Hasidic Judaism (also Chasidic, etc., from the Hebrew: חסידות , Chassidus, meaning "piety", from the Hebrew root word חסד chesed meaning "loving kindness") is a Haredi Jewish religious movement. Some refer to Hasidic Judaism as Hasidism, and the adjective chasidic / hasidic (or in Yiddish חסידיש khasidish) applies. The movement originated in Eastern Europe (what is now Belarus and Ukraine) in the 18th century.
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698–1760), also known as the Ba'al Shem Tov , is seen as the founding figure of Hasidic Judaism. It originated in an age 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. Hasidism met with opposition from the misnagdim—literally meaning "the opponents". In its initial stages, the most notable opponent was the Vilna Gaon, leader of the Lithuanian Jews, who generally adopted this hostile approach.
Pessimism in the south became more intense after the Cossacks' Uprising (1648–1654) under Chmielnicki and the turbulent times in Poland (1648–1660), which completely ruined the Jewry of Ukraine, but left comparatively untouched 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 pursued 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 cabalists" 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.
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.
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 predict the future.
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.
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 gradually branched out into two main divisions: (1) in Ukraine and in Galicia and (2) in Litta (Greater Lithuania). Three disciples, Dov Ber of Mezritch (Elimelech of Lizhensk, Levi Yitzchak of Berdychev, and Menachem Nahum 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 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 ("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 Chabad Hasidism, and Rabbi Aharon of Karlin.
Some other important differences between hasidim and misnagdim included:
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.
Many chasidim, 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 chasidim 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.
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 chasidic communities also exist in the Montreal borough of Outremont; Lakewood, NJ, Toronto; London; Antwerp; Melbourne; the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles; Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee, and St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb.
Deveikus (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.
The righteous man is in constant communion with God, even in his worldly affairs, since here also he feels His presence. A special 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 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 practice 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.
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.
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 chasidim originally came. Thus, there are significant differences between the dialects used by chasidim 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, chasidim regard prayer as one of the most paramount activities during the day. In fact, one of the most controversial innovations of hasidic practice as practised 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 chasidic 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.
Hasidic men most commonly wear suits in dark (usually black or navy blue) colors with distinctively long jackets, called rekelekh. The preference for black comes from a decree made by community rabbis in the 18th century insisting on black outer garments to be worn on the sabbath and festivals, as opposed to the shiny colorful kaftans that were worn prior to that time, as these brightly colored clothes were arousing resentment amongst gentiles, and the rabbis feared this might lead to violence. The tradition of wearing the colorful tish-bekishe indoors alludes to this, as the decree only stipulated black garments to be worn outside. On the Jewish Sabbath, they wear a long black satin (or similar of a cheaper material, such as polyester) robe called a zaydene kapote (Yiddish, lit. satin caftan) or bekishe. On Jewish Holy Days a silk garment may be worn. The tradition of wearing silk or satin garments alludes to the shaatnez prohibition, hasidim once avoided wool altogether. On the Sabbath the rebbes of chasidim traditionally wore a white kapote 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).
Some Hasidim wear a satin overcoat, known amongst Hungarian and Galitsyaner chasidim as a rezhvolke, over the regular bekishe. Some Hasidic literature refers to this garment as an Or Makif, referring to the Kabbalistic concept of "Surrounding Light". A rebbe's rezhvolke might be trimmed with velvet. Some rebbes wear a fur-lined rezhvolke known as a tilep (טולעפ fur coat). The fur is referred to as pelts, and again avoids the use of wool to keep warm.
In many hasidic sects, the rebbe wears a white or black, and in those of Hungarian lineage a gold designed or other coloured, tish bekishe or khalat during the tish or during the prayers that come right before or after the "tish". Contrary to popular belief, Hasidic dress has little or nothing 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 chasidim modified their dress in the Russian Empire and generally hid their sidelocks. Modern Chabad Lubavitch dress—where the Prince Albert frock coat substitutes for the bekishe— reflects this change, as does the Gerrer substitution of the spodik for the shtreimel.
Generally Hasidic dress has altered over the last hundred years and become more European in response to the Emancipation Movement. Modern Hasidim tend to wear Hasidic dress as used 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—this outfit allegedly had 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. (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 Israelites during the Jewish exile in Babylon of the 6th century BCE. This belief is not widely held or well known among hasidim.
Some claim that the Sabbath dress of Hasidim resembles the description of the High Priest's dress in the Bible but there does not seem to be a serious similarity. Many Hasidim also believe that Hasidic dress supports fundamental Judaic concepts—for instance white socks tucked in short pants so one's trouser-bottoms never touch the floor or ground (which in former times was likely to be a source of waste, which is problematic during prayer); and slippers (shtibblat) without buckles or laces so one never need touch one's shoes—which would ritually defile one's hands, requiring ritual purification through washing with a special vessel.
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:
Gerrer hasidim wear "hoyznzokn" — long black socks that they tuck their pants into.
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.
In common with all Haredim, Hasidic men will not touch or even shake hands with anyone of the opposite sex other than their wife, mother, sister, or daughter; the converse applies for women.
In keeping with Jewish law married Hasidic women cover their hair. In many Hasidic groups the women wear sheitels (wigs) for this purpose. In some of these groups the women might also wear a tichel (scarf) or hat on top of the sheitel either on a regular basis or when attending services or other religious events. Other groups consider sheitels too natural looking, so they simply put their hair into kerchiefs (called tichels—a tichel often covers a shpitzel). In some groups, such as Satmar, married women shave their heads and wear head kerchiefs.
All allow uncovered hair before marriage.
An old myth asserts that Hasidic couples have intercourse through a sheet with holes in it. This is not true. Many scholars have posited that this myth originated in the speculation of outsiders upon seeing the poncho-like tallit katan drying on a clothes line. Since the tallit katan resembles a small square sheet with a hole in it (for the wearer's head to go through) and Hasidim were known for extreme modesty, a new myth was born. However, while this story is a myth, many pious Hasidic couples follow strict regulations regarding what types of sexual relations are allowed and how (which positions, etc). Hasidic thought stresses the holiness of sex.
Hasidic Jews typically produce large families; the average chasidic family in the United States has 7.9 children. This custom is followed out of a desire to fulfill the Biblical mandate to "be fruitful and multiply."
Some Hasidic groups actively oppose the everyday use of Hebrew, which is considered a holy tongue. To use it for anything other than prayer is profane. Hence Yiddish is the vernacular and common tongue for Hasidim around the world.