Hasidic Judaism

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Hasidic Judaism (from the Hebrew: Chasidut חסידות, meaning "pious", from the Hebrew root word chesed חסד meaning "loving kindness") is a Haredi Jewish religious movement. Some refer to Hasidic Judaism as Hasidism, and the adjective Chasidic/Hasidic (or in Yiddish Chasidish חסידיש) applies. The movement originated in Eastern Europe (Belarus and Ukraine) in the 18th century.

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700 - 1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov [1], founded Hasidic Judaism. It originated in a time of persecution of the Jewish people, when 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 improve the situation. In its initial stages, Hasidism met with opposition from several contemporary leaders, most notably the Vilna Gaon of Lithuania, united as the mitnagdim (Hebrew: "opposers").



In Poland, where the bulk of Jewry had established itself since the sixteenth century, the struggle between traditional rabbinic Judaism and radical Kabbalah-influenced mysticism became particularly acute after the Messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century. Leanings toward mystical doctrines and sectarianism showed themselves prominently among the Jews of the south-eastern provinces of Poland, while in the north-eastern provinces, in Lithuania, and in White Russia, rabbinical orthodoxy held sway. Jews who follow this tradition are called Litvish (Lithuanian). 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 rabbinical academic culture (in the yeshivot) flourished; while in Ukraine the Jews tended to live scattered in villages far removed from intellectual centers.

Pessimism in the south became more intense after the Cossacks' Uprising (1648 - 1654) under Bohdan Chmielnicki and the turbulent times in Poland (1648 - 1660), which completely ruined the Jewry of Ukraine, but left comparatively untouched that of Lithuania. The economic and spiritual decline of the Jews of what became southern Russia created a favorable field for mystical movements and religious sectarianism, which spread in the area from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth 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 cabalists" of the East, who saw the essence of earthly existence only in fasting, in penance, and in spiritual sadness. Such a combination of religious practises, suitable for individuals and hermits, did not suit the bulk of the Jews.

Hasidism gave a ready response to the burning desire of the common people in its simple, stimulating, and comforting faith. In contradistinction 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.

Israel ben Eliezer

Israel ben Eliezer the founder of Hasidism

The founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer, also became known under the title of the "Master of the Good Name" (the Ba'al Shem Tov, abbreviated as the Besht). His fame as a healer spread not only among the Jews, but also among the non-Jewish peasants and the Polish nobles. He allegedly could sometimes successfully predict the future.

To the common people, the Besht appeared wholly admirable. Characterized by an extraordinary sincerity and simplicity, he knew how to gain an insight into the spiritual needs of the masses. He taught them that true religion consisted not of religious scholarship, but 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. 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 Podolian town of Miedzyboz. 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. These sayings spread by oral transmission; later the founder's disciples set them in writing, developing the disjointed thoughts of their master into a system. The Besht himself did not write anything. As a mystic by nature, he regarded his teachings as a prophetic revelation.

The spread of Hasidism

Israel ben Eliezer's disciples attracted many followers; they themselves established numerous Hasidic sects across Europe. After the Besht's death, followers continued his cause, especially Dov Ber of Mezeritch. From his court students went forth; they in turn attracted many Jews to Hasidism, and many of them came to study in Mezhirech with Dov Ber personally. Hasidic Judaism eventually became the way of life of the majority of Jews in Ukraine, Galicia, and central Poland; the movement also had sizable groups of followers in Belarus-Lithuania and Hungary. Hasidic Judaism came to Western Europe and then to the United States during the large waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880s.

File:Hasidim Hungary.jpg
Hasidim in the early part of the 20th century in Hungary

Hasidism gradually branched out into two main divisions: (1) in Ukraine and in Galicia and (2) in Lithuania. Three disciples of Dov Ber of Mezeritch (Elimelech of Lezhinsk, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, and Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl), besides the grandson of the Besht, Baruch of Tulchin, directed the first of these divisions. Elimelech of Lezhinsk affirmed 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 three earthly blessings: life, a livelihood, and children, on the condition, however, that the Hasidim support the Tzaddik by pecuniary contributions ("pidyonim"), 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 Chabad Hassidism.

