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Hasidic Judaism or Hasidism, from the Hebrew: חסידות , Hasidut, meaning "piety") is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality and joy as the fundamental aspects of the Jewish faith. The majority of Hasidic Jews are ultra-orthodox.[1]

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, (1698–1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov, is seen as the founding figure of Hasidic Judaism. The movement originated in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (present day Ukraine) in the 18th century in an era of persecution for the Jews. While European Jews had turned inward to Talmud study, many felt that most expressions of Jewish life had become too "academic" and that they no longer had any emphasis on spirituality or joy. The Ba'al Shem Tov set out to change the situation. In its initial stages the Hasidim were met with fierce opposition from the Misnagdim — literally meaning "the opponents", the most notable of whom was the Vilna Gaon, leader of the Lithuanian Jews. Nevertheless, Hasidic thought and lifestyle soon spread from Poland and Russia, to Hungary and Romania.

As compared with other Jewish movements, Hasidic Judaism tends to focus on the role of the Rebbe as a spiritual leader. Each dynasty follows its own principles; thus Hasidic Judaism is not one movement, but a collection of separate individual groups with some commonality. There are approximately 30 larger Hasidic groups, and several hundred minor Hasidic groups exist. Though there is no one version of Hasidism, individual Hasidic groups often share with each other fundamental philosophy, worship styles, dress, songs, etc.



Poland,where the bulk of Eastern European Jewry had established itself since the 13th century, two branches of Rabbinic Judaism had emerged: those who opposed the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and those who supported it. This schism became particularly acute after the Messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century. Leanings to mystical doctrines and sectarianism showed themselves prominently among the Jews of the south-eastern provinces of Poland, while in the Lithuanian provinces, anti-kabbalist orthodox leaders held sway. In part, this division in modes of thought reflected social differences between the northern (Lithuanian) Jews and the southern Jews of Ukraine. In Lithuania the Jewish masses mainly lived in densely-populated towns where anti-kabbalistic rabbinical academic culture (in the yeshivos) flourished, while in Ukraine the Jews tended to live scattered in villages far removed from intellectual centers where the influence of the kabbalists prevailed.

Pessimism in the south became more intense after the Cossacks' Uprising (1648–1654) under Chmielnicki and the turbulent times in Poland (1648–1660), which ruined the Jewry of Ukraine, but did not much affect that of Lithuania. The general population of Ukraine itself declined and economic chaos reigned, especially due to these events and the subsequent Turkish Invasion which left this region depopulated and barren. After the Polish magnates regained control of southern Ukraine in the last decade of the 17th century, an economic renaissance ensued. The magnates began a massive rebuilding and repopulation effort while being generally welcoming and benevolent towards the Jews. A type of frontier environment ensued where new people and new ideas were encouraged. The state of the Jews of what would later become southern Russia created a favorable field for mystical movements and religious sectarianism, which spread in the area from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century.

Besides these influences, deeply-seated causes produced among many Jews a discontent with Rabbinism and a gravitation toward mysticism. Rabbinism, which in Poland had become transformed into a system of religious formalism, no longer provided a satisfactory religious experience to many Jews. Although traditional Judaism had adopted some features of Kabbalah, it adapted them to fit its own system: it added to its own ritualism the asceticism of the "practical kabbalists" just across the border in the Ottoman Empire, who saw the essence of earthly existence only in fasting, in penance, and in spiritual sadness. Such a combination of religious practices, suitable for individuals and hermits, did not suit the bulk of the Jews.

Mystical individuals arose, outside the Rabbinic establishment, called Nistarim or Baal Shem ("Masters of the Name" of God, used for practical kabbalistic intervention and miracles), who sought to offer the downtrodden masses spiritual and physical encouragement, and practical healing. The image of these charismatic figures, often wandering among the people, became shaped by the Kabbalistic legend of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim (36 hidden righteous people who sustain the world). From these circles of spiritual inspiration, the early Hasidic movement arose, led by Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, in 18th Century Podolia (now Ukraine). He attracted to his cause the preceding followers of the ways of the Nistorim, who saw in his teachings a new direction in reviving and consoling the masses.

At the time in Jewish Eastern Europe were also public preachers ("Maggidim"), who would visit the shuls (synagogues) of the shtetls (towns and villages). During their Sabbath sermons, they would sometimes seek to encourage Jewish observance with ethical promises and warnings of Heaven and Hell. In their addresses, they also supported the communal Rabbi in helping to teach those who could not learn the spiritual and practical life of Jewish learning, and offered personal examples of Jewish conduct. The Baal Shem Tov opposed their use of ethical admonishments of punishment, which lacked love and inner spiritual values. Under the Hasidic movement, ideas of reward and punishment were avoided, and were replaced by the spiritual life of dveikus (cleaving) to God in all daily conduct. The Baal Shem Tov, and Hasidism, also opposed the earlier mystical and ethical ascetic paths of fasting and self-mortification, seeking to serve God by infusing physical activities with new spiritual inspiration.

Israel ben Eliezer

The founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer (1698–1760), became known as the "Master of the Good Name" (the "Baal Shem Tov", abbreviated as the "Besht"). Following on from the earlier communal tradition of Baal Shem, his fame as a healer spread not only among the Jews, but also among the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. The hagiography of oral stories about his life, that were posthumously compiled in writing by his disciples, describe his spiritual powers and knowledge, miracle working, and ability to predict the future. In turn, these notions were passed on to his saintly students and successors, and shaped the Hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik or Rebbe (righteous leader who channels Divine substenance to his followers). The particular Hasidic emphasis and interpretation of this earlier Jewish and Kabbalistic concept, became one of the ideas that singled it out from non-Hasidic Judaism. The Hasidic concept of a Rebbe also combines their role as a teacher of Judaism and as a charismatic spiritual example. To their followers they teach Hasidic mysticism and interpretations of Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism.

