What's in a Word?

For the week ending 25 February 2017 / 29 Shevat 5777

Rabbi of Robbers

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

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 G-d, for He serves as the Master of the Universe and all parts of Creation are His slaves. Targum Onkelos consistently translates the common noun adon into Aramaic as ribbon. That Aramaic word is an honorific form of the Aramaic word rav, which, again, also means “master”. Indeed, the Mishna typically uses the word rav to refer to the master of a slave, so we have now come full circle.

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 G-d for returning to us our soul that had temporarily exited our bodies as we slumbered through the night. We refer to G-d in that prayer as Ribbon kol ha-maasim, Adon kol ha-nishamot,which means, “Master (Ribbon) of all Creation, Master (adon) of all souls”.

The Vilna Gaon points out that in this context we use two different words to refer to G-d being a “Master”. In the first clause, we call Him a Ribbon and in the second, an Adon. What is the difference between these two usages? The Vilna Gaon explains that the first clause refers to G-d’s eminence in the realm of the physical, action-oriented existence. Therefore, in that clause, we use the Aramaic word for “master” because the Aramaic language is connected to the outer, surface-level of existence. In the second clause, however, we refer to G-d’s dominion over the spiritual, transcendental realm of existence. That deeper plane of reality is epitomized by the Hebrew language, because both penetrate the essence of Creation. For this reason in the second clause we refer to G-d’s mastery of creation using the Hebrew word for master — Adon. (Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a leader of contemporary Jewry, notes that in this context the Aramaic clause precedes the Hebrew one, but he does not elaborate on the significance of this observation.)

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

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