Rebbe (רבי) (pronounced: ˈrɛbə in English), which means master, teacher, or mentor, is a Yiddish word derived from the identical Hebrew word rabbi. It mostly refers to the leader of a Hasidic Jewish movement. In accordance with Yiddish pronunciation norms, the stress is on the first syllable and the final vowel is sometimes reduced to a schwa.
Today rebbe has three meanings:
- The leader of a chasidus (Hasidic 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 would be referred to by others as the rebbe of a particular chasidus. It is this definition that is the focus of this article. 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 "Amshinever Rebbe".
- A person's main rosh yeshiva or mentor, who teaches (or taught) him/her Torah or gives guidance, would be referred to as "my rebbe".
- Students or cheider (elementary school) students, when talking to their teacher, would address him with the honorific rebbe. They would also refer to him when speaking to their classmates as "the rebbe" or when speaking to others as "my rebbe".
Terminology and origin
The Hebrew letters for rebbe, resh-bet-yud, according to some interpretations, form an acronym for "rosh bnei yisroel", meaning "the spiritual head of the Children of Israel". More than just a rabbi, a rebbe by definition needs to be a Tzaddik; and if his influence is felt even outside of his own circles then he would also be considered a manhig Yisroel, (one of the spiritual leaders of his generation).
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, was simply called Rabbi, meaning "the Rebbe".
The Sages of the Talmud known as the Amoraim from the 3rd, 4th and early 5th centuries, those born in the Land of Israel, were called Rabbi; but those born in the diaspora were known by the title Rav.
Distinctions between rebbe and rav
A rebbe is distinct from a 'rav' or 'rov' (a word usually translated as rabbi, who is a leader of an Orthodox Jewish community, either hasidic or non-hasidic) in that a significant function of a rav is to answer questions of halacha (Jewish law). It is not uncommon for a hasidic Jew to have a rebbe as a spiritual guide and to go to a (another) rav for a ruling on an issue of religious law.
Chasidim use the term to denote someone that they perceive not only as the religious leader of their congregation, but as their spiritual adviser and mentor. A rebbe is someone whose views and advice are accepted not only on issues of religious dogma and practice, but in all arenas of life, including political and social issues.
There may be non-chasidim who use the concept of a (non-hasidic) rebbe in this context and would also use this term. Example: "I will ask my rebbe, Rabbi so-and-so, for advice about this personal matter."
Among chasidim, a rebbe is referred to in Hebrew as "Admor", and a rav is often referred to as "Av Beis Din", the leader of a beth din, even if he does not lead any beth din. In some instances, such as Munkacs and Sanz, the two terms are sometimes interchangeable.
A rebbe is generally taken to mean a great leader of a Hasidic dynasties, also referred to as Grand Rabbi in English or an ADMOR, a Hebrew abbreviation for Adoneinu-Moreinu-veRabbeinu ("our lord/master, teacher/guide and rabbi/teacher").
Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov the founder of Hasidism is regarded by Hasidim as the first Hasidic rebbe.
During his lifetime he was referred to mainly as "The Holy One" 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 Mezhbizh 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 Hasidic group refers to its leader as "The Rebbe".
Outside of Hasidic circles the term "Grand Rabbi" has been used to refer to a rebbe. The practice became widespread in America in the early 1900s when Hasidic rebbes began to emigrate to the United States and a title in English was needed to distinguish them from other "rabbis".
Relationship of chasidim to their rebbe
A chasidic rebbe is generally understood to be an exceptionally righteous person (called a "tzaddik"). According to Kabbalah (and particularly the chasidic understanding of Kabbalah), the world is sustained on the "shoulders" of 36 righteous men in a generation (tzaddikim). 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, such that a Rebbe will appear to be able to "see the future," or at least have strong insight into the life and trials of another. Furthermore, a rebbe is said to be able to affect divine providence.
As a result, chasidim in some chasidic circles seek their rebbe's advice for a variety of concerns: spiritual, physical, and even business concerns. Furthermore, many people seek the blessing (brocho) of a rebbe (and a chosid 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.
Given a rebbe's physical awareness of God, and the Rebbe's transcendent perception of Godliness, many chasidim 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 chasidim frequently shape their fedoras to match the way that the Lubavitcher Rebbe shaped his hat-which was more flat than many others. Many Skverer chasidim (of the Skverer Rebbe in New Square) wear their peyos identical to those of the Skverer Rebbe. While chasidim 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 chasidim. For example, Rabbi Aaron Roth (Reb Areleh, as he was called) the first rebbe of Shomer Emunim, told his chasidim to pause frequently while eating their meals in order to keep them from overindulging.
A chosid 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. In some movements the chasidim believe that their rebbe is the "tzadik hador" (greatest and holiest saint 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 chasidim remain loyal to them because of their special loyalty, a family connection, or a belief that a specific tzaddik (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 chasidim remain very loyal to him. The most well-known "rebbe of rebbes" was the Satmarer Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum.
Functions carried out by rebbes
There are some functions which are exclusively the domain of hasidic rebbes:
Others are not exclusive to Hasidic rebbes, but are often an important part of their role:
- Participating in family celebrations of the chasidim, such as weddings and brisim (circumcision ceremony)
- Performing mitzvos etc. in the presence of their chasidim, 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 Hasidut, this is one of the main roles of a rebbe)
A rebbe has times when Hasidim (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). Hasidim believe that rebbes read supernaturally "between the lines" of a kvitel, and in every Hasidic movement there are numerous anecdotes relating how the rebbe saw things that were not written in the kvitel. In most Hasidic 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.
A rebbe conducts a tish (Yiddish; פֿירט טיש: feert tish, literally, "table")—a (communal festive) meal with highly mystical overtones—on Shabbat and other occasions. At a tish, the rebbe distributes shirayim (lit. remnants) to the Hasidim 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 (especially amongst groups from Romania) or sheves achim.
In Israel, some of the best known chasidic groups are those of Belz, Boston, Chabad-Lubavitch, Ger, Karlin, Kaliv, Nadvorna, Slonim, Vizhnitz, and Dushinsky, each having their own rebbe. Some of the larger or better known chasidic groups in the United States of America are Bobov, Chabad-Lubavitch, Klausenburg, Lubavitch, Munkatch, Puppa, Satmar, Skulen, Skver and Tshernobl. A more complete list of chasidic groups can be found here.
Some chasidic rebbes have thousands of followers, or disciples, called chasidim, whilst others may number only a few hundred. Some only have a title, but do not have a following beyond their own family members and a few congregants in their synagogues.
Rebbes are usually called by the Yiddish name of the geographic region in which they or their predecessors gained prominence: e.g., the first Bobover Rebbe lived in Bobowa (Poland), the first Skulener Rebbe lived in Skuleny (Transcarpathia), the first Munkatcher Rebbe in Munkacs, Ukraine and the first Bostoner Rebbe started to serve as a rebbe in Boston, MA, USA.
Some chasidim, such as the Breslover, follow their deceased Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav.
Hundred of groups of chasidim and thousands of Rebbes, have been since the founding of Chasidus. Some have established dynasties, and some dynasties have come to an end, leaving their writings or legacy. Some have been renewed by their descendants or by a spiritual descendant. Some have no Chasidim only a Shul, and some don't have a Shul, but they do have chasidim. Some have neither chasidim nor a Shul, only a title.
- Oxford Dictionary of English, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
- Over 1,000 Videos of Rebbes
- The Role of a Rebbe and the Rebbe-Chossid Relationship chabad.org
- Torah sources about the concept of a Rebbe
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