A Rabbi’s Role

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I. A Rabbi’s Role

Is a rabbi a spiritual leader of the community or its servant? Does he have authority over the community or serve only those who will listen to him? If his expected form of income, the way he is supposed to feed his family, is by charging for services, does he retain a monopoly on those services? If someone else starts to act as a rabbi, is he infrining on the rabbi’s authority and/or livelihood?

II. The First Regensburg Rabbinic Controversy

In 1454, the Jews were expelled from the city of Bruna in Moravia. The rabbi of that city, R. Yisrael (Mahari) Bruna settled in Regensburg and began teaching and answering halakhic questions (link). This antagonized R. Anshel of Regensburg, who until that time had served as the unofficial city rabbi. He demanded that R. Yisrael cease from infringing on his territory.

R. Yisrael sent this question to his teachers, who responded with unequivocal support of their student. Their responsa made a large impact on halakhah, setting the standard for centuries to come. The responsa of R. Ya’akov (Mahari) Weil, R. David Sprintz of Bamberg and R. Yisrael Isserlein are published in the latter’s Terumas Ha-Deshen (part 2, nos. 126-128). Their arguments are as follows (link):

  1. Since R. Anshel had never been appointed rabbi by the community, they argued, he has no right to prevent R. Yisrael from performing any rabbinic duties.
  2. Additionally, citing the Or Zaru’a, anyone can settle in a town and teach Torah, even without permission of the official city rabbi.
  3. We have seen many cases of two great rabbis living in the same city and teaching Torah.

This seems to conclusively rule that a rabbi may move into a town and begin teaching Torah. May he rule on ritual matters (issur ve-heter)? The first reason above only permits him to do so when there is no official rabbi.

III. The Second Regensburg Rabbinic Controversy

If I understand correctly, R. Yisrael of Bruna ended up tasting his own bitter medicine. After R. Anshel passed away, R. Yisrael was the sole rabbi of Regensburg. One of his students, R. Zalmony, began teaching without his mentor’s permission and even ordained a student. R. Yisrael objected to this and excommunicated R. Zalmony.

R. Yosef Kolon (Maharik) wrote a responsum defending R. Zalmony, first against the excommunication since he agreed to arbitrate in a rabbinic court. Then, in response to a letter by R. Yisrael Bruna, Maharik wrote a lengthy and strongly worded responsum on the controversy in general. In the course of addressing various relevant subjects, Maharik concludes (Responsa, no. 169 – link) that a rabbi visiting a city may perform weddings and sit on a court for financial matters, on condition he hands over any payment to the local rabbi. In that way, the local rabbi does not lose any income. However, he may not rule on ritual matters (issur ve-heterlink). In the specific Regensburg case, Maharik rules in favor of R. Yisrael, that a student may not rule on any halakhic matter in his mentor’s city without his mentor’s permission, and certainly may not ordain a student.

IV. Shulchan Arukh Rulings

R. Moshe Isserles quotes these responsa at length in his Darkhei Moshe (Yoreh De’ah 245:7 – link) and rules like them in his glosses to Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 245:7 – link). Based on all the above, it would seem that a community rabbi must allow another rabbi to teach Torah, adjudicate financial matters and conduct weddings but may insist on payment for the latter two and the sole right to rule on ritual matters.

R. Shaul Yisraeli (Amud Ha-Yemini 6:10) infers from this that an official rabbi, someone whom the community has accepted as their authority, has a unique role in establishing halakhah. He is their decisor, their mara de-asra, and determines the final rulings on all ritual matters. R. Shlomo Aviner, in numerous responsa (She’eilas Shlomo vol. 1 no. 204 par. 8; vol. 2 nos. 223, 226, 227, 254; vol. 3 nos. 259-261; vol. 4 pp. 272-276), softens this a bit. He says that nowadays, when communities accept a rabbi, they implicitly exclude the ability of individuals to ask rabbis of their choice about private ritual matters. There is an implicit right to inquire of your mentor in yeshiva or another rabbi of your choice, as long as it does not impact on the community. The community rabbi still has complete jurisdiction over communal ritual matters.

V. The Chasam Sofer’s Position

The Chasam Sofer, however, seems to have understood these responsa differently. In on responsum (Choshen Mishpat, no. 163 – link), he was asked whether an ordained rabbi without a pulpit may rule on a ritual matter. He concludes in the affirmative, citing the above responsa. He writes that according to the Mahari Weil et al, a rabbi may move into a new town where there is an official rabbi and rule on ritual and financial matters. I am not sure where he sees that a new rabbi may rule on ritual matters. He also understands the Maharik as only limiting the ability of a visiting rabbi to rule on ritual matters. A new resident, however, may rule even on ritual matters. As I understand this responsum, the Chasam Sofer seems to give no authority to an official rabbi.

In another responsum (Yoreh De’ah, no. 230 – link), the Chasam Sofer goes in the other direction. He emphasizes that in his day, communities would promise the rabbi a salary but include within it the payments for services (weddings, divorces,etc.). Therefore, if someone else performs those services, he is taking away from the rabbi money that was already allocated to him. And in a third responsum (Orach Chaim, no. 13 – link), the Chasam Sofer rules that the official rabbinate is a position of public service that a son may inherit from his father.

