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Parshas Pinchas – Inheriting the Rabbinate

Hashem, the G-d of … shall appoint a man upon the assembly, who will go out before them and go in before them
(Bamidbar 27:16)

When the concept of inheritance comes up, we are used to thinking of money and possessions. Unless we happen to be the son of a community rabbi, the question of the rabbinate surely doesn’t cross our minds. However, poskim over the generations have written much concerning the question of rabbinic inheritance: Does a son inherit his father’s position as rabbi of the community?

Because one of the principle sources for this question is present in our parshah, as will be shown below, we take the opportunity to discuss the interesting issue of rabbinic inheritance.

Inheriting the Rabbi

As we will see, opinions are divided concerning inheritance of rabbinic positions.

In Yoreh Deah (245:22), Rema states his explicit opinion on the matter: “Somebody who serves as the rabbi of a city, even if he took the position for himself, cannot be ousted from his standing—even if somebody greater than him comes to town. Even his son and his son’s son, forever, take precedence over others, provided they continue the ways of their ancestors in fear of G-d, and provided they are somewhat wise. However, in a place where the custom is to appoint a rabbi for a specified period, or to choose whoever the community wishes, the congregation has the right to do so.”

The source for this ruling of Rema is a ruling of Rambam concerning inheritance of all posts of authority. Discussing the laws of kings, Rambam rules as follows: “Not only the kingship, but rather every position of authority and all appointees of Israel are inherited to a son and to a son’s son, forever—provided the son continues the ways of the father in fear of G-d and in wisdom. If the son is G-d-fearing, but not wise, he is established in his father’s position, and we teach him wisdom” (Laws of Kings, 1:7).

Rambam issues a similar ruling in the laws of the Beis Hamikdash (Kelei Hamikdash 4:20).

Naturally, abiding by the ruling is not always easy or convenient. Ginas Veradim (Yoreh Deah, Kelal 3, no. 7-8) elaborates on the subject, and quotes an interesting (and somewhat bewildering) anecdote of how the rabbinate in Tzefat was passed on by inheritance. When the rabbi (Rabbi Avraham Shalem) died his son had still not reached the age of mitzvos, and the townspeople decided to appoint the renowned Rabbi Moshe Alshich as their rabbi. Their plans were thwarted by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, who ordered them to wait for the young heir of the rabbinate to come of age. Rabbi Alshich was turned down, and when the son turned thirteen he took over his father’s position!

Once again, this ruling is based on a ruling found in Rambam (ibid.) concerning a king: if the prince is a minor, we wait until he comes of age, at which time we coronate the child as king. The same, according to Rema (and, following him, Ginas Veradim), applies to a community rabbi.

The Crown of Torah

However, not all opinions concur with the extension of Rambam’s ruling (concerning inheritance of positions of authority) to the rabbinate.

Shulchan Aruch bases a ruling on the same halachah, this time in connection with the local cantor, who retains the right to bring in his son as an assistant, and groom him for taking over his position (Orach Chaim 53:25). Magen Avraham (53:33) comments in the name of Maharashdam (Yoreh Deah no. 81) that the inheritance of positions does not apply to a rabbinic or teaching (Torah) position. In the words of Rama of Fano (also quoted in Magen Avraham), there is no hereditary priority with regard to the Crown of Torah.

The opinion of Chasam Sofer, who did much to restore the past glory of the rabbinate, is particularly interesting. In one responsum (Orach Chaim 12) he rules according to the above opinion of Maharashdam that rabbinic positions are not inherited. As concrete proof of this, he quotes the following Midrash on our Parshah:

Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, “May Hashem, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly.” What did Moshe see to request this matter after the laws of inheritance? Because he saw the daughters of Tzelofchad inheriting their father, Moshe thought to himself that it was time for him to claim his own needs—”If daughters inherit, so too should my sons inherit my position.” Hashem told him: “He who guards the fig will eat it” (Mishlei 27). Whereas your sons were idle and did not study Torah, Yehoshua served you much and honored you much; he came to hear you at dawn and at dusk, he arranged the benched (for students), he spread out the mats, and he waited upon you with all his strength. It is worthy for him to serve Israel, for he will not lose his reward. [Therefore it is written] “Take Yehoshua bin Nun for you,” to fulfill that which is written, “He who guards the fig will eat it” (Midrash Rabba, Pinchas 21:17).

If the sons of Moshe were unworthy of the rabbinate, writes Chasam Sofer, Moshe would surely not have entertained the thought of their appointment. Rather, they were worthy in their wisdom and their dispositions, yet Yehoshua was found worthier, on account of his waiting upon Moshe with all his strength. From here we see that the Crown of Torah is not passed on by inheritance.

