Jewish Rabbinates

Herein are lists associated with some of the more influential rabbinates, together with a few other religious and ethical leaders.

Contains articles on: Chabad Chassidics, Chief Rabbis of Great Britain, Chief Rabbis of Israel, Jewish colonies in Egypt, the Gaonim, Ger Chassidics, the Hakham Basi, the Keraites, and the Resh Galuta.


CHABAD (Lubavicher) CHASSIDIM The Chassidic movement began in Belarus and Lithuania in the early 18th century, as an effort to personalize and invigorate a religion which was seen as becoming too dry, legalistic, and joyless. The founder of Chassidism, Yisrael ben Eliezer (Ba'al Shem Tov), taught a blend of emotional and mystical approaches that appealed strongly to the communities in Greater Poland he worked in at the time. Perhaps unfortunately, this occured at a time of crisis within the Jewish world - only a generation or two before all Jewry had been rocked by the betrayal of the mystical prophet Sabbatai Tzvi, whose conversion to Islam had brought into disrepute the fundamental teachings of Qabala and the mystical side of Judaism. Chassidic efforts were greeted with strong efforts at suppression by the Gaons of Vilnius and other eastern European communities, with the entirely predictable result of defining and strengthening Chassidic life and thought. Since that time, Chassidic groups of varying levels of intensity have flourished both in America and in Israel, although they continue to be viewed with skepticism by the outside world - they regard themselves generally as a warm and friendly people, although their distinctive appearance and somewhat austere or even secretive habits when in public lend themselves to suspicious appraisals by outsiders. The Chabad Chassidics, often known as Lubavichers from the town that was their center from 1812 to 1915, are one of the best-known and most active of Chassidic groups, but there are many such localized groups in existence - see also, for example, Ger.

CHIEF RABBINATE: GREAT BRITAIN The Chief Rabbinate has existed in Britain in one form or another for nearly three centuries, dating back almost to the time of the re-admission of the Jews in the 17th century.
No-one knows when Jews first began to arrive in Britain. The likelihood is they were here in Roman times. By contrast, the date of their expulsion, 1290, by order of King Edward I is well chronicled. Thereafter, with rare and temporary exceptions, the only Jews living in England were either converts to Christianity or those who practised their religion in secret. Following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 a secret Marrano community was set up in London. Jews began to be readmitted into England in the mid 17th century, during the time of the Puritan ascendency under Oliver Cromwell. By 1690 the Jewish congregation in London set up the Great Synagogue in Duke's Place in the City of London, and by 1700 the Ashkenazi Jews had spread far beyond the environs of the City of London - when they needed advice or guidance on religious matters they turned to the Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, who came to be regarded as the spiritual leader of all the Ashkenazim in Britain. As the British Empire expanded, so too did the reach of the Chief Rabbi, insofar as they came to be consulted and accorded  a primary position among Jews living anywhere under British or Commonwealth authority.

CHIEF RABBINATE: ISRAELIf the Hakhamei Basi of the Ottoman Sultanate were the de-facto heirs to the spiritual authority of the Exilarchs, the Chief Rabbinates of the State of Israel can be said to descend from the Great Sanhedrin, the lawmaking body of ancient Israel, through the Nasi'im and the Gaonim of Eretz Yisrael. As early as the 1500's there has been an office of Rishon L'Tzion (First in Zion), the title now held by the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. The office became officially recognized by the Ottoman government in the mid 1800's and has been held by such famous Jewish scholars as Moses ben Jonathan (1650's-1689), Abraham Gagin (1840's) and Elijah Panigel (1907-1911). The office was formalized in its modern shape under the British Mandate in the early 1920's. The decision to elect two Chief Rabbis, one Sephardi (Spanish/Oriental) and one Ashkenazi (North European) was made to reflect the diversity of Israel's  Jews, but in recent years numerous people, including the two current chief Rabbis themselves, have advocated the merging of the two offices and the election of a single Chief Rabbi. The Chief Rabbis alternate in the presidency of the Religious Council, which has jurisdiction over marriage and other issues relating to the Jewish community in Israel. They are elected by a committee of electors composed of various religious and civil authorities.

