Using First Names

Rabbi Ari Enkin writes:

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]

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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