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The Pitfalls of Excessive Rabbinic Honorifics

I have noticed a curious phenomenon on social media where clergy append “rabbi” to their usernames, while other professionals are less inclined to display their honorifics. A similar phenomenon has developed in more traditional circles, in which prestigious rabbinic figures expect more than simply the title “rabbi” appended to their name. The title page of most sefarim contains the author’s name preceded and followed by lengthy and obscure abbreviations of honorifics with various synonyms of praise for their erudition. While the idea of lay people using rabbinic titles to respect the clergy finds a great deal of support in halachic literature, the practice of insisting upon them, as well as the sheer volume of honorifics that have proliferated, seem problematic. This essay explores the pitfalls of both the insistence and excessive usage of rabbinic titles, and it concludes by suggesting a model for rabbinic and lay interactions.

The Imperative to Honor Torah Scholars

Before we analyze the problems with using excessive rabbinic honorifics, we must first establish the baseline expectation for honoring rabbinic figures as described in the Talmud and codified by Shulchan Aruch and subsequent authorities.

The locus classicus for this discussion (Kiddushin 32b) establishes that the biblical obligation to honor an elder (Leviticus 19:32) applies to a sage or one “who has acquired wisdom.”[1] Based on this halachic imperative, Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 242:15) rules that it is forbidden for a student to refer to his rebbe by his name. Rema (ibid.) comments that if one appends a rabbinic title beforehand (“Rebbe Mori Ploni”) it would be permitted to invoke his name as well.

Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 244:1) also writes that one is required to stand up for a Torah scholar, even if this scholar is not his established teacher.[2] Interestingly, while the obligation to rise applies to any Torah scholar, Shulchan Aruch appears to limit the proscription of calling a rabbi by their name to someone’s established teacher (rebbe muvhak). However, R. Yitzhak Eliyahu Adler (Sefer Kavod Ve-Hiddur Ch. 5, par. 20, p. 51) asserts that social standards have evolved and therefore nowadays the omission of a basic rabbinic title is an affront to any Torah scholar.

Thus far we have established that there is a mitzvah of honoring a Torah scholar by affording them a rabbinic title. While the Talmud refers to many of the great sages such as Abaye and Rava without a title, by today’s standards, granting a rabbinic title is no different than the unanimously accepted halachic obligation to stand up for a Torah scholar.

With this premise in mind, there is one more critical question that we must ask: Who qualifies as a Torah scholar?

Who Qualifies as a Torah Scholar?

In broad strokes, there is a more conservative and more relativist approach to this question. Shach (Yoreh Deah 244:2), based on Tosafot (Kiddushin 32b), defines a Torah scholar as someone who is muflag b’chochma yoteir me-she’ar ha-am, extraordinarily learned beyond the rest of the nation. However, R. Dovid Ariab (Le’reiacha Kamocha Vol. 6, Ch. 2, par. 4, fn. 10) cites a number of Acharonim who imply that a Torah scholar need not be a great luminary of the entire Jewish people, but it would be sufficient for him to know more than his average constituents. R. Ariab writes that “as long as the Torah is his trade, he knows how to learn analytically, has fear of Heaven and does not degrade Torah commandments,” he qualifies as a Torah scholar and is to be accorded the associated honors.

Following the same line of reasoning, R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (Chafetz Chayim, Lashon Ha-Ra 8:4) ardently propounds an exceedingly relativist understanding of what qualifies someone as a Torah scholar. He rejects those who misuse the principle of yeridat ha-dorot (the diminution of the generations) to justify their slander of contemporary Torah scholars:

But the evil inclination entices men [into believing] that the law of shaming a Torah scholar applies only in the time of the Gemara, when they were exceptionally wise, but not to those in our times. And this is a great error; for every “Torah scholar” is [called so] relative to the generation. And even in our generation, if he is only fit to teach and toils in Torah, he is called a Torah scholar. And if one shames him, even with words in general, even not to his face, he has committed a grave sin and is liable to excommunication.[3]

Accordingly, R. Chayim Kanievsky (Bakesh Shalom Mishpatei Ha-Lashon, p. 32. No. 11) ruled that anyone who is merely muchzak (established) to be a Torah scholar must be treated as such.[4]

The Pitfalls of Excessive Rabbinic Titles and Superfluous Honorifics

Based on what we have surveyed until this point, we might determine that due to the mitzvah of honoring a Torah scholar and the imprecations reserved for those who fail to do so, it would behoove us to err on the side of caution and attribute rabbinic recognition to anyone who has a remote possibility of qualifying for such treatment. However, we must be cautioned against the opposite extreme as well.

