Understanding haredi society: The hassidim

This is the second in a series on the different groups that compose the haredi sector.

The Jerusalem Post/December 9, 2021

By Peggy Cidor

A well-known joke among Litvaks says the hassidim don’t really need the rule that forbids studying Torah on the night of December 24, for fear it could be for the sake of the Christ: “Hassidim don’t really study Torah anyway on any other night,” tease the Litvaks.

Like many jokes, this one is rooted in some past facts on the ground, but which seem to have faded away as more and more hassidim from several dynasties not only spend most of their days studying Torah, but even join the most famous Litvak (Lithuanian) yeshivot, something that didn’t occur in the past.

Hassidism (Hebew for “piety”) is a religious stream that arose as a spiritual revival movement in Western Ukraine during the 18th century, and spread rapidly throughout Eastern Europe. Israel Ben Eliezer, more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov, is regarded as its founding father, and present-day hassidism is noted for its religious and social conservatism and social seclusion. Its members adhere closely both to Orthodox Jewish practice – with the movement’s own unique emphases – and the traditions of Eastern European Jews, including special styles of dress and use of the Yiddish language.

In Jerusalem, eight dynasties are represented: Gur, the largest group, with about 110,000 members across the country; Belz, the second-largest with about 50,000; and a small community of the Vizhnitz, mostly living in Bnei Brak. Also present in the capital are the Breslov (the original Breslavers – who speak Yiddish; and the repentant stream – mostly Sephardi – both of whom meet every year at Uman for Rosh Hashana) followed by Chabad (a small community in Jerusalem), Slonim, Aleksander, Boyan, Karlin (whose late admor was renowned for his support of the state) and the Toldos Aharon dynasties, the last one being part of the most extremist group also known as Eda Haredit. Today, Toldos Aharon has split into two groups: each following one of the two brothers who inherited the dynasty, both still strongly opposed to any contact with the state or Zionists. The admorim of Gur, Belz and Vizhnitz are traditionally members of the Council of Torah Scholars.
At the head of each dynasty stands an admor – the highest spiritual and social leader, who decides for his disciples on every issue. Belz, considered one of the richest dynasties, built the largest synagogue and yeshiva building in the city, the admor decides every Rosh Hashana who will go to the yeshiva and who will go to work. Generally, hassidim – men and women – work, and while for the past two decades, there are more hassidim who spend most of their time studying Torah, working has never been a prohibition. The outfits are quite similar: the caftan (a long black coat, made of satin with designs for Shabbat), no ties, no shoelaces and short trousers, with long white or black socks – the white for Shabbat and festivals.

The most famous part of the hassidic outfit is the fur hats, or shtreimels, made from animal tails (usual fox, marten or minx) or the spodik, taller and dyed black. Large kippot knitted from white yarn with a pompon on top is for the Breslovs. The second typical item is the gartel (like a girdle), a knitted belt symbolizing the Jewish law mandating that the “heart does not see the nakedness” and separating the upper body from the lower, coarser half.
Being the largest community, Gur has been part of the coalition at city council since 1993, when Ehud Olmert reached a secret agreement with haredi leadership groups in the city, and obtained their full support – winning the election that put an end to the 20-year reign of the Labor Party, represented by iconic mayor Teddy Kollek. Since then the presence of haredi representatives, both Litvak and hassidic, at city council has only grown, up to this present council – where they hold, together with the Sephardi haredi Shas Party, 17 seats out of 30.

The 2018 elections revealed the internal tensions between Litvaks and hassidim within Jerusalem’s greater ultra-Orthodox public. It started with the restrained but not covert struggle between the two faction leaders, the hassidic Yossi Daitsch and the Lithuanian Itzik Pindrus, to decide which of them will be – if at all – the haredi mayoral candidate. Daitsch (Slonim dynasty) gained a lot of popularity among large communities, including pluralists, but lost at the first round, leading to the next round where Moshe Lion, who discreetly obtained the support of large parts of the haredi sector, including the “patron” of Daitsch, finally won the mayoral contest.

This internal struggle burst out even beyond the issue of local elections, and brought a dramatic change in the formation of the united haredi list on the national level. The process ended up turning over the traditional pyramid in which the Litvaks played a leading role. As a result, the hassidim (mostly the Jerusalemites), who were already the majority, finally obtained the representation that matched their number within the haredi list at the Knesset as well.

At city council the tensions between hassidim and Litvaks, and especially between the several hassidic dynasties represented, are no more discreet than they used to be. Most of the friction is about the growing need for facilities for the separated education institutions. The first stages – the Talmud Torah for small children, the “little yeshiva” – are separated between hassidic streams and Litvaks. A small but growing number of Litvak children are even joining the public haredi stream, something unthinkable for a young hassidic boy. As for the children of the hassidic dynasties, the severe shortage of classrooms is a matter of constant tension between them and the municipality, but no less inside the haredi sector as well.

Other differences between the Litvaks and hassidim can be found in women’s status and way of life. Gerrer Hassidism is known for its strict separation of the sexes, restrictions on couples’ relationships and separation on buses, which began in Jerusalem under their influence. Also, a hassid will not walk or stand next to his wife on the street and will not talk to her in public, and they will not call each other by name. These regulations have been perceived as oppressing women, but sources inside Gur say their observance is in decline and that they were intended mainly for individuals rather than for for all.

The mikveh for men is also a fairly common practice among hassidim; a “true” hassid would avoid taking a bath at home, and open his day by immersing himself in a ritual bath in his neighborhood. That practice was, with the burst of the coronavirus, a matter of high tension between the hassidim and the authorities which ordered them closed. Shocking scenes of hassidim trying to sneak into mikvaot that were supposed to be shuttered and getting caught by the police – especially in Mea She’arim – appalled the haredi public.

While most of the admorim have introduced over the years the importance of Torah learning, there is one area in which the difference between hassidim and Litvaks is still prominent, and that is the traditional Tish (Yiddish for “table”) taking place on Shabbat eve, at which the hassidim join their rebbe (the admor) for a spiritual evening only for men. This tradition has already paid a terrible price, as in too many occasions the emotional passion overtook prioritizing safety measures, as seen recently in the deadly bleacher collapse at a Karlin synagogue in Givat Ze’ev.

Yet there are the first indications that some change is occurring. For the first time, last Sukkot Mea She’arim residents called the police to dismantle a sukkah built without a permit, for fear it would endanger the public.

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