This teaching practically led to the contribution by the people of their last pennies toward the support of their tzaddik (rebbe), and the tzaddik untiringly "poured forth blessings on the earth, healed the sick, cured women of sterility," etc. The vocation of tzaddik became hereditary. A multiplicity of Hasidic dynasties contested for supremacy.


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

  • decried the novel Hasidic emphasis on different aspects of Jewish law;
  • found even more problematic the overwhelming exuberance of Hasidic worship;
  • distrusted as non-traditional Hasidic ascriptions of infallibility and Miracle-working to their leaders;
  • expressed concern that Hasidism might become a messianic sect (which in fact had occurred among the followers of both Shabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank)
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The Vilna Gaon, the head of the Mitnagdim and the most famous opponent of Hasidism

Some other important differences between Hasidim and Mitnagdim 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. In opposition many Jewish religious rationalists held such views as heretical, based on classical rabbinic works such as Saadia Gaon's Emunoth ve-Deoth.
  • The Hasidic way of dress was seen as a way to outwardly appear pious; this was opposed as improper.
  • Chassidic philosophy (Chassidus) holds as a core belief that God permeates all physical objects in nature, including all living beings. Depending on how such a teaching is stated, this could constitute either pantheism or panentheism. In opposition many Jewish religious rationalists held such views as being a violation against the Maimonidean principle of faith that God is not physical, and thus was seen as heretical.
  • Chassidus 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 Mitnagdim argued that Jews should follow a more scholarly approach to Judaism. 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 those who would soon become known as Orthodox Jews. The reconciliation took place in response to the perceived even greater threat of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. Since then Orthodox Judaism, and particularly Haredi Judaism, has subsumed all the sects of Hasidic Judaism.

Since the Holocaust

During the Holocaust anti-Semitism destroyed the Hasidic centers of Eastern Europe. Survivors moved to Israel or to America, notably to Brooklyn (New York), and established new centers of Hasidic Judaism. Some of the larger and more well-known Hasidic sects still extant include Breslov, Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Ger, Belz, and Bobov Hasidim.

For years, two "superpowers" of the Brooklyn Hasidic world existed: Satmar and Chabad — based in Williamsburg and in Crown Heights respectively. Though other Jews regarded them as very similar, the two groups had a hostile relationship. Satmar expressed militantly anti-Zionist views, while Chabad supported Israel (though the Lubavitcher rebbe never visited Israel). Satmar also disdained Chabad's tendency to do outreach among non-observant Jews. Chabad especially offended Satmar Hasidim by sending "mitzvah tank" caravans into their neighborhood, as if they needed prodding into observance. In recent years the tension has cooled, as has Satmar's overt opposition to Zionism, though it still opposes the current form of Israeli government as a secular democracy.

Non-Orthodox Jews have demonstrated a significant revival of interest in Hasidic Judaism due to the writings of non-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish authors like Martin Buber, Arthur Green and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Consequently, one can now find some minor Hasidic influences in the siddurim (prayer books) of Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism.

Religious practice and culture

Fundamental conceptions

The teachings of Hasidism are founded on two theoretical conceptions: (1) religious panentheism, or the omnipresence of God, and (2) the idea of Devekut, communion between God and man. "Man," says the Besht, "must always bear in mind that God is omnipresent and is always with him; that God is, so to speak, 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."

Devekut (communion) refers to the belief that an unbroken intercourse takes place between the world of God and the world of humanity. It is true not only that the Deity influences 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 vibration in the upper spheres. From this conception is derived the chief practical principle of Hasidism - communion with God for the purpose of uniting with the source of life and of influencing it. This communion is achieved through the concentration of all thoughts on God, and consulting Him in all the affairs of life.

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A Hasidic celebration in Borough Park, New York

The righteous man is in constant communion with God, even in his worldly affairs, since here also he feels His presence. An especial form of communion with God is prayer. In order to render this communion complete the prayer must be full of fervor, ecstatic; and the soul of him who prays must during his devotions detach itself, so to speak, from its material dwelling. For the attainment of ecstasy recourse may be had to mechanical means, to violent bodily motions, to shouting and singing. According to Besht, the essence of religion is in sentiment and not in reason. Theological learning and halakhic lore are of secondary importance, and are useful only when they serve as a means of producing an exalted religious mood. It is better to read books of moral instruction than to engage in the study of the casuistic Talmud and the rabbinical literature. In the performance of rites the mood of the believer is of more importance than the externals; for this reason formalism and superfluous ceremonial details are injurious.

