Rabbis, Priests, and Other Religious Functionaries
Rabbi: Teacher and decider of matters of religious law
Chazan: Cantor, who leads congregation in prayer
Gabbai: Volunteer who assists with Torah readings
Kohein: Descendant of Aaron, the original High Priest
Levi: Descendant of the biblical Levites
Rebbe: The leader of a Chasidic community
Tzaddik: A righteous person with spiritual power
There are a number of different people who serve special roles in the Jewish
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 sacred 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 required 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 such
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
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
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, or for members of the community to lead all or part
of religious services even when a rabbi is available.
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
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 sacred 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
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 considered an honor. They are also
required to recite a blessing over the congregation at certain times of the
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 tzaddik," 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
aliyah on Shabbat
(i.e., the second opportunity to recite a blessing over the Torah reading),
which is considered an honor. The common Jewish surnames "Levin" and "Levine"
are derived from the tribal name "Levi," but not all Levins or Levines are
Levites and not all Levites have surnames that suggest the tribal affiliation.
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 considered to be a tzaddik (see below). The
position is usually hereditary. 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 considered to be a tzaddik.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1995-2011), Tracey R Rich
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