Thursday, February 4, 2010

R' (or "Know when to walk away")

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

Did you ever do something by rote rather than consciously, then have someone pick a fight with you over it so that you find yourself defending your action as though it had been intentional in the first place?

Let me explain:

I have a long-standing habit of shorthanding Rabbi into R’. (See, for example, the flyer here.) It makes sense for flyers – “Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner” is just absurdly long, and it kills readability. It makes sense for addressing rabbis in emails, when speed is of the essence. And it says what I need it to say. So I do it, and I’ve done it for years without thinking twice.

Last week someone I respect picked a fight with me about this R’, saying that diminishing the honorific diminishes the honor due to Rabbis. Where some parts of the Jewish community refer to their rabbis with all manner of aggrandizement – haRav haGaon, Adoneinu Morein v’Rabbeinu, and so on – I am reducing my own status, and the status of others I address in this way.

I know this person; he means well, and he has only my best interest at heart. At the same time, this protest bothers me.

This protest leads me to want to say to him, “I write R’ to make a point, to take a stand against the inflated titles that are all too common and all too silly. I davka write R’, and I’ll write R’ whenever I choose. R' R' R' R' R'.”

This protest leads me to want to transcend the R’ and drop the title altogether, and just write “Mordechai Torczyner” on flyers. The name was good enough for me at birth, it’s good enough for me now; this world of titles is too overblown.

Besides, the correct answer to his protest lies in the standard edition of the gemara itself, where Tannaim are routinely termed ר' instead of רבי. Rabbi Akiva is ר' עקיבא, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is ר' שמעון. For that matter, הרה"ג is more common than הרב הגאון, and אדמו"ר usually takes the place of אדוננו מורנו ורבנו. So I’m not an innovator here.

But I believe the answer to this protest is not to allow myself to get carried away in defense of something that was unconscious in the first place. Being a רודף שלום (pursuer of peace) often means that you walk away from fights like this.

Better to write Rabbi for the sake of peace than to write R’ for the sake of a fight.


  1. The Rav's stationary (and I've been told this is how he answered the phone as well) simply said Joseph Soloveitchik. The title inflation you hear at some weddings is almost imho a sign of communal insecurity (every pulpit rabbi is a mora d'atra and every R'Y is a Rav Hagaon)

    In any event consult R' Kenny Rogers for practical eitza-

    Joel Rich

  2. There's certainly secular support for using an abbreviation of a specific title when writing. Doctors sign using Dr. or just the initials MD after their names. Lawyers use the abbreviation Esq. after their names. Mr., Mrs. Miss and Ms. are perfectly acceptable abbreviations, and used far more often than the longer words they stand for. Yes, I know I need to work on this, but when I hear a lot of those long, long honorariums before someone's name, I think that those people are awfully makpid on their kovod. Those who are deserving of that highest level of kovod so rarely, if ever, exhibit the same need for "public adoration/admiration." I hold on dearly to a teshuva I possess that was written by R' Moshe, and he signed it only with his name, no honorarium attached.

  3. It's interesting that while the greater Rabbis (tannaim) had their titles abbreviated, those on a "lower" level (amoraim) had their title written out (רב).

    Of course, this might simply be because you don't save anything by abbreviating the two letter title...

    Not to mention almost every one of the great Rishonim was known by an acronym including a shortening of his Rabbi title to "R".

  4. To me another issue is that "R." can be misconstrued to be an abbreviation for "Reb" eg. "Mr." so A Rav is not getting the recognition he should.

  5. Joel beat me to the Kenny Rodger reference. :(

    In both Kelm and Slabodka they didn't use the title "Rabbi".

    Since you represent YU to the community @ large, going with "Rabbi" is a wise choice.

    Of course, when you Artscroll bio is written you'll be refered to as אדמו"ר .

  6. Titles are earned through deeds and action. Smicha doesn't bestow anyone with magical powers.

    Your friend misunderstands these things.

  7. Joel, Neil-
    Yes, the song was what I had in mind...

    When you reach Rav Moshe's level of recognized expertise, then your name is a title, I think.

    Yes, I do think that was just because nothing would have been gained by shortening רב.

    I hear.

    It doesn't?

  8. Michael-

    What's the deal with "Reb"? I belong to a psudeo-Haredi community, and in any email that's sent out, everyone is referred to as "Reb". Why?

  9. Gary:

    I believe "Reb" is a Yiddish honorific. Somewhat more than "Mr." At our shul, the Rav has instructed gabbaim that when calling men to aliyot, they refer to Rabbis as Harav ploni ben ploni and other folk as Reb ploni ben ploni.


  10. I just looked up Reb in Wikipedia and guess what? It agrees with what I said and also says that in Hebrew it's abbreviated as . . . .Guess what?

  11. Sometimes being "right" is besides the point. So, for the sake of peace, bend a little (even if it feels a little wrong and uncomfortable). Some things are worth arguing about, but others aren't.

    So writing your name will be even longer. Add your middle name too?

  12. Fruma-
    Only three letters there, thank Gd...