Moshe Bleich
Rabbi Moshe Bleich teaches Jewish Law at Touro College, NY, and is a member of the editorial committee of Machon Mishnat Rav Aharon [Kotler]
Ten Da'at, A Journal of Jewish Education, Vol. XI - Sivan 5758, Spring 1998

Key words: rav muvhak,

In time gone by there was a palpable distance between teacher and student. Convention dictated that the relationship be formal. In such a relationship it was self-evident that a student's reverence for a teacher would preclude any consideration of addressing the teacher by name. In recent times the teacher-student relationship has become far less formal. Indeed, development of a certain degree of camaraderie is regarded in many circles as pedagogically desirable. In some universities, particularly at the graduate level, students are encouraged to interact with their professors on a first name basis. Halacha, on the other hand, is certainly not supportive of such conduct vis-a-vis a teacher of Torah.

The Gemara, Kiddushin 31b, records a prohibition against addressing or referring to one's father or Torah teacher by name. Referring to parents or teachers by name is prohibited after the death of those individual as well as during their lifetimes. This aspect of the respect that must be accorded a parent or teacher is codified in Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 240:2 and Yoreh De'ah 242:15.

Transgression of this stricture marks the violator not simply as an individual who is lax with regard to a particular commandment, but as a person who has rejected religious discipline. The Gemara, Sanhedrin 100a, declares that one who addresses a teacher by name is an apikores, i.e., a person who has freed himself from the restraint of divine law. R. Joshua adds the comment that Gehazi was punished (II Kings 8:5) because he had referred to his teacher, Elisha, by name.

Rashi, ad locum, s.v. bi-shmo, asserts that the prohibition against referring to one's teacher by name applies only when the reference does not include an appropriate title. Thus, according to Rashi, if one adds a title, i.e., "My master, Rabbi so and so," it is permitted to refer to a teacher by name. Kesef Mishneh, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:5, cites Numbers 11:28 in support of Rashi's position. Upon hearing Eldad and Medad prophesying within the camp, Joshua said to Moses, "Adoni Moshe kela'em - My Lord Moses, destroy them." Kesef Mishneh is troubled by the fact that Joshua addressed Moshe Rabbenu by name. That difficulty is dispelled in light of Rashi's comment indicating that it is permissible to call one's teacher by name provided that the name is linked with an appropriate title since Joshua addressed Moses as "Adoni Moshe - My Lord Moses," rather than simply as "Moshe."

Rema, Yoreh De'ah 242:15, similarly rules that they prohibition against addressing a teacher by name applies only when that name is used in a familiar manner. However, when accompanied by a prefatory honorific such a "rabbi mori ploni - my master, my teacher so and so," use of a teacher's name is permitted. Shakh, Yoreh De'ah 242:24, limits that leniency in declaring that Rema's ruling applies only in a situation in which the student refers to the teacher other than in the teacher's presence (she-lo be-fanav). In his presence (be-fanav), however, the teacher should be addressed simply as "Rabbi-my master." Shakh adds that such is the common practice.

Shakh's ruling is accepted by R. Ezekiel Landau, Tselah on Berakhot 4a; R. Ya'akov Ettlinger, She'elot u-Teshuvot Binyan Zion, no. 84; Tiferet Yisra'el, Kiddushin 1:54; and Arukh ha-Shulhan, Yoreh De'ah 242:37. However, R. Akiva Eger, in his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh, ad locum, citing the comments of Pri Hadash, maintains that when the name is coupled with a title, it is permitted to address a teacher by name even in his presence. In support of that permissive view, Pri Hadash cites the previously mentioned biblical account which records that Joshua addressed Moses by name. The use of the imperative "kela'em-destroy them" indicates that Joshua was addressing Moses in his presence. Pithei Teshuvah 242:10 notes that Regel Yesharah is in agreement with that position. This permissive view is also accepted by R. Chaim Joseph David Azulai in his Birkei Yosef, Yoreh De'ah 242:17 and in his Shiyurei Berakhah, Yoreh De'ah 242:9. This position is also espoused by Mishneh le-Melekh in his Parashat Derakhim, Derush Derekh Anavim, no. 15, p. 67, and of Rabbi Zevi Pesach Frank in a note appended to his Har Zevi al ha-Torah, Parashat Va-Yeshev.1

It might appear that, to all intents and purposes, the disagreement among the authorities with regard to this matter is academic since Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 242:30, rules that all the halachic provisions concerning honoring one's teacher are limited to a "rav muvhak" who is defined as a person from whom one has acquired the major portion of one's wisdom. It would then follow that a teacher who is not a rav muvhak may be addressed by name. It is generally accepted that, in our era, in light of the ready availability of, and reliance upon, published works, a teacher who merely directs study and provides guidance in understanding those works is not regarded as a rav muvhak.2 Accordingly, since in our day a teacher does not enjoy the status of a rav muvhak, it is permissible to address a teacher by name even without an accompanying title.3 However, at least according to one authority, Tselah, Berakhot 4a, such a conclusion is incorrect.

