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Hasidic Life Today

Question: I have recently been assigned to complete a project on Hasidic Judaism. I have several questions on the subject I would like to ask; the main queries being (1) what are the rules of membership, (2) what is the interaction within itself and with the general population including how membership is controlled, (3) the status (religious connection and place in the mainline religions) of the group if applicable or the reason the group was created (can be in history), (4) what is the daily life of the group and what are the gender specific roles in the family, (5) what are the special/unique practices, customs, and/or rituals, (6) how does Hasidism perpetuate?, (7) how does the future of the group look and are there any special political issues?, (8) do the Hasidic Jews differ greatly from the surrounding community?, (9) how are the leadership positions filled and how do they govern? Any help would be greatly appreciated, thank you!

Answer: Thank you for writing to us. (the system you wrote to likes to match up questions to particular answerers – so, you might be interested to know, that I am a Hasidic Jew).

Before I answer the question, it has to be noted that Hasidic Judaism (and Orthodox/Torah Judaism in general, which Hasidic Judaism is a subset of) is not a single organization (like, for example, the Catholic Church), but rather a category of several organizations, (comparable to Protestantism – which is many different organizations, some aligned, some not, sharing some basic values, but not necessarily associated one with another, however historically based from one individual. However, you can see a great deal of difference between Lutherans and Pentecostals, yet both would be considered Protestant, because of the basic values that they share, as well as basic values that all Christians share, whether Catholic or Protestant. Similarly, you will see many different Hasidic organizations with different practices, and different values, however there are some basic values that they all share, and, that all types of Orthodox Judaism share.)

(1) what are the rules of membership,

A. First of all, to be a Hasidic Jew, one has to be Jewish. There are two ways one can become Jewish. a. being born Jewish – this is by virtue of one’s mother being Jewish. b. converting to Judaism – this must be done according to Orthodox standards.

Next, one must believe in the basic beliefs of Torah Judaism, which were outlined by Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), as the 13 dogmas, or principles of faith, of Judaism. These principles are shared by all Orthodox Jews. As an expression of this faith, we Orthodox Jews try our best to keep the laws of the Torah, which are written in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament), explained and discussed in the Talmud, and codified in the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law). A Hasidic Jew is required to believe that the Torah (including the explanations) is literally the word of God, and is expected to keep the laws therein, like all Orthodox Jews. Each Hasidic organization might have their own rules or customs in addition to this, varying from sect to sect. Examples of additional rules might be mode of dress, not owning a television, stricter kosher rules, etc.

(2) what is the interaction within itself and with the general population including how membership is controlled,

They are strong, tight knit communities. Usually social pressure and the honor system is enough to keep people attached to any special regulations. The only power that leaders have to control the community is deciding that someone’s children cannot attend the particular group’s school system. However, there are many choices of schools, and not everyone who identifies with a particular group sends their children to that group’s schools. Some Hasidic Jews do not live in any Hasidic community, so are less bound by the pressure to follow the rules, and only do so by their own free will, as many choose to do.

(3) the status (religious connection and place in the mainline religions) of the group if applicable or the reason the group was created (can be in history),

Hasidic Judaism is a form of Torah Judaism, often referred to today as Orthodox Judaism. Today it is recognized as a “Kosher” form of Orthodox Judaism, however when it began there was some controversy.

It was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov. Historians point out that many Jews felt unconnected to the Jewish religion, and most of the religious leaders focused on scholarship as a central spiritual goal in Judaism. Hasidic Judaism also places great emphasis on scholarship, however they noted that many people are not capable of being scholars, and they should not be “left out” of the Jewish religious experience. Therefore, Hasidic Judaism believes that almost anything that one does in honor of God, as long as it is within the bounds of Torah Law, and especially if it is mandated by it, must be embraced as an opportunity to commune with God. Hasidic Judaism places a great deal of emphasis on spirituality and joy. It could be considered a “spiritual revival” movement in Judaism, as it did not introduce new ideas, but rather placed emphasis on older ones in a new and exciting way.

Hasidic Judaism officially began on September 16, 1734, corresponding the Elul 18, 5494 on the Jewish calender. This was the 36th birthday of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, when he was encouraged by his teachers to go out and begin spreading his message. After his passing in 1760, the leadership went to Rabbi Dov Ber, known as the Maggid, or Preacher, of Mezritch. After Rabbi Dov Ber’s death in 1772, his many disciples started various courts in cities all over Easter Europe, which later attracted new disciples who started more courts, that eventually evolved into today’s Hasidic dynasties.

