699. Rabbi

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This was a title of distinction given to teachers, and literally means Master, or Teacher. It is supposed to have been introduced during our Lord’s ministry. Lightfoot says: “We do not too nicely examine the precise time when this title began; be sure it did not commence before the schism arose between the schools of Shammai and Hillel; and from that schism, perhaps, it had its beginning” (Horae Hebraicae). Gamaliel I, who was patriarch in Palestine from A. D. 30-50, was the first who was honored with this title. It will thus be seen that Jesus was assailing a new fashion which had come into use in his own time.
There were three forms of the title used: Rab, Rabbi, Rabbon; respectively moaning, Master, My Master, Our Master. The precise difference between these terms, in their practical application, is not; however, very clear Ginsburg, in Kitto's Cyclopedia, s. v. Rabbi, quotes from two ancient Babylonian Jews to the effect that the title Rab is Babylonian, and was given to those Babylonian sages who received the laying-on of hands in their colleges; while Rabbi is the title given to the Palestinian sages, who received it with the laying-on of hands of the Sanhedrim. They also state that Rab is the lowest title, Rabbi next higher, and Rabbon highest of all, and given only to the presidents.
There is, however, a different explanation of these titles given in the Aruch or Talmudical lexicon. According to this, a Rabbi is one who has disciples, and whose disciples again have disciples. When he is so old that his disciples belong to a past generation, and are thus forgotten, he is called Rabbon; and when the disciples of his disciples are forgotten he is simply called by his own name.
Witsius states that the title was generally conferred with a great deal of ceremony. Besides the imposition of hands by the delegates of the Sanhedrim, the candidate was first placed in a chair a little raised above the company; there were delivered to him a key and a table-book: the key as a symbol of the power and authority conferred upon him to teach others, and the table-book as a symbol of his diligence in his studies. The key he afterward wore as a badge of honor, and when he died it was buried with him (Burder's Oriental Literature, No. 1, 220).