a female rabbi in Poland, we can read that in Israel women make up 45 percent of those ordained (this information is as in 2010). Among women admitted to rabbinical ordination in the USA, often mentioned is singer R. Raphael from Philadelphia, who is an educator.[2]Wybitni rabini, [w:] Religia: Encyklopedia PWN, red. Gadacz, T., Milerski, B., t. 8, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2003, s.337..

Rabin, Źródło:

How to become a rabbi?

Today, one can become a rabbi in two ways. Most of the tasks I have mentioned above can only be performed by a person who has obtained the formal title of rabbi and smicha. But how to do it? A person applying for such a title must graduate from a Jewish school (or a school called rabbinical school), pass exams and obtain a diploma, along with a smicha awarded by the institution. It should be noted, however, that the diploma itself is not enough, because a Jew becomes a rabbi not only thanks to his preparation and experience, but also, and perhaps above all, due to the respect he enjoys in the community, knowledge of Judaism, Jewish law, and the ability to apply it in contentious situations of everyday life. A rabbinical school diploma is not a final statement of knowledge and respect.

Education is not the only way out that a person who wants to become a rabbi can choose. There is also the title of "informal" rabbi, and it is bestowed upon those Jews who deserve it with knowledge and understanding of Jewish law. Such a person must enjoy extraordinary respect among the community and be an authority for it. As the Jews emphasize, regardless of whether the rabbi has a smicha or not, he deserves the respect he has earned, because he is their adviser in living in accordance with the Torah. niezależnie jednak od tego, czy rabin posiada smichę, czy nie, należy mu się szacunek, na który zapracował, ponieważ jest on ich doradcą w życiu w zgodzie z Torą.

How will the rabbi respond?

A rabbi who acts as an authority in Jewish communities in disputes over Jewish law and its application may have the final say. For the sake of knowledge, respect and, in part, education, these persons have the right to teach Jews how they should apply the law in their daily lives. In Jewish law, as in secular law, we can distinguish several levels.
Breaking the laws of the Torah is an undeniable crime that should be avoided. On the other hand, breaking the law protecting Jews from breaking the rules of the Torah, called rabbinic law, is an offense. Below the laws of the Torah and rabbinic laws is tradition that can become a topic for discussion, opinions, and beliefs of rabbis. Using an example given by one of the Hasidim (the source is below), the operation of rabbinic laws can be illustrated as follows: The Torah prohibits extinguishing the light during the Sabbath. However, there may be situations in which we are forced to do so (when we are sick or in danger). It is then that we turn to the rabbis who, analyzing Jewish law, decide whether in our situation we have the right to extinguish the candle / light / lamp. This is an example of putting the eponymous expression into practice. One of the rabbis may declare that this is an exceptional situation, so the Law of the Torah will not be broken, but another rabbi may issue the opposite judgment – by extinguishing the light we will break the law. When we have no way of knowing which rabbi is right, Jews follow a tradition that is adopted in the community to which they belong.

A word at the end

Obviously, the answer I have prepared to the question of who the rabbi is is simplified. However, this simplification is necessary due to the complexity of the topic and the diversity of approach to the issue depending on the denomination. We cordially invite you to further explore the mysteries of rabbis, and to familiarize yourself with the sources below.

Julita Semrau

Rabin pod chuppa
Rabbi M. Schudrich during the wedding ceremony in the Nożykow synagogue in Warsaw (photo from the private archive of Olimpia Nowicka-Sulla)


Rabbi [in:] The Encyclopedia of Judaism, red. Wigoder, G., Macmillan Publishing Company, Nowy Jork 1989, s. 579-582.
Judaizm współczesny [in:] Encyklopedia religii świata: Historia, red. Żakowski, W., tłum. Artymowski, J., D., Danecki., J., Dziekan, M.m M., i inni, Wydawnictwo Akademickie DIALOG, Warszawa 2002, s. 341-352.
Religia: Encyklopedia PWN, red. Gadacz, T., Milerski, B., t. 8, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2003.
Cieśla, J., Rozmowa z Tanją Segal, jedyną w Polsce kobietą rabinem, [online] , [dostęp: 07.04.2022]
Kim jest tak naprawdę rabin? Jak zostać rabinem? [online] , [dostęp: 04.04.2022]
Jeden rabin powie tak, drugi rabin powie tak – Tajemniczy Świat Żydów [online] [dostęp: 03.04.2022]
Rabin, [online], [dostęp: 06.04.2022]
Smicha, [online], [dostęp: 06.04.2022]


1 Rabin, [in:] Religia: Encyklopedia PWN, red. Gadacz, T., Milerski, B., t. 8, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2003, s. 338.
2 Wybitni rabini, [w:] Religia: Encyklopedia PWN, red. Gadacz, T., Milerski, B., t. 8, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2003, s.337.
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