Information about various Hasidic dynasties can be found on Wikipedia -  I, II, III

Some of the more famous Hasidic dynasties are Satmar, Lubavitch, Bobov, Ger, Belz, Viznitz, and Spinka. The leader of a group will be called by the name of the town, like the leader of Bobov is called the Bobover Rebbe. Most Hasidic dynasties take their names from the city where the dynasty originated or split. Some have names for other reasons, like the name of the congregation or of a book that the Rebbe composed. Although most of the dynasties have names from Europe, there are some from other parts of the world. There is a Bostoner Rebbe, a Pittsburger Rebbe, and a Clevelander Rebbe, to name a few.

(4) what is the daily life of the group and what are the gender specific roles in the family,

Hasidic Jews, like all Orthodox Jews, place a great emphasis on family values. Many Hasidic Jews are as young as 18 when they get married, and most do not practice any form of birth control, unless there is a medical emergency requiring it.

Orthodox Jews begin their day with a brief prayer, thanking God for returning their soul, and a ritual hand washing. Men (over 13 years old) are obligated to pray formal prayers three times a day, and study some Torah (i. e. Bible, Talmud, Jewish Law, Jewish philosophy) every day and every night. Women are obligated to pray at least once a day, and are free to choose to pray more if they want.

Hasidic men will usually immerse in a ritual bath called a “Mikvah” before morning prayers. This is different from many other Orthodox Jews, some of which do and some of which do not immerse daily. In Hasidic synagogues, there are often such baths available. Men usually pray in a synagogue or Yeshivah (Jewish parochial School), but prayers may be said at another location if need be (i. e. at home, in an airport, outdoors, etc.). Daily morning prayers usually take around 40 minutes, but some synagogues pray more quickly and some more slowly. Women generally pray at home, except on the Sabbath and holidays.

Before or after the prayer service, there is usually some time set aside for study before going to work or school. In Hasidic synagogues there might be some food available after services. Orthodox Jews recite blessings to thank God before and after eating. Often someone who is making a memorial for a parent or relative, or a great Rabbi, will donate the food in their memory, so the blessings can be a merit for the departed. This is usually observed on the anniversary of the death, known in Yiddish as “yartzeit” or “time of the year”.

In the afternoon and evening there are also prayer services, which are much shorter (usually around 10-15 minutes each). It is common in New York and other large Jewish communities to find afternoon prayer services organized in office buildings and the like, especially in the winter time when sunset is early. Most Orthodox synagogues have afternoon and evening services one after the other for the sake of convenience. These practices are the same for all Orthodox Jews, although there are some variations in different communities as to the liturgy, but various types of Orthodox Jews, including Hasidic Jews, will join each other in prayer.

At night, there is again a time set for Torah study.

In Orthodox Jewish schools, the morning is usually designated for Torah study and the afternoon for secular studies. Some Hasidic schools do not offer secular studies after tenth grade, as it is legal (in New York) to drop out of school in tenth grade, however the students then dedicate their full school day to religious study, so they are not really “dropping out”. Some Hasidic schools do offer secular classes until 12th grade, and girls schools do too.

There are various rituals regarding eating. When Orthodox Jews eat bread they wash their hands in a ritual manner before eating. There are different blessings recited before and after different foods, and there are kosher laws about what may be eaten. Most Hasidic Jews take on stricter views about kosher, such as only drinking milk that has been supervised by Orthodox Jews, whereas some Orthodox Jews say that it is sufficient for the United States government to supervise the milk (to ensure that no milk from non-kosher species is added).

(5) what are the special/unique practices, customs, and/or rituals,

Hasidic Jews follow the practices of all Orthodox Jews, including daily prayer, Sabbath observance (not driving, not turning on and off electricity, and many other laws), holidays, kosher (dietary laws from the Bible), purity laws (which involve husband and wife not touching for a set amount of time after a woman’s monthly cycle, after which the wife must immerse in a ritual bath called a mikvah before they can touch again), wearing of fringed garments called Tzitzith by men, wearing of boxes with certain Bible passages called Tefillin by men, placing certain Bible passages on a doorpost called a Mezuzah, etc. all of which come from the Hebrew Bible, as explained in the Talmud.

Hasidic Jews have practices that are special to them. Their prayer services might be slightly different, with singing of Hasidic tunes, or some congregations scream the prayers while others say them silently, some very quickly and some very slowly. Hasidic men immerse in a Mikvah every day before prayers. Many Hasidic Jews wear particular types of clothing, such as various types of black hats and long suits or robes, with special sashes for prayer. Many Hasidic men who are married wear a fur brimmed hat called a Shtreimel on the Sabbath and holidays.

Hasidic Jews place a great deal of devotion to their great spiritual leaders, known as a Rebbe or Tzaddik. They will often make pilgrimages to visit their Rebbe if they live far away, and will also make pilgrimages to visit the grave of a Tzaddik who has passed away, particularly on the anniversary of the Tzaddik’s passing.