Mishneh le-Melekh, in his Parashat Derakhim, Derekh Anavim, no. 15 (p. 67), finds talmudic support for the principle that a teacher may be addressed by name provided that the name is coupled with an appropriate honorific. Parashat Derakhim cites the comments of the Gemara, Berakhot 4a, amplifying King David's plea, "Safeguard my life, for I am a hasid" (Psalms 86:2). The Gemara indicated that, in declaring himself to be a hasid (pious person), King David contrasted his comportment with that of the non-Jewish monarchs of his day. Those monarchs were wont to assemble themselves as a group in order to be accorded honor. But, declared King David, "I soil my hands with bloodstains in order to determine that a woman is permitted to engage in marital relations with her husband. Moreover, in everything that I do, I consult with Mephibosheth, my teacher, and I say to him, 'Mephibosheth, my teacher, did I rule correctly?'" In this statement, King David reports that he addressed Mephibosheth by name. Accordingly, Parashat Derakhim infers that the prohibition against addressing a teacher by name is limited to use of the teacher's name without a prefatory honorific.4

R. Ezekiel Landau, in his commentary on Berakhot, Tselah, ad locum, observes that Parashat Derakhim's explanation is not consistent with the earlier cited ruling of Shakh, Yoreh De'ah 242:24, to the effect that it is forbidden to address one's teacher by name in his presence even if he is also accorded a proper title. Hence, accordingly to Shakh, since King David was conversing with Mephibosheth, it would have been prohibited for King David to refer to him even as "Mephibosheth rabbi."

In resolving the problem posed by Parashat derakhim, Tselah asserts that Mephibosheth was not King Davids' principal teacher. Tselah asserts that Irah the Jairite was King David's primary teacher or rav muvhak.5 According to Tselah, King David's relationship with Mephibosheth was that of a talmid haver, i.e., a junior colleague who studies with a more accomplished scholar. Tselah argues that a talmid haver owes his mentor a duty of honor, albeit not as great as that owed to a rav muvhak: unlike a student addressing a rav muvhak, a talmid haver may address his mentor by name provided that he accords him a proper title. It follows, a fortiori, that an ordinary student may not address a teacher who is not his rav muvhak by name unless he also employs an appropriate honorific. Tselah's position is somewhat problematic in that Tselah offers no further evidence in support of that view, nor is such a duty of honor reflected in any earlier halachic source.6 According to Tselah, it would follow that although most contemporary teachers do not have the status of a rav muvhak, they do enjoy a status at least equal to that of a senior colleague and therefore, according to Tselah, a student is permitted to address his teacher by name only if the name is accompanied by a proper title.7

A contemporary authority, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, reaches the same conclusion for a different reason. Going beyond the normative views expressed in earlier sources, Rabbi Yosef observes that in the talmudic era, the term "Rabbi" was used solely to describe a personal relationship but not as a general honorific appellation. However, now that the term "Rabbi" is used as a title, Rabbi Yosef opines that a student should refer to his teacher, even though he is not a rav muvhak, by the title Rabbi, even when the teacher is not present. Rabbi Yosef adds that, although this practice may not be halachically mandated, nevertheless, since the honor of Torah scholars is so often debased in our day, effort should be made to enhance the dignity of Torah by appending the title Rabbi to the name of a teacher of Torah.8 With or without a source, Rabbi Yosef's recommendation reflects the courtesy, etiquette and common practice of our day.9

Although Rabbi Yosef does not base his comment upon any compelling halachic principle, it appears to this writer that there does exist one source that provides support for Rabbi Yosef's position. Sefer ha-Kovetz on Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:5, seeks to resolve the problem posed by Shakh with regard to the position of the authorities who maintain that it is prohibited to refer to a teacher by name in his presence even if a title is added. As noted, the problem is that Joshua addressed Moses as "Adoni Moshe" in Moses' presence. Sefer ha-Kovetz notes that, in declaring that it is improper to call a teacher by name even with a title, Shakh adds the comment "and such is the custom (ve-khen nohagin)." Sefer ha-Kovetz asserts that those words are intended to convey the notion that such an act might well be biblically permissible, but that later generations realized that proper honor was not being paid to the Torah and to Torah scholars and therefore adopted the more stringent practice in order to enhance the honor of their teachers. Thus, it is only by virtue of that custom that they refrain from addressing a rav muvhak by name in his presence even in a permitted fashion, i.e., even with an accompanying title.10 It may be similarly argued that, in recent times, students have adopted the practice of not referring to any teacher by name without an accompanying title as a means of enhancing the prestige and honor of Torah scholars.

