By the end of the eighteenth century, Hasidism, in its various groupings, was striking a responsive chord in ever-broadening circles of East European Jews. The central feature of Hasidism from its inception has been allegiance to a holy master (rebbe or tsadik) who has loyal followers. People do not qualify as Hasidim, no matter how great their admiration for Hadisic ideas, unless they are loyal to a particular rebbe, whether Belz, Satmar, Bobov, Lubavitch, Ger, or the like. The place where the rebbe resides defines where his “court” is located (the regal analogy holds), whence the Hasidim of that dynasty receive particular rules and acquire their individual identity and contribute to the upkeep according to their means. Thus, in pre-Holocaust times, the Belzer rebbe resided in Bełz in Galicia and the Gerer rebbe in Gur (Ger in Hasidic parlance) in Poland; the Belzer Hasidim, in the larger towns, had their Belzer prayer houses and the Gerer theirs. After the Holocaust, the rebbes who survived retained their old town names but, of course, lived elsewhere: the Belzer rebbe, for example, in Jerusalem, and the Gerer rebbe in Ashkelon.
Hasidic man and children in Planty Park, Kraków, 1930s. Photograph by Światowid Foto. (Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa)
When a Hasid visits the rebbe’s court (occasionally, the rebbe pays a visit to the Hasid’s place of residence), seeking a private audience, he or she waits patiently for admittance under the watchful eye of the gaba’i (overseer), who keeps order among the Hasidim clamoring for admission to the rebbe’s sanctum. The Hasid presents a handwritten kvitl (note) in which he states his particular needs, spiritual or material, for the rebbe to peruse. Along with the kvitl, a sum of money, known as the pidyon (redemption money), is given to be used for the upkeep of the court or for charitable purposes. The rebbe will pray on the person’s behalf and offer spiritual counsel along with advice on matters such as marriage, family concerns, and business issues.
At times, groups make pilgrimages to the rebbe’s court. His followers come to be with him for festivals and holy days, especially Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shavu‘ot. On Sabbaths and festivals, the rebbe conducts a tish (meal and gathering at his table). Surrounded by the more venerable Hasidim, he recites a benediction over the food, of which he tastes but a little. The remainder (called shirayim) is distributed among the Hasidim, in the belief that whoever partakes of food of which the holy man has eaten receives blessings. In many circles, it is considered meritorious to snatch a small piece (khapn shirayim) even when doing so interrupts the decorum that usually prevails at the tish. The rebbe delivers a derashah (discourse) on the weekly Torah portion, with ideas drawn from standard and classical Hasidic commentaries, usually adding his own emphasis. In early Hasidic circles, it was believed that when the rebbe delivered his derashah, the shekhinah “spoke out of his throat”—that is, the rebbe was inspired from above.
The two weekly meals of special importance to Hasidim are the se‘udah shelishit (third meal) on the Sabbath, when the rebbe delivers his most important discourses, and the melaveh malkah (escorting the departing Sabbath Queen), when the Sabbath has ended. Especially when the Sabbath has departed, Hasidim tell of the wondrous deeds of their own rebbes and of famous rebbes of old.
Hasidim use the Yiddish language both in ordinary conversation and when addressing the rebbe. Yiddish as the language of the Ba‘al Shem Tov and the other tsadikim acquired a sanctity of its own—next, of course, to Hebrew. Even in prayer, interjections in Yiddish are not unknown.
Wine cup. Moscow, 1837. Silver, niello, engraved, gilt. This niello cup was made by a Russian master silversmith in Moscow in 1837, probably for sale to an aristocrat or wealthy merchant. It was acquired by a Hasidic man who had it inscribed in Hebrew, “Cup of Elijah,” and gave it as a gift to Yitsḥak Wertheim, the Bender rebbe. It was not unusual for Hasidic rebbes to receive sumptuous gifts from their followers. After the rabbi’s death, the cup was inscribed at the bottom, “The inheritance of the admor, the Rabbi Yitsḥak, the righteous of blessed memory of Bender.” (Gross Family Collection)
As Orthodox Jews, Hasidim observe the usual halakhic rules; yet there are particular nuances to their religious lives. Torah study, for example, was traditionally engaged in by Hasidim in the bet midrash (house of prayer) rather than in yeshivas. But since the end of the nineteenth century, with the great proliferation of “Lithuanian” yeshivas, and despite their being generally unreceptive, at least, to Hasidism, the latter are often frequented by Hasidim; a few independent Hasidic yeshivas exist as well.