The traditional accounts of his biography, describe the beginnings of his life as a public teacher and leader of the Jewish people from his 36th birthday. His role and unique talent as a teacher and communicator of mystical revival began a new era in Jewish mysticism. To the common people, the Besht appeared wholly admirable. Characterized by an extraordinary sincerity and simplicity, he sought to meet the spiritual needs of the masses. He taught them that true Divine service consisted not only of religious scholarship, but also of a sincere love of God combined with warm faith and belief in the efficacy of prayer; that the ordinary person filled with a sincere belief in God, and whose prayers come from the heart, is more acceptable to God than someone versed in and fully observant of Jewish law who lacks inspiration in his divine service. This democratization of Judaism attracted to the teachings of the Besht not only the common people, but also the scholars whom the rabbinical scholasticism and ascetic Kabbalah failed to satisfy.

About 1740 the Besht established himself in the Ukrainian town of Mezhebuzh. He gathered about him numerous disciples and followers, whom he initiated into the secrets of his teachings not by systematic exposition, but by means of sayings and parables that contained both easily graspable insights, for the laymen, and profound Kabbalistic depth, for the great scholars. These sayings spread by oral transmission; later the founder's disciples set them in writing, developing the thoughts of their master into a system. The Besht himself wrote nothing.

The seminal teachings of the Baal Shem Tov captured new ideas and interpretations of Judaism, and were articulated and developed by his students and successors. These ideas offered the unlearned a folk spiritual revival, while also giving the scholarly elite a new depth and approach to mysticism. Hasidism gave a ready response to the burning desire of the common people, in the simple, stimulating, and comforting faith it awakened in them. The scholars attracted to Hasidism, also sought to learn selfless humility and simple sincerity from the common folk. In contrast to other sectarian teaching, early Hasidism aimed not at dogmatic or ritual reform, but at a deeper psychological one. It aimed to change not the belief, but the believer. By means of psychological suggestion, it created a new type of religious man, a type that placed emotion above reason and rites, and religious exaltation above knowledge. Traditional devotion to Jewish study and scholarship was not replaced, but was spiritualised as a means to cleave to God. The unlearned common folk were given spiritual enlivenment, as their sincerity also made them close to God. The great activity of Jewish study could, in contrast, offer the scholar spiritual peril, if it contributed to their sense of ego, and therefore a barrier with God's presence.

The spread of Hasidism

Israel ben Eliezer's disciples attracted many followers, who themselves established numerous Hasidic courts across Europe. After the Besht's death, followers continued his cause, under the leadership of the Maggid, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch. From his court students went forth; they in turn attracted many Jews to Hasidism, and many of them came to study in Mezritch (Mezhirichi) with Dov Ber personally. By the 1830s the majority of Jews in Ukraine, Galicia, and central Poland were Hasidic, as were substantial minorities in Belarus, Hungary and Romania. Hasidic Judaism began coming to Western Europe and then to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s.

After the passing of Rabbi Dov Ber, his inner circle of followers, known as the "Chevraya Kadisha," the Holy Fellowship, agreed to divide up the whole of Europe into different territories, and have each one charged with disseminating Hasidic teachings in his designated area.

Hasidism branched out into two main divisions: (1) in Ukraine and in Galicia (Central Europe) and (2) in Litta (Greater Lithuania from the time when it encompassed Belarus). Three disciples of Dov Ber of Mezritch (Elimelech of Lizhensk, Levi Yitzchak of Berdychev, and Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl), besides the grandson of the Besht, Boruch of Tulchin (later R' Boruch of Mezhbizh), directed the first of these divisions. Elimelech of Lizhensk fully developed the belief in Tzaddikism as a fundamental doctrine of Hasidism. In his book No'am Elimelekh he conveys the idea of the Tzadik ("righteous one") as the mediator between God and the common people, and suggests that through him God sends to the faithful earthly blessings in the three traditional categories: health and life, a livelihood, and children, on the condition, however, that the Hasidim support the Tzaddik by pecuniary contributions ("pidyonos"), in order to enable the holy man to become completely absorbed in the contemplation of God. Lithuanian Hasidim followed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded Habad Hasidism, and Rabbi Aharon of Karlin. The intellectual Habad method of Schneur Zalman, developed the mind, in contrast to general Hasidism, as the fundamental route to Hasidic spirituality. This articulation can therefore fully incorporate the other dimensions of Judaism, such as Jewish Philosophy and Rabbinic Judaism. The Maggid directed Schneur Zalman to spread Hasidism in Belarus, as his intellectual articulation could appeal to the Rabbinic opposition in Vilna. Consequently, it posed more of a threat to the Mitnagdim, and Schneur Zalman was arrested and imprisoned in Saint Petersburg by the Tzarist government on false charges, instigated by some of the Jewish opposition. Habad tradition sees the reason for the imprisonment as caused from Heavenly opposition to his new, broader, intellectual dissemination of Hasidic thought, and his exoneration as vindication from Heaven to begin the full dissemination of Hasidus.

Subsequent influential and famous Hasidic thinkers and leaders include Nachman of Breslov, in Ukraine, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk in Poland, and Yisroel Friedman of Ruzhyn in Russia. Nachman of Breslov is seen as the most imaginatively creative Hasidic thinker, while Menachem Mendel of Kotzk overturned the traditional view of the Tzaddik, in pursuit of truthful introspection and integrity. The spiritual meaning of Tzaddikic grandeur reached its fullest form in the regal majesty of the court of Yisroel Friedman. In the 19th Century flourishing of Hasidism, leadership succession usually became dynastic, rather than inherited by the greatest or most charismatic student. Each Hasidic court established itself in the scattered shtetls across Eastern Europe, and adopted their names, often in Yiddish form, for their approach to Hasidic thought and life. Where the Hasidic approach of a group was profound or influential, the spiritual vitality of their leadership remained charismatic or great, such as in the Polish dynasty of Ger (derived from Menachem Mendel of Kotzk), or the Belarusian dynasty of Lubavitch (the intellectual branch of Hasidism founded by Schneur Zalman of Liadi). In these examples, often their leaders combined Hasidic spirituality with traditional Rabbinic greatness of scholarship in Talmud. This synthesis helped dissolve much of the early opposition to Hasidism by the Rabbinic civilization of Lithuanian Jewish Orthodoxy.