In the introduction to the Responsa of R. Akiva Eiger, his children record that he requested they omit the greetings written by the inquirer, which oftentimes consisted of an exaggerated list of honorifics. R. Eiger despised this practice and claimed that he would abolish it if only he had the influence to do so. Subsequently, he enumerates three potential problems with the use of excessive titles. (1) The writer risks involving himself in the condemnable practice of flattery. (2) The rabbinic recipient of the letter risks falling prey to the negative character trait of pride. (3) And if the rabbi perceives that the individual addressing him did not invoke a sufficient amount of honorifics, he may come to bear a baseless hatred for him. Due to these concerns, R. Eiger advises either referring to someone as “Ha-Rav” or “Ha-Gaon,” but not both titles simultaneously.

Unfortunately, R. Akiva Eiger’s concerns became reality for the author of the encyclopedic Sdei Chemed, R. Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini. R. Medini recalls (Sdei Chemed 8:140) that a particular rabbi once sent him his novel Torah insights for feedback and an approbation. R. Medini wrote back with an apology that he did not have enough time to review the manuscript sufficiently. However, the rabbi who made the request replied in a passive-aggressive manner that it was already evident that R. Medini did not hold him in high esteem by virtue of failing to address him with the title “Ha-Gaon.” Therefore, from that point onward, R. Medini sought to be meticulous about attributing additional titles to rabbinic figures, lest they come to bear a baseless hatred for him due to an omission.

However, R. Medini writes that this charitable approach put him into another predicament. On one occasion, he accidentally wrote a reply letter in which he referred to the less-than-scholarly recipient with the title “Ha-Gaon.” This individual took advantage and proceeded to display this letter to the members of his community as an implicit endorsement of erudition from R. Medini!

Such phenomena led R. Yosef Zecharyah Stern to raise the alarm about a fourth concern regarding rabbinic honorifics: (4) Crowning the unworthy. R. Stern (Responsa Zecher Yehosef, Orach Chaim no. 70) laments how those who are undeserving of rabbinic titles, but found a way to amass them, are able to deceive the masses into thinking that they are actual geonim. And these individuals who only achieved such prestige due to their titles become obsessively protective over them. And the problem is that once the first domino falls, and one rabbi inadvertently attributes a generous title to such a person, nobody else will ask any questions. After all, one needs to have some basis in an area of knowledge to be capable of discerning who the actual experts are. R. Stern writes that many of the people being deceived are those asher lo yadu tzurata de-shmaita, lacking a fundamental fluency in Torah study.[5]

Expressing the same concern, R. Yehuda Herzl Henkin (Responsa Bnei Banim 2:35) penned a scathing polemic against those who capitalize on their undeserved amassment of rabbinic honorifics and prestige. He cites R. Eiger and adds further halachic concerns. (5) The person calling this undeserving rabbi by the title “Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav” violates the prohibition of sheker, lying. (6) Additionally, this practice can potentially cause ona’at mammon, an illegitimate monetary transaction, since a buyer might only purchase this rabbi’s book on the false premise that he is actually a gaon.

In his conclusion, R. Henkin notes how all of these concerns are compounded in countries like the State of Israel where the chief rabbi position endows its holder with the power to enact communal policy. Chief rabbi positions are not always granted to the greatest halachic scholar but are instead determined partly based on politics. R. Henkin’s concern is that a rabbi whom the public fancies as a scholar might achieve the position instead of those who truly earned it. In fiery language, R. Henkin likens this practice to “planting an asheirah (tree for pagan worship) next to the altar [of our Temple].”

