views updated May 21 2018


ETHNONYM: Chassidim


Identification. Hasidim are ultrareligious Jews who live within the framework of their centuries-old beliefs and traditions and who observe Orthodox law so meticulously that they are set apart from most other Orthodox Jews. Even their appearance is distinctive: the men bearded in black suits or long black coats, and women in high-necked, loose-fitting dresses, with kerchiefs or traditional wigs covering their hair. They are dedicated to living uncontaminated by contact with modern society except in accord with the demands of the workplace and the state. They do not, for the most part, own radio or television sets, nor do they frequent cinemas or theaters. They dress and pray as their forefathers did in the eighteenth century, and they reject Western secular society, which they regard as degenerate. They do not, however, constitute a uniform group but are divided into a number of distinctive sects and communities, each organized around the teachings of a particular rebbe, or charismatic religious leader. Although the various Hasidic sects share a desire to maintain the integrity of Orthodox Judaism, they are sometimes sharply divided on practice, points of philosophy, and the personality of their religious leaders. In spite of their differences, all attach great importance to preventing assimilation by insulating their members from the secular influences of the host culture, which they perceive to be disruptive of the lifestyle they wish to observe. To outsiders, the Hasidim are a homogeneous entity whose life-style and religious practices mirror those of previous generations. Such a view exaggerates the reality. Despite the perception of Hasidic society as relatively static, and as unresponsive to social, political, economic, and technological changes over the past decades, a more precise appraisal is that it is an ongoing sociocultural entity constantly adapting to events in the larger society and is, in the process, becoming transformed. Owing to their persistent and organized efforts, the Hasidim have both maintained their distinctive way of life and adapted to societal influences that in the case of other ethnic and religious minorities have resulted in their assimilation.

Location and Demography. Although the estimation of numbers is difficult, the Lubavitcher and Satmar constitute the two largest groups, with approximately 25,000 followers in their respective areas of Brooklyn, New York. A current estimate of the number of Hasidic Jews in North America is Between 90,000 to 100,000. The Hasidic population of Montreal is but a fraction of its New York counterpartit numbers some 4,000 persons. Outside of New York and Montreal, the Hasidic population is relatively small. The exception is the Lubavitch sect, which has created nuclei of Communities throughout North America. Several Hasidic sects have established enclaves to remain shielded from the urban environment. Three such settlements include New Square, near Spring Valley, New York; Kiryas Yoel, in Monroe County, New York, named after the previous Satmar rebbe; and Tash in Boisbriand, Quebec, established by the Tasher rebbe.

History and Cultural Relations

The Hasidic movement began in the middle of the eighteenth century in Galicia on the Polish-Romanian border and in the Volhynia region of the Ukraine. It was founded by Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer (1700-1760) who became known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name). The movement emerged as a populist reaction against what its followers considered the elite, remote, and formal character of rabbinic leaders. In contrast to the mechanical and rigid forms of worship, the Baal Shem Tov preached piety of heart and service of God through the emotions. To serve God, the duty of every Jew, was not confined exclusively to the study of Talmud but embraced every aspect of daily life. The Baal Shem Tov's ministry stressed the joyful affirmation of life and counseled against asceticism and self-affliction. It was only after his death, however, that the systematic dissemination of Hasidism began. The movement evolved into a number of dynastic courts, comprising a rebbe and his followers. As the rebbe's power was inherited by his sons, in succeeding generations the number of rebbeim (plural of rebbe ) multiplied and dynastic courts were established in villages and towns throughout Eastern and Central Europe.

In essence, Hasidic institutions are only comparatively autonomous and are connected with, and affected by, those in the larger Jewish community and surrounding society. The very presence of the non-Hasidic Jewish population contributes to the development of the Hasidic community by offering financial support for its various institutions. It also provides the Hasidim with a market for their products, including kosher baked goods, kosher meat, and religious articles. The precise nature of the relationship is influenced by the particular sect's views of the threats posed by such contacts. The differing cases of the Lubavitcher and Satmarer illustrate this point. Although the differences between them are fewtheir appearance and religious practice are nearly identical and both strictly observe Jewish lawstheir styles and outlooks in crucial ways are vastly different. The Satmar group is an insular community that seeks no publicity and shuns outsiders. It also staunchly opposes the State of Israel on the ground that the Jewish state cannot rightly come into existence until the arrival of the Messiah. In contrast, under Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, this sect has altered the Hasidic pattern by looking outward. They have sent vans ("mitzveh tanks") into Manhattan and the suburbs, offering, to Jews only, religious books and items and a place to pray. They have also recruited many young Jews at colleges in New York and California, offering intellectual programs, drug clinics, and outreach houses. Aimed at intensifying less observant Jews' identification with Orthodox Judaism, the Lubavitch sect is unique in its involvement with the wider Jewish community. Their outreach activities, however, have offended the more extremist Hasidic sects whose relations with outsiders, both Jewish and Gentile, are governed pragmatically. They are viewed by the larger Jewish community as ultra-Orthodox and fanatical as a result of their zealous observance of the Code of Jewish Law. While acknowledging that contact with the outside world cannot be avoided completely, they believe it can be controlled.