In the traditional rabbinic scheme, the study of the Torah, chiefly of the Talmud, occupies a higher rank than prayer. Among most early Hasidim, though, study yielded to prayer as a means of attaining the Hasidic ideal of devekut (attachment to God). Today, however, study has been restored to its original place. Hasidic prayer is often accompanied by vigorous gestures and loud shouting and singing—except, of course, with the Amidah, or “silent prayer.” Hasidim tend to ignore the rules regarding fixed times for prayer, reciting the afternoon prayer, for example, after night has fallen. This is because of the Hasidic emphasis on spontaneity. While praying, a Hasid wears a gartl (girdle), a silken belt intended to separate the higher part of the body from the lower.
Rabbi Yeḥezkel Landau of Prague (eighteenth century) and other traditional rabbis frowned on the Hasidic recital, before carrying out the precepts, of the words “For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He and His shekhinah,” but Hasidim accepted this mysterious kabbalistic formula (an example of a kavanah, intended to arouse devotion) and recite it without reservation.
Another Hasidic custom is immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath), considered important for all Hasidic men. Some immerse before the morning prayers on weekdays and all do so on the eve of the Sabbath.
The arrangement of the prayers in the Hasidic prayer book is according to the Lurianic version. Hasidim believe that this form, often called Sephardic (or, more properly, nusaḥ Sefarad or nusaḥ ha-Ari), is the true means to open the gates of heaven. In obedience to this version, Hasidim recite, in the Kaddish, the words “Ve-Yatsmaḥ purkaneh vi-yikarev meshiḥeh” (May He bring forth His redemption and bring near His Messiah).
Hasidim also have adopted the use of two pairs of tefillin, as opposed to the conventional one pair. Hence they don the tefillin of Rabenu Tam as well as those of Rashi, although the Shulḥan ‘arukh allows the wearing of both pairs of tefillin only to men who are muflag be-ḥasidut (outstanding in piety). Hasidim do not, however, wear tefillin on the intermediate days of festivals, an issue that was debated in the Middle Ages.
The rebbe or tsadik is considered an intermediary to holiness. He prays for the satisfaction of the material needs of his Hasidim, yet it is incorrect to consider the prayers of the Hasidim as directed to the tsadik. Rather, Hasidim pray only that their rebbe brings them closer to God and enables the flow of divine grace. The same qualification has to be stated regarding Hasidim’s frequent pilgrimages to the tombs of tsadikim (those of their own rebbes and of other renowned saints). The Misnagdim, who argued that such practices smacked of idolatrous tsadik worship, went unheeded in this regard. It is usual to have an ohel (mausoleum) built over the rebbe’s grave, where visiting Hasidim kindle candles in his memory.
Although some Hasidic followers are cleanshaven (Leviticus 19:27 is interpreted to forbid shaving with a razor, but not the act of shaving itself), the norm is for Hasidim to grow beards and peyes (Heb., pe’ot; earlocks). Lubavitcher Hasidim have long, uncombed beards, while the Hasidim of Hungarian and Polish dynasties usually have curly beards and “corkscrew” peyes.
A crowd of Hasidic men greeting the Spinker rebbe, Vişeu de Sus, Romania, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)
Traditionally, Hasidic women wear very modest clothing, generally dresses with long sleeves and thick stockings. But the women belonging to the Hungarian branches see no problem in these dresses otherwise representing the height of fashion. Hasidic men wear sober black coats and plain black beaver hats; some Hasidim, wishing their hearts to be open to heaven, do not wear ties.