Liturgy and prayer

The Tosher Rebbe concentrating on prayer

Most Hasidim pray according to the Nusach Sepharad (prayer style), a liturgy that is a blend of Ashkenazi and Sephardi liturgies, based on the innovations of Rabbi Isaac Luria (also know as the Arizal). The Hasidim, though, pray in very strong Ashkenazic Hebrew that contains many nuances that were picked up from Yiddish. Hasidim who follow dynasties that originated in Galicia pray in a different type of Hebrew. This is because when seculars began to speak the modern Hebrew language the Galician Hasidic leaders mandated that the words of the Liturgy be pronounced differently as to differentiate themselves from the seculars. This has come to be known as Galician Hebrew. Hasidic prayer is known for being accompanied by melodies called nigunim (or in America "nigguns") that represent the overall mood of the prayer; even many non-Hasidim attend Hasidic synagogues in order to hear this. Hasidic prayer is also known for taking a very long time (although some groups are known for praying quickly). Some very pious Hasidim will spend seven seconds of concentration of every single word of the prayer of Amidah. Hasidim are known for having a lot of Kavanah (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 Hassidic practice is the near-abolition of the traditional specified times of day by which prayers must be conducted ("zemanim"), particularly the morning prayer; the preparations for prayer, including partaking of food (also proscribed by strict halachic literalism) take precedence and may extend into the allotted time. The Kotzker Rebbe allegedly originated this practice.


Hasidim in traditional dress. Note the shtreimels, black bekishes, and the gartels.

Hasidim have a reputation for their distinctive attire. Within the Hasidic world, one can distinguish different groups by subtle differences in appearance.

Hasidim most commonly wear a long black robe called a bekishe, with which they use a gartel (a type of prayer belt). A Hasidic Rebbe on Shabbat traditionally wears a white or gold bekishe rather than a black one, but this practice is not universal today. Hasidim customarily wear black hats during the weekdays.

Contrary to what one often hears, Hasidic dress has little to do with the way Polish nobles once dressed. The Emancipation movement originated 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 outfits mentions the "Jewish Kaftan" and "Jewish hat" - as a result of this edict Hasidim modified their dress in the Russian Empire and generally abandoned sidelocks - this is reflected in modern Chabad Lubavitch dress, where the Prince Albert frock coat substitutes for the bekishe. Generally Chassidic dress has altered over the last hundred years and become more European in response to the Emancipation Movement. Modern Chasidim tend to wear Chasidic dress as used just prior to World War II - numerous pictures of Chasidim 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 (Halb-Hoyzn), white socks and slippers - this outfit allegedly has a Babylonian origin before its later adoption by the Israelites, Persians and lastly the Turks, who brought it to Europe where it became the basis of the modern western suit (note the 16th-century European outfit of frock coat, knee-breeches, silk stockings and slippers). The Polish nobility adopted its 16th-century outfit from the Turks - hence (allegedly) the vague similarity between the Hasidic outfit and Polish nobles' clothing. (Similiarly, Chasidic dress is vaguely related to 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 Babylonians adopted it from Israelites during the Jewish exile in Babylon.

The Sabbath dress of Hasidim resembles the description of the High Priest's dress in the Bible - which provides the first written mention of the kaftan, etc. Thus many Hasidim believe that Hasidic dress reflects ancient Judaic concepts - for instance white socks tucked in short pants so one's trouser-bottoms never touch the floor (considered unholy); and slippers (shtibblat) without buckles or laces so one never need touch one's shoes - also considered unholy.

  • Kaftans (bekishes, kapotes, chalat) serve as a sign of modesty and piety, covering the entire body.
  • A sash or gartel divides one's lower parts from one's upper parts.
  • Knee-breeches mean that a mans private parts are not exposed when walking up stairs (according to the Talmud).

