Can You Call a Rabbi by His Name?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Respecting Your Torah Teacher

Calling a Torah scholar by his title is a matter of showing honor to the Torah. You must show respect to your mentor, your rebbe, by, for example, rising when he enters a room (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 242:16). Among the other obligations to your mentor is refraining from calling him by his name (ibid., 15). The Rema adds that you may call him by his name if you preface his name with the title “rabbi” (or another title of respect).

You must also respect someone who taught you a little Torah – even just one word. However, the respect you must show him is less than what you must show your mentor (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 242:30). The Sedei Chemed encyclopedia (Ma’arekhes Khaf, no. 104) quotes the Tzapichis Bi-Dvash who argues that you may call such a teacher by name, without a title, while Rav Yechezkel Landau (18th cen., Czech; Tzelach, Berakhos 4a sv. va-ani) holds you must use a title although you need not call him just “rebbe.” Rav Yisrael Lipschitz (19th cen., Germany; Tiferes Yisrael, Avos 6:3 no. 50) also contends that you are obligated to call him by a title.

II. Respecting a Rabbi

The Sifra (Lev. 19:32, quoted by Rashi, ad loc.) says that all the obligations to honor the elderly also applies to all Torah scholars, even if they never taught you anything. Quite surprisingly, no subsequent Medieval or early Modern source repeats that obligation. Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 243:6, 244:1) follows the unanimous precedent and states that your only obligation to respect Torah scholars consists of rising when they enter your vicinity and refraining from insulting them. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida, 18th cen., Israel; Birkei Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 244:6) notes that the Sifra’s extensive list of mandatory respectful practices was disputed and concludes that the law requires nothing more than rising and refraining from insulting. However, Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (20th cen., Russia; Chafetz Chaim, Asin, n. 8 in asterisk) assumes that the law follows the Sifra and leaves as an open question why the codes neglect to mention it.

Everyone agrees that you have to call your mentor by a title. If the rabbi only taught you a little, there is a debate whether you may call him by his name. Regarding a rabbi who is not your teacher, according to Chida, you do not have to call by a title. According to Chafetz Chaim, you must use a title and may not call him by his name alone. I would like to suggest a proof for Chafetz Chaim’s view.

III. A Rabbi’s Inheritance

The Gemara (Kesubos 85b) tells the story of a man who bequeathed his estate to Tuviah, without identifying the man beyond saying the first name. To whom should the court give all his belongings?

”A certain man said (to those present at his deathbed): ‘My property (should go) to Tuviah. He passed away, and Tuviah came (to claim his possessions). Rabbi Yochanan said: Tuviah has come. (If the deceased had) said: My property should go to Tuviah, and Rav Tuviah came forward, (it is assumed that this is not the person the deceased had in mind, for he) said: To Tuviah. He did not say: To Rav Tuviah. But if (Rav Tuviah) is a person who is friendly (with the deceased), then he was friendly with him.” (translation adapted from Koren Steinsaltz)

If someone named Tuviah comes forward, the court accepts that he was the intended recipient. If someone named Rav Tuviah comes forward, then we reject him because the deceased named Tuviah as his heir. He would have called the rabbi by his title as Rav Tuviah. The exception is if they were friends. If a rabbi is your good friend, you call him by his first name and don’t necessarily use his title. Then Rav Tuviah would have been just plain Tuviah to the deceased, his friend, and could have been the intended heir.

IV. The Rabbi’s Buddy

We see from here two things. First, you normally call a rabbi by his title. Even if he isn’t your teacher, you still call him by the title and not by his first name. However, if you are good friends, the title isn’t necessary. In fact, we expect you to call him by his first name without any title. Rav Yosef Chaviva (15th cen., Spain; Chiddushei Nimukei Yosef, ad loc.) says this explicitly: “Friendly with him: Was with him regularly. Since they were friendly, he called him by his name as if he was not ordained.” (Note that the Gemara uses the title Rav Tuviah and not Rabbi Tuviah, implying that he was in Babylonia where they could not continue the formal chain of rabbinic ordination.)

According to Chida, that you do not have to call a rabbi by his title unless he is your teacher, why does the Gemara need the condition that the rabbi was friendly with the deceased? A man, particularly an old man, established in the community, would call a rabbi by his first name, just plain Tuviah, even if they aren’t friends. Unless Rav Tuviah is his teacher, he would just be plain Tuviah. However, according to Chafetz Chaim, you have to call him Rav Tuviah because he is a rabbi, even if you don’t know him well. It’s a matter of kevod ha-Torah, respecting the Torah. Only if he is your friend, you can set aside the formalities and call him just Tuviah. Therefore, this passage seems to support the Chafetz Chaim’s view against the Chida’s.

(reposted from Apr ’23)

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.

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