One further point: Although most authorities agree that, in our era, there is no rav muvhak, there are a number of authorities who maintain that teachers of students in their formative years do indeed have the status of a rav muvhak. Ben Ish Hai, shanah bet, Parashat ki Tetzei, no. 11, observes that given the definition of a rav muvhak as the person from whom one has acquired the major portion of one's knowledge, a person who is relatively unlearned may have a rav muvhak to whom he owes appropriate respect, while a more proficient scholar may not have a rav muvhak. Thus, an individual who has achieved proficiency in the Written Law but not in Talmud must relate to the teacher who has instructed him in the material that he has mastered as a rav muvhak since the bulk of his limited knowledge has been derived from one person. Accordingly, it would follow that a young student who has not yet mastered advance texts must regard the teacher from whom he has gained the major portion of his knowledge as his rav muvhak.

Another consideration is advance by R. Malkiel Zevi Tennenbaum, Teshuvot Divrei Malki'el, II, no. 74, who argues that identification of a rav muvhak as the individual from whom one has acquired the bulk of one's knowledge applies only after an individual has completed his studies and no longer requires the tutelage of a mentor. However, argues Divrei Malki'el, so long as a student is actually studying under a teacher, the fact that an individual is currently the student's teacher endows the instructor with the status of rabbo muvhak. Divrei Malki'el himself concedes that his opinion represents a hiddush, i.e., a novel halachic determination.

Although, according to most authorities, contemporary teachers do not have the halachic status of a rav muvhak and, therefore, a student may address them by name, the minority opinion of Tselah is that even a teacher who is not a rav muvhak may be addressed by name only when coupled with a suitable title. As has been emphasized by R. Ovadiah Yosef, use of an honorific certainly serves to enhance the honor due the Torah. Hence, although addressing a teacher by name is not regarded by most authorities as an halachic infraction, there are ample halachic grounds for encouraging students to use an appropriate title in addressing or referring to a teacher.

1. Cf. The comments of R. Shlomo Luria, Yam shel Shlomoh, Kiddushin 1:65. See also the lengthy discussion of this topic by R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk, Am ha-Torah, Mahadura Telita'i, no. 7 (5752), pp. 57-58 and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yabia Omer, I, Yoreh De'ah, no. 18, secs. 9,10. and 12.
2. See Shevut Ya'akov, II, no. 64 and Hokhmat Adam 104:1, who declares explicitly that in our day there is no rav muvhak. See also the comments of Pithei Teshuvah, Yoreh De'ah 242:3, as well as the remarks of Rabbi Falk, Am ha-Torah, ibid., p. 65.
3. Cf., however, Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 244:10. Shulhan Arukh rules that a scholar who is renowned for his wisdom must be regarded as a rav muvhak even by an individual who is not the person's student. Rema, ad locum, adds that a scholar who is acknowledged by the public at large as the gadol ha-dor has the status of a rav muvhak.
4. For a fuller discussion of this issue and alternative resolutions to the problem, see Perashat Derakhim, ad locum.
5. See Targum, 2 Samuel 20:26 and Rashi, Eruvin 63a. see also Mo'ed Katan 16b.
6. See also Sedei Hemed, Ma'arekhet ha-Khaf, klal 104, who also takes noted of this problem. With regard to the status of a talmid haver for another matter of religious law see Rema, Yoreh De'ah 340:8.
7. For a more extensive discussion of the position of Tselah see Sedei Hemed, Ma'arekhet ha-Khaf, klal 104; Yabia Omer, Yoreh De'ah, I, no. 18, secs. 9 and 10; as well as Rabbi Ya'akov Sher, Sefer Birkat Ya'akov, Berakhot, ad locum, who disagrees strongly with the view of Tselah.
8. See Yabi'a Omer, Yoreh De'ah, I, no. 18, sec. 11. This ruling is also recorded in Hilchot Kibbud Av va-Em, Kavod Rabbo, Talmid Hakham ve-Zaken: Piskei rav Ovadiah Yosef (Maaleh Adumim, 1989), pp. 61-62.
9. This ruling is endorsed by Rabbi Joel Schwartz in his useful compendium, Hadar Zekeinim, Dinei Kevod Hakham ve-Zaken (Jerusalem, 1986), p. 120.
10. See also Shevet ha-Levi, Yoreh De'ah, I, no. 183, Shakh, no. 24. Sefer ha-Kovetz adds that this stringency was adopted lest someone enter the room in the midst of a conversation and hear a person addressing the teacher by name but not hear the prefatory title. However, Sefer ha-Kovetz concedes that this concern is far fetched.

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