The Talmud teaches that it is forbidden to refer to one’s parents and teachers by their first name, and the prohibition to do so remains in place even after their passing.1 It goes without saying that cursing one’s parents is forbidden, whether they are alive or not. When a parent passes away one should accustom oneself to say, “that is what my father (or mother) and teacher said,” and “Let me be an atonement for him (or her),” at least during the first year of mourning. After the first year, one should add the words “may his (or her) memory be a blessing” each time the parent’s name is mentioned.2
It is interesting to note that according to halacha it is permitted to call one’s in-laws by their first name.3 Among the explanations for this is that the prohibition to refer to one’s parents by their first name is due to the obligation of yirah, to fear one’s parents. There is no such obligation with regard to in-laws. One is, however, obligated to display kavod, honor, towards them.4 Parents are permitted to allow their children to call them by their first name should they so desire.5
We are taught that addressing one’s teachers by their first name is so severe an offense that the Talmud labels one who does so as an apikores – one who has distanced himself from Jewish norms.6 Gehazi was punished only because he referred to his teacher, Elisha, by his first name.7 If, however, a teacher’s first name is prefaced with an honorary title, then it is permissible to do so.8 This explains the common Israeli practice of addressing a teacher by their first name when preceded by “Morah”; “Moreh”; or “Rav” and there are no halachic concerns with doing so.9 The Mishna teaches us that one should fear one’s teacher just as one fears heaven.10
It is interesting to note that one is only truly required to address one’s rav muvhak with a title, while all other rabbis can theoretically be referred to by their first name.11 A rav muvhak is defined as someone from whom one has learned the majority of one’s Torah knowledge. In fact, in our days, it is suggested that there is no such thing as a rav muvhak as there was in the past.12 This is because in our time a person essentially acquires most of his Torah knowledge from published books and not from the lectures of any particular rabbi. Nevertheless, it is certainly unbecoming according to all social norms to address any of one’s teachers or rabbis by their first name, regardless of the halachic suitability of doing so.13 So too, a scholar who is renowned for his knowledge is to be regarded as a rav muvhak whether or not one has learned Torah from this individual.14 Some authorities suggest that a rabbi under whom one is currently studying should be considered a rav muvhak, whether or not one has or will acquire most of one’s Torah knowledge from him.15
There was an ancient practice, still used in some circles, of addressing one’s teacher and other prominent rabbis in the “third person” 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 writes: “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?” As such, addressing rabbis in “second person” should not be seen as displaying a lack of respect.
In the Talmudic era, the title “rabbi” was used more for signifying a personal relationship than 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.16 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.17 It would be remiss not to point out, however, that rabbis, teachers, and others in positions of authority are entitled to forgo any formalities owed to them, and may be addressed by their first names if they allow it.18 Rav Huna, on the other hand, was very particular to be addressed with his rabbinical title.19
It is clear that showing respect for other human beings, especially parents, rabbis, and teachers, is not a custom, but rather Torah-mandated practice. The Talmud relates that when Rabbi Eliezer fell ill, his disciples came to visit him.20 The disciples asked him, “Rabbi, teach us the correct manner of living so that we may merit to enter the World to Come.” Among his responses was: “Make sure to show respect for others!”
- Kiddushin 31b; Taz 240:4; Kesef Mishna, Mamrim 6:3; Ben Ish Chai, Shoftim 2:4. When being called to the Torah one must refer to his father as “Reb” or “Avi Mori.” Whenever referring to one’s mother, one can use the title “Ha’isha,” “Imi Morati,” or “Marat.” YD 240:2.
- YD 240:9.
- Sdei Chemed, Ma’arechet Chatan V’kalla.
- B’tzel Hachachma 3:95, Moreh Horim V’kebudam 8: footnote 66.
- Igrot Moshe, YD 1:133.
- Sanhedrin 100a.
- Melachim II 8:5.
- Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:5; YD 242:24.
- YD 242:16; Yabia Omer, YD 1:18; Minhag Yisrael Torah, YD 242:9.
- Avot 4:12. See also Sefer Chassidim 96.
- YD 242:30.
- Shevut Yaakov 2:64; Chochmat Adam 104:1.
- Yabia Omer, YD 1:18.
- YD 244:10.
- Divrei Malkiel 2:74.
- See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semicha for more information.
- Sefer Chassidim 96, 579.
- Kiddushin 32b.
- Pesachim 86b.
- Berachot 28b.