Chief Rabbinate of Israel

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The Western Wall (Kotel in Hebrew) is under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel (הרבנות הראשית לישראל) is recognized by law[1] as the supreme rabbinic and spiritual authority for Judaism in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate Council assists the two chief rabbis, who alternate in its presidency. It has legal and administrative authority to organize religious arrangements for Israel's Jews. It also responds to halakhic questions submitted by Jewish public bodies in the Diaspora. The Council sets, guides and supervises agencies within its authority.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel consists of two Chief Rabbis: an Ashkenazi rabbi and a Sephardi rabbi, also known as the Rishon leZion. The Chief Rabbis are elected for 10 year terms. The present Sephardi Chief Rabbi is Yitzhak Yosef and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is David Lau, both of whom commenced their terms in 2013.

The Rabbinate has jurisdiction over many aspects of Jewish life in Israel. Its jurisdiction includes personal status issues, such as Jewish marriages and Jewish divorce, as well as Jewish burials, conversion to Judaism, kosher laws and kosher certification, Jewish immigrants to Israel (olim), supervision of Jewish holy sites, working with various ritual baths (mikvaot) and yeshivas, and overseeing Rabbinical courts in Israel.

The Rabbinical courts are part of Israel's judicial system, and are managed by the Ministry of Religious Services. The courts have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jews and have parallel competence with district courts in matters of personal status, alimony, child support, custody, and inheritance. Religious court verdicts are implemented and enforced—as for the civil court system—by the police, bailiff's office, and other agencies.[2]


All religious and personal status matters in Israel are determined by the religious authorities of the recognised confessional communities to which a person belongs. There are Jewish, Muslim and Druze communities and nine officially recognised Christian communities.[3] The organisation is based on the Millet system employed in the Ottoman Empire. In the beginning of the 17th century the title of Rishon LeZion was given to the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. In 1842, the position of "Hakham Bashi", Chief Rabbi of Constantinople who represented the Turkish Jews before the Sultan, and the position of Rishon LeZion which at that time already represented the Old Yishuv before the Sultan, were combined into one position called Rishon LeZion.

During the period of the British Mandate of Palestine, the High Commissioner established the Orthodox Rabbinate, comprising the Rishon LeZion to which was added an Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, which it recognised collectively as the religious authority for the Jewish community. In 1921, Abraham Isaac Kook became the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and Jacob Meir became the Sephardi Chief Rabbi.

In 1947, David Ben-Gurion and the religious parties reached an agreement, which included an understanding that matters of personal status in Israel would continue to be determined by the existing religious authorities. This arrangement has been termed the status quo agreement and has been maintained despite numerous changes of government since. Under the arrangement, the Mandate period confessional system would continue, with membership in the Jewish community being on the basis of membership of a body called "Knesset Israel", which was a voluntary organization open to Jews. There does not seem to have been any dispute at the time of who was a Jew. Jews could choose not to register with "Knesset Israel". Members of Agudath Israel, for example, chose not to register.

In 1953, rabbinical courts were established with jurisdiction over matters of marriage and divorces of all Jews in Israel, nationals and residents. (section 1) It was also provided that marriages and divorces of Jews in Israel would be conducted according to the law of the Torah. (section 2) Since 1953, the rabbinate has only approved religious marriages in Israel conducted in accordance with the Orthodox interpretation of halakha. The only exception to these arrangements was that marriages entered into abroad would be recognised in Israel as valid.

It is the Rabbinate which defines a person's Jewish status, and hence membership in the Jewish confessional community and the reach of its jurisdiction. It applies a strict halakhic interpretation as to membership of the Jewish community.

Pre-Israel religious authority

The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem

  • Levi ibn Habib (b. Spain)—ruled from Jerusalem but in 1538, Rabbi Jacob Berab who came from Spain via Egypt, sought to revive the Sanhedrin, in Safed, thus making that city the competing capital of the Jewish community in Palestine. He was opposed and exiled by ibn Habib and the rabbis of Jerusalem but Safed remained the competing capital for a number of years thereafter. Berab was succeeded in Safed by Joseph Caro (b. Spain) who was ordained by him.
  • David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra of the Egyptian rabbinate—ruled simultaneously in Jerusalem succeeding ibn Habib. In 1575, Moshe Trani (b. Greece) succeeded Caro in Safed.
  • Moshe ben Mordechai Galante of Rome—ruled from Jerusalem
  • Haim Vital—succeeded Trani in Safed but moved his rabbinate to Jerusalem which, once again, became the sole capital of Israel. In 1586, the Nahmanides Synagogue was confiscated by the Arabs and the ben Zakkai Synagogue was built in its stead.
  • Bezalel Ashkenazi—first chief rabbi to preside in the ben Zakkai Synagogue[4]
  • Gedaliah Cordovero[5]
  • Yitzhak Gaon?
  • Israel Benjamin[6]
  • Jacob Zemah (b. Portugal)[7]
  • Samuel Garmison (b. Greece)[8]

