Understanding Hasidic Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC
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In general, Orthodox Jews are followers who believe in a fairly strict observance of the rules and teachings of the Torah, as compared to the more liberal practices of members of modern Reform Judaism. Within the group known as Orthodox Jews, however, there are degrees of conservatism. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some Orthodox Jews sought to modernize somewhat by accepting modern technologies. Those Orthodox Jews who continued to adhere tightly to established traditions became known as Haredi Jews, and were sometimes called "Ultra-Orthodox." Most Jews of this persuasion dislike both terms, however, thinking of themselves as the truly "orthodox" Jews when compared to those Modern Orthodox groups who they believe have strayed from Jewish principles.

Haredi and Hasidic Jews

Haredi Jews reject many of the trappings of technology, such as television and the internet, and schools are segregated by gender. Men wear white shirts and black suits, and black fedora or Homburg hats over black skull caps. Most men wear beards. Women dress modestly, with long sleeves and high necklines, and most wear hair coverings. 

A further subset of the Heredic Jews is the Hasidic Jews, a group that focuses on the joyful spiritual aspects of religious practice. Hasidic Jews may live in special communities and, Heredics, are noted for wearing special clothing. However, they may have distinctive clothing features to identify that they belong to different Hasadic groups. Male Hasidic Jews wear long, uncut sidelocks, called payot. Men may wear elaborate hats made of fur.

Hasidic Jews are called Hasidim in Hebrew. This word derived from the Hebrew word for loving-kindness (chesed). The Hasidic movement is unique in its focus on the joyful observance of God’s commandments (mitzvot), heartfelt prayer, and boundless love for God and the world He created. Many ideas for Hasidism derived from Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah).

How the Hasidic Movement Began

The movement originated in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, at a time when Jews were experiencing great persecution. While the Jewish elite focused on and found comfort in Talmud study, the impoverished and uneducated Jewish masses hungered for a new approach.
Fortunately for the Jewish masses, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760) found a way to democratize Judaism. He was a poor orphan from the Ukraine. As a young man, he traveled around Jewish villages, healing the sick and helping the poor. After he married, he went into seclusion in the mountains and focused on mysticism. As his following grew, he became known as the Baal Shem Tov (abbreviated as Besht) which means “Master of the Good Name.”

An Emphasis on Mysticism

In a nutshell, the Baal Shem Tov led European Jewry away from Rabbinism and toward mysticism. The early Hasidic movement encouraged the poor and oppressed Jews of 18th century Europe to be less academic and more emotional, less focused on executing rituals and more focused on experiencing them, less focused on gaining knowledge and more focused on feeling exalted. The way one prayed became more important than one’s knowledge of the prayer’s meaning. The Baal Shem Tov did not modify Judaism, but he did suggest that Jews approach Judaism from a different psychological state.
Despite united and vocal opposition (mitnagdim) led by the Vilna Gaon of Lithuania, Hasidic Judaism flourished. Some say that half of European Jews were Hasidic at one time.

Hasidic Leaders

Hasidic leaders, called tzadikim, which is Hebrew for “righteous men,” became the means by which the uneducated masses could lead more Jewish lives. The tzadik was a spiritual leader who helped his followers attain a closer relationship with God by praying on behalf of them and offering advice on all matters.
Over time, Hasidism broke up into different groups headed by the different tzadikim. Some of the larger and more well-known Hasidic sects include Breslov, Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Ger, Belz, Bobov, Skver, Vizhnitz, Sanz (Klausenberg), Puppa, Munkacz, Boston, and Spinka Hasidim.
Like other Haredim, Hasidic Jews don distinctive attire similar to that worn by their ancestors in 18th and 19th century Europe. And the different sects of Hasidim often wear some form of distinctive clothing—such as different hats, robes or socks—to identify their particular sect.

Hasidic Communities Around the World

Today, the largest Hasidic groups are located in Israel and the United States. Hasidic Jewish communities also exist in Canada, England, Belgium and Australia.

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Katz, Lisa. "Understanding Hasidic Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, learnreligions.com/hasidic-ultra-orthodox-judaism-2076297. Katz, Lisa. (2021, December 6). Understanding Hasidic Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/hasidic-ultra-orthodox-judaism-2076297 Katz, Lisa. "Understanding Hasidic Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/hasidic-ultra-orthodox-judaism-2076297 (accessed June 1, 2023).