Early on, a serious schism evolved between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. Those European Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement dubbed themselves misnagdim (literally, "opponents"). Critics of Hasidic Judaism:

  • decried the apparently novel Hasidic emphasis on different aspects of Jewish law;
  • found problematic the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship;
  • distrusted as non-traditional the Hasidic ascriptions of infallibility and miracle-working of their leaders;
  • expressed concern that Hasidism might become a deviant messianic sect (which in fact had occurred among the followers of both Shabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank).

Some other important differences between hasidim and misnagdim included:

  • Hasidism believed in miracle workers; they believed that the Ba'al Shem Tov and some of his disciples literally performed miracles. Stories of their miracles became a part of Hasidic literature. The Misnagdim held such views as heretical, based on classical rabbinic works such as Saadia Gaon's Emunoth ve-Deoth. (Ultimately, their descendants were to regularly tell similar stories about respected Misnagdic leaders.)
  • The Hasidic way of dress was seen as a way to outwardly appear pious; this was opposed as improper.
  • Hasidic philosophy (chasidus) holds as a core belief that God permeates all physical objects in nature, including all living beings. According to the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, Baal Shem Tov used to say, that God is all and all is God. In opposition many Jewish religious rationalists misunderstood this seemingly pantheistic doctrine as a violation against the Maimonidean principle of faith that God is not physical, and thus considered it heretical. In fact, Hasidic philosophy, especially the Chabad school, views all physical and psychological phenomena as relative and illusionary; God, the absolute reality in itself, is beyond all physical or even spiritual concepts and boundaries.
  • Hasidism teaches that there are sparks of goodness in all things, which can be redeemed to perfect the world. Many held such a view to be false and dangerous.

On a more prosaic level, other misnagdim regarded hasidim as pursuing a less scholarly approach to Judaism, and opposed the movement for this reason. At one point Hasidic Jews were put in cherem (a Jewish form of communal excommunication); after years of bitter acrimony, a rapprochement occurred between Hasidic Jews and their opponents within Orthodox Judaism. The reconciliation took place in response to the perceived even greater threat of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. Despite this, the distinctions between the various sects of Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews remain.

In the Soviet Union

The Bolshevik revolution and the rise of Communism saw the disintegration of the Hasidic centers such as Lubavitch, Breslov, Chernobyl and Ruzhin.

Many Hasidim, primarily those following the Chabad school, but also the Tshernobler Rebbe and the Ribnitzer Rebbe, remained in the Soviet Union (primarily in Russia), intent on preserving Judaism as a religion in the face of increasing Soviet opposition. With yeshivos and instruction in Hebrew outlawed, synagogues seized by the government and transformed into secular community centers, and Jewish circumcision forbidden to all members of the Communist Party, most Hasidim took part in the general Jewish religious underground movement. Many became so-called "wandering clerics", traveling from village to village and functioning as chazzanim, shochtim, mohels, and rabbis wherever such services were needed. These figures were often imprisoned and sometimes executed.

Current position

The Holocaust brought final destruction to all Hasidic centers of Eastern Europe. Most survivors moved eventually to Israel or to America, and established new centers of Hasidic Judaism modeled after their original communities.

Some of the larger and more well-known Hasidic sects that still exist include Belz, Bobov, Breslov, Ger, Lubavitch (Chabad), Munkacs, Puppa, Sanz (Klausenburg), Satmar, Skver, Spinka and Vizhnitz.

The largest groups in Israel today are Ger, Chabad, Belz, Satmar, Breslov, Vizhnitz, Seret-Vizhnitz, Nadvorna, and Toldos Aharon. In the United States the largest are Satmar, Bobov, and Lubavitch all centered in Brooklyn, New York (Reb Aharon's Satmar camp is centered in Kiryas Joel, while Reb Zalman is Williamsburg) and Skver (New Square) in Rockland County, New York. Large Hasidic communities also exist in the Outremont borough of Montreal, Pikesville and Northwest Baltimore, Maryland; Lakewood, NJ, Bathurst St. in North York, Toronto, London, Antwerp, Melbourne, the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles, the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee, and St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb.

There are probably close to half a million Hasidic Jews worldwide. The two main Hasidic communities in the United States are located in New York City and Los Angeles. In New York City the neighborhoods include Borough Park, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights in the borough of Brooklyn, and Monsey, Monroe, and New Square which are farther upstate. In Los Angeles the neighborhoods include Hancock Park, La Brea-Beverly, the Fairfax District, Valley Village and the Pico-Robertson area. There is also a sizable and growing Hasidic community in Lakewood, New Jersey, which was once a center of mainly Litvish and Yeshiva Orthodox Jews. Outside of the United States the largest Hasidic community is in Israel, located mainly in Jerusalem and its adjacent areas, such as Ramat Beit Shemesh and also the religious city of Bnei Brak. The vast majority of Hasidic Jews live either in the United States or Israel but there exist large communities in Canada (Montreal), Britain (mostly in Stamford Hill) and Belgium (Antwerp) also. Hasidic Jews are known for having large families and as a result are experiencing tremendous growth.

