Question: Must one honor all rebbeim the same way?
Short Answer: A rebbe muvhak is the rebbe who teaches a person the “majority” of his Torah. There is a debate whether a person has a rebbe muvhak nowadays.
I. Majority of Your Torah
The Gemara in Bava M’tzia (33a) discusses which “rebbe” the Mishnah is referring to when ruling that returning a lost object to a person’s rebbe takes precedence to returning a lost object to a person’s father. After citing numerous opinions, the Gemara concludes that this “rebbe” is the rebbe from whom a person learned the majority of his Torah. Rashi (ibid) explains that this “majority of Torah” includes Mikra and Mishnah. The Gemara, however, does not refer to this “rebbe” as a “rebbe muvhak.”
The Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:9) defines “rebbe muvhak” as the rebbe from whom you learned the majority of your Torah. The Rambam, in typical fashion, does not cite a source for this definition. The commentators on the page of the Rambam are silent as to the source of the Rambam’s definition. Seemingly, the Rambam is sourcing this definition from the Gemara in Bava M’tzia mentioned above but understands that the term “rebbe” in that Gemara refers to a “rebbe muvhak.”
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 242:30) similarly defines “rebbe muvhak” as the rebbe from whom you learned the majority of your Torah. The Shulchan Aruch adds that this “majority” can be through Mikra, Mishnah, or Gemara. The Vilna Gaon (ibid), without citing the Gemara in Bava M’tzia, cites Maseches Kallah as the source of the Shulchan Aruch.
II. Multiple Rebbeim Muvhakim
Can a person have two or more rebbeim muvhakim?
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 242:4), when discussing a student paskening in the presence/proximity of his rebbe muvhak, rules that the student must receive permission to pasken from all his “rabosav muvhakim,” implying that a person may certainly have more than one rebbe muvhak.
The Rama (ibid), on the other hand, challenges the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. Based on the definition of rebbe muvhak as the rebbe from whom you learned the majority of your Torah, how can the Shulchan Aruch refer to multiple rebbeim muvhakim? The Rama thus reinterprets the Shulchan Aruch as referring to a student paskening in the presence/proximity of his regular rebbe. Indeed, the Ridvaz (2:2150) expressly states that a person may not have multiple rebbeim muvhakim, as the Gemara (Bava M’tzia ibid) and Rashi meant that if a person only knows Mikra, his rebbe muvhak will be the rebbe who taught him the majority of his Mikra learning. A person who also knows Mishnah, however, will have his rebbe muvhak as the rebbe who taught him the majority of Mishnah (even though it may be a different rebbe from the one who taught him Mikra).
The Shach (12) defends the Shulchan Aruch. The Shulchan Aruch, consistent with his ruling in Yoreh Dei’ah (242:30), intentionally writes “rabosav muvhakim” because it is possible that a person has multiple rebbeim muvhakim. One rebbe muvhak is for Mikra, one is for Mishnah, one is for Gemara, etc. In other words, the above references to “Mikra” and “Mishnah” meant that one may have different rebbeim muvhakim for each subject. [Interestingly, the sefer Kavod V’Hiddur (p. 133) cites the Shvilei David who explains the Shach that these are all called rebbeim muvhakim because there is no one rebbe who has taught him a majority of his Torah learning].
The Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Dei’ah 242:19), in explaining the Shulchan Aruch, assumes that a person may have multiple rebbeim muvhakim within Gemara alone, i.e., one who teaches him b’iyun, one who teaches him b’kius, one who teaches him practical halachah from the Gemara, etc.
Does anything change nowadays, where many people don’t learn a majority of Torah from one rebbe but simply advance from shiur to shiur while in yeshivah? Also, what about people who are not fortunate to attend a yeshivah and have acquired most of their Torah knowledge through s’farim or by listening to online shiurim?
The Chochmas Adam (104:1) notes that the laws of rebbe muvhak are not really applicable nowadays, as we no longer have a rebbe muvhak. Similarly, the Binyan Tzion (83) writes that we no longer have a rebbe muvhak because we primarily learn from s’farim. See also sefer Kavod V’Hiddur (p.134). This is likewise the opinion of the Orchos Chayim (Talmud Torah 21).
However, the Rama (Yoreh Dei’ah 242:30) acknowledges that nowadays the role of a rebbe is not to teach “pilpulim” but to teach “p’sak halachah” and to set the student on the right path. The Aruch HaShulchan (ibid, 19-21), in explaining the opinion of the Rama, writes that nowadays, where we have s’farim and the Gemara, which includes all subjects, a person only has one rebbe muvhak, the “first” rebbe who sets him on the path to “keren HaTorah,” i.e., gives the student a “derech ha’limud.” This is the opinion, as well, of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l and Rav B.Z. Abba Shaul, as cited in the sefer Toras Chacham (p. 10).
Notably, the Mishnah B’rurah (Orach Chayim 66:5) defines rebbe muvhak as the rebbe from whom you learned the “ikar” (“main part”) of your Torah learning, implying that nowadays a person’s rebbe muvhak is his main teacher of Torah.
Furthermore, the sefer P’sakim U’T’shuvos (242:38) cites numerous Acharonim, including the Sh’arim M’tzuyanim B’Halachah, who hold that if a student learns musar and proper Torah practices from a particular rebbe, that rebbe becomes his rebbe muvhak. This is based on the words of the Rama (above), that a person’s rebbe muvhak is the rebbe who sets the person on the proper Torah path.
IV. Gadol HaDor
A recognized gadol ha’dor also may be deemed a person’s rebbe muvhak. The Avnei Derech (10:110) notes that there is a machlokes how a gadol ha’dor becomes a person’s rebbe muvhak. According to the Maharik, the student must personally have studied by the gadol ha’dor, and the gadol ha’dor must be recognized as a unique and incredible talmid chacham. The T’rumas HaDeshen, on the other hand, rules that any recognized gadol ha’dor automatically becomes a rebbe muvhak to all people, even if he did not study personally under the gadol ha’dor.
The Avnei Derech notes that the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 244:10) rules like the T’rumas HaDeshen.
Next Week’s Topic: What should a child call his father who is also his rebbe muvhak?