Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Using First Names

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

According to the Talmud, it is forbidden to refer to one's parents and teachers by their first names and the prohibition remains in place even after their passing.[1] We are taught that addressing teachers by their first names is so severe that the Talmud declares that one who does so is to be considered an apikores – one who has deliberately distanced himself from Jewish norms.[2] Gehazi was punished only because he referred to his teacher, Elisha, by his first name.[3] If, however, a title prefaces the teacher’s first name, it is permissible to address a teacher in this way.[4] That is why the common Israeli practice of addressing a teacher by first name, preceded by “Morah”, “Moreh”, or "Rav" is halachically acceptable.[5] The Mishna teaches us that one should fear one’s teacher just as one would fear heaven.[6]

Click here to read moreThere was an ancient practice, still used in some religious circles, of addressing one's teacher and other prominent rabbis in the "third person", known as "lashon nistar" is halachic literature, as a sign of respect. While doing so seems somewhat reasonable in the Yiddish or Hebrew language, speaking this way in English makes for awkward and inconsistent grammar in many instances. As Rabbi Michael Broyde once wrote: "when speaking to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States during oral argument, if one did not understand the question that he posed, one might say "Chief Justice, I did not understand the question." However, one would not turn to the Chief Justice and say "What did the Chief Justice ask?" Therefore, addressing rabbis in the "second person" should not be seen as a lack of respect.

In the Talmudic era, the title “rabbi” was actually used more for signifying a personal relationship, and not so much as an honorific appellation or scholarly title. Indeed, one will quickly note that many of the Talmudic sages are not even addressed with the title “rabbi.” This was due in part to the cessation of the Sanhedrin, and by extension, the classical semicha, or rabbinic ordination procedure.[7] In our day and age, however, the term “rabbi” is always used as a title, and, therefore, reverence is in order when referring to one’s Torah teachers. In any event, it is always proper manners and good behavior to speak to our teachers, as well as everyone else, with respect.[8] It would be remiss not to point out, however, that rabbis, teachers, and other people in positions of authority are entitled to forgo any formalities owed to them, and may be addressed by their first names should they so desire.[9] Rav Huna, on the other hand, was very particular to be addressed with his rabbinical title.[10]

As we have seen, showing respect for other human beings, especially parents and teachers, is not a custom, but rather Torah-mandated practice. The Talmud relates that when Rabbi Eliezer fell ill, his disciples came to visit him.[11] They asked him, “Rabbi, teach us the correct manner of living so that we may merit to enter the World to Come.” Among his responses was: “Make sure to show respect for others!”


[1] Kiddushin 31b. When being called to the Torah one must refer to his father as “Reb” or “Avi Mori.” Whenever referring to one’s mother, one can use the title “Ha’isha,” “Imi Morati,” or “Marat.” Y.D. 240:2.
[2] Sanhedrin 100a.
[3] Melachim II 8:5.
[4] Y.D. 242:24.
[5] Y.D. 242:16
[6] Avot 4:12.
[7] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semicha for more information.
[8] Sefer Chassidim 579.
[9] Kiddushin 32b.
[10] Pesachim 86b.
[11] Berachot 28b.

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