A 2009 article published by the University of Florida stated that the growth of Hasidic Judaism may cause Jewish politics in the US to shift towards the political right.[2]

Hasidic thought

Beginning in 12th and 13th Century Provence and Spain, Kabbalah (the main Jewish mysticism) began to be taught to small circles of advanced students. This metaphysical theology and exegesis, offered an esoteric, imaginative, spiritual alternative to mainstream Rabbinic Judaism and Jewish philosophy. Its greatest expression was in the Scriptural commentary, the Zohar. Medieval Kabbalah taught new doctrines of the ten hi(emanations that reveal and mediate the unknowable Divine essence), the identification of the last sefirah with the earlier Rabbinic notion of the shechina (Divine presence) as a feminine aspect of God, and the shefa (substaining flow of Divine creation through the Heavenly realms until this world) that is dependent on each person's righteousness. In 16th century Safed, a special community of great Jewish thinkers developed, that brought new synthesis to Kabbalah. Above all, Isaac Luria taught new and radical doctrines of the primordial process of creation, that became accepted as the complete structure of traditional Jewish metaphysics. These ideas described an initial tzimtzum (constriction of the Divine Infinity that allowed creation to take place) and its cosmic purposes, a subsequent catastrophe called "Shevirat Hakelim" (the "Breaking of the Vessels") that resulted in the present unredeemed world, and the messianic process of Tikkun (metaphysical rectification) of this, that each individual helps complete in their spiritual life. While these notions were esoteric, they also deeply supported mainstream Rabbinic Judaism, as the shefa and the tikkun were automatically fulfilled by all Jews through normative Jewish observance, whether they were aware of their deeper significance or not. As a result, and especially in reaction to the sufferings and exiles of Jewish history, the Kabbalah became the mainstream traditional Jewish theology, and inspired a hold on wider Jewish cultural imagination. While its terminology entered the daily liturgy, its subtle and advanced concepts, that could be misunderstood by spiritual novices, kept its committed study to a scholarly elite. The mainstream acceptance of Kabbalah, can be seen by the mass following that the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi gained. His mystical heresy and apostasy, awakened a Rabbinic restriction on Jewish mystical activity for the wider population.

The Baal Shem Tov and his successors, inherited this Rabbinic suspicion of their teachings, as they sought to awaken a popular, mystical revival for the simple Jewish folk, as well as offering scholarly mysticism a new soulful direction. The new teachings of Hasidism left aside the abstact, subtle, advanced focus of Kabbalah on the Divine manifestations and Heavenly realms. Kabbalah describes the full, esoteric, complicated structures of the interaction of God and Creation. Among it traditional names is the "Chochma Nistorah" (hidden wisdom) of the Torah. Kabbalistic terminology is necessary to describe the traditional Jewish processes of metaphysics. It is used extensively in the more involved Hasidic writings, but the aim of this is different than in Kabbalah. The new teachings of Hasidism look to the simple, inner Divine soul, that it sees as permeating all and also transcending all. Hasidic thought bases itself on earlier Kabbalistic theology, but relates its ideas to the psychology and experience of man, so that Jewish mysticism can awaken a personal experience and perception of the Divine. Gershom Scholem, who established the 20th century academic study of Jewish mysticism, describes Hasidism as the "internalisation of Kabbalah". The Baal Shem Tov and his successors saw Divine immanence in all Creation, that gave a full expression to panentheistic traces in earlier Kabbalah (Panentheism teaches that "All is within God". This is different from Pantheism, which is heretical in Judaism, as it denies a personal God, and Divine transcendence outside Creation. Panentheism sees Creation as Divinity, but only the immanent revelation of a transcendent, infinite God). This encounter with God could be found by all Jews, as Hasidism elevated sincerity and soulful devekus (cleaving to God), as the most direct path to spirituality. Traditionally, Jewish study, especially of Talmud, gives the main route to Jewish spirituality. Hasidism did not seek to replace the essential endeavour of study, but rather to infuse and connect it with devekus. Common folk, to whom study may have been inaccessible, found spirituality and joy in Hasidic mysticism, while great scholars of Talmud and Kabbalah, were also attracted to its new depth and interpretation.

The Baal Shem Tov spread Hasidism by means of simple, soulful teachings, parables and stories. These offered Jewish mysticism to the unlearned, while the close circle of saintly followers around him understood their deeper, profound significance. The Baal Shem Tov was a man of the people, while his successor Dov Ber of Mezeritch devoted himself to creating the third generation of great Hasidic leaders. As the theological and sociological architect of the Hasidic movement, Dov Ber elucidated the underlying profound meanings of Hasidic thought, and its theological contributions to Judaism. He appointed his students in the "Hevra Kaddisha" (Holy Society) to become the future leaders of Hasidism in the different regions of Eastern Europe. Alternative interpretations of Hasidic thought arose, centred in schools of Hasidic dynasties. Hasidism stressed the new doctrine of the Rebbe or Tzaddik (saintly leader), through whom Divine influence is channelled. In some Hasidic paths the Tzaddik elevates his followers through charismatic conduct, while other groups emphasise his role primarily as teacher. Many creative thinkers of Hasidic mysticism established the variety of Hasidic approaches. Because the Tzaddik offers to his followers a microcosm of the Messianic redemption, mainstream Hasidism toned down the Messianic elements to Jewish mysticism, that had endangered Shabbetai Zvi. Nonetheless, infusing Hasidism from the time of the Baal Shem Tov onwards, is a Messianic self-understanding, that has come to the fore on some occasions, especially in the recent history of Chabad. Through its emotional and intellectual aspects, Hasidism offered Jewish life a new spiritual revival. Within Jewish study, Hasidic philosophy gave earlier Jewish thought new interpretations, that can synthesise and spiritualise the other dimensions of Judaism. In its intellectual articulations, Hasidic philosophy can bridge Jewish mysticism with mainstream Jewish philosophy. It enabled the mystical dimensions of Judaism to be articulated in a form that was accessible for the first time to the whole Jewish community. Hasidic spirituality and thought has also had appeal and influence outside the Hasidic movement, and outside of Orthodox Judaism. In the 20th Century, the academic interest in Jewish mysticism, and Neo-Hasidism have offered spiritual contributions to many Jewish denominations. With the encounter of Judaism with Modernity, different philosophical and denominational views emerged on the meanings of Judaism and Jewish identity. It has been said that the three figures of the Baal Shem Tov (Hasidic spirituality), the Vilna Gaon (Lithuanian Jewish Orthodox scholarship), and Moses Mendelssohn (founding influence on the Haskalah movement), have together shaped the diverse Jewish articulations today.

