TALMID ḤAKAM (plural, Talmide ḥakamim):
Honorific title given to one well versed in the Law. Prizing knowledge, especially that of the Torah, above all worldly goods, the talmide ḥakamim formed in Jewish society a kind of aristocracy having many privileges and prerogatives as well as duties. To the Jews, birth, riches, and other advantages are as nothing in comparison with learning. The Mishnah says: "A scholarly bastard takes precedence over an ignorant high priest" (Hor. 13a). In the Middle Ages the talmid ḥakam enjoyed the full confidence of his coreligionists, who consulted him not only in spiritual matters, but also in worldly affairs. Even when he held no official position in the community, he supervised the cult, determinedthe time and form of prayers, verified weights and measures, etc. To enable him to devote himself entirely to study, Jewish legislation exempted him from the payment of taxes and from performing any specific duties (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 243).
Although modesty is one of the cardinal virtues of the talmid ḥakam, he is enjoined to uphold his rank and not to compromise his dignity. As in the case of a king, he is not permitted to allow any one to omit the performance of any public act of reverence due to him, inasmuch as in him the Law is honored or slighted (Maimonides, "Yad," Teshubah, iii.). There are, according to the Talmud, six acts which a talmid ḥakam ought to avoid: to go abroad in perfumed garments; to walk alone at night; to wear shabby shoes; to converse with a woman in the street, even if she be his wife; to sit in the society of an ignoramus; and to be the last to enter the bet ha-midrash (Ber. 43b). With regard to association with an ignoramus, the Talmud says: "The talmid ḥakam is first likened by the ignoramus to a vase of gold; if he converses with him, he is looked upon as a vase of silver; and if he accepts a service from him, he is regarded as a vase of earth" (Sanh. 52b). Among the privileges of the talmid ḥakam is the right of declining to present himself as a witness in suits concerning money transactions before a judge who is his inferior in knowledge (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 28).
The talmid ḥakam was expected to be familiar with all branches of human learning. "He who understands astronomy," says R. Johanan, "and does not pursue the study of it, of that man it is written: 'But they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands'" (Isa. v. 12). R. Johanan, says also that only he who is able to answer all halakic questions, even those which deal only with the insignificant treatise Kallah, is a talmid ḥakam worthy to be appointed leader of a community (Shab. 114a). In accordance with this view of the standard of learning required in one who aspires to the title of talmid ḥakam, some later rabbinical authorities assert that in modern times no one deserves to be called by that epithet ("Keneset ha-Gedolah" on Yoreh De'ah, § 18).
The principles in accordance with which the talmid ḥakam must live are enumerated in the first chapter of Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa, opening with the following sentence: "The way of the wise is to be modest, humble, alert, and intelligent; to endure injustice; to make himself beloved of men; to be gracious in his intercourse even with subordinates; to avoid wrong-doing; to judge each man according to his deeds; to act according to the motto 'I take no pleasure in the good things of this world, seeing that life here below is not my portion.' Wrapped in his mantle, he sits at the feet of the wise; no one can detect anything unseemly in him; he puts pertinent questions, and gives suitable answers."