Does it really matter how we refer to someone? Names and titles are mere
conventions, symbols that help us form a common language when referring to
specific people in our conversations. However, this semiotic rule is more
complex than that: The symbol used may also contain other connotations –
negative or positive, deferential or irreverent – besides the designation of the
particular person. This reality calls for sensitivity in the use of labels, for
even when one person wants to accord respect, the other may hear
The issue crops up, for instance, when referring to the famous
leader of the Lubavitch Hassidim, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994).
The Lubavitch faithful refer to him simply as “the Rebbe” – a perfectly
appropriate title from within the milieu where he holds sway. Given his
international recognition, many people beyond the Lubavitch community would also
immediately understand whom we mean when we use the term “The
This situation is akin to American Modern Orthodoxy, where “the
Rav” is none other than Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993), or Israeli
religious Zionist circles, where “Harav” is former chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak
Hakohen Kook (1865-1935). Such conventions are not limited to rabbinic figures:
The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) became known as
“Hazaken” (the elder).
There are, of course, other options for referring
to the last leader of Lubavitch. Lubavitch hassidic history reveals a prevalent
pattern. Of the seven hassidic masters to lead Lubavitch, the fourth, fifth and
sixth are all known by abbreviations of their names: Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of
Lubavitch (1834-1882) is known as “Maharash” – an acronym for moreinu harav
Shmuel (our master, Rabbi Shmuel). The Maharash’s son and successor, Rabbi
Sholom Dov Ber (1860- 1920), is known by the initials “Rashab” – Rabbi Sholom
Ber. The Rashab’s only son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok (1880-1950), was
generally known as the Friediker Rebbe (previous master), but he is also known
by the abbreviation “Rayatz.”
Following this Lubavitch trend, one could
appropriately refer to “the Rebbe” by the acronym “Ramash” – Rabbi Menachem
Schneerson. Indeed, there is a precedent for using these initials as a
deferential title. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, before he took the helm of
Lubavitch and soon after, this was one of the titles in use. The Rayatz referred
to his son-in-law and eventual successor by a number of acronyms, including, but
not exclusively, Ramash. Lubavitch Hassidim used “Ramash” in their diaries, and
it was common in official letters and notices.
What about the first three
Lubavitch masters? The third leader of the Lubavitch Hassidim, Rabbi Menachem
Mendel Schneersohn (1789-1866), was known by the title of his voluminous
writings in Jewish law, Tzemah Tzedek – a title that has the same gematria
(numerical value of the Hebrew letters) as his name, Menachem Mendel. His
predecessor, father-in-law and uncle, Rabbi Dov Ber Shneuri (1773-1827), is
known in Yiddish as the Mittler Rebbe, or in Hebrew as the Admor Ha’emtza’i,
meaning the middle rebbe.
What about the founder of the Chabad dynasties?
Chabad adherents refer to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (ca.1745-1812) as the
Alter Rebbe or Admor Hazaken, meaning the old master.
thinker is also known by either of the titles of his two seminal works – Tanya
and Shulhan Aruch Harav. Other times people refer to him by the acronym
“Rashaz.” Calling him by that abbreviation is not only convenient, it appears to
be in line with Lubavitch norms.
We might therefore be surprised to learn
that there was one rabbi – Rabbi Avraham Yosef Igra (ca.1841-1918) – who
condemned such a form as disrespectful.
Does it really matter whether we
call Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady by the abbreviation “Rashaz” or Rabbi Menachem
Mendel Schneerson by the abbreviation “Ramash”? Surely the substance of the
material is far more significant. The choice of a name, title, abbreviation or
other label is not the only thing that demonstrates respect – or for that
Indeed, it would seem that the contemporary Lubavitch
community has generally not judged a book by the author’s choice of moniker. In
2010, professors Samuel C. Heilman and Menachem M. Friedman published their
biography of the Ramash in Hebrew and in English. For the title of their book,
they chose The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel
Despite the respectful title that hints at the Ramash’s
worldwide fame, the Lubavitch community was incensed by the book. The most
dedicated, detailed and scathing responses to the biography came from Rabbi
Chaim Rapoport – a Lubavitch Hassid – and he used the acronym
Soon after, in 2011, Prof. Immanuel Etkes published his Hebrew
biography of the founder of the Chabad school. He entitled his work Ba’al
HaTanya: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady and the Origins of Chabad Hassidism,
focusing on the hero’s influential work in hassidic thought.
the book, Etkes used the acronym “Rashaz.” Though Rabbi Igra, as noted above,
questioned this abbreviation, Etkes’s work was nonetheless well-received in
Lubavitch circles. In fact, Etkes – who is not affiliated with Lubavitch – was
invited to speak about his research in front of the annual gathering of
Lubavitch emissaries in Israel, which took place in Nir Etzion in January 2012.
Moreover, the Lubavitch media proudly reported his participation.
seeking to accord respect, on the one hand, and to address the audience on the
other, perhaps the best route is to let the forum dictate which term should be
used. For instance, when addressing a Lubavitch audience, it would make sense to
use the generic “the Rebbe”; when addressing the general public, “Ramash” might
be respectful and appropriate. ■ The writer is on the faculty of Pardes
Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a
post-doctoral fellow in Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law.
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