Characteristic ideas

The teachings of Hasidism are founded on two theoretical conceptions: (1) religious Panentheism, or the omnipresence of God, and (2) the idea of Devekus, communion between God and man. "Man," says the Besht (Baal Shem Tov), "must always bear in mind that God is omnipresent and is always with him; that God is the most subtle matter everywhere diffused... Let man realize that when he is looking at material things he is in reality gazing at the image of the Deity which is present in all things. With this in mind man will always serve God even in small matters."

Deveikus (communion) refers to the belief that an unbroken relationship takes place between the world of God and the world of humanity. According to it, not only does the Deity influence the acts of man, but also that man exerts an influence on the will of the Deity. Every act and word of man produces a corresponding effect in the upper spheres. From this conception is derived the chief practical principle of Hasidism, cleaving to God for the purpose of uniting with the source of life and of influencing it. This communion is achieved through the concentration of thoughts on God, and consulting Him in all the affairs of life.

The tzaddik (righteous person) is in constant communion with God, even in their worldly affairs, since they also feel His presence in daily life. A special form of communion with God is prayer. In order to render this union complete the prayer must be full of fervor, ecstatic, and the soul of the person who prays must, during their devotions, detach itself from its material dwelling. For the attainment of ecstasy, recourse can be had to mechanical means, to enthusiastic bodily motions, to shouting and singing. According to the Besht, the path to God is in sincerity and fervour, rather than cold intellectual reasoning. Learning of Jewish texts and halakhic lore are important ways to approach God, but ultimately are useful as a means of producing an exalted religious elevation and communion. It is often more helpful to read books of moral and spiritual inspiration, than to engage in over-analytical approaches in study of the Talmud and Rabbinical literature. In the performance of rites the mood of the believer is of more importance than the externals, so therefore formalism and superfluous ceremonial details are an impediment. In later Hasidic articulations, a synthesis was made with the value of traditional, Lithuanian study and analysis. Many Hasidic Masters gained admiration from the non-Hasidic world, for being great scholars of Talmudic and Rabbinic works. The intellectual school of Chabad, founded by Schneur Zalman of Liadi, can be seen as a separate offshoot of general Hasidism. Mainstream Hasidism gives special emphasis to emotions, so that study of the "revealed" or "inner" dimensions of Judaism can inspire greater faith and emotional fervour, as well as knowledge of Rabbinic thought. In Habad, Schneur Zalman emphasised the mind as the route to internalysing the emotions of the heart more fully. The systematic analysis of Hasidic philosophy in Habad can integrate and synthesise "revealed" Jewish thought with the mystical.

===Aims of Hasidic thought Hasidic philosophy teaches a method of contemplating on God, as well as the inner significance of the Mitzvot (commandments and rituals of Torah law). Hasidic philosophy has four main goals:===

1. Revival: At the time when Rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov founded Hasidism, the Jews were physically crushed by massacres (in particular, those of the Cossack leader Chmelnitzki in 1648–1649) and poverty, and spiritually crushed by the disappointment engendered by the false messiahs. This unfortunate combination caused religious observance to seriously wane. This was especially true in Eastern Europe, where Hasidism began. Hasidism came to revive the Jews physically and spiritually. It focused on helping Jews establish themselves financially, and then lifting their moral and religious observance through its teachings.

2. Piety: A Hasid, in classic Torah literature, refers to one of piety beyond the letter of the law. Hasidism demands and aims at cultivating this extra degree of piety.

3. Refinement: Hasidism teaches that one should not merely strive to improve one's character by learning new habits and manners. Rather a person should completely change the quality, depth and maturity of one's nature. This change is accomplished by internalizing and integrating the perspective of Hasidic philosophy.

4. Demystification: In Hasidism, it is believed that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah can be made understandable to everyone. This understanding is meant to help refine a person, as well as adding depth and vigor to one's ritual observation.

Hasidic practice and culture

Liturgy and prayer

The Zidichover Rebbe praying

The Tosher Rebbe concentrating on prayer

Most Hasidim pray according to one of the variations of the nusach (prayer book tradition) known as Nusach Sefard, a blend of Ashkenazi and Sephardi liturgies, based on the innovations of Rabbi Isaac Luria (also known as the Arizal). However, many Hasidic dynasties have their own specific adaptation of Nusach Sefard; some, such as the versions of the Belzer, Bobover and Dushinsky Hasidim, are closer to nusach Ashkenaz, while others, such as the Munkacz version, are closer to nusach Sefarad of the Arizal. Chabad-Lubavitch has a distinctive variant known as Nusach Ari.

The Baal Shem introduced two innovations to the Friday services: the recitation of Psalm 107 before Mincha (the afternoon service), as a prelude to the Sabbath, one gives praise for the release of the soul from its weekday activities, and Psalm 23 just before the end of Maariv (evening service).

In regard to dialect, in common with most Ashkenazi Haredim, Hasidim pray in Ashkenazi Hebrew, though most sects use a nusach Sefard davening order. This dialect has nothing to do with Hasidism in its origins, nor was it chosen deliberately. It just happens to be the Yiddish dialect of the places from which most Hasidim originally came. Thus, there are significant differences between the dialects used by Hasidim originating in different places, such as Poland, Belarus, Hungary, and Ukraine.

Hasidic prayer has a distinctive accompaniment of wordless melodies called nigunim that represent the overall mood of the prayer; in recent years this innovation has become increasingly popular in non-Hasidic communities as well. Hasidic prayer also has a reputation for taking a very long time (although some groups do pray quickly). Some hasidim will spend seven seconds of concentration on every single word of the prayer of Amidah.

