Image: The AriZaL Synagogue in Sefat, Israel (via Wikimedia, some rights reserved)
Some rabbis are particularly beloved or respected in Jewish history. Those rabbis often get a nickname by which they are known in the yeshiva (Torah school.)
You may have heard of Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, (1040-1105) who wrote commentaries on both the Bible and the Talmud. His nickname is an acronym of name, with a few vowels added:
Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac <is known as> RaSHI
Maimonides has lots of names. Maimonides is his Greek name. However he also has a Jewish name and a corresponding nickname:
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon <is known as> RaMBaM
You may have heard of the legends about Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel of Prague, who supposedly fashioned the Golem to protect the Jews of Prague. He, too, has a nickname, but there more in it than his name:
Moreinu Hagadol (Our great teacher) R. Loew <is known as> MaHaRaL
Rabbi’s nicknames are not always acronyms; sometimes rabbis are known by the titles of their most famous book, or by an honorific. For instance, you may have heard of the Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name.) His name was Israel ben Eliezer and he lived from 1698-1760. He was an early and profound teacher of Hasidism. He is also known as the Besht:
Ba’al Shem Tov < may be abbreviated > BeSHT
Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) was known as HaAri, meaning “The Lion.” He was a great teacher of Kabbalah, who is also known as:
HaAri Zichrono Livraha (of blessed memory) <became> HaArizaL
Some examples of rabbis known by the names of their books:
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) is known as the Sfat Emet, (“The Language of Truth”) the title of his commentaries on the Talmud.
Rabbi Jacob ben Asher is known as the Ba’al HaTurim after his towering code (law book) of halakhah (Jewish law.) Ba’al HaTurim means “Master of the Rows,” a reference to the fact that he arranged the topics of the law into four areas, corresponding to the four rows of stones on the breastplate of the High Priest.
So in your reading, if ever you think, “Gee, these people have a lot of names!” you are quite right! Sometimes, Google is quite useful.