For the most part, Jerusalem and B'Nai Brak in Israel and Brooklyn, New York, were the choices of residence of the Hasidic Jews who survived World War II. A sizable Community was also established in Montreal, Quebec. The arrival of the Hasidim in the 1940s and 1950s differed from the previous settlements of Hasidic Jews in North America, since, for the first time, a number of Hasidic rebbeim settled in the New York area: for instance, the Satmarer rebbe and the Klausenburger rebbe established themselves in Williamsburg, and the Lubavitcher rebbe and the Bobover rebbe moved to the Crown Heights area. In 1990, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Boro Park, all in Brooklyn, serve as the center of Hasidic Jewry and include a diverse set of institutions catering to the Hasidim's needs.


Commercial Activities. As with other activities in the Hasidic world, employment is balanced on the scale of Religious values. Hasidic Jews do not pursue occupational careers as is the norm in Western culture, but organize their livelihood so that it does not interfere with their religious obligations, such as refraining from work on the Sabbath and major Jewish holidays. As a rule, following their yeshiva studies but sometimes concurrent with them, young men usually learn a trade or business, or are taken into a family business if conditions permit. Most Hasidim are skilled workers and are employed in various facets of the diamond industry, particularly in the New York area, but also hold such jobs as electricians, carpenters, wholesalers, operators of small businesses, and manufacturers. Many as well are employed in religious-oriented occupations and serve as religious teachers, ritual slaughterers, overseers of food products requiring rabbinical supervision, scribes for religious letters and documents, and the manufacturers of religious articles such as phylacteries, prayer shawls, and mezzuzoths. To better control their hours of employment so as to meet their religious obligations, Hasidim prefer either to be self-employed or to work for an Orthodox Jew who will be sympathetic to their religious requirements. While the number of business enterprises in the Hasidic community is increasing, the professional class remains very small since Hasidim restrict secular educational opportunities for their members. Since in only the rarest of cases do Hasidim attend college or university, professionals among the Hasidim received their secular training prior to affiliating with the Hasidic community.

Division of Labor. Attitudes toward women working outside the home have undergone modification. As the value of conspicuous consumption has taken root among young married couples, it is generally expected that in the absence of small children at home a woman ought to be employed. Aside from serving as teachers in their own schools, women are Usually employed in some secretarial capacity in small businesses.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Marriage. Boys and girls are segregated at a very early age and never participate in activities where the sexes are mixed. Ideally neither male nor female has any sexual experience Before marriage, the average age of which is youngusually Between the ages of eighteen and twentybut varies with the particular Hasidic sect. Dating and falling in love are as Foreign to the Hasidim as they are the norm in the larger secular culture. The selection of a mate is arranged through the aid of friends and members of the community who act in the capacity of shadchan, or marriage broker. There is a tendency to prefer marriages within the same sect or at least within sects sharing a similar ideology. Although intermediaries bring the couple together, the latter do meet and are given the opportunity to talk and judge the other's suitability as a marriage mate. Such encounters often consist simply of conversations in the living room of the girl's family, although some might take a stroll unescorted. In some instances, notably among the Lubavitcher, the couple might go for a drive or meet in a public setting. After a few meetings between a prospective bride and groom, a decision regarding marriage is reached. It will require approval by the respective families, and the rebbe's blessing will be sought. Procreation, God's commandment, is one of the most important functions of the Hasidic family, and couples strive to have children as soon as possible. Most forms of birth control are religiously forbidden and the tendency is toward large families. Although rates of separation and divorce remain low, they may increase as the Hasidim respond to social and economic changes in the world around them.

Domestic Unit. The family is a central institution in the Hasidim's efforts to ensure conformity to a prescribed lifestyle, as it is the first and most enduring locus of the Socialization process. It is the mediator or communicator of social values and links the individual to the larger social structure. In this capacity, it becomes one of the cornerstones of Community cohesion, continuity, and survival. Structurally speaking, the Hasidic family appears to be much like its traditional North American counterpart. Its organization shows a division of labor whereby the husband and father serves as the overall supervisor in religious matters, and the wife and mother is charged with keeping the house and ensuring that the children adhere to the prescribed religious precepts.