However, in the following responsum (Orach Chaim 13), Chasam Sofer writes that he “upheld the ruling of Rema,” and a further comment of Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat 21) likewise implies that his final decision was to uphold the Rema’s ruling. Moreover, Kesav Sofer (Chasam Sofer’s son, Yoreh Deah 123) confirms that at the end of his days his father implemented Rema’s ruling in all Hungarian rabbinates.

It is noteworthy that Mishna Berura (53:83) cites both opinions without issuing a definitive ruling on the matter.

Taking Over the Father’s Position

Does the “rabbinic inheritance” ruled by Rema share the same principles as ordinary inheritance? If there are no sons, does the next closest relative inherit the rabbinate in their place?

Maharik, it would seem, believed the answer to be in the negative. Discussing the question of intangible inheritance (the inheritance of tovas hanaah), Maharik (shoresh 161) poses a question on those authorities who maintain that an intangible right is not inherited: surely we find that positions of authority are inherited by sons? Maharik replies that the two may be differentiated, yet does not explain how. It would seem that the rationale behind the distinction is that inheritance of a position is not true inheritance.

Thus we do not find that where no son survives the father inherits his son, because the halachah is limited to a son alone, who “takes the place of his father.” Furthermore, we find (as quoted above from Shulchan Aruch) that when a rabbi (or somebody in a position of authority) becomes old he has the right to hand over the position to his son—though there can be no inheritance while the rabbi lives. In addition, ordinary inheritance is shared among all brothers, whereas the rabbinate, of course, goes to a single brother.

Instead of being a law within the regular boundaries of inheritance, the “inheritance” of the rabbinate is restricted to a son’s taking over his father’s position, like a prince takes over from his father the king. Indeed, this understanding is implied by Sifri, which makes the following comment: “In order that his rule should extend for many days, he and his sons among Israel”—”he and his sons,” to teach us that if he dies, his son takes his place. How do we know that this is true even of all positions of authority? Therefore the verse states, “he and his sons among Israel”—his sons take over his position for any [position] within Israel.”

We thus see that the law of inheriting positions of authority is not comparable with the regular concept of inheritance, and is confined to a son taking over his father’s place.

Exceptions to the Rule of Inheritance

We can therefore understand a number of exception that poskim make to the principle of rabbinic inheritance.

Although he strongly affirms the concept of inheriting a rabbinic position, Avnei Nezer (312, in a passage written by his son) writes that a son only inherits his father’s position when the son is supported by the majority of the congregation (he quotes that this was also ruled by Harav Yehoshua of Kutna and by others). A similar position is adopted by Maharam Shik (Yoreh Deah 228), the renowned disciple of Chasam Sofer.

Likewise, we can understand the debate among authorities concerning whether a son-in-law inherits the position of his father-in-law. Although some poskim rule that in the absence of a son, a son-in-law inherits the position (see end of Shut Rema, and see Beis Yitzchak, Yoreh Deah 2:70, who discusses whether a son-in-law takes precedence over a grandson or not), Avodas Hagershuni (no. 49) writes that the principle of rabbinic inheritance does not apply to sons-in-law at all.

Yet, it should be noted that Maharit Algazi (Simchas Yom Tov, no. 6) writes that a grandson (son of daughter) takes precedence over a brother, implying that in general the regular order of inheritance applies to the rabbinic position. This, however, is certainly not the mainstream opinion.

Today’s Applications

We are generally unused to the concept of inheritance in the standard position of a shul rabbi. This is probably because most rabbis are hired under contract, meaning that the job is not given as a life position that can be taken over by a son, but as a job that ends when the contract expires.

Furthermore, Harav Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos no. 719) writes that the very nature of the modern day rabbi, who finds himself limited by various boards and committees, cannot be called a “position of authority” that is handed down by inheritance. Shevet Halevi (vol. 4, no. 128) expresses some doubt as to this point, yet recommends that the rabbinic post be handed down to a worthy son.

Perhaps the most well known form of inherited positions today is the position of Rebbe in Chassidic dynasties. In fact, there is a disagreement concerning whether the concept of inheritance applies to the position of Chassidic Rebbe. Divrei Chaim (Yoreh Deah 53; Choshen Mishpat vol.2, no. 32) of Reb Chaim of Sanz ruled that there is no inheritance, since the key factor is ability rather than lineage. There are others who disagree. A fuller discussion can be found in Umka Dedina (posted on our website and published by the Institute For Dayanim), vol. 2, pp. 285-300).


We have seen that there are many positions where the Torah enjoins us to give preference to a worthy son. According to many opinions this right is unique to a son. There is controversy as to whether this preference applies to the position of a communal rabbi and a Chassidic Rebbe.

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