The Chief Rabbinate represents a continuation of the ancient trend in Jewish society to confer on one or more persons central religious authority, if possible for the whole of Jewry, or otherwise at least for a country or region. It found formal expression in the persons and offices of kings, high priests, patriarches, exilarches and gaons .
From the 11th century external rulers often used the chief rabbi for their own purposes, for instance for tax collection. However, even then the chief rabbi, if a scholar, was respected and in most cases accepted, by the Jewish community, although on occasion arousing opposition. In the 12th–13th centuries the office of Presbyter Judeorum existed in England but his functions were mainly fiscal. In France a Jewish procureur général is mentioned in 1297 who served as intermediary between the crown and the Jews. In the 14th century Mattathias b. Joseph the Provençal, and after him his son Johanan b. Mattathias, acted as chief rabbi and judge for civil and criminal cases among Jews.
In Spain, James I of Aragon appointed his secretary Solomon chief judge of Aragonese Jewry in 1257. Other chief rabbis followed, the most prominent among them Ḥasdai Crescas , the philosopher. In Castile, the holder of the office of el rab (Rab de la Corte) acted as a leader for the whole of Castilian Jewry and a judge who enjoyed high political and social status. There was a district chief rabbi in 1255 in Burgos, Castile. His office still acted as a court of appeal and appointed or deposed local elders in 1401. The community of Toledo had an "alcalde and chief judge of the Jews." In 1383–85 David ibn Yaḥya was titled Raby mayor de toda Castella. The pious Abraham Benveniste , Rab de la Corte, presided over the Council of Valladolid in 1432 (see Conferences ). In 1465 Samaya Lubel, the court physician, was styled by the king "rabbi, chief judge, and tax distributor of all the Jewish communities of my kingdoms and dominions." The last office of this kind was held by Abraham Senior , court banker and tax farmer. In Navarre, Joseph Orabuena , the king's physician, acted as rabi mayor de los judios del reyno from 1391 until 1401.
In Sicily the Aragonese ruler appointed in 1396 a iudex universalis or chief justice, called dienchelele (Heb. dayyan kelali), for civil and criminal cases. The office lasted half a century and seems to have served mainly fiscal purposes. In Portugal, communal authority was highly centralized and hierarchical. A statute of 1402 provided for a chief rabbi, arraby moor , who annually visited all Jewish communities to collect state revenue and supervise local justice and self-government. He appointed seven district overseers who were responsible to him. German Jewry in the 13th century had Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg as chief rabbi by imperial appointment. When King Rupert appointed Rabbi Israel in 1407 as Hochmeister, mainly for fiscal purposes, he met strong opposition. Yet a similar office continued until late in the 18th century in the form of the Landesrabbiner . In Poland-Lithuania the kings at first arrogated to themselves the power to appoint regional rabbis. Jacob b. Joseph Pollak was thus made chief rabbi of Cracow in 1503. Many other rabbis were similarly chosen. Soon election to such office was left to the Jews themselves as part of their broad autonomous rights. Moses Isserles expressly asserted in his responsa the validity of a royal appointment of a chief rabbi.
After the capture of Constantinople in 1453 the Turkish sultan appointed Moses Caspali ḥakham bashi with wide powers to judge the Jews of the empire, impose punishments, appoint local rabbis, and collect taxes. The chief rabbi's powers were gradually weakened. The last ḥakham bashi of the Ottoman Empire, Haim Nahoum , was elected in 1909. The reforms in Jewish leadership of Napoleon I inaugurated the office of Grand Rabbin in France. In England from the second half of the 18th century the rabbi of the Great Synagogue in London was informally recognized as chief rabbi and from 1845 officially designated Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire (subsequently Commonwealth). Several other countries, especially in Western Europe, also came to appoint chief rabbis. Israel has two chief rabbis, one for the Sephardi ("Rishon le-Zion"), and the other for the Ashkenazi community.
The office of Sephardi chief rabbi was recognized from the middle of the 19th century by the Ottoman authorities. The institution of two chief rabbis was given legal status by a British mandatory ordinance of 1920.
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