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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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< Sect. 8 TOC Q9.2 >

Question 9.1:
How does a rabbi differ from a priest?


A rabbi has no actual powers in the written Torah, although the Talmud does provide the Rabbi with the authority to make interpretations of Torah (which, in Orthodoxy, provides authority). Rabbis are, however, ordained (a term used in the progressive communities) or given semichah. This is a recognition of a certain level of training or education as defined as appropriate for the community in which the Rabbi has studied.

One of the traditional names for semichah is hatarat hora'ah, which translates as a license to instruct. In the Orthodox community, semichah is granted in two forms: Yoreh Yoreh (to instruct) and Yadin Yadin (a higher level, meaning to judge). This was seen in earlier times. For example there was the "Magid" or preacher (the role of teaching Jewish law and judging being separated from moral instruction).

Because of the rabbi's training, the rabbi often takes on other roles. Rabbinical presence at religious services is desired insofar as everyone likes the rabbi and the rabbi can rule on questions that come up related to the service (e.g. does a particular smudge render a Torah scroll unkosher?) If the rabbi has a nice voice, and no one else has priority, the rabbi may even lead the services. The state gives rabbis the permission to perform weddings and so on since the state trusts them.

Priests are male descendants from Aaron, the brother of Moses. They are usually called cohanim [cohen singular]. The cohanim perform Birkat Cohanim (blessing the congregation using the Hebrew text found in Bamidbar [Numbers] 6:23-25) on the following occasions:

Daily Israel (except the Galil, per Minhag Tzefat)

Shabbat and Yom Tov many non-Israeli Sephardic congregations

Yom Tov

...otherwise (non-Israeli Ashkenazic congregations)

Cohanim are traditionally granted priority in numerous details. They are also traditionally forbidden to attend funerals other than their closest relatives and may not marry divorcees or converts. When the Temple is standing, the cohanim run most of the Temple service.

The "Star Trek" Vulcan "live long and prosper" sign is roughly one-half of the gesture the cohanim make when blessing the congregation.1 You can see it engraved on many cohen tombstones:

\\//_ _\\//
 \ /   \ /

The Pharisee/Sadduccee conflict was a sectarian division in the period of the Second Temple, although some view it as a rabbi/priest conflict. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the priests lost most of their power.

Oh wait, you meant maybe, like Catholic/Anglican priests? Heh.

On this note: Priests are often used as intermediaries between man and G-d. Rabbis are nothing more than regular people who have learned much Torah. Catholic priests can give absolution for sins, rabbis can't (unless you're asking forgiveness for something you've done against the rabbi personally).

On the other hand, in the traditions of the Chassids and in the Sephardi communities, holy men sometimes have a role as intermediary (though not obligatory, of course). The tales of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev are filled with stories of his intercession On-High. This was a dominant theme in Chasidic "maasehs."


1: The Vulcan's learned of this symbol from Leonard Nimoy, who is Jewish.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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