Rishon LeZion 1665–1842[9]

The Hakham Bashi 1842–1918[10]


Further information: Semikhah

The Chief Rabbinate confers Semikhah (or Semicha, i.e., Rabbinic ordination); "Semikhah from the Rabbanut" is considered amongst the most prestigious of contemporary ordinations[citation needed]. It is granted once the candidate has passed a series of six written tests on specified subjects (Shabbat; Marriage; Family purity and Mikvaot; Kashrut; Aveilut). Additional Semichot—with similar testing requirements—are granted for "Rabbi of the City" (בעל כושר לרבנות שכונה; other relevant areas of Orach Chayim, Yoreh De'ah and Even Ha'ezer) and to Dayanim (laws dealt with in Choshen Mishpat).

List of Chief Rabbis

The current system of a chief rabbinate tied to the workings of the secular state was introduced under British rule, but also had its roots under Turkish Ottoman rule. In Israel there were pre-independence Chief Rabbis and subsequent Chief Rabbis officially sanctioned by the State of Israel.

Mandatory Palestine


Chief Rabbis Herzog (Ashkenazi) and Uziel (Sephardi) visiting an IDF camp in the 1950s.


State of Israel


Rabbi David Lau, b. 1966, elected 2013 as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi



Secular and non-Orthodox Jews

Many objections have been raised by secular Jewish Israelis, and Jews from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism regarding the Chief Rabbinate's strict control over Jewish weddings, divorce proceedings, conversions, and who counts as Jewish for the purposes of immigration. Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman of Jerusalem, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, has argued that the State of Israel needs multiple rabbinates "that reflect the diversity of ideology permeating Israeli religious life. As the home of all Jews, the State of Israel does not have the right to determine authentic Judaism, but must reflect the diverse Jewishness of that population."[12]

The Rabbinate does not accept non-orthodox converts or rabbis to take part in any of the above listed ceremonies or proceedings. Because of this, many Israelis choose to marry abroad in nearby Cyprus or another location. About 47,000 Israelis, or 12 percent of those who married between 2000 and 2005, secured their union abroad, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel reported that in recent years about 20 percent are opting out annually.[13]In 2014 an American Jewish coalition was formed, the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-Rec). The coalition includes leaders of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements, liberal orthodox groups, including Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, as well as several national Jewish organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women and the New Israel Fund. The coalition plans to work to “create alternatives to the exclusive control of the Chief Rabbinate over personal-status issues.” In Israel "status issues" include conversion, marriage, divorce, and funerals. The organization expressed concern that Judaism in the diaspora is losing affiliation from younger people who feel alienated by Israel's religious policies.[14]

Relations with Vatican

In January 2009, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel suspended the meetings of its commission for dialogue with the Vatican (established at the request of Pope John Paul II) in protest over Pope Benedict XVI's decision to lift the excommunication of bishop Richard Williamson, a member of the Society of Saint Pius X and a noted denier of the Holocaust. Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, chairman of the Rabbinate's commission, told The Jerusalem Post that he expected Williamson to publicly retract his statements before meetings could be renewed.[15]

Oded Wiener, the director-general of the Chief Rabbinate, later declared that the public statements by Pope Benedict XVI on January 28 had eased tensions, and the Israeli representatives may decide to attend a March meeting. The Pope's statements "were very important for us," he said.[16]

A formal meeting of a delegation of the Chief Rabbinate (led by Rabbi Cohen and including Wiener as well as Rabbis Rasson Aroussi and David Rosen) was accordingly held in the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI on March 12 at which the pope reiterated his condemnations of anti-semitism and holocaust denial and gave assurances that these would not be tolerated in the Catholic Church.

