What Is a Rabbi?

The Role of the Rabbi in the Jewish Community

A Rabbi reading from the Torah. Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Rabbi literally means “teacher” in Hebrew. In the Jewish community, a rabbi is viewed not only as a spiritual leader but as a counselor, a role model and an educator. The rabbi leads spiritual services, such as Shabbat services and High Holy Day services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  He or she will also officiate at life-cycle events such as Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, baby naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals.

Though traditionally rabbis were always men, since 1972 women have been able to become rabbis in all but the Orthodox movement. Rabbis usually train for about five years at seminaries, such as Hebrew Union College (Reform) or The Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative). Orthodox rabbis will usually train at Orthodox seminaries called yeshivot. When someone completes his or her training they are ordained as rabbis, which is called receiving s’michah. The term s’michah refers to the laying on of hands that occurs when the rabbinic mantle is passed on to the newly ordained rabbi.

Rabbis are usually addressed as “Rabbi [insert last name here]” but they can also be called simply “rabbi,” “rebbe” or “reb.” The Hebrew word for rabbi is “rav,” which is another term sometimes used to refer to a rabbi.

Though the rabbi is an important part of the Jewish community, not all synagogues have one. In those cases lay leaders are responsible for leading religious services.


The Synagogue

The rabbi is the spiritual leader of the congregation and leads the congregation in prayer. The synagogue is the Rabbi's house of worship. It contains many features that are unique to the Jewish religion, including the following:

Bimah: The raised platform at the front of the sanctuary.

Generally this is located on the eastern side of the building because Jews usually face east, towards Israel and Jerusalem while praying. 

Ark: (Aron kodesh in Hebrew) is the central feature of the sanctuary. Contained within the ark will be the congregation's Torah scroll(s). Above the ark is the Ner Tamid (Hebrew for "Eternal Flame"), which is a light that remains lit constantly, even when the sanctuary is not in use.

Torah Scrolls: Contained within the ark, the Torah scrolls are enshrined in the place of greatest honor within the sanctuary. A Torah scroll contains the Hebrew text of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). 

Artwork: Many sanctuaries will be decorated with artwork or stained glass windows. The artwork and motifs will vary widely from congregation to congregation.

Memorial Boards: These usually contain plaques with names of people who have passed on, along with the Hebrew and English dates of their death.

Siddur: This is the main prayer book of the congregation containing the Hebrew liturgy read during the prayer service. 

Chumash: This is a copy of the Torah in Hebrew. It usually contains an English translation of the Torah, as well as the Hebrew and English text of the Haftarot read after the weekly Torah portion.