Socialization. The religious education of the young is a central consideration in the Hasidic community. From childhood on, parents are instrumental in communicating to their children the appropriate attitudes and behavior. The ultimate objective of the religious training is to produce a God-fearing person who is well socialized into the sect's normative Structure. Since Hasidic norms demand a strict separation of the sexes, separate schools are available for boys and girls and their formal education differs. For males, the central activity of the school day, until they are sixteen or seventeen, consists of learning Torah. The primary subject matter is the Pentateuch, and this, together with the Babylonian Talmud and some biblical commentaries, constitutes the core curriculum. Following graduation from the elementary division, the young man moves to the yeshivaupper divisionwhere the same basic subject matter is emphasized, except that more commentaries are added, and the coverage increases. The girls' religious curriculum does not parallel the boys'. Although it has undergone some changes in recent years, the general rule against teaching Torah to girls has resulted in a diluted curriculum, which emphasizes a knowledge of Hebrew reading for prayer, Bible stories, moral teachings, and simplified law and custom codes. For both, the language of instruction is Yiddish.

A feature common to all Hasidic sects is the view that secular education threatens their traditional values; in order to shield their children from its potentially harmful influences, they run their own schools where secular classes are closely supervised to ensure that the pupils will not encounter any conflict with the contents of their religious studies. Secular programs exist alongside the religious curriculum in the schools, but they are hardly accorded equal importance. Text-books are censored in advance and purged of all suspect stories and pictures. Nonacademic subjects such as music and physical education are totally absent. Those hired for secular studiesvirtually all are outsiders since Hasidim do not pursue higher education to qualify for teacher accreditationare specifically informed about the constraints within which they must operate. The secular studies program for girls is Generally more liberal than the boys', since the former are permitted to have a greater amount of diversion from their religious studies. In the case of boys, only minimal time is devoted to secular educationusually not more than a couple of hours late in the afternoonand by age sixteen such studies are terminated for both sexes. The coordination of secular education helps the Hasidim uphold community boundaries, screening out potentially harmful secular influences and contributing to the maintenance of their particular life-style. Secular studies programs are not seen as bearing any relationship to occupational choice in adulthood.

Sociopolitical Organization

The rebbe occupies a unique position in the Hasidic Community. He is in every way the leader of his flock and that fact is central in the organization of the group and the dynamics of change within it. His followers turn to him for advice not merely on spiritual and ethical problems but also on a wide range of practical matters such as taking a new job, moving to another city, or even consulting a physician. Because he is believed to be a tzaddik a righteous personpossessing special qualities of insight, he is viewed as a mediator between his followers and God. In addition to seeking a personal audience with him, the Hassid may also send a kvitl, or prayer note, to the rebbe requesting his advice and blessing. It is common for Hasidim who are geographically distanced from their rebbe to visit him particularly during religious holidays. A rebbe's authority is inherited from his father or some other close relative but is believed ultimately to come from God. Perceived by his followers as unable to do wrong, it is impossible to have a disconfirmation of the rebbe's advice.

See alsoJews


Mintz, Jerome (1968). Legends of the Hasidim: An Introduction to Hasidic Culture and Oral Tradition in the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Poll, Solomon (1962). The Hasidic Community of Williamsburg. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Rubin, Israel (1972). Satmar: An Island in the City. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Shaffir, William (1974). Life in a Religious Community: The Luvaitcher Chassidim in Montreal. Montreal: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston of Canada.



views updated May 21 2018


Hasidim—literally, "the pious" (singular, Hasid)—were originally followers of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer (1700–1760), the Ba'al Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name"), a charismatic healer, storyteller, and mystic. His contemplative and ecstatic teachings emphasized concern for ordinary people and perceiving the presence of divinity everywhere. Disciples later attracted followings of their own, which evolved into the Hasidic communities. By the end of the eighteenth century, Hasidic communities had formed throughout Eastern Europe, particularly in Ukraine, Galicia, and Poland. However, in Belarus and Lithuania, Hasidim met with strong resistance for promoting customs that deviated from the Ashkenazi norms and the fear that Hasidic emphasis on devotion, ecstasy, and charisma might lead to heresy and religious anarchy. By the nineteenth century, Hasidim and their opponents joined to make common cause against their mutual enemy, the European enlightenment and the forces of modernization. Hasidim had little interest in the United States before World War II. Most Hasidim who left the great Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe preferred to ascend to the Holy Land of Israel, where Hasidim began to settle in the 1760s. Very few Hasidic rabbis and their followers were among the early waves of Eastern European Jewish immigration to the "Golden Land," which represented secularism and materialism. The Hasidic presence in American history really begins with the Nazi genocide of Eastern European Jewry, of whom a very high percentage were Hasidim. Most of the minority of Hasidim who survived the Holocaust regrouped in New York after the war. These survivors were shepherded by a few major surviving Hasidic rebbes. The most influential were Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, who united Hungarian and Romanian survivors in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, the Rebbe of Lubavitch, whose followers, Chabad Hasidim, formed a community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In 1950, Schneersohn was succeeded by his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose influence continued to guide Chabad Hasidim, even after his death in 1994.