Hasidic Rebbes are distinguished from other Rabbis in two major practices: Reading a Kvitel and leading a Tish. A Kvitel is a piece of paper where a devotee will write their name, names of their family members, and prayer requests. A Hasidic Jew will bring a kvitel with him for the Rebbe to read when he is having a private audience with him. There are many stories of Hasidic Rebbes having spiritual insight into a matter by reading this piece of paper.

A Tish literally means a Table. Hasidic Rebbes will sometimes, especially on Sabbath and Holidays, make their meals into public events, with a great deal of ceremony. At these meals, there will be a large portion of food placed in front of the Rebbe, and he will eat a small bit of it, and the devoted Hasidim will vie to partake of the leftovers, considered to be blessed by the Rebbe. Hasidic Jews consider this food to have healing or other spiritual powers in virtue of being blessed by the Rebbe. During the meal there is usually singing of hymns, either meditative tunes or joyous dancing songs. The Rebbe will also deliver a sermon based on the Bible teaching of that Sabbath or Holiday, and often give individual blessings to those attending the meal.

(6) how does hasidism perpetuate?

Hasidic Jews tend to have a lot of children – families with 10 children are common. Non-Hasidic Jews may become Hasidic, which is becoming more common, but the bulk of the growth is by having a lot of children. They place a strong emphasis on education, and there is a very low drop-out rate.

(7) how does the future of the group look and are there any special political issues?

With high birth rates, it looks like Hasidic Judaism will continue to grow. Orthodox Jews, being a small group among Jews, have the highest growth rate, and Hasidic Jews have a slightly higher growth rate than other Orthodox Jews.

There are often internal politics in Hasidic communities, particularly when a leader passes away there may be a split into various factions following a different son, son-in-law, student, nephew, etc. as the new leader. Also, there are issues between Hasidic groups that disagree on certain details, whether it is how to interact with other communities or certain internal practices. A major point of contention today in Orthodox Judaism is the modern day state of Israel, with three camps, the Religious Zionists, the Ultra-Orthodox Non-Zionists, and the Ultra-Orthodox Anti-Zionists.
(among the Ultra-Orthodox or Haredim, there are both Hasidic and Non-Hasidic Jews). Most Hasidic communities are Ultra Orthodox, and therefore are either non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, however there are some members of the religious Zionist community who might identify with Hasidism, but are not members of any particular Hasidic community. It should be noted that the disagreement is not over religious devotion to the Holy Land, which all Orthodox Jews, share, but rather the significance and reaction to the modern secular State of Israel. Religious Zionists say it is the beginning of the Messianic era, and that Jews are required to turn the secular state into a religious one. Ultra Orthodox Jews say that, according to the Torah, it is forbidden to create a sovereign Jewish State of Israel, whether religious or secular, before the Messiah comes. The Ultra Orthodox non-Zionists says now that the state exists, there should be a certain amount of political involvement in order to protect their interests. Ultra Orthodox Anti-Zionists say that since the state is forbidden, there should be no political involvement at all in the State of Israel, and any influence on the non-religious populous should be grassroots and non-political. The main reason for their opposition to the State is danger to human life brought by the constant wars.

(8) do the hasidic jews differ greatly from the surrounding community?,

Most Hasidic Jews do not watch television, go to movies, or read popular secular magazines. Today, with the rise of the internet, many of these walls have fallen, and there is a great deal of controversy today over internet usage in the Ultra-Orthodox world. The general consensus among the Rabbis is that it is only permitted for business needs, while others permit it for outreach to the non-Orthodox Jewish community. However, as we can see from many sites on the internet, it is also used by the Haredi and Hasidic world to connect to their own communities today, such as through videos of events in the Hasidic world, or news, etc. Many Hasidic Jews chose to speak Yiddish among themselves, instead of the language of the country they live in, in order to maintain a distinct culture. However, most Hasidic Jews are multilingual.

(9) how are the leadership positions filled and how do they govern?

There are different leadership positions, the main one being the Rebbe. In addition to the Rebbe, there are various Rabbis and lay leaders that hold various positions in the community. The position of the Rebbe is usually hereditary today, however the Hasidim have to agree to follow the Rebbe. Therefore, if there are two heirs to a Rebbe’s position, this will usually mean that the group will split into two new smaller groups. A Rebbe will sometimes make decrees for his followers, which they will usually choose to follow. He will also appoint or approve the appointment of Rabbis and lay people to various posts, such as Rabbinical judges and the like. Another major function of a Hasidic Rebbe is to be a spiritual mentor, often advising devotees in all sorts of matters, such as business, marriage, educating children, etc. as well as spiritual practices such as which books to study, etc.

If you have any more questions, or want an explanation of any of the above, feel free to contact us. My synagogue is located in Virginia. My synagogue’s website is KolEmes.org, which has contact info.

With blessing,
Rabbi J. Kolakowski
Congregation Kol Emes of Richmond, VA

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