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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
The title rabbi, with several others from the same root, רבב , magnus est, vel multiplicatus est, began first to be assumed, according to Godwin, as a distinguishing title of honour by men of learning, about the time of the birth of Christ. We find it anciently given, indeed, to several magistrates and officers of state. In Esther 1:8 , it is said, the king appointed כלאּ?רב ביתו , which we render "all the officers of his house."
In Jeremiah 41:1 , we read of the רבי המלכּ? , "the princes of the king."
In Job 32:9 , it is said, that the רבים , which we render "great men, are not always wise;" a rendering which well expresses the original meaning of the word. It was not therefore in those days properly a title of honour, belonging to any particular office or dignity, in church or state; but all who were of superior rank and condition in life were called רבים . We do not find the prophets, or other men of learning in the Old Testament, affecting any title beside that which denoted their office; and they were contented to be addressed by their bare names. The first Jewish rabbi, said to have been distinguished with any title of honour, was Simeon, the son of Hillel, who succeeded his father as president of the sanhedrim; and his title was that of rabban. The later rabbies tell us, this title was conferred with a good deal of ceremony. When a person had gone through the schools and was thought worthy of the degree of rabbi, he was first placed in a chair somewhat raised above the company; then were delivered to him a key and a table book: the key, as a symbol of the power or authority now conferred upon him, to teach that knowledge to others which he had learned himself; and this key he afterward wore as a badge of his honour, and when he died it was buried with him: the table book was a symbol of his diligence in his studies, and of his endeavouring to make farther improvements in learning. The next ceremony in the creation of a rabbi was the imposition of hands on him by the delegates of the sanhedrim, practised in imitation of Moses's ordaining Joshua by this rite, to succeed him in his office, Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9 . And then they proclaimed his title.
According to Maimonides, the imposition of hands was not looked upon to be essential; but was sometimes omitted. They did not always, saith he, lay their hands on the head of the elder to be ordained; but called him rabbi, and said, "Behold thou art ordained, and hast power," &c. We find this title given to John the Baptist, John 3:26; and frequently to our blessed Saviour; as by John's disciples, by Nicodemus, and by the people that followed, John 1:38; John 3:2; John 6:20 . The reason of our Saviour's prohibiting his disciples to be called rabbi is expressed in these words: "Be not ye called rabbi, for one is your master, even Christ," καθηγητης , your guide and conductor, on whose word and instructions alone you are to depend in matters of religion and salvation. Accordingly the inspired Apostles pretend to nothing more than, as the ambassadors of Christ, to deliver his instructions; and, for their own part, they expressly disclaim all dominion over the faith and consciences of men, 2 Corinthians 1:24; 2 Corinthians 5:20 . The Jewish writers distinguish between the titles rab, rabbi, rabban. As for rab and rabbi, the only difference between them is, that rab was the title of such as had had their education, and taken their degree, in some foreign Jewish school; suppose at Babylon, where there was a school or academy of considerable note; rabbi was the title of such as were educated in the land of Judea, who were accounted more honourable than the others. But as for rabban, it was the highest title; which, they say, was never conferred on more than seven persons, namely, on R. Simeon, five of his descendants, and on R. Jochanan, who was of a different family. It was on this account, it should seem, that the blind man gave this title to Christ, Mark 10:51; being convinced that he was possessed of divine power, and worthy of the most honourable distinctions. And Mary Magdalene, when she saw Christ after his resurrection, "said unto him, Rabboni,"
John 20:16 , that is, my rabban, like my lord in English; for rabbon is the same with rabban, only pronounced according to the Syriac dialect.
There were several gradations among the Jews before the dignity of rabbin, as among us, before the degree of doctor. The head of a school was called chacham, or wise. He had the head seat in the assemblies and in the synagogues. He reprimanded the disobedient, and could excommunicate them; and this procured him great respect. In their schools they sat upon raised chairs, and their scholars were seated at their feet. Hence St. Paul is said to have studied at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel, Acts 22:3 . The studies of the rabbins are employed either on the text of the law, or the traditions, or the cabbala; these three objects form so many different schools and different sorts of rabbins. Those who chiefly apply to the letter of Scripture are called Caraites, Literalists. Those who chiefly study the traditions and oral laws of the Talmud are called Rabbanists. Those who give themselves to their secret and mysterious divinity, letters and numbers, are called Cabbalists, Traditionaries. The rabbins are generally very ignorant in history, chronology, philology, antiquity, and geography. They understand the holy language but imperfectly. They know not the true signification of a multitude of words in the sacred text. They are prodigiously conceited about their traditions, so that there is very little profit in reading them; and experience shows that most who have applied themselves to peruse their books, have been but little benefited by them, and have entertained a perfect contempt of their understanding and their works. The chief function of the rabbins is to preach in the synagogue, to make public prayers there, and to interpret the law; they have the power of binding and loosing, that is, of declaring what is forbidden, and what allowed. When the synagogue is poor and small, there is but one rabbin, who at the same time discharges the office of a judge and a teacher. But when the Jews are numerous and powerful, they appoint three pastors, and a house of judgment, where all their civil affairs are determined. Then the rabbin applies himself to instruction only, unless it be thought proper to call him into the council to give his advice, in which case he takes the chief place.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Rab'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/r/rab.html. 1831-2.