It has become common practice to refer to most meforshim by acronyms of their name (eg Rashi, Rosh, etc.). When and why did this practice start, and is it proper?

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    I'd say that the same question applies to referring to [mostly] more recent rabbis by the name of their major books (e.g. the Chafetz Chaim). – Isaac Moses Feb 2 '11 at 22:04
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    Isaac, it is not the same question. Calling Rabbis by their works is an honorific. After all, through their Torah they continue living past their physical deaths. An acronym alone seems to not not imply anything other than a shortcut in referring to them. A very strong question indeed! – Yahu Feb 2 '11 at 23:18
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    As someone said, two hundred years from now, will people refer to Rabbi Nosson Sherman as "The Overview"? – Shalom Feb 3 '11 at 2:22
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    I'm wondering if the question of it being proper or not is really only a question of actual enunciation, but writing with initials does not seem to imply any disrespect, or perhaps even writing it that way is what bothered yydl, similar to the subtle lack of respect possibly implied when using "u" for "you" in IM language. – Yahu Feb 3 '11 at 7:02
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    @Yahu Yeah, I just meant saying it. Writing it seems a lot better, especially because it does save a lot of work & space. Talking on the other hand: well, it's just words! – yydl Feb 3 '11 at 23:33

In a sense it goes back at least to the Gemara. R' Sherira Gaon points out that the names of some Amoraim that begin with ר (for example: Rabbah, Rava, Rafram) are actually shortened forms of "Rav" plus their personal name: רב+אבא=רבה (or רבא); similarly רב+אפרים=רפרם; and so forth. Also "Reish" (Lakish) is a similar short form for רבי שמעון.

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I don't know when it started (or the answers to the other parts of the question), but I recall seeing "ר״מ במז״ל" in the ר״ן‎'s commentary on the רי״ף‎ (although that was, of course, a more recent reprint, and I don't know what the ר״ן himself wrote).

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    This one always sticks out in my mind. I think the ר"ן routinely abbreviates רמב"ם this way and that I've noticed it in several editions. – WAF Feb 3 '11 at 1:56
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    @WAF or as msh210 pointed out it could've been the publishers or printers... – yydl Feb 3 '11 at 4:42
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    I wonder if that form might have first been used in the Rambam's lifetime, so that the ז"ל would refer to his father rather than to him. – Alex Feb 3 '11 at 4:47
  • @R'Alex, yes, so do I. In any event, it's an example of what the questioner sought. – msh210 Feb 3 '11 at 5:20

Perhaps the reason we use a shortcut when referring to their names is in order to cut to the chase and say over their Torah thoughts. The intention of this brevity is in order to show true honor to them by hurrying to say over their wisdom. The implication of this is that if one is just telling over historical facts about them that do not involve their words, spiritual level, or choices then it could be more appropriate to refer to them by their full names. I have not seen this anywhere but it stands to reason.

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    That last point, though, wouldn't fit with R' Sherira Gaon's explanation of the short names such as רבא; we see that the Gemara uses these forms even when telling stories about them. (Though anyway, I'm not sure that your distinction would be valid anyway; stories of tzaddikim are part of Torah too, and אפילו שיחת חולין של ת"ח צריכה לימוד.) – Alex Feb 3 '11 at 20:04
  • True Alex, I stand corrected regarding the stories but simple facts such as DOB, birthplace, and other parts of their histories that do not involve their choices and words would probably not fall within the parameters of Torah. – Yahu Feb 4 '11 at 3:04
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    Still don't know that I'd agree with that, though. Again referring to R' Sherira - this time to his more famous first letter to R' Nissim Gaon - we find him saying, for example, ואחריו רפרם (French version) or ובתריה מלך רפרם ושכיב בשנת תש"ו (Spanish version) - hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=1374&st=&pgnum=166. According to either text he's just giving bare facts about Rafram, and yet calls him by this short name rather than "Rav Ephraim." Arguably, then, once a short form is established as a regular name for a Torah sage, then it is perfectly in order to use it in all contexts. – Alex Feb 6 '11 at 22:59

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