Hasidim were extremely successful in rebuilding their communities and religious institutions in Brooklyn and later in upstate New York. The Rebbes of Satmar and Lubavitch were perceived as rivals, representing differing models for serving God in America during the second half of the twentieth century. The Satmar Rebbe was, on theological grounds, an ardent anti-Zionist. He had a large following in Jerusalem, but opposed secular Jewish government in the Holy Land. Satmar concentrated on rebuilding and developing its own institutions rather than on outreach. Chabad had historically been anti-Zionist, but once the state of Israel was founded, they became strong supporters of Israel and its institutions, gaining considerable influence among Israeli politicians and leaders. Chabad Hasidim were also more integrated and conspicuous among various strata of the American Jewish community.

In the 1960s, Rabbi Schneerson began a vigorous and remarkably successful outreach program, aimed at returning American Jews to a more traditionally observant Jewish way of life. Chabad representatives were sent to communities wherever Jews lived. Emphasis was placed on reaching students at colleges and universities. This program was part of a larger mission to reach Jews in all parts of the world, especially the oppressed Jews in the Soviet Union. The project's success benefited from the strong financial support of members of the non-Hasidic American Jewish community, who were persuaded that Chabad Hasidism represented authentic traditional Judaism. A messianic dimension has always been part of Chabad teaching. However, this interest became increasingly important in Chabad during the 1980s, when many Chabad Hasidim began to publicly proclaim their leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as the messiah. While never explicitly affirming or denying that he was the messiah, Rabbi Schneerson used messianic anticipation as a means of increasing fervor and dedication among his Hasidim. After his death, many Chabad Hasidim continue to believe in his messiahship, some even expecting his imminent resurrection. Some prominent Chabad leaders and opponents of Chabad in the general American Jewish community condemned these radical beliefs as heretical. While Chabad institutions continued to flourish, the central Chabad communities in Crown Heights and Israel have been rent by schism over the messianic status of their departed rebbe.

See alsoHolocaust; Holy Land; Jewish Identity; Judaism; Messianism; Zionism.


Belcove-Shalin, Janet S. New WorldHasidism: Ethnographic Studies of Hasidic Jews in America. 1995.

Mintz, Jerome R. Hasidic People: APlace in theNewWorld. 1994.

Miles Krassen


views updated May 17 2018


Followers of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement.

In the modern era, Hasidim (literally, "pious ones") has come to mean those who identify with a movement founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (c. 17001760), the "Baʿal Shem Tov" or "Besht" (the acronym). Originally, it was a mass movement that emphasized mysticism and personal piety rather than the legalistic learning of elite Judaism. Contemporary Hasidim are generally viewed as ultra-Orthodox, and are composed of hundreds of groups, the most widely known of which are the Lubavitcher (Habad) and Satmar Hasidim. The Lubavitcher is the largest group, and their organizational world center is in Brooklyn, New York, to which they immigrated from the Soviet Union after World War II. In Israel the movement's center is in Kfar Habad, a community of Lubavitcher Hasidim approximately eight miles southeast of Tel Aviv. Kfar Habad has several schools, including a higher yeshiva, and a replica of the red brick building that is the home of the world headquarters in Brooklyn. Although Habad-Lubavitch Hasidim officially reject secular Zionism, they are a highly nationalistic group and exert great effort in outreach to non-observant Jews. By contrast, Satmar Hasidim have traditionally been adamantly anti-Zionist and anti-nationalist, and they eschew all but purely formal contacts with outsiders.

In recent decades there have been significant shifts in the activities of both groups. The Satmar group has toned down its anti-Zionism and now avoids overt anti-Zionist activity. The Lubavitcher Hasidim, on the other hand, have become highly active in Israeli politics and were staunch supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu in his successful bid for the office of prime minister in 1996. Since the death of the movement's leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, in 1994, the movement has struggled, internally as well as with some other Orthodox groups, because of its increasing proclamations of Rabbi Schneersohn as the Messiah, a notion that others view as antithetical to Judaism.

Although there are no official figures on the number of Hasidim either in Israel or in the United States, a rough estimate suggests that there are approximately 125,000 Hasidim in Israel and a similar number in the United States.


Berger, David. The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001.

Mintz, Jerome R. Hasidic People: A Place in the New World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

chaim i. waxman


views updated May 14 2018

Ḥasidim (Heb., ‘righteous’). Those described in Bible, especially Psalms, as close to God; the term was then used by the rabbis to describe those leading particularly holy lives.