To help us understand who qualifies for the title, R. Henkin distinguishes between a rabbi and a meturgeman. The latter is an orator who conveys the ideas of a scholar who does not possess the same prowess for public speaking, whereas a true rav, in R. Henkin’s opinion, introduces novel insights and approaches to understanding complex Torah concepts. R. Henkin remarks that a rabbi who merely teaches parables (meshalim) and feel-good stories (ma’asiyot b-tuv ta’am) should be classified as a meturgeman.[6] The ramifications of this are pivotal for many rabbis who work in the fields of Jewish outreach and as congregational rabbis if they primarily operate in the fashion described. According to R. Henkin, many well-respected rabbinic figures are in truth only meturgemanim![7]

Once again, R. Kagan defends the general rabbinate. In Chafetz Chaim (Lashon Ha-Ra 5:2), R. Kagan strongly condemns those who rationalize that they have the right to slander their community rabbis, arguing that such disrespect jeopardizes the integrity of halachic authority: “And especially if he were a teacher of law in Israel and one told people that he is not wise…through this [lashon ha-ra] there will greatly decline the fulfillment of Torah; for if the rabbi exhorts them thereafter concerning a certain mitzvah in the Torah, they will pay no attention to his words, his having already been publicized in their eyes by the men of lashon ha-ra as a man who is not wise.”

Now, of course, if the rabbi is actually a charlatan, and is truly incapable of dispensing accurate and appropriate halachic advice, then taking action would be permitted le-toelet, to serve a constructive purpose.[8] However, maligning a community rabbi often serves a less lofty purpose. As R. Gil Student remarks, “The right to refuse title can be easily distorted into the ‘right’ to insult rabbis we do not like… The ease of abuse argues for a liberal application of the title.” However, he also cautions against diluting the standards of judging halachic competence. Certainly a “rabbi” who does not adhere to halacha does not deserve the title.[9] Nonetheless, if a rabbi is scrupulous about keeping halacha and possesses enough knowledge to teach its laws to his community, it would seem that his constituency would be obligated to refer to him with the title “rabbi.” However, as we have demonstrated, there is no need—and perhaps it is even preferable—not to expound and invent titles beyond what is accepted as common decency.

Can and Should
A Rabbi Waive His Title?

While the layperson may be obligated to refer to a rabbinic figure by title, is it permissible, or even advisable, for a rabbi to waive such formalities as a display of humility? After all, rabbinic figures, particularly those who merit a multitudinous audience, are at high risk for developing pride and arrogance, no differently than any other public figure who achieves a following. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) teaches us that “anyone who humbles himself, the Holy One, Blessed be He, exalts him, and anyone who exalts himself, the Holy One, Blessed be He, humbles him. Anyone who seeks greatness, greatness flees from him, and, conversely, anyone who flees from greatness, greatness seeks him.”

How, then, should a rabbinic figure keep his ego in check?

The most intuitive answer to this question would be for the rabbi to waive his titles and honors. R. Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulai (“Chida”) was asked about a case in which a Torah scholar requested that he not receive any titles on his memorial stone, but rather that his name appear like a typical lay inscription. R. Azulai (Responsa Chaim Sha’al 1:70:6) ruled that this request should be carried out, as this scholar perceived the omission of his rabbinic honorifics as a way to atone for his soul.

However, a rabbi need not wait until after his death to make such a request. Would a similar request to waive his honorifics be appropriate even while he is still alive? To answer this question, we return to Tractate Kiddushin (32a-32b), which records a dispute regarding this matter. Whereas R. Chisda maintained that a rabbi may not renounce his honor, R. Joseph ruled that such renunciation is valid, for God did so Himself. Rava responded that the analogy is flawed, for unlike God, a rabbi does not own the Torah such that he may renounce its honor. Yet Rava ultimately retracted and determined that the Torah does in a sense belong to the rabbi who studies it. Nevertheless, the Gemara concludes that while a Torah scholar may indeed waive his honor (kavod), there remains an irrevocable requirement of basic respect (hiddur) that he cannot renounce.[10]

R. Yitzhak Zev Soloveitchik (Chiddushei Maran Ri”z Ha-Levi, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:11) explains the Gemara’s ruling by distinguishing between two kinds of rabbis: a typical scholar versus one’s personal teacher. Hiddur is the basic respect required to be given to any Torah scholar, whereas kavod is an extra level of honor due to one’s personal teacher. Since the teacher is entitled to receive kavod from his students it is thus his prerogative to waive it. However, he is incapable of waiving hiddur, since that is a general obligation of honoring any Torah scholar that is not a result of a special relationship.

