Major Hasidic courts, 1815–1929. (Based on a map prepared for the exhibition "Time of the Hasidism." by Elżbieta Długosz, The Historical Museum of Kraków—Old Synagogue)

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Satmar Hasidic Dynasty

Ultraconservative, anti-Zionist Hasidic sect founded in 1928 by Yo’el Teitelbaum (Reb Yoelish; 1887–1979) in the town of Szatmár (Hun., more properly Szatmárnémeti; now Rom., Satu Mare), the youngest son of the Hasidic rebbe of Sighet (Rom., more fully, Sighet Marmației; Hun., Máramarossziget or Sziget), Ḥananyah Yom Tov Lipa Teitelbaum (1836–1904), author of the biblical commentary Kedushat Yom Tov (1905). Ḥananyah had succeeded his father, Yekuti’el Yehudah Teitelbaum (1808–1883), who served as rabbi of Sighet from 1858 and is best known for his biblical homilies, Yitav lev (5 vols.; 1875). Yekuti’el Yehudah, who allied himself with the Sandz dynasty and struggled to establish Sighet as his own dynastic base in the face of opposition from followers of Vizhnits Hasidism, was the grandson of one of the most prominent figures in the history of Hungarian Hasidism, Mosheh Teitelbaum (1759–1841). A disciple of Ya`akov Yitsḥak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, Mosheh was the rabbi of Uyhel (Sátoraljaújhely), and the author of the seminal, multivolume Hasidic biblical commentary Yismaḥ Mosheh (5 vols.; 1848–1861).

Yo’el Teitelbaum moved to Satmar as a youth and soon gathered a following. He was elected rabbi of the Subcarpathian town of Orsova (in Yiddish, commonly Orsheva) in 1911 but maintained a residence in Satmar. He became rabbi of Carei (Nagykároly) in 1926 and in 1928 was invited to take up the post of rabbi of Satmar. Fierce opposition to him arose, and he was able to occupy the rabbinate only in 1934.

Yo’el’s older brother, Ḥayim Tsevi (1880–1926), and the latter’s son, Yekuti’el Yehudah (1912–1944), who died in Auschwitz, were the last two Sigheter rebbes in Europe. Yo’el survived the Holocaust by escaping Bergen-Belsen concentration camp aboard the controversial rescue train to Switzerland arranged by Rezső (Rudolph) Kasztner in 1944. He spent the subsequent two and a half years in Palestine and arrived in the United States in 1947, where he reestablished the Satmar Hasidic Court in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. In 1953, Teitelbaum, though he had remained in Williamsburg, was appointed president of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community, the Edah Ḥaredit, then dominated by the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta faction.

During the 32 years of his leadership of his sect in the United States, Yo’el attracted a large following from a broad cross section of ultra-Orthodox Jewry. Thousands of Galician, Hungarian, Romanian, and Slovakian survivors of the Holocaust, many of whom had been members of other, mostly smaller, Hasidic sects that were completely annihilated by the Nazis, became his devout disciples. His immense scholarship, personal charisma, and single-minded determination to reestablish Hungarian Hasidism in America are widely credited with the remarkable consolidation and growth of the Brooklyn Satmar community, to the point where its population, along with its religious, educational, and communal institutions, quickly exceeded that of the combined prewar Hasidic communities of the entire Satmar and Sighet regions of Romania and Hungary. Satmar is today the world’s largest Hasidic sect, with some 100,000 followers. Its central community remains in Williamsburg, with significant branches in Kiryas Yo’el (a Hasidic village of some 15,000 residents in Monroe Township, New York), Los Angeles, Montreal, Antwerp, London, Buenos Aires, and Jerusalem.

Yo’el is most famous for his radically defiant opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel. In the prewar years, he was influenced by the anti-Zionist theology of the Munkatsher rebbe, Ḥayim El‘azar Shapira. In 1922, Yo’el was a leading participant in the anti-Zionist rabbinical congress organized by Shapira in Czap, Slovakia. His signature appeared first—among those of many distinguished and more elderly ultra-Orthodox Hasidic rabbis from Galicia, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia—on a declaration drafted at the conclusion of the Czap congress that excommunicated not only the Zionists, but also the Orthodox, non-Zionist Agudas Yisroel movement for its alleged concessions to Zionist ideology and participation in Zionist political activities. After the death of the Munkatsher rebbe in 1934, Yo’el emerged as the Jewish world’s most learned, eloquent, and prolific rabbinical opponent of the Zionist enterprise. His uncompromising opposition to Zionism—and, after 1948, to any manifestations of Jewish life and thought even remotely associated with the State of Israel—became his central obsession, one that deepened with each of Israel’s political and military successes.

Among his many writings, two systematic and extensive anti-Zionist polemics stand out. The first, composed over an extended period beginning in 1932, was the three-volume collection Va-Yo’el Mosheh (1959–1961), the most detailed and scholarly rabbinic argument against Zionism ever written. The first, and theologically most significant, part of this work is an exploration of the “three oaths” that, according to the Talmud, the exiled nation of Israel swore to God, committing the Jewish people to political quietism: they would not rebel against the nations of the world or attempt an organized national return to the Land of Israel until the final, supernatural messianic deliverance. The second part deals with—or, more precisely, dismisses—the biblical commandment to dwell in the Land of Israel; the third part forbids the use of modern Hebrew as a spoken language.

Yo’el’s other major polemic, ‘Al ha-ge’ulah ve-‘al ha-temurah (On the Redemption and on Its False Replacement; 1967), written in the aftermath of the 1967 war, elaborated a demonological and apocalyptic interpretation of modern Jewish history according to which Zionism and Israel were the agents of Satan. In his view, Israel’s stunning military success was, literally, the devil’s work, and the Holocaust was a consequence of God’s need to deal brutally with Satanic forces that Zionism had unleashed.

After his death in 1979, Yo’el was succeeded as Satmar rebbe by his nephew, Mosheh Teitelbaum (1915–2006), who had previously served as rabbi of the small Sigheter Hasidic synagogue in Williamsburg. During the long period of Mosheh’s failing health, the Satmar community became bitterly divided between the followers of his sons, Aharon of Kiryas Yo’el and his younger brother, Zalman Leib, of Williamsburg, with numerous theological, political, and civic disputes between the two camps, some of which resulted in violence. This split continued after Mosheh’s death, with succession rights unresolved.

Suggested Reading

And the Sun Set: Memories of the Holy Rabbi of Satmar and Jerusalem, Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum (Brooklyn, 1980); Allan Nadler, “Piety and Politics: The Case of the Satmar Rebbe” Judaism 31.2 (Spring 1982): 135–152; Solomon Poll, The Hasidic Community of Williamsburg (New York, 1962); Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism, trans. Michael Swirsky and Jonathan Chipman (Chicago, 1996), pp. 52–75; Israel Rubin, Satmar: Two Generations of an Urban Island, 2nd ed. (New York, 1997).