Hasidic Jews are the most orthodox of the Orthodox movement, even though, strictly speaking, both are distinct branches of Judaism. Hasidic Jews adhere absolutely to the teachings of the written law (the Torah) and the oral law (the Talmud). The sect began in Poland in 1760, led by a revivalist named Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), who stressed the study of Jewish literature. In the Hasidic tradition, a Master is also known as a Zaddik or righteous man.
The Master is has a direct line to God. After the founder's death, Hasidism spread throughout Europe and diversified. The main body of the sect remained in Europe until the Holocaust, when tremendous numbers of Hasidic Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. Some escaped to the United States. In New York, they settled predominantly in Brooklyn, where today around 100,000 followers live.
Hasidic Jews often get attention on the street because of their appearance. The men are usually dressed completely in black with wide-brimmed hats, long coats, beards, and extended, rope-like sideburns. Originally, their dress was the local custom in Poland; today, it symbolizes their religious fervor.
Jewish law says there should be a separation between the top and bottom halves of the body when praying. Most Hasidic men wear a gartel; others wear a regular belt.
Often, a Hasidic man will be seen with a black box (tefillin) on his head or arm to follow the Torah commandant to have a box containing parchment verses from the Torah. During morning services the box is worn on the head (“between your eyes”) or on the arm (“upon your hand”). In some congregations, women also wear tefillin.
Another custom regards the hair, both on the head and on the face. As always, the law is open to interpretation. The most orthodox men who follow the law to the letter will not deviate from the commandment that a straight razor should not be used on one's temple or to shave one's beard. The side-locks are also an answer to an interpretation of the law against shaving the temples. The long sideburns are called peyot.
Beliefs and Practices
Hasidic religious duties are carried out in a spirit of devotion. Prayer serves not to petition or supplicate God but as the way to ascend to a relationship of union with God.
While the Hasidic way of life may seem very restricted or even morose, it was the source of some profound music. In the 1700s, the Hasidic movement exerted a significant influence on what is called klezmer in Yiddish. The word is used to denote professional eastern European Jewish dance musicians. The term is a combination of two Hebrew words: kle, which means “vessel” or “instrument,” and zemer, which means “song.” In recent times, klezmer music has gained prominence. The Hasidic sect made religion more accessible to the masses by emphasizing dancing and singing with intense urgency to “ascend” to higher realms through their music.