Hasidim have a reputation for having a lot of kavana, mental concentration, during prayer. Overall, Hasidim regard prayer as one of the most paramount activities during the day. In fact, one of the most controversial innovations of Hasidic practice as practiced in several courts involves the near-abolition of the traditional specified times of day by which prayers must be conducted (zemanim), particularly shacharis (the morning prayer service); the preparations for prayer take precedence and may extend into the allotted time. The Kotsker Rebbe allegedly originated this practice, which is prevalent to this day in Chabad-Lubavitch. It is controversial in many other Hasidic courts, who place more emphasis on praying earlier and not eating before praying, according to the interpretation of Halacha (Jewish law) which is followed by the vast majority of other Hasidic and non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews.

Daily Immersion

Many male Orthodox Jews customarily immerse in a mikvah (ritual pool of water) before major Jewish holidays (and particularly before Yom Kippur), in order to achieve spiritual cleanliness. Hasidim have extended this to a daily practice preceding morning prayers. Although daily immersion in a mikvah is no longer mandated by halacha, Hasidism places great emphasis on this practice, because the Arizal taught that each time one immerses in a mikvah he adds holiness to his soul. The Talmud records an enactment by Ezra that after a seminal emission one must immerse in a mikvah before studying Torah or praying; although this enactment was later repealed, Hasidim and some other Jews still follow it, at least for prayer.


Hasidim are notable for their distinctive attire.[3] Within the Hasidic world, one can distinguish different Hasidic groups by subtle differences in dress. Some details of their dress are shared by non-Hasidic Haredim. Much of Hasidic dress was historically the clothing of all Eastern-European Jews (and non-Jews), but Hasidim have preserved more of these styles to the present day. Furthermore, Hasidim have attributed religious origins to specific Hasidic items of clothing.

Contrary to popular belief, Hasidic dress has little to do with the way Polish nobles once dressed. (The Emancipation movement probably started this myth in the late 19th century in an attempt to induce younger Jews to abandon the outfit.) Interestingly, secular Yiddish writers of old, living in Eastern Europe (Sholom Aleichem, for example) appear to have no knowledge of the "Polish origin" of the dress. Likewise, numerous Slavic sources from the 15th century onwards refer to the "Jewish kaftan". The Tsarist edict of the mid 19th century banning Jewish clothing mentions the "Jewish kaftan" and the "Jewish hat" and, as a result of this edict, Hasidim modified their dress in the Russian Empire and generally hid their sidelocks. Modern Chabad Lubavitch wear the Prince Albert frock coat substitutes for the bekishe reflecting this change, as do Ger Hasidim, substituting the spodik for the shtreimel.

Hasidic dress did change over the last hundred years and become more European in response to the Emancipation Movement. Modern Hasidim tend to wear Hasidic dress as worn just prior to World War II. Numerous pictures of Hasidim in the mid 19th century show a far more Levantine outfit (i.e. a kaftan lacking lapels or buttons) that differs little from the classical oriental outfit consisting of the kaftan, white undershirt, sash, knee-breeches (halbe-hoyzn), white socks and slippers (shtibblat). This outfit allegedly had a Babylonian origin before its later adoption by Jews, Persians and lastly the Turks, who brought it to Europe. The Polish nobility adopted its 16th century outfit from the Turks, hence (allegedly) the similarity between the Hasidic outfit and Polish nobles' clothing. (Similarly, Hasidic dress has a vague connection with Shia Muslim clerical dress, the Shia clergy adopted this dress from the Persians.) One Hasidic belief (taught by the Klausenberger rebbe) holds that Jews originally invented this dress-code and that the Babylonians adopted it from Jews during the Jewish exile in Babylon of the 6th century BCE. This belief is not widely held or even well known among Hasidim.


Hasidic rebbes and Hasidim in traditional dress. Note the shtreimels, black bekishes, and the gartels. The rebbes are distinguished by the velvet lining on their bekishes.

Hasidic men most commonly wear dark (black or navy) jackets and trousers and white shirts. They will usually also wear black shoes. On weekdays they wear a long, black, cloth jacket called a rekel and on Jewish Holy Days the bekishe zaydene kapote (Yiddish, lit. satin caftan), a similarly long, black jacket but of satin fabric traditionally silk. The preference for black comes from a decree made by community rabbis in the 18th century stipulating that black outer garments be worn on the Sabbath and Jewish Holy Days out of the home, as opposed to the shiny, colorful kaftans that were worn prior to that time. The rabbis thought that brightly colored clothes might arouse resentment amongst non-Jews, which could lead to violence. Indoors the colorful tish bekishe is still worn.

On the Sabbath the Hasidic Grand Rabbis (rebbes) traditionally wore a white bekishe rather than a black one. This practice has fallen into disuse except for a minority of rebbes, such as Toldos Aharon and Lelov, and by Hungarian rebbes such as Tosh and Satmar. Many rebbes wear a black silk bekishe that is trimmed with velvet (known as strokes or samet) and in those of Hungarian lineage a gold designed or other coloured, tish bekishe or khalat (especially during the tish or during the prayers that come right before or after the tish).

Some Hasidim wear a satin overcoat, known amongst Hungarian and Galitsyaner Hasidim as a rezhvolke, over the regular bekishe. A rebbe's rezhvolke might be trimmed with velvet. Some rebbes wear a fur-lined rezhvolke known as a tilep (Yiddish: טולעפ fur coat).

Dombrover Rebbe of Monsey with the Nadvorna Rebbe. Note the pelts (fur coat) worn by the rebbes.

Most Hasidim do not wear neckties (with the exception of some Russian Hasidim, such as those stemming from Ruzhin, Karlin, and Lubavitch).

These are some of the religious aspects claimed by Hasidim of their dress code. The connections are quite tenuous and the real reasons for the Hasidic dress code are historical and sociological and not theological.