While I am not sure how the Chasam Sofer reads the Regensburg responsa, he seems to believe in a community rabbi’s official position — his right to funds paid for rabbinic services and to pass his position on to his son — but allows other rabbis to take roles of spiritual leadership within the community. R. Shaul Yisraeli, on the other hand, sees the official rabbi as the sole spiritual leader of the community.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

13 comments

  1. >R. Yisrael sent this question to his teachers, who responded with unequivocal support of their student.

    Shocked, shocked I tell you.

  2. See the Rivash #271 on a dispute over rabbinic authority in Tzarfat.

  3. Michael Rogovin

    Not sure how relevant this is to contemporary communities. We don’t really have community rabbis. We have synagogue rabbis. These days, in general, anyone can set up a shul and hire a rabbi. How well they integrate with other community rabbis is a matter of personality and politics. But so long as they have smicha (from an accepted yeshiva of course), no one really questions their right to rule on halachic matters for their followers.

    The only contemporary application I can think of is the current controversy over the monopolization of gerut by self-selected rabbis who apply their own personal whims to gerut and then use the RCA and Israeli Chief Rabbinate to prevent gerim from outside their system from being accepted.

  4. “The only contemporary application I can think of is the current controversy over the monopolization of gerut by self-selected rabbis who apply their own personal whims to gerut and then use the RCA and Israeli Chief Rabbinate to prevent gerim from outside their system from being accepted”

    Even worse not accepting gerim who were accepted in Previous years by the Israeli CR or not fighting for the gerim who were megayer following procedures procedures that your members folllowed for decades (RCA)

  5. Who is the mara d’atra? In Israel you have the Rav Rashi, Rav ha’ir, Rav shechuna besides your rosh yeshiva or rosh kollel. where do the “gedolei ha-dor” come in. Do they trump the marad’atra? Recently I asked my Rav shechuna/bet knesset on what to do in relation to the new findings of worms in fish. His psak went against one of gedolei hador who I usually rely on in kashrut questions. Unsure of what to do I asked a very respected rosh kollel who told me that in this case I should go according to the Rav shechuna since he is more knowledgeable on kashrut questions and has a better idea of which experts in fish biology are more reliable. The lines of authority are blurred. Many in the chareidi community go according to “aseh lecha rav” and have a rav who is an absolute authority on halacha and personal questions alike/ For me it is more complicated.

  6. MiMedinat HaYam

    a senior rabbi in america once complained to me about the many young gentlemen whom he encourages / arranges / etc to go to a yeshiva, etc, and when it comes time to get married, they use the rosh yeshiva they probably barely know to be messader kiddushin, instead of the rav of their shul where they grew up in, where they very well may live (at least for a while), etc.

    2. with the internationalization of jewish communities and jewish practices (esp in issur ve’heter issues) we need another post on who’se authority should control. (although you indicate one’s “personal rav”.)

    to david zohar: more irony — the rav hashchuna is more authoritative than a godol hador(‘s askanim). i’m shocked!

  7. R’DT,
    Life is complicated 🙂
    KT

  8. Perhaps I am mistaken, but i am under the impression that one does not have to listen to a Rabbi or Rabbis at all today. One has to follow the Torah’s commandments and if he feels he lacks knowledge in an area he will ask a rabbi who has knowledge in that area in order to properly fulfill that commandment, however if he is sure what the proper thing to do is he won’t go and ask and there is no reason to ask a Rabbi. He can even argue on a rabbi. Let’s say that someone researched a specific matter for a long time going through all the sources and comes to a conclusion he can act based on that conclusion. Only to an accepted Sanhedrin perhaps that has govenment backing or backing by almost all of Israel/Jews is there any real authority(except the opinion of the Hinuk, which is not the normative opinion). Rabbis authority today only comes from the fact that people accept upon themselves to follow them.

  9. I was surprised that with this post titled as it is, Rav Meir Berlin was not quoted where, I think in miVolozhin ad Yerushalayim, he had asked several prominent Rabbonim what is their job.
    If anyone has the book, please correct me, but as I recall (I only heard it, never saw it inside) that
    The Aruch Hashulchan said to pasken Shailos
    Rav Itzeleh Peterburger said to Give mussar
    ______ (forgot) to sit and learn
    _______ (forgot) to not work
    (I think one of these statements was Rav Refael Shapiro)
    and Rav Chaim Soloveichik said to help the poor and the downtrodden (the Rav mentioned this somewhere – I think Halakhic man)

  10. Shasdaf-RYBS mentioned the story in the name of RCS on many occasions.

  11. For those who read this blog and who are contemplating entering either the shul rabbinate or becoming a chaplain-most Baalei Batim, learned or otherwise, appreciate phone calls and visits when recovering from illness or shivah visits and other acts of Chesed SheBgufo from a rav even more so than a great shiur or drasha.

  12. Shasdaf-RYBS mentioned your quoted comment on many occasions.

    I think that most Baalek Batim appreciate such chasadim as a phone call or a hospital visit when recuperating or a shivah visit even more so than a shiur or drasha.

  13. “For those who read this blog and who are contemplating entering either the shul rabbinate or becoming a chaplain-most Baalei Batim, learned or otherwise, appreciate phone calls and visits when recovering from illness or shivah visits and other acts of Chesed SheBgufo from a rav even more so than a great shiur or drasha.”

    Absolutely correct-a Rabbi can stay in his position even if can hardly speak and can’t give a great shiur-but a Rabbi who doesn’t do the chesed acts is not a Rav, will likely lose his position and if he is getting paid for his position is engaged in act of theft if he doesn’t do his job.

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