Jewish Colonies in) EGYPT Interconnections between early Egyptian and early Hebrew populations are of old date. One of the most enduring themes of Old Testament scripture is the presence of Hebrews within Pharaonic Egypt, first as "guest-workers" and later as forced-labour battalions or slaves, and their subsequent flight out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan (popular imagination sometimes seeing them as the labourers who built the pyramids, though the main era of pyramid construction ended long before the Habiru were in Egypt). In later eras, other communities of Jews settled in Egypt at various localities, for various reason, and with varying degrees of autonomy. The balance of this article is commentary on some of these Classic-era settlements and temples.

The GAONIM (Levantine) The Gaonim were the heads of the Talmudic acadamies of Babylonia during the Middle Ages. They were universally recognized as the highest authority of Halakhic (Jewish Legal) instruction and interpretation  from the seventh century to at least the 11th. The title of Gaon comes from the Aramaic phrase Resh Yeshiva Geon Ya'akov, or Head of the Acadamy, Pride of Jacob. The Gaonate was not hereditary but appointive, with the Resh Galuta appointing and deposing both Gaonim, alhtough it did tend to remain in a group of several prominent rabbinical families. The two highest acadamies were those of Sura and Pumbedita, both in Babylonia, though the title of Gaon was later adopted by the heads of Rabbinical acadamies in Egypt, Israel, and elsewhere. In many ways, the Gaonim were far more powerful than the Resh Galuta himself; while his direct influence extended only to those Jews within the Caliphate, the Gaonic rulings on legal issues were sought after and followed by Jews from the Atlantic Ocean to the Himalayas.

GER CHASSIDIM Ger, Gerrer, or Gur is the Yiddish name of Góra Kalwaria, a small town in Poland (on the Vistula, 23 miles (37 km.) south-southeast of Warsaw), and the name of a large Orthodox Chassidic dynasty which originated from this town. They are now based in Jerusalem where their Rebbe lives. The Rabbis who lead them have come from a family by the name of "Alter". Almost all of their devotees (about 200,000) in Europe perished during the Holocaust, but their leader at the time managed to escape and quickly set about rebuilding the movement in Israel. There are large communities of Gerrer chassidim in New York, London, and Belgium. In Israel they dominate the Agudath Israel or Israel religious political movement and party in the Israeli Knesset. They have set up several satellite communities in parts of Israel, including Ashdod in the south, Arad in the Negev desert, and Hazor in the Galilee. They are distinguished by their dark hasidic garb, and on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays the married men wear a high circular fur hat called a spodik (not to be confused with the much flatter shtreimel - a fur hat worn by some of the other chassidic groups.). See also, Chabad.

The HAKHAM BASI The Hakhamei Basi were the Chief Rabbis of the Ottoman Empire, and as such were the closest thing to an overall Exilarchal authority among Jewry everywhere in the Middle East in early modern times. They held broad powers to legislate, judge and enforce the laws among the Jews of Ottoman Turkey and often sat on the Caliph's divan. They also maintained considerable influence outside the Ottoman Empire, especially after the forced migration of numerous Jewish communities and individuals out of Spain and Italy.

KARAITE (Ananite) EXILARCHS The Karaites were originally a collection of schismatic Jewish sects that had little in common except a rejection of the Rabbinic Oral Tradition that formed the basis for the Talmud. They had little cohesion or widespread adherence until the rise of Anan ben David, who declared himself Exilarch in 760. Anan taught that each individual could use simple rules of reason to derive the Law directly from the text of the Torah. Anan's movement (called Ananism) brought various subsects together and eventually was supplanted by Karaism, which differed from Anan's teachings in many respects but still held him in high regard. Anan and his descendents are regarded as the legitimate Exilarchs in Karaite tradition.

The RESH GALUTA The Resh Galuta (Aramaic: "Prince of the Dispersion") was the senior Jewish leader in the Middle East, responsible for the welfare and security of Jews everywhere under their foreign lords following the Diaspora. Located at first in Old Babylon, under the Parthian and Sassanid Empires, the seat of the Reshim was transferred to Baghdad with the coming of the Arabs. Of the House of David, and regarded as Royal Princes by both Jews and dominant Imperial power (Persian, then Caliphate, then Mongol) alike. Their power was not absolute; other Jews, particularly the Nasi in Judea and the heads of the Talmudic Academies had much authority; nevertheless these Princes held enormous prestige and perhaps primary influence.