Hasidim wear a variety of fur headress on the Sabbath - the Shtreimel (worn by Hasidim from Galicia and Hungary - ie Bobov, Belz), Spodik (worn by Polish Hadidim - Ger Amshinow Aleksander), Choibl (no longer worn by anyone, formerly worn in Poland prior to the Holocaust - Radzyn Radomsk etc) and the Kolpak (a traditional Slavic headress).

Prior to the Holocaust in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, most Hasidim wore the kasket (a peaked cap) during the week (poorer Hasidim wore it on the Sabbath as well), as a result of Tsarist decrees banning other traditional Jewish headdress.

In these areas only Rabbis, generally, wore black hats.

In Galicia and Hungary Chassidim wore hats as they do today (Samet or Beaver hats).

A Hasidic Rebbe in traditional Shabbat garb

Hasidic women wear clothing of less distinctive appearance than that of their male counterparts, but which answers to the principles of tzeniut (modest dress in the sense of Jewish law). Long, conservative skirts and sleeves past the elbow form the standard, but other than that, Hasidic women wear clothing like other women in the non-Jewish societies in which they live. In some Hasidic groups, such as Satmar, many married women shave their heads, and many wear wigs. Other Hasidic groups consider it hypocritical to wear false hair, so they simply put their hair into nets or kerchiefs (called "snoods"). All Hasidic groups allow uncovered hair before marriage.

Following a Biblical commandment not to shave the sides of one's face, male members of some Hasidic groups wear long, uncut sideburns called payot (Ashkenazic Hebrew payos). Not every Hasidic group requires long payot, but all groups forbid the cutting of the beard. All Hasidic boys receive their first haircuts ceremoniously when they are three years old. Until then, Hasidic boys have long hair. The custom has been adopted by many non-Hassidic (and even non-Orthodox) Jews.

The white threads that are seen at the waists of Hasidim and other Orthodox Jews are called tzitzit. The requirement to wear fringes comes from 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) By tradition, a Hasidic boy will receive his first fringed garment on his third birthday, the same day as his first haircut.

Ritual Bathing

Male Orthodox Jews customarily use the mikvah (ritual pool of water) before major Jewish holidays (and particularly before Yom Kippur), in order to achieve spiritual cleanliness. Many Hasidim have extended this to a daily practice preceding morning prayers.


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 exists that a bride and groom should be about the same age. No custom encourages an older man marrying a young woman.

Myth falsely asserts that Hasidic couples have intercourse through a sheet with holes in it - this is not the case.

Hasidic Jews, like many other Orthodox Jews, have a reputation for producing large families, with some having six or more children. Many sects follow this custom out of what they consider a Biblical mandate to 'be fruitful and multiply', and to replenish a Jewish population badly decimated during the Holocaust.


Most Hasidim speak the vernaculars of the lands in which they live, but try to use Yiddish amongst themselves as a way of keeping distinct and keeping tradition. Thus, contrary to popular assumption, children continue to learn Yiddish and the language does not appear about to die. Yiddish newspapers continue in publication, and the Hasidic world produces a relatively healthy amount of Yiddish fiction, primarily aimed at women.

Some Hasidic groups actively oppose the everyday use of Hebrew as in Israel: they regard Hebrew as a holy language, profaned by use for anything other than prayer. Indeed, some Hasidim in Israel such as the Satmar group tends to use Yiddish for their everyday vernacular.

See also

External links




  • Boteach, Shmuel Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge: Basic Concepts of Hasidic Thought Jason Aronson, 1995, ISBN 0876685572
  • Buber, Martin and Fetterman, Bonny V. (ed.) Tales of the Hasidim: Book One: The Early Masters and Book Two: The Later Masters (Two books in one) Schocken Books; 1961, 1991, ISBN 0805209956
  • Finkel, Avraham Yaakov Contemporary Sages: The Great Chasidic Masters of the Twentieth Century Jason Aronson, 1994, ISBN 1568211554.
  • Nadler, Allan The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 1997 ISBN 0801855608
  • Schochet, Elijah Judah The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna, Jason Aaronson, 1994, ISBN 1568211252
  • Encyclopedia Judaica, Hasidic Judaism, Keter Publishing


  1. ^  meaning "Master of the Good Name", abbreviated as Besht.

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