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The word בירבי "the son of Rabbi..." appears many times in the acrostics of piyyutim (e.g. El'azar the Kalir signs his name אלעזר בירבי קליר, e.g. in the יוצר beginning אומן בשמעו). (I have seen it often in prose as one word, though the acrostic allows for a reading of בי רבי). In the Yerushalmi there is an amora by the name of רבי יוסי בי רבי בון (e.g. Berachot 1:1, with בי רבי as two words), while the Bavli sometimes uses ברבי (e.g. Berachot 5b). All of these words seem to be the same despite the variants in spelling.

My question is: What is the meaning of בי? It seems to refer to the father, but the word for "son of" in Aramaic is בַּר, and that doesn't explain the letter י if בירבי is abbreviated from בר רבי. Is it an abbreviation of the word בן רבי (leaving out the נ)? Or could it derive from the Aramaic word בי, meaning "of the house of..."?

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    I’ve always heard that the Bavli ברבי means בר רבי, but this does throw a wrench in that theory, it seems... – DonielF Dec 16 '17 at 18:34
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    There's also Yaakov Beirav, no? Good question; +1. – ezra Dec 18 '17 at 2:55
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    I disagree with the closing of this question as off-topic, since it's within scope for "language used in Jewish life or learning" as well as "a Jewish text" since the question speaks about the Bavli, Yerushalmi, and piyyutim which use this word (the only reason why explicit quotes weren't provided is because there are so many and it wouldn't enhance the question much). I think this is no less relevant than a similar question that was closed and reopened – b a Dec 18 '17 at 21:38
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    I'll not use my mod diamond to reopen this over the will of the closers, but please consider my vote to reopen, for the reasons b a outlined, as cast. – msh210 Dec 19 '17 at 9:02
  • @msh210 if this gets one more reopen vote you can cast the 5th vote as a community member. – Yishai Dec 19 '17 at 15:03
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One source that I can add to this conversation is ספר בן גרני by Gabriel Jacob Pollack, which notes that in Sefer Halichos Kedem it says that בירבי is a combination of ביר and רבי, and that ביר means son, as in Berachos 5b (in the comments on it, this opinion is associated with Abarbanel). Rav Tzvi Hirsch Edelman writes a long note on this disproving this theory, noting that:

  • ביר in Berachos there does not mean son
  • some of the fathers of the people who have Beribi after their name were not Rabbis.
  • The Yerushalmi, where most of the Beribis are, only uses Ben or Bar to mean "son of"
  • Sometimes a name is followed with just Beribi
  • It is limited to particular individuals in the Talmud, and if it just meant "son of Rabbi", it would be used more widely, and not as exclusively

He therefore follows Rashi (noted by Aruch in Oliver's answer above) in many places (see inside Sefer for various locations in Rabbinic literature), that it means a "great man", not "son of...". He concludes by saying that when he has time, he will discuss why Chazal chose this title for an Adam Gadol, (but I have been unable to find this anywhere).

However, in his authoritative work מחקרי לשון ומינוח בספרות התלמודית, Rabbi Professor Shamma Friedman devotes over 200 pages to this word (table of contents here). His states in a summary that the word "son" in Aramaic often takes the form of ביר, and even sometimes בי by itself, and that its meaning in all of its forms is "Son of Rabbi":

המפתח לגיזרונו של המונח בריבי ולפתרונו המילולי כרוך בדרכי הכתיב , ובאמצעותו אפשר לחדור גם לעומק פשוטה של מילה זו . כל האמון על הכתיבים הקדומים העממיים רגיל למצב השורר בהם , שכתיבים השונים זה מזה בשינויים קלים משמשים לאותה תיבה , וכפי שהיה נהוג בדרך כלל לפני עידן הכתיבים התקניים , ולפני העידן של תהליכי ההתקנה ( סטנדרטיזציה ) שקדמו לו . האמון בכך , אפוא , רגיל להכרה הפשוטה והטבעית שאין שום הפרש משמעות בין הצורות בי רבי , בירבי , ביריבי , בריבי , ברבי , בר רבי ועוד , וכולם פירושם בפשטות בן רבי , ותו לא . הריבוי המופלג בכתיבים של המונח הזה , כתיבים הנראים כסותרים זה את זה , הוא תוצאה מריבוי הכתיבים של כל אחד ממרכיבי הצירוף שיוצר את המונח ומבטאיהם . בר הארמית קיימת אף בצורת ביר , ונכתבה לפעמים בי , ללא שבשם הגדולים , ופלפל וכתב : " דמדברי רש"י דחולין למדנו שנקרא ברבי על היותו גדול בדורו וכל כך הורגל לתארו ברבי עד שכלם ידעו בדורו כי באמור ברבי רומז אליו ונעשה לו כמו שם אבל לא שהיה זה שם העצם רק התואר נשאר לו לשם העצם והוא כונת רש"י במכות באומרו כך היה שמו כלומר דקרו ליה הכי בסתם וניכר בדורו ...

