Rabbi of Robbers
The Amoraic sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, also known as Reish Lakish, serves as the quintessential ba’al teshuva, as he transformed from being a highway robber to becoming a master Torah Scholar. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) relates that one time Reish Lakish insinuated to his teacher and brother-in-law Rabbi Yochanan that the latter did not truly do him any service in bringing him to teshuva because, “There (among my robber friends), they called me ‘Rabbi’ and here (in the Beit Midrash), they call me ‘Rabbi’.” This cryptic statement begs the question: In what way can the leader of bandits be called a “Rabbi”? And what does the word “Rabbi” even mean?
When the Bible refers to the master of a slave, the word commonly used is adon (and its various derivatives). A special form of that word (Adonai) is also used in reference to
Interestingly, the word rav actually appears several times in the Bible, but always in construct form and hyphenated to other words, such as rav-tabachim (Master Executioner, i.e. an army’s general), rav-hachovel (Master of the Rope, i.e. a ship’s captain), and ravei-hamelech (Masters of the King, i.e. a king’s officers).
The word Rabbi is the Anglicized form of the word Rebbi which means “my Rav” or, in pure English, “my master”. In the context of a Torah scholar or even a lay observant Jew, his “master” is his teacher of Torah. On the other hand, a thief’s “master” is the leader of his delinquent gang.
The Talmud (Brachot 60b) records the words of a blessing which we recite daily in the morning prayers. In that prayer we thank
The Vilna Gaon points out that in this context we use two different words to refer to
Until now, we have worked with the assumption that although the words adon and ribbon/rav both mean “master”, the elementary difference between the two is that the former is Hebrew, while the latter is Aramaic. Rabbi Baruch Aryeh HaLevi Fischer of Yeshivas Chasan Sofer in Brooklyn, however, suggests another, thematic way of differentiating between these two words. The word adon is a title borne by anyone who is a master — once someone becomes a master he can always be called an adon. In contrast, the word ribbon/rav is specifically used when referring to the relationship between a master and the protégé in his charge (such as a slave, a student, or an apprentice). Thus, the word adon is all-encompassing and serves as an epithet assumed by a master in all contexts, while rav/ribbon is only used under specific conditions.
Based on this, Rabbi Fischer explains that Adonai — which is derived from adon — is considered a name of Gd, who is the all-encompassing Master of the Universe, while ribbon/rav is not His name, per se, but only a description of His role vis-à-vis specific elements of Creation.
- Author’s note: Le’Zechut Refuah Shleimah for Bracha bat Chaya Rachel