While there were reports that the Chief Rabbinate had ruled that a proposal to give the Vatican control over the major Christian shrines of the Holy Land is contrary to Jewish law, and demanded that any discussion of the proposal must cease;[17] this was in fact the initiative of two rabbis who oppose the Chief Rabbinate's dialogue with the Catholic Church. Moreover the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs clarified that the allegation referred to was totally without foundation.[citation needed]

During Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel in May 2009, he was officially received at Hechal Shlomo by the Chief Rabbis for a private exchange which was followed by a larger meeting hosted by the Chief Rabbinate Council. At these meetings the Chief Rabbis and the Pope expressed their satisfaction with the warm relations that had developed between the two institutions and the work of their bilateral commission for dialogue, the proceedings of which were published and made public.

Public opinion

A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in April and May of 2014 of which institutions were most and least trusted by Israeli citizens showed that Israelis have little trust in the religious establishment. When asked which public institutions they most trusted, 88% of Jews in Israel named the Israel Defense Forces, 71% named the President of Israel, and 62% named Supreme Court of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate at 29% was one of the least trusted, along with the media at 28%.[18]

The Jerusalem Post noted in 2015 that Israelis give the Roman Catholic Church's Pope Francis the highest approval rating of any non-Christian country, a higher rating than they give to Israel's Chief Rabbinate. Israelis participating in a Pew Research poll gave Pope Francis an approval rate of 50 percent, in contrast to the "very unfavorable" view of the Chief Rabbinate. In a poll completed for Ynet in December 2013 by Geo-Cartography of Israeli Jews, 67% were opposed to the existence of the rabbinate, the same percentage confirmed in a survey conducted by Smith Consulting in July 2013 opposing the Rabbinate’s "monopolistic powers."[19]

Chief Rabbinate Council

[dated info] Internal elections were held on September 23, 2008.[20][21]

There are five permanent members on the Chief Rabbinate Council. These are:

There are also representatives for the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities:

See also


  1. "Chief Rabbinate of Israel Law, 5740 (1980)"
  2. Ministry of Religious Affairs
  3. A Free People in Our Land: Gender Equality in a Jewish State
  4. Encyclopedia Judaica—"Levi ben Habib"—vol. 11 col. 99; "Berab, Jacob"—vol. 4 cols. 582–4; "Caro, Joseph"—vol. 5 col. 194; "Galante, Moses (I)"—vol. 7 col. 260; "Ashkenazi, Bezalel"—vol. 3 col. 723;, "Jerusalem—Jacob Berab and ibn Habib"
  5. Encyclopedia Judaica—"Cordovero, Gedaliah—vol. 5 col. 967
  6. Encyclopedia Judaica—"Benjamin, Baruch"—vol. 4 col. 527; "Benjamin, Israel"—vol. 4 col. 528
  7., "Jerusalem—Solomon al-Gazi's Description"
  8. Encyclopedia Judaica—"Garmison, Samuel"—vol. 7 col. 329
  9. Encyclopedia Judaica—"Rishon Le-Zion" vol. 14 col. 193;, "Jerusalem—In the Eighteenth Century" "In the Nineteenth Century" "Albert Cohn and Ludwig Frankl"
  10. Encyclopedia Judaica "Jews of Jerusalem" "Institutions"; Encyclopedia Judaica—"Israel, State of"—Religious Life and Communities—vol. 9 cols. 889–90
  11. Laredo, Abraham Isaac. Les noms des Juifs du Maroc, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Instituto "B. Arias Montano," 1978. pg. 184
  12. "Israel cannot be arbiter of conversions to Judaism". Retrieved 2009-10-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "An Unorthodox Wedding: Seeking Alternatives in Tying the Knot". Retrieved 2009-10-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Rosenblatt, Gary 'New U.S. Group Warns Israel On ‘Who Is A Jew’: Support of next-gen Jews is at risk over continuing Orthodox monopoly, high-powered coalition suggests.' (Dec 3, 2014)The Jewish Week"
  15. Chief Rabbinate cuts ties with Vatican
  16. Israeli Jewish leaders praise Pope's statement, reconsider break with Vatican
  17. Israeli chief rabbinate forbids concessions to Vatican
  18. "Tamar Pileggi 'Jews and Arabs proud to be Israeli, distrust government: Poll conducted before war shows marked rise in support for state among Arabs; religious establishment scores low on trust' (4 Jan 2015) The Times of Israel"
  19. Israelis for Pope Francis, against their own Chief Rabbinate The Jerusalem Post, 1 January 2015
  20. "Chief Rabbinate:Rabbi Elituv in First Place". 2008-09-23. Retrieved 2008-09-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Ashkenazi haredim lose majority in Chief Rabbinate membership vote". The Jerusalem Post. 2008-09-23. Retrieved 2008-09-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links