Accordingly, we may suggest classifying additional honorifics as kavod, thus being reserved for one’s teacher or a gadol ha-dor, a generational rabbinic leader. However, would the mere title “rabbi” constitute kavod or hiddur? The absence of rabbinic titles for some sages in the Talmud suggests that it is not universally required.

R. Medini (Sdei Chemed 20:157:19), adopting a similar framework to R. Soloveitchik, distinguishes between the title ha-rav and ha-gaon. In the Talmudic era, the title of rav was the equivalent of today’s ha-gaon, hence limited to the greatest scholars of the generation,[11] whereas the title of rav today is the baseline respect due to any rabbinic figure, and to omit that title would not just be a lack of honor, but also constitute disrespect.[12] Therefore, it would seem that there is little room for a rabbi to renounce his title.[13] And even if there are appropriate occasions to do so, R. Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (Chazon Ish, Hilchot Kevod Rabo Ve-Talmid Chacham, no. 151) prohibits a renunciation by default.

Nonetheless the Talmud (Sanhedrin 7b) relates:

When Rav would see a convoy of scribes following after him to honor him, he would say: “Though his excellency mount up to the heavens and his head reach the clouds, yet he shall perish forever like his own dung; they who have seen him shall say: Where is he?” (Job 20:6-7). It is said of Mar Zutra the Pious that when the people would carry him to his lectures on their shoulders during Shabbat of the Festival, he would say this to avoid becoming arrogant: “For power is not forever, and does the crown endure for all generations?” (Proverbs 27:24).

Rabbinic figures, who are susceptible to developing pride, must find some way to keep themselves in check. This is not a recent phenomenon, but was clearly already a concern in the minds of the sages of the Talmud.

Concluding Thoughts

While a Torah scholar may not be permitted to renounce his basic rabbinic title, it does not mean that he needs to impose it. The rabbis whom I respect the most introduce themselves and sign correspondences by their regular name. The attitude of those who, like R. Medini’s questioner, take offense at the omission of their rabbinic title or insist upon adding that appellation to their name on social media (or similar informal contexts) should give us pause. Insistence upon a particular fact usually gives reason for one to doubt it. As the adage goes, “any man who must say ‘I am king’ is no true king at all.”

I once studied at a Torah learning program, in which a rabbi quietly walked into the room and was flabbergasted to see that some of us were oblivious and thus neglected to rise to honor his presence. An impromptu lecture ensued on the importance of honoring one’s rabbi, which concluded with a statement to the effect of, “I’m not asking you to stand up for my own honor; rather I am teaching you how to display proper respect for your own self-development.” Needless to say, many of us were not convinced.

Nonetheless, even though I currently work in the pulpit, I spent a year working at a well-regarded day school in Manhattan, and can sympathize with the struggles of working as an educator. Most decent congregants know to refer to their congregational rabbi by title, even if he introduces himself by his first name. On the other hand, many Modern Orthodox day school rabbis who do not insist on their title are far less likely to have their professional credentials recognized by their community. Alas, the Modern Orthodox community is no different than the rest of society in that many of us perceive teachers as salaried babysitters instead of bonafide professionals with bachelor’s, master’s and sometimes even doctorates.

Regarding pulpit rabbis, there are instances when they not only can but rather should exert their title. Particularly when it comes to funerals or difficult lifecycle events, the aggrieved often feel comforted by knowing that there is a rabbinic presence. In such a case, it is perhaps appropriate and necessary for a rabbi to introduce himself by title. Nonetheless, there are still two ways to go about it. One can introduce himself as “Rabbi So-and-So” or “My name is so-and-so and I work as the rabbi at Congregation x,” thus indicating that he is a regular person who also happens to have received a rabbinical education.

In general, a healthy relationship between a rabbi and his constituents would be one in which the rabbi requests fewer honorifics while his constituents insist on maintaining at least the minimum baseline of hiddur, if not kavod.[14]

Moreover, as the Talmud (Ta’anit 21b) proclaims, “it is not the place of a person that honors him; rather, the person honors his place.” A rabbi’s raison d’etre should not be about using his position to amass personal prestige, but rather to bring honor and dignity to those who share the same place, whether that be the beit midrash, synagogue or the worldwide Jewish community. It is a yetzer hara that all rabbis, myself included, need to overcome. I cannot claim to be successful, but I believe that there is at least a value in performing vidui and stating the truth.

