Hassidic Jews: Who are They?

Spelled Hassidic, Hasidic, Chassidic or Chasidic, over 300,000 such Jews reside in the New York metropolitan region. Though commonly referred to as ultra- Orthodox, Hassidic Jews (or “pious ones”) most prefer to be described as “fervently observant.” (The term ultra- Orthodox also applies to the Misnagdim literally, “opponents,” who at one time had serious disputes with the Hassidim.) Hassidim (“im” denotes plural) live in closed, tight-knit communities where Yiddish is the mother tongue. Men wear distinctive black garb including hat, long coat, pants, and shoes. White shirts and tzitzis (fringes) are worn beneath the coat. They have peyos (side locks) and beards. Hassidic women wear modestlength skirts or dresses with sleeves no shorter than the elbow. In the strictest communities, men do not touch or even speak to women outside of their family.

The largest population of Hassidic Jews in the United States is in Brooklyn, with multiple sects in their own neighborhoods, including Satmar Hassidim in Williamsburg, Bobover Hassidim in Boro Park and Lubavitch Hassidim in Crown Heights. The sects hold differing opinions on a variety of subjects, from the view of the state of Israel to the proper attitude towards secular people. Satmar Hassidism, the most traditional, maintains that no contact with the secular should be made. Lubavitch Hassidism, on the other hand, reaches out to secular Jews in order to bring them into the fold.

In the 18th century, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer or Ba’al Shem Tov, founded Hassidism in Eastern Europe during a time of persecution. Rabbi Eliezer felt that Judaism had become too academic and he stressed the necessity of joy, prayer, and dancing in worship. These are still at the core of Hassidic beliefs. Even seemingly neutral activities such as sleeping or eating are seen as potentially pious. Hassidim believe that to achieve holiness one must literally adhere to the law. All foreign philosophies or ideologies are believed to “abuse the sanctity of the mind” and are sinful.

Hassidim also believe that modern day tzaddikim (truly righteous men) are certain special rabbis who have complete authority in their community. Hassidim are to obey their particular rabbi (rebbe) implicitly. Breslov Hassidism explains, “If a person is not bound to a true Tzaddik, all his devotions are nothing but twisting and turning and pretending to be something he isn’t, as if an ape were pretending to be a man. Service of God is nothing without the true Tzaddik (Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #111).” For a startling understanding of the power ascribed to the Tzaddikim by this group of Hassidim, go to: Tzaddik

As you can imagine, the Hassidic communities have been largely unreached by the gospel. Belief in Jesus would not be tolerated . . . and to leave or be expelled from the community is unthinkable to many. No doubt others have witnessed to Hassidim, but as far as we know, our special outreach to this community was unique in both its scope and methodology.


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