A term that arose in the first century CE for those ordained to be authoritative in their study, exposition, and practice of Jewish law. The rabbi could be found expounding the Torah in the synagogue, much as Jesus did (Mark 1.21; 6.2), although the application of the title to him (Matt. 26.25, 49; Mark 9.5; 11.21; etc.) was early and preserved its etymological meaning of “my master” (see John 1.38). The rabbi functioned as an interpreter of Torah and as a judge, most often of the claims of the poor. By the third century, the rabbi was regarded as having magical powers such as the ability to communicate with the dead.

Rabbis generally worked part‐time at a trade, as carpenters, cobblers, and the like. Not until the Middle Ages did the rabbinate become a profession. The rabbis were not a separate caste. They mixed with the common folk on a regular basis and usually came from the ranks of ordinary people, as in the case of the most eminent of all rabbis, Akiva. The rabbis believed that all Jews could live a holy life through observance of Torah, and they said that, if all Jews observed just two Sabbaths completely, salvation would come. Thus, common folk played an important part in the rabbinate's scheme. Rabbis could be entrusted with great responsibilities far removed from the world of Torah study in the rabbinical schools. There are instances of rabbis assuming public health responsibilities, including disaster prevention so that buildings would not collapse in a storm, and the rabbi would act to see that no one in his village lacked food to eat. Such was the central role of rabbis in late antiquity.

The earliest literary monument of the rabbis is the Mishnah. Completed around 200 CE, the Mishnah is basically a rambling legal compilation, striking in its ahistorical character as compared with earlier Jewish writings and in its lack of reference to scripture to support its rulings. Nevertheless, it was authoritative and became the basis for the Jerusalem Talmud (ca. 400 CE) and the Babylonian Talmud (ca. 500 CE), which comment on the Mishnah and supply its wants, ideological as well as scriptural (e.g., the Mishnah does not talk of the Messiah).

The rabbis essentially shared the traditions and views of the Pharisees. They embraced an all‐knowing, all‐wise, just, merciful, and loving God who supervised the lives of individuals and decreed the fates, even while giving room for free will to choose between good and evil. A world to come existed where recompense for the evils of this world could be expected. Both this world and the next revolved around Torah. The religion of the rabbis exalted the holy faith, the holy man, and the pursuit of a holy way of life. A part of that holy existence involved daily prayer, and the roots of the current Jewish prayerbook are to be found in the Mishnah. It was only by pursuing the holy on a daily basis that salvation could be achieved and the Messiah would come.

Philip Stern