[1]I would like to thank Yisroel Ben-Porat for his thorough review and feedback throughout the editing process. Talmudic translations are from the Soncino edition; for biblical passages and Chafetz Chaim, I used the version available on Sefaria.org (with some light adjusting). All other translations are my own.

[2]See Sefer Yeraim (no. 233) and Ritva (Kiddushin 33a) regarding whether the obligation to rise for a standard scholar who is not one’s teacher is a biblical or rabbinical obligation.

[3]Cf. Titen Emet Le-Yaakov (Ch. 3, p. 34), which cites R. Elchonon Wasserman as reporting that his teacher R. Kagan held that the title of “rav” should be reserved only for those who hold prominent rabbinic positions such as poskim (high-level halachic decisors) or roshei yeshiva (heads of Talmudic academies).

[4]See Dirshu Edition of Mishnah Berurah, Biurim U-Musafim (Chafetz Cham, Lashon Ha-Ra 8:4, fn. 13).

[5]A related question can be posed regarding the level of responsibility that a person would have to correct the public if they erroneously reach the conclusion that he is a scholar. See Makkot 12b, Yerushalmi ibid. (2:6), and Responsa of Maharit (Orach Chaim 2:8), which addresses Chullin 94b, which places the fault on the party that misled itself.

[6]R. Henkin cites the verse, “It is better to listen to a wise man’s reproof than to listen to the praise of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:5). Kohelet Rabbah (ad. loc.) remarks that the latter clause refers to meturgemanim who sing and present material to the masses. See also Birkei Yosef (Yoreh Deah 246:21).

[7]R. Moshe Shternbuch (Responsa Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 1:543), based on Beit Yosef and Shach, adds that a true Torah scholar must also be ra’ui le-horot ve-yageiah be-Torah, able to rule [on halachic matters] and toils in Torah: “If he squanders his time and does not toil in Torah then he is not deserving of the title of chacham, Torah scholar, thus not qualifying for the honors accorded to him.”# He also cites homilies from Gra, R. Eliyahu Dessler, and Chafetz Chaim in support of his assertion.

[8]See Dirshu’s Biurim U-Musafim (Chafetz Chaim, Lashon Ha-Ra 5:2, fn. 19)

[9]See Rashi and Tosafot on Kiddushin 32b regarding a zaken ashmai, a wicked or ignorant elder. Aruch Ha-Shulchan (Yoreh Deah 243:4) forbids displaying any form of honor for a scholar who has no fear of Heaven and degrades the Torah’s commandments. R. Moshe Feinstein in his responsa (e.g., Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:100) referred to Conservative and Reform clergy as “rabbis” whereas Orthodox rabbis were referred to by the title “rav” or “rabbonim.” Such an approach ostensibly provides a satisfactory distinction while also allowing Orthodox rabbis to retain cordial professional relationships with their non-Orthodox counterparts.

[10]Rashi (ad loc.) comments that, practically speaking, the difference between kavod and hiddur is whether one stands up completely for the rabbinic figure or if he merely budges slightly (akin to what some do during the Modim De-Rabanan prayer).

[11]R. Medini supports his theory from the wording of the Gemara: “ha-rav shemachal al kevodo, kevodo machul.” Only a “rav” may forgo his higher level honor, whereas a standard chacham may not forgive the basic forms of hiddur.

[12]Sefer Kimah Ve-Hiddur (Ch.3, fn. 43).

[13]See Rosh (Bava Metzia 2:21), who rules that a Torah scholar is forbidden to degrade his dignity when there is no clear-cut mitzvah that would necessitate him doing so. Cf. Rashi, Sotah 5a s.v. u-beshamta, who states that a Torah scholar should have a little bit of haughtiness or else the congregants will not fear him and he will not have the power to rebuke them. This idea echoes Chafetz Chaim’s argument that rabbinic titles are important for preserving halachic authority.

[14]See Meiri, Kiddushin 32a.

Moshe Kurtz is the assistant rabbi of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT, and serves as a member of the Vaad HaKashrus of Fairfield County (VKFC). Moshe can be contacted at [email protected].

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