  • Bekishe or rekelech serve as a sign of modesty and cover almost the entire body.
  • The Bekishe is made of silk because of the Biblical prohibition of shaatnez.
  • The fur lined shtreimel alludes to the law of shaatnez and began as a way of keeping warm without wearing wool.
  • Shoes worn on the Sabbath typically are plain black slip-ons so as not to have to make a knot which is prohibited on that day and so as not to touch the shoes (which would ritually defile one's hands, requiring ritual purification through washing with a special vessel).
  • A gartel divides the Hasid's lower parts from his upper parts, and are mentioned in the Talmud and Shulhan Arukh as a way to "prepare to meet your God".
  • For Kabbalah reasons Hasidim button their clothes right over left.
  • The Sabbath dress of Hasidim resembles the description of the High Priest's dress in the Bible (this is particularly tenuous and the similarity is not apparent at all).
  • Some Hasidim wear white socks tucked in short pants so the trouser-bottoms do not touch the ground (which in former times was likely to be a source of waste, which is a Biblical prohibition).
  • The bekishe has no pockets or pockets in the rear to prevent carrying on Shabbos.


Hasidim customarily wear black hats during the weekdays as do nearly all Haredim today. A variety of hats are worn depending on the sect. Hasidim wear a variety of fur headdresses on the Sabbath:

  • Shtreimel is worn by most Hasidim today, including those from Galicia and Hungary such as Satmar, Munkacs, Bobov, Breslov and Belz, and some non-Galician Polish Hasidim, such as Biala, as well as some non-Hasidic Haredim in Jerusalem.
  • Spodik is the name given by others to the shtreimel worn by Polish Hasidim such as Ger, Amshinov, Ozharov, Aleksander and it is more narrow, and taller than the shtreimel, and is generally black.
  • The choibl or soyvl was worn in Poland prior to the Holocaust, and has fallen into disuse.
  • kolpik (Polish: kolpak) is a traditional Slavic headdress, worn by unmarried sons and grandsons of many Rebbes on the Sabbath. The kolpik is worn by some Rebbes on special occasions other than the Sabbath and major Biblical Holidays, such as Chanukah, Tu B'Shvat, and Rosh Chodesh.
  • The kashket or dashikl was a peaked cap worn during the week, prior to the Holocaust. It was worn in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, and was worn by poorer Hasidim on Shabbat. Its use began as a result of the Tsarist decrees banning other traditional Jewish headdress. In these geographic areas, generally only rabbis wore black hats. Today, some Hasidic children, under the age of 13, wear a kashket on the Sabbath. Amongst Belz, the kashket has been reintroduced for boys under the age of 15 to wear on weekdays.
  • The black fedora, and less so the trilby, is worn by Lubavitch Hasidim. This hat is of the style of the 1940s and 50s. They are the same as the hats worn by many non-Hasidic Haredim, as well as by some more "modern" Hasidim who are followers of a particular Rebbe without being part of a Hasidic community. Habad Hasidim often pinch their hats to form a triangle on the top, following the style of the Chabad - Lubavitcher Rebbe. They wear their fedoras even on the Sabbath and Holidays. However, some Lubavitch Hasidim in Jerusalem wear a shtreimel on the Sabbath, if that was their family's custom for generations in Jerusalem.
  • Various forms of felt open-crown (a type of hat with a rounded top) are worn by many Hasidim. Affiliation can sometimes be identified by whether there is a pinch in the middle of the top or not, as well as the type of brim. This is called a shtofener hat in Yiddish. Ger and Slonimer Hasidim wear a round hat, while Stolin and Emunas Yisrael wear a pinched hat. Many Satmar laymen wear a type of open crown hat that resembles a bowler hat with rounded edges on the brim.
  • Samet (velvet) or biber (beaver) hats are worn by Galician and Hungarian Hasidim during the week and by unmarried men on Shabbat as well. They are usually only worn in the winter. Some unmarried men wear a samet hat on the Sabbath and a felt hat during the week. There are many types of Samet hats, most notably the "high" ("hoicher") and "flat" ("platsher") varieties. The "flat" type is worn by Satmar Hasidim, and some others as well. Some Rabbis wear a "round" samet hat in a similar style to the shtofener hats, however made from the Samet material. They are called beaver hats even though today they are made from rabbit.
  • A small fur hat called a kutchma (Ukrainian: kučma or кучма) is worn by many Hasidic laymen during weekdays in the winter. Today this hat is sometimes made from cheaper materials, such as polyester. This hat is referred to as a shlyapka (шляпка), by Russian Jews.

Other distinct clothing

Ger (Hasidic dynasty)|Gerrer]] Hasidim wear hoyznzokn — long black socks that they tuck their trousers into. Some Hasidim from Eastern Galicia wear black socks with their breeches on the Sabbath, as opposed to white ones, particularly Belzer Hasidim.

Many Hungarian Hasidic and non-Hasidic laymen wear a suit jacket that lies somewhere between a rekel and a regular three-quarter double breasted suit called a "drei-fertl" (Yiddish for "three-quarter"). It is distinct from a regular three-quarter suit inasmuch as the right side covers the left, like a rekel.

Many Skverer hasidim wear knee-high leather boots (shtifl) with their breeches on the Sabbath. This manner of concealing the stockings was introduced as a compromise prior to a family wedding when one side had the tradition of wearing white stockings and the other did not. The Skverer Rebbe and his family wear such boots every day, and so do some rabbinical families affiliated with other Hasidic groups.


Following a Biblical commandment not to shave the sides of one's face, male members of most Hasidic groups wear long, uncut sideburns called payot (Ashkenazi Hebrew peyos, Yiddish peyes). Many Hasidim shave off the rest of their hair. Not every Hasidic group requires long peyos, and not all Jewish men with peyos are Hasidic, but all groups discourage the shaving of one's beard. Hasidic boys receive their first haircuts ceremonially at the age of three years (though Skverrer Hasidim do this at their second birthday). Until then, Hasidic boys have long hair. Many non-Hasidic (and even some non-Orthodox) Jews have adopted this custom.


