Just as one is obligated to honor and revere one’s parents, one is likewise obligated to honor and revere one’s rabbi even more so than one’s parents, for one’s parents bring one into this world whereas one’s rabbi brings one into the World to Come.
Redeeming Captives and Returning a Lost Object
Similarly, the Mishnah (Baba Metzia 33a) writes regarding the Mitzvah of returning a lost object that if one finds two lost objects, one belonging to one’s father and one belonging to one’s rabbi and one cannot take care of them both, one’s rabbi’s lost object takes precedence, for one’s father brings one into this world and one’s rabbi brings one into the World to Come. If, however, one’s father is a Torah scholar, one’s father’s lost object takes precedence. The Mishnah also speaks about the Mitzvah of redeeming captives that if both one’s father and rabbi were captured, one must first redeem one’s rabbi and only then redeem one’s father. Nevertheless, if one’s father is a Torah scholar, one’s father takes precedence.
Reverence of One’s Rabbi Like the Reverence of Heaven
The Rambam writes: “There is no greater [obligation to] honor and reverence someone than the honor and reverence one must afford to one’s rabbi. Indeed, our Sages teach us (Masechet Avot), ‘The reverence one has for one’s rabbi should be tantamount to one’s fear of Heaven.’ It is for this reason that they said that one who disagrees with one’s rabbi is tantamount to disagreeing with Hashem’s presence, one who fights with one’s rabbi is tantamount to fighting with Hashem’s presence, one who staunchly opposes one’s rabbi is tantamount to staunchly opposing Hashem’s presence, and one who suspects one’s rabbi is tantamount to suspecting Hashem’s presence.”
Categorizing Torah Scholars
Before discussing the laws pertaining to honoring Torah scholars, we must first discuss which Torah scholars one must honor.
Regarding this issue, there are several categories of Torah scholars with each one requiring a higher form of respect than the other:
One’s Primary Rabbi
The most important form of Torah scholar is one’s primary rabbi, i.e. a Torah scholar from whom one has studies most of one’s Torah knowledge, and one must afford such a Torah scholar with great respect, as we shall soon explain.
One’s Rabbi Who is a Torah Scholar
The second category is a Torah scholar who teaches students Torah and this individual has heard some Torah from this rabbi but not enough to consider most of one’s Torah knowledge from this rabbi. The laws of honoring one’s non-primary rabbi apply to such a Torah scholar. These laws apply to a Torah scholar whom one hears occasional Torah classes from.
A Torah Scholar
The third category is a Torah scholar from whom one has studied no Torah whatsoever and thus, the individual is not considered the student of such a rabbi. One must afford honor to such a rabbi as one does to any Torah scholar but not as much as one affords to one’s primary rabbi.
The Torah Luminary of the Generation
Regarding one’s primary rabbi, there are laws which do not apply to any other Torah scholars. For instance, one may not render a halachic ruling in the presence of one’s primary rabbi.
When Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l was still among the living, he retained the law of a primary rabbi regarding the entire Jewish nation and although many people did not learn much Torah directly from him, everyone was still required to honor him as a student honors his primary rabbi. Similarly, if another Torah scholar of such caliber arises, we shall be obligated to honor him as one honors a primary rabbi even if we have not heard any Torah from him.
The reason for this is because any Torah scholar who is the leader of the generation and is famous for his great wisdom and astounding expertise in all aspects of Torah law deserves the honor of the entire generation as though they were his students and he their primary rabbi.
This law is derived from Shmuel Ha’Navi who was brought to the Mishkan when he was a young lad and at the time, the leader of the generation was Eli Ha’Kohen who sat there and rendered rulings for the entire Jewish nation. It happened once that a bull was brought as an offering on the Altar and Eli told the Kohanim to find a Kohen who knew how to slaughter so that he could come and offer the bull. Shmuel realized that they were looking for a Kohen to slaughter the bull but they could not find one and as a result, time was being wasted. He told them, “Why are you searching specifically for a Kohen to slaughter? According to the law, any member of the Jewish nation may slaughter as well.” Shmuel was then brought before Eli who asked the lad, “How do you know that even a non-Kohen may slaughter?” Shmuel replied, “The verse does not state, ‘And the Kohen shall slaughter; rather, the verse merely states, ‘And the Kohanim shall offer.’” Eli told him, “You have spoken correctly but you have also rendered a halachic ruling in the presence of your rabbi.” The Tosafot explain that although Shmuel had yet to learn any Torah from Eli, since he was the leader of the generation, Eli Ha’Kohen retained the law of one’s primary rabbi. Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch rules likewise and writes that if the Torah scholar possesses outstanding wisdom, he shares the law of one’s primary rabbi. The Rama explains that one who is well-known to be a Torah luminary of the generation is considered possessing outstanding wisdom. Clearly then, the laws regarding one’s primary rabbi were applicable in our generation top Maran zt”l who was well-known throughout the world for his tremendous Torah knowledge and all of the laws of one’s primary rabbi applied to him even if one never heard even one Halacha directly from him.
It seems that this law would be applicable to other such great Torah scholars living among us today. Approximately thirty years ago, Maran zt”l exclaimed that one should treat Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l like one’s primary rabbi since there was almost no other Torah scholar in that generation who could compare to him, for he was world-famous for his expansive Torah knowledge, fear of Heaven, and humility along with being extremely well-versed in all portions of the Talmud and possessing the ability to rule upon any and all halachic matters.