The most prominent item of dress is the shtrayml, the round sable hat worn on Sabbaths and festivals. The shtraymls of Gerer Hasidim (known as spodeks) are much higher than the conventional ones, while those of Belzer Hasidim are much flatter. Lubavitcher Hasidim do not wear shtraymls. The rebbes of many Hasidic groups wear white stockings on the Sabbath, and many Hasidim wear embroidered coats of silk or satin.
In obedience to the Hasidic ideal of simḥah (religious joy), Hasidim engage frequently in singing and dancing. The form of Hasidic nigunim (spiritual melodies) differs from group to group; a number of rebbes were renowned for their musical compositions. Lubavitch melodies are often plaintive, expressing a yearning for the divine. Many of these are sung without words; some even have the words of Russian songs adapted to express Hasidic spiritual ideals. The Hasidic dance is in the form of a circle, with Hasidim linking arms as they move. Dances reflect the unity of the Hasidim and their attempt to rise ever higher in the worship of God. As a Hasidic saying has it, “when one dances, at least one foot is above the earth.”
With regard to family life, strict divisions between the sexes exist, and sexual mores are binding on all Hasidim. Much has been written on the role of women in Hasidim. Hasidic women can present petitions directly to the rebbe, and there have even been rare female mystics who in some ways functioned like a rebbe. Nevertheless, women are present in the synagogue only in the women’s section, and only on the outside of the charmed circle of the Hasidic dance or the rebbe’s tish. Women do not go on pilgrimages to the rebbe, although individual women do have access to him to present their petitions.
The Stoliner Rebbe (either Yisra’el or Mosheh Perlov) and his followers on the way to his son’s wedding, Stolin, Poland (now in Belarus), n.d., ca. 1920s. (YIVO)
Early marriages are encouraged. When a young Hasid is about to be married, he is instructed by an elderly Hasid on sexual matters. He is told that there is nothing shameful about intercourse; on the contrary, it is an important religious duty that should be carried out in a spirit of consecration. The advice given to women is usually less inhibited. Artificial methods of contraception are taboo unless a pregnancy may result in danger to the life of the mother. Consequently, Hasidim generally have large families. Arranged marriages are the norm, and among some groups it was once unheard of for bride and groom to meet before the wedding. Today, however, meetings are allowed.
At the wedding celebration, it is the custom for the rebbe to dance with the bride while each of them holds the ends of a girdle belt. This dance is called the mitsve tants (mitzvah dance), underlying which is the mystical idea that the bride on earth represents the shekhinah on high. (The Munkatsher rebbe, however, rejected this custom as immodest.)
Hasidic fondness for alcohol and tobacco invited the derision of the Misnagdim. The Hasidic retort was that these were aids for “raising the spirits” and for reclaiming “holy sparks.” As later refined in Hasidic lore, pipe or cigar smoking was said to resemble the offering of incense in the Temple.
While a Hasid is expected to owe allegiance to a rebbe, it does happen that a Hasid of one rebbe may leave his rebbe to seek his destiny in the court of a different rebbe. There have also been many instances of struggles for succession when a rebbe dies. It may happen that the adherents of one of a number of sons follow him as rebbe in opposition to other sons, each laying claim to the “throne.” There are also instances of fierce rivalries between dynasties, with each believing itself to be the true interpreter of Hasidism. The old conflict, however, between Hasidim and Misnagdim (at one time, when a member of a Misnaged’s family married into a Hasidic family, the Misnaged would follow the rules of mourning as if the family member had died) has come to an end. In contemporary times, Hasidic and Lithuanian rabbis cooperate in matters of Torah learning and the spread of Jewish knowledge. The controversy erupted afresh to a certain extent when some Lubavitch Hasidim proclaimed their rebbe as Messiah in the last years of the twentieth century.
Simon Dubnow, Toldot ha-ḥasidut (Tel Aviv, 1931), vol. 2, pp. 349–372; Meir Simon Geshuri, Ha-Nigun veha-rikud ba-ḥasidut, 3 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1955–1959); Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer (London and Washington, D.C., 1993); Amnon Levy, Ha-Ḥaredim (Jerusalem, 1988), pp. 137–164; Aharon Verthaim (Aaron Wertheim), Law and Custom in Hasidism (Hoboken, N.J., 1992).