In the abstract of his review of the above book, Professor Berachyahu Lifshitz states the following:

As to beribbi: although it indeed means “the son of a rabbi”, it had also a formal meaning. It designated the children of the rabbis [beneihem shel ḥakhamim] who were studying at the yeshivah and its use was restricted to the period before they achieved full rabbinic status.

The download of Lifshitz's full book review is available at the link above, and lists some of the proofs and discussion of "Beribi" meaning son of "Rabbi".

Side note: If anyone has a subscription to Kotar and can look up any of the articles and summarize the arguments, suggestions, and findings in detail, that would be fantastic.

  • So ביר seems to be a dialectal form of בר, and the combination בירבי would come from that dialect. That makes a lot of sense, since Rabbi Yochanan (who said דין גרמא דעשיראה ביר), the Yerushalmi, and the Kalir all came from Israel, while the Bavli uses ברבי which could derive from בַּר רבי – b a Jan 17 '18 at 10:26
  • @ba that's presumably the theory, but I'm not sure how to answer all of Edelman's questions, especially the one about the usage of Bir in Yerushalmi (i.e. that it's not used), and why sons are referred to as such when they have fathers who are not called Rabbi . That's why I wish I could read the book... – רבות מחשבות Jan 17 '18 at 14:00
  • I don't think his questions are very strong. Regarding that particular question: 1. בי רבי does appear in Yerushalmi (see citation in my question). 2. בר can be read בֵּר – b a Jan 17 '18 at 17:57
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Following Rashi in numerous places, the Aruch HaShalem (vol. 2, pg. 183) posits that ברבי means (son of) a great man of the time.

The eminent scholar and philologist Saul Lieberman (Tosefta Kefshutah vol. 5 pg. 1062 n.68) likewise maintains that ברבי = Bηρεβι, and means "בן גדולים" (son of great/distinguished one/s).

Zecharia Frankel (Mavo HaYerushalmi 70f.) concludes the same in that the meaning is as defined by Rashi; an honorary term for an individual of distinction. Alternatively, in a certain context of Yerushalmi it also assumes the meaning of "students of the yeshivah".

Prof. M. Margulies (Vayikra Rabba pg. 584 note 5) admits in the given context of the midrash (25:8) that ברביי means בר/בן בית (household member).

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    @רבותמחשבות If the word comes from a Greek word Bηρεβι, that would show the word isn't necessarily an abbreviation, and would explain the vowel letter י, wouldn't it? – b a Jan 16 '18 at 22:44
  • Oliver, I can't find the Greek word in a dictionary. Is the spelling right? Does it come with any citation where the Greek word is found? – b a Jan 16 '18 at 22:46
  • @ba Copied the spelling the way it appears in my TK. Pretty sure the volume is available online somewhere. He doesn't have additional references; sorry. – Oliver Jan 16 '18 at 22:58
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    @Oliver I can only find the Greek spelling as a personal name in an inscription here. It seems the Greek Bηρεβι is a transliteration of ברבי and not the other way around. An ι at the end of a word is foreign to Greek, and rarely (if ever) appears in native words (other than prepositions) – b a Jan 16 '18 at 23:24
  • Your scholarship is fantastic! The only other time Zecharias Frankel has been mentioned (never been quoted) on this website is judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/29459/… Margulies only once, here: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/86430/… – רבות מחשבות Jan 17 '18 at 2:05
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Here is the entry from M. Sokoloff's "A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period" (online):

Sokoloff's "A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period"

So Sokoloff believes that בירבי comes from ביר רבי.

As mentioned by others, the Greek form βηρεβι appears in an inscription from Jaffa (see CIJ II no. 951). Likewise, the Aramaic form בירבי appears in CIJ II 1165 and in an inscription from Susiya. Regarding the former inscription, Avigad (Beth She‘arim III) argued this form is a contraction of of בן רבי. Unfortunately I do not have access to this reference at this time. The spelling ביריבי is found on inscriptions CIJ II 893 and 1042.

(Corpus Inscriptorum Judaicarum = CIJ)

  • Nice find, but what does ביר mean according to him...? – רבות מחשבות Jan 17 '18 at 14:02
  • @רבות מחשבות sokoloff in A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmudic and Geonic Periods has this: i.imgur.com/A8cHsQW.png – MoriDowidhYa3aqov Jan 21 '18 at 19:20
  • i checked the dictionary of qumranic aramaic, samaritan aramaic, and mandaiac aramaic but came up with nothing – MoriDowidhYa3aqov Jan 21 '18 at 19:23
  • sokoloff in A Dictionary of Judean Aramaic doesnt have anything either – MoriDowidhYa3aqov Jan 21 '18 at 19:46
  • @MoriDowidhYa3aqov sounds like a different answer altogether... – רבות מחשבות Jan 22 '18 at 3:01

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