Who Are the Haredim?

Learn About Ultra-Orthodox Jews

U.S. Ambassador Shapiro at the haredi Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem
Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

In the world of Jewish observance and identification, it is haredi Jews, or haredim that are perhaps the most visually identifiable and, yet, most misunderstood. Although a fairly new classification or identification in the Jewish world, countless books and articles have been written about just who the Haredim are, their role in the greater Jewish and global society, and exactly what and how they believe and observe.

That being said, the best that can be done here is to provide an origin story and provide plenty of details so that you, the reader, can continue to explore.

Meaning and Origins

The verb hared can be found in Isaiah 66:2, meaning “to tremble” or “to fear.”

And all these My hand made, and all these have become," says the Lord. "But to this one will I look, to one poor and of crushed spirit, and who (v’hared) trembles at my word.”

In Isaiah 66:5, the terminology is similar but appears as a plural noun.

Hear the word of the LORD, you that tremble (ha’haredim) at His word: Your brethren that hate you, that cast you out for My name's sake, have said: “Let the Lord be glorified, that we may gaze upon your joy,” but they shall be ashamed.

Despite this very early appearance of the term hared (verb) and haredim (noun), the use of these words to describe a specific and unique subset of the greater Jewish population is a very modern invention. A search of the seminal 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia turns up no reference to a group of Jews or a religious practice relating to the terminology at all, but rather to a medieval work by a rabbi living in Tzfat.

This first appearance of the terminology to refer to a specific type of religious practice comes in the late 16th century from Rabbi Elazar ben Moses ben Elazar (known as the Azkari), who was living in the center of mystical Judaism (kabbalah): Tzfat. Although not himself a kabbalist, he was close with many of the great kabbalistic sages of the time. It was during his time there that he wrote Haredim, The Devout Ones, which detailed what he considered the three principles of religious devotion: knowledge of God, strict observance of the mitzvot (commandments), and penitence.

It took another four centuries, however, for the word to work its way into popular usage.

Understanding Orthodoxy

As more diversity arose in the religious, Torah-observant community in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries thanks to emancipation, revolutions, and the evolution of modern society, a need arose to develop new and, often, schismatic sociological classifications. Under the umbrella of “Orthodox Judaism,” you will find many of these different sociological classifications, including just Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Haredi (often termed “Ultra Orthodox”), or Hasidic. It is important to note that these are loosely organized groups with an individual or body of leadership to maintain a standard and enforcement of the mitzvot. You will rarely find two religious, Torah-observant Jews (let alone Reform or Conservative Jews) who pray, speak, and believe in the same way, but there are generally accepted ways that these groups identify each other and identify themselves.

In the United States, Orthodox Jews have a variety of bodies of leadership to look to, from the Orthodox Union to local rabbinical councils, while in Israel Orthodox Jews look to the rabbinate for rulings and elucidations about halacha or Jewish law. These types of Orthodox Jews tend to live very modern lifestyles, complete with in-home computers, high-tech secular jobs, modern attire, active social lives, and so on. To these Jews, modern culture and society do not pose a risk to Orthodox Judaism.

Haredim and Hasidim

In the United States, Haredim, while viewing general culture as a great threat to Orthodoxy, will participate in secular professions. At the same time, they will do their utmost to avoid accepting or assimilating any secular culture into their personal lives. For example, the haredim of the Kiryat Yoel community in New York are bused daily into New York to work for the immensely successful B&H Photo Video, which closes for all Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. You will find men dressed in black and white with kippot and payot explaining to you how the newest flat screen technology can make a difference in your at-home screening room. Yet, when they leave their jobs, they return to a disconnected community focused on family, study, and prayer.

In Israel, it has been much more common for haredim to live very insular lives. In certain haredi communities, the entire infrastructure, from jobs to school and legal systems are maintained within the confines of the community itself. The Israeli haredi community is also known for its sometimes violent and hateful outbursts against moves toward modernity and a more cohesive Israeli society. Slowly and carefully, this is changing, with new educational initiatives to bring secular study into a strictly religious environment to provide more opportunities for women and children, and even haredim playing crucial roles as soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), from which they were once exempt from service.

Haredim are easily identifiable, as different groups wear specific dress. For some it is a specific type of hat, while for others it is a specific type of shoe, sock, and pant, not to mention the shtreimel, which sets them apart from the mainstream Orthodox community. Likewise, the women of these communities tend to dress in black, navy blue, and white, and each group observes the commandment of hair covering in its own unique way.

Within The Haredi Community

Then, within the haredi community, you have the hasidim, or "pious ones."

Hasidic Judaism arose in the 18th century through the Ba’al Shem Tov, who believed that Judaism should be accessible to all and that prayer and a connection to God should be filled with great joy. Hasidic Jews place a great emphasis on a strict observance of the mitzvot, as well as on mysticism. Out of this movement grew great dynasties that grew and changed throughout the generations, with each following a tzaddik, or righteous one, who more recently became known as a rebbe, or teacher. The most well-known and influential Hasidic dynasties today are those of Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar (this is the group that lives in Kiryat Yoel mentioned above), Belz, and Ger. Each of these dynasties, except for Lubavitch, is still led by a rebbe.

Frequently, the terms haredim and hasidim are used interchangeably. However, although all hasidim are categorized as haredim, not all haredim are hasidim. Confused?

Take Chabad, the hasidic dynasty. Chabad Jews live all over the world, drink Starbucks, have cell phones and computers, and, in some cases, dress very modern and stylish (although the men do maintain beards and the women do cover their hair)—all while maintaining a strict observance of the commandments.

There are countless misconceptions and misunderstandings about just who is a haredi Jew—both from within and outside of the greater Jewish community. But as the haredi Jewish population continues to grow in the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere, it is important to examine the available information, speak to and try to understand haredi Jews, and understand that, as with all religions, cultures, and peoples, a sociological classification is in a constant state of change, transformation, and self-discovery.

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Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Who Are the Haredim?" Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/who-are-the-haredim-2076732. Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. (2021, February 8). Who Are the Haredim? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/who-are-the-haredim-2076732 Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Who Are the Haredim?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/who-are-the-haredim-2076732 (accessed May 29, 2023).