The white threads dangling at the waists of Hasidim and other Orthodox Jewish males are tzitzit. The requirement to wear fringes comes from the Book of Numbers: "Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes on the borders of their garments throughout their generations" (Numbers 15:38). In order to fulfill this commandment, Orthodox males wear a tallit katan, a square white garment with the fringes at the corners. By tradition, a Hasidic boy will receive his first fringed garment on his third birthday, the same day as his first haircut. Most Orthodox Jews wear the tallit katan under their shirts, where it is unnoticeable except for the strings that many leave hanging out; many Hasidim, as well as some other Haredim, wear the tallis katan over their shirt.


The majority of Hasidic women, being Haredi, will wear clothing adhering to the principles of modest dress in Jewish law. This includes long, conservative skirts and sleeves past the elbow. In keeping with Jewish law, married women will cover their hair using either a sheitel (wig) or a tichel (scarf) which is often used to cover a shpitzel. In some groups, such as Satmar, women crop their hair and wear a tichel.


Hasidic men and women, as customary in Haredi Judaism, usually meet through matchmakers in a process called a shidduch, but marriages involve the mutual consent of the couple and of the parents. Expectations exist that a bride and groom should be about the same age. Marriage age ranges from 17-25, with 18-21 considered the norm. No custom encourages an older man marrying a young woman. Hasidic thought stresses the holiness of sex. Hasidic couples follow strict regulations regarding what types of sexual relations are allowed and how.

Hasidic Jews typically produce large families; the average Hasidic family in the United States has 7.9 children. This custom is followed out of a desire to fulfil the Biblical mandate to "be fruitful and multiply" and to compensate for the decimation of Jews of Eastern Europe in the Shoah.


All Hasidim speak the language of their countries of residence, but use Yiddish amongst themselves as a way of remaining distinct and preserving tradition. Thus children are still learning Yiddish today, and the language, despite predictions to the contrary, is not dead. Yiddish newspapers are still published, and Yiddish fiction is being written, primarily aimed at women. Films in Yiddish are being produced within the Hasidic community, and released immediately as DVDs (as opposed to the Yiddish movies of the past, which were produced by non-religious Jews). Some extremist Hasidic groups even actively oppose the everyday use of Hebrew, which they considered a holy tongue. The use of Hebrew for anything other than prayer and study is, according to them, profane. Hence Yiddish is the vernacular and common tongue for many Hasidim around the world. The use of Yiddish is a major difference between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Haredim. Sephardi Haredim usually do not know Yiddish (the exception would be if they were educated in an Ashkenazi yeshiva) and have no objection to the everyday use of Hebrew.


  2. "As Hasidic population grows, Jewish politics may shift right." University of Florida. November 27, 2006. Retrieved on May 2, 2009.
  3. "Jewish Attire". Retrieved 2009-07-08. 

See also


  • Boteach, Shmuel (April 1993). Wisdom, understanding, and knowledge: basic concepts of hasidic thought. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0-87668-557-2 LCCN 95-6052|0-87668-557-2 LCCN 95-6052]]. 
  • Buber, Martin (July 23, 1991) [1947]. Tales of the Hasidim. translated by Olga Marx; forward by Chaim Potok (Paperback: 2 volumes in 1 ed.). New York, NY: Schocken Books. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0-8052-0995-6 LCCN 90-52921|0-8052-0995-6 LCCN 90-52921]]. 
  • Chapin, David (2000). The Road from Letichev: The history and culture of a forgotten Jewish community in Eastern Europe, Volume 1. co-author Ben Weinstock. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse. ISBN 0-595-00666-3. 
  • Dynner, Glenn (2006). Men of Silk: the Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517522-0. 
  • Finkel, Avraham Yaakov (October 1994). Contemporary sages: the great Chasidic masters of the twentieth century. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/1-56821-155-4 LCCN 94-3078|1-56821-155-4 LCCN 94-3078]]. 
  • Nadler, Allan (June 24, 1997). The faith of the Mithnagdim: rabbinic responses to Hasidic rapture. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0-8018-5560-8 LCCN 96-6608|0-8018-5560-8 LCCN 96-6608]]. 
  • Rosman, Moshe (1996). Founder of Hasidism. Univ. of Calif. Press. ISBN 0-520-20191-4. 
  • Schochet, Elijah Judah (June 1994). The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson. ISBN 1-56821-125-2. 
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1961), Liebermann, Toronto, Canada
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, The Great Maggid (1974; 1990), Kehot, Brooklyn NY, ISBN 0-8266-0414-5
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, The Arrest and Liberation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1964; 1992), Kehot, Brooklyn NY ISBN 0-8266-0418-8
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, Mystical Concepts in Chassidism (1979; 1988), Kehot, Brooklyn NY ISBN 0-8266-0412-9
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, The Mystical Tradition (1990; 1995), Kehot, Brooklyn NY ISBN 0-8266-0528-1
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, Deep Calling Unto Deep (1990; 1995), Kehot, Brooklyn NY ISBN 0-8266-0528-2
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, Chassidic Dimensions (1990; 1995), Kehot, Brooklyn NY ISBN 0-8266-0528-3
  • Schochet, Jacob Immanuel, Tzava'at Harivash: The Testament of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1998), Kehot, Brooklyn NY ISBN 0-8266-0399-8
  • Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder, ed (1972). "Hasidic Judaism". Encyclopedia Judaica. 7. New York, NY: Macmillan Company. LCCN 84-214344. 
  • The Great Mission: The life and story of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. Compiled by Rabbi Eli Friedman, translated by Rabbi Elchonon Lesches. Kehot Publication Society, 2005, ISBN 0-8266-0681-4.
  • Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family. Lis Harris. Simon & Schuster New York, 1985, ISBN 0-684-81366-1.
  • Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. Hella Winston. Beacon Press Boston, 2005, ISBN 0-8070-3626-9.
  • Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters. Elie Wiesel. Simon & Schuster New York, 1972, ISBN 0-6714-4171-X.
  • Hasidic People: A Place in the New World. Jerome R. Mintz. Harvard University Press, 1992.

External links

Maps of the spread of Hasidism: