Hasidic (Ultra Conservative) Jewish Customs
Why do Hasidic men always wear a hat?
Religious male Jews (not just Hasidim) wear a hat to cover the head in respect for God. Covering the head reminds us that there is a Creator, a Higher Power, above our own limited minds. Any head covering will do, but some people like a certain style of hat to identify their group. Others simply have personal preferences about hats.
Hasidic hat styles are often based on the styles which were worn in the part of Eastern Europe where the particular group originated, or the style that their Rebbe wore in the Old Country. In some Hasidic groups, everyone wears the exact same style, usually manufactured by one or more hat makers within their group. In other communities, the choice is up to the individual.
At Breslov gatherings, for example, one sees a fascinating variety of hats, because Breslov does not have a specific "uniform." At Lubovitcher gatherings, on the other hand, the majority of men wear black fedoras, because that is the type of hat their late Rebbe, Rabbi Scheneerson, used to wear.
Connected with this is the commonly-asked question, "Do Hasidim wear the yarmulke to bed?" Yes, many do. (If it falls off while you're asleep, no big deal. You just put it back on when you wake up.) And many Jews -- even non-Orthodox ones -- keep a yarmulke right next to the bed, and put it on immediately upon awakening, because Jewish law (halachah) forbids a man to walk four paces with his head uncovered.
I should also mention here that you should never, ever grab a Jewish person's head covering, not even while horsing around with friends. For some reason, non-Jews seem to have an almost lewd desire to see us without our hats. Please restrain yourself. Playing "keep away" with a yarmulke (Jewish skullcap) is extremely disrespectful and will be interpreted an act of antisemitic assault. It is equivalent in rudeness to pulling somebody's pants down in public or spitting on a Christian cross. Don't do it.
Why do Hasidic Jews always wear black?
Not all Hasidim wear black -- the women and children are often dressed in bright colors! And not all Jewish "men in black" are Hasidim. (Sorry about the bad joke -- I never could resist a pun.)
In fact, I am often asked why Hasidic women are so "overdressed" when they go out shopping in the malls, i.e., never wearing more casual clothes like sweatshirts, etc. Well, there was a time when everybody got dressed up to go out on the streets -- in my mother's generation, most women would not have been caught dead wearing curlers in public. Also, Hasidim are not Amish -- there is no prohibition against women wearing jewelry or other ornaments. Many of the older Hasidic women, who survived Hitler's concentration camps where everything was taken away from them, now feel they are regaining their dignity by dressing nicely. I would also point out that non-Jews also get dressed up to go to the malls, even if their status symbols are different, such as designer jeans and $300 sneakers.
Some Hasidic groups do have a uniform of sorts for the men, while others do not. Male Hasidic clothing does not have to be black, but is usually a dark, conservative color. The use of black clothing on Sabbaths and holy days traces back to a time when black dye was rare and expensive, so black was reserved for formal occasions (the same as tuxedos and "black tie" events in the secular world.) The Sabbath is a time for honoring God by dressing nicely (as you would in the presence of a king), so people wore their best black coats on the Sabbath.
In some Hasidic groups, the men wear beautiful brocaded coats at home on the Sabbath and festivals, but wear black at public gatherings to avoid upstaging the Rebbe.
Everyday clothing in past centuries was more likely to be shades of brown and gray. (The American Pilgrims, by the way, didn't wear black, either, even though they are commonly pictured that way. Pure black dyes did not exist back in the 1600s. The Pilgrims wore shades of brown, gray, maroon, dark greens, etc. We think of them as dressing in black because, in the old books, the printing was all in black-and-white.)
More recently, some Hasidim have interpreted the black clothing as a symbol representing a lack of ego. In this sense, the clothing has become like the religious habits worn by monks -- although, I should point out, Hasidim are not celibate like monks. (Most want large families.) But there is some similarity with monks in the idea of renouncing the egotism that often goes with wearing the latest trendy clothes.
A specific Jewish clothing style is not biblically required, except to cover the body for modesty, that men and women should dress differently, and the idea that Jews should maintain a recognizable identity as a people. For some Jews, that includes specific styles of clothing, and different groups have different styles. Some Jews wear traditional garb every day, others only on Sabbaths and holy days. (But religious Jews always wear a head covering, and the men and boys wear a garment with fringes every day. And, of course, we always wear our beards and hair!)
I heard that this style of clothing was forced on the Jews by Christian rulers in Europe. Why would you want to perpetuate it?
First of all, Hasidic clothing was not forced upon Hasidim by anybody. Some of the styles are based on the nobility of 18th-century Poland and other places, but the haircut, ritual fringes, and certain other aspects of the garb are authentically Jewish and based on the Torah.
For a long time, I had no idea how this rumor about "forcing" Hasidic dress on us got started. Recently [in 2005], after re-reading The Source by James A. Michener, I came to the conclusion that this 1965 novel might actually be the source (pun intended). In the chapter entitled "Rebbe Itzak and the Sabra," there is a series of heated dialogues between a native-born militant Israeli woman named Ilana (the "Sabra") and a Hasidic Rebbe. Ilana is very anti-religious and extremely disparaging of the Hasidim. On page 983 we find this dialogue:
"Rebbe Itzak, do you really believe that obsolete ideas generated in Poland three hundred years ago represent the will of God?"
"What do you mean?" the old man sputtered.
"The uniform you wear. There was never anything like that in Israel. It's straight out of the Polish ghetto."
"The fringes..."the rebbe cried.
"That coat," she interrupted with amused disgust. "That didn't come from Israel and we don't want it here. That fur hat. That blackness. That gloom. All from the ghetto."
Rebbe Itzak stepped back, appalled. This brazen girl was challenging the symbols of his life, the honored traditions of ten generations of holy men in [the Polish town of] Vodzh. "This is the dress of God," he began.
"Don't tell me that!" she cried, cutting off his claim. "It's a badge of shame forced upon us by Gentile overlords. (Ilana then turns toward the rabbi's wife and, "in a moment of fury," knocks her wig to the floor. This is not only an act of violence, it is an act of purposeful humiliation to uncover a married woman's head in public. It would be the equivalent of ripping a cross from around the neck of a Christian and stomping on it.)
Yes, this dialogue does indeed reflect the attitude of some secular Israelis (and others) towards Hasidim. Especially during the early years of the founding of Israel, when much of Judaism was disparagingly put down as "Ghetto religion." Similar attitudes are expresend in another 1960s novel, Leon Uris' Exodus. In the movie version, Paul Newman's Israeli character actually says, "The only God I believe in is a gun." These attitudes have mellowed somewhat over the years, but the conflict between secular and religious Jews in Israel is still very real.
Because The Source was a major bestseller and is still read today as a classic, the words that Michener put into the mouth of his Sabra character have been widely read throughout the world. But that does not make them true. It is my opinion that this dialogue between "Rebbe Izak and the Sabra" has entered the public mind to the point of becoming accepted as fact. But really, it is more like urban legend. (There are other inaccuracies about Judaism in Michener's book -- read my review on the The Source's Amazon page. You may have to scroll down a ways. It's a popular book with a lot of reviews.)
Nowadays, one usually hears this kind of argument from non-Hasidic Jews who want to make Hasidim look ridiculous. But it doesn't make any sense. It was the nobility who wore black clothing and fur hats in Poland. Why would the Poles force Jews to dress like Polish nobility? It would be an honor to dress like a king or a queen -- not a humiliation!
Yes, there were various badges and other signs that Jews were forced to wear at various points in history, but Hasidic garb was not one of them. Halachah (Jewish law) itself says that Jews should be identifiable by appearance, and this has been the case down through the centuries, so it was not a matter of oppression. Hasidim voluntarily dress in a distinctive way because we believe God wants us to do this. It's like wearing the uniform of a team we're proud to be on. It is, as Rebbe Itzak tried to explain to the Sabra, "the Dress of God". Not because God designed the costume or because it was worn in ancient Israel. Rather, it it identifies us in the here and now as people who are devoted to God.
However, there have been a few other instances in non-Hasidic Jewish history where a badge of shame was turned into a sign of pride. The best-known example is the recent popularity of the Star of David. Until the 17th century, it was not really a Jewish symbol per se, and was used by Jews and non-Jews alike as a magical symbol. (For example, in the 1974 movie, The Wicker Man, a group of British neo-pagans perform a ceremony where six swords are crossed to form a star -- but this ritual has nothing to do with Judaism.)
Later, the six-pointed star was adopted by some Jews for gravestones in the 1700s, and for the Zionist flag in the late 1800s. It was also used on the Soncino Press's imprint and by the Rothchilds on their coat of arms. So by the beginnig of the 20th century, it was associated with Jews. But what probably clinched it forever as a Jewish symbol was Hitler's use of it as a badge of shame during the Holocaust. Jews today have turned that completely around, and now wear the Star with pride, as a way of saying that "Jewish is beautiful."
I have heard that Hasidic women shave their heads on their wedding night. Is this true? If so, why?
Although some (not all) Hasidic woman do shave their heads, this practice is not based on a religious commandment, but is a custom based on a number of possible reasons. There is no requirement to shave one's head. But, a woman does start to cover her hair after marriage, and some women prefer to keep their hair very short, because it is more comfortable under a wig or a scarf.
Regarding the custom (in some groups) to shave the hair on the wedding night, this can be traced to two things that got combined. First of all, a woman goes to the mikveh (ritual immersion) just before her wedding, and every part of her -- every single hair -- must be submerged simutaneously. Naturally, it is easier to do this if the hair is short and cannot float on the water.
In addition, there was a time in Europe when the non-Jewish kings or other rulers had the right to sleep with any bride in their kingdom on her wedding night. This was recently dramatized in the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart, which was set in Old Scotland. But it was also true throughout much of Europe, including the Eastern and Baltic areas where most Hasidim lived. In many cases, "Prince Charming" was the local rapistand not so charming at all.
You can imagine how horrible it would be for the bride to have to submit to a rape. So the bride often tried to prevent this by shaving her head completely, in the hope that the ruler would think she was ugly and leave her alone. After the wedding, some women grew their hair back, while others chose to keep it short under their head coverings.
We should also note here that the American custom for everyone to ":kiss the bride" is not appropriate at Jewish weddings, and is not practiced by Hasidim or other Orthodox Jews. The personal privacy of the bride is to be respected, and a woman should not have to submit to kissing every man at the wedding. The bride and groom also do not kiss each other in public.
One very nice custom at all traditional Jewish weddings is that immediately after the ceremony (and before the reception), the bride and groom are led to a private room where they are left completely alone for a while. Two Jews serve as honor guards and stand outside the door, to be sure that their privacy is protected. During this time the bride and groom, who have been fasting all day in preparation for the wedding, break their fast with their first meal together as husband and wife. Many non-Jews today are also adopting this beautiful custom, because it gives the couple a chance to be alone with each other before facing the reception line and festivities that follow.
Why do Hasidic women wear scarves or wigs?
This rule is not limited to Hasidim -- Orthodox Jewish women in general cover their heads after marriage, as do many non-Orthodox women also. Any head covering will do -- they can wear a hat or scarf or wig. Many women prefer wigs because, if you are going to keep your head covered all the time, it's easier to have a short haircut and wear a wig for purposes of comfort. As one woman remarked to me, "When you have five children, there's no time for sitting under a hair dryer at the beauty parlor, so it's easier to just send your wig out!"
However, there is no requirement for women to cut the hair or wear a wig. Some women wear a snood (not to be confused with the computer game!) which is a beret-like hat with room for long braids under it. (Search for hair snood to find sources on the Net.) The religious reason for covering the head is modesty, because women's hair is a sex symbol in many places. The men dress modestly, too. For example, Hasidic men do not wear shorts or go without a shirt.
What is the significance of the untrimmed beards and sidecurls? At what age do boys begin to wear sidecurls?
The payos (sidecurls, pronounced PAY-us) and beard are worn in obedience to this commandment in the Torah (Bible):
You shall not round the corners of your heads, nor mar the edges of your beards. (Leviticus 19:27)
The "corners of the head" are the area above the ears. "Not rounding" them means not shaving the hair there, or cutting it very short. Together, both the curls and the untrimmed beard are a symbol of obedience to the laws of God. Many Hasidic men also cut the rest of the hair very short. This is not really required, but is more comfortable under a hat. Also, some Hasidim see the entire haircut -- very short hair with beard and payos -- as part of the "uniform" of their group.
The minimum length for the payos is long enough that you can grab a hair and bend it towards its own root -- which comes out to be just about to the middle of the ear. But there are other opinions also, and many Hasidim wear them longer. Some men curl them carefully and let them hang conspicuously in front of the ears, while others tuck them behind the ears or up under their yarmulke (skullcap.) Again, this is a matter of style and, in some cases, personal preference. (Yes, that's a photo of me in a Star Trek uniform.
Lubovitcher Hasidim, however, do not wear payos, except for the young boys until the beard grows in. And some non-Hasidic Orthodox wear them also, including many Sephardic and Yemenite Jews. In fact, the website of Ohr Sameach (a non-Hasidic Orthodox org) even has instructions for how to curl your payos properly. So you really can't tell if someone is a Hasid based on whether or not he has payos.
How does a Hasid curl his payos? I get asked that a lot. Most of us twist them while still wet. If you do this often enough, the hair gets trained that way. And no, we don't use women's curlers! The result you get depends a lot on your hair type. Mine is very straight and rather thin, so it doesn't curl so well. I wear them out for dressy occasions, but tuck them behind my ears otherwise.
At what age does a boy start wearing payos? At age three. Before that, his hair is not cut at all, and is allowed to grow long. On his third birthday, there is a special ceremony where the hair is cut short except for the sidecurls. At this time, he also receives his first set of tzitzit (a four-cornered garment with special tassels). He is now no longer a baby, but a child, which is a different category with more responsibility. The hair-cutting ceremony is usually followed by a happy celebration for his family and friends.
I should also mention here that grabbing or pulling a Hasid's payos -- even in so-called "fun," is a big rude no-no. Ditto for asking to touch our beards. We are not animals for you to pet. I don't pull your hair, please don't pull mine.
What are those white strings hanging down outside the men's pants?
The white tassels (often mis-translated as fringes) are called tzitzis (TZIT-tzis) or tzitzit (TZEET-tzeet), depending on your Hebrew dialect. They are worn tied to the corners of a four-cornered garment that is supposed to be worn by all Jewish men (not just Hasidim) because of this commandment:
Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes on the borders of their garments throughout their generations... (Numbers 15:38)
The fringes are to be put on any four-cornered garment that a male Jew wears. In theory this could be a poncho, a toga, an Indian blanket, a Chinese shirt with long slits in the sides... But in real life this usually means the large prayer shawl worn over the shoulders during prayer in the synagogue, and the smaller garment worn all day, either under or over the shirt. (Religious Jews who want to wear an ordinary four-cornered garment such as a plastic rain poncho will usually round one or more of the corners so that it does not require tzitzit. But theoretically, one could put tzitzit on a nice cloth poncho.)
The large prayer shawl is simply a piece of material with the tassels attached to the corners. It can be any color, and made of any material except one cannot use linen and wool on the same garment (because of another Biblical commandment we won't get into right now.)
The small prayer shawl is the garment that looks like an apron hanging out from under Tevye's vest in Fiddler on the Roof. But it's not an apron, it's an oblong piece of cloth with a hole for the head. It can be any kind of cloth (except linen and wool together) and is usually wool in winter, cotton in summer (for comfort.) It can also be any color or design. When I was in Amsterdam I saw beautiful antique ones with fine embroidery, intended to be worn over the shirt, like a vest, on dressy occasions. Nowadays, however, they tend to be plain white, sometimes with a stripe across the bottom.
Two of the tassels hang in front, and two in back, representing, among other things, the four directions (East, South, West, and North) to symbolize that God is everywhere.
A boy gets his first fringed garment at the age of three, on the same day as his ceremonial haircut to make the payos (see above). Nowadays there are even special designs made for kids. The one with the train design pictured here can be purchased at ZionJudaica.com which has a lot of other styles for adults as well. (The Hebrew words on the train translate "I am three years old.")
Some Jews wear the entire garment outside their shirts. Others wear it under the shirt but bring the fringes outside their pants in order to be able to literally "look upon them" according to the Biblical commandment (see Numbers 15). Some wrap them around the belt so that they are visible but not dangling. Still others tuck them into their pockets. And some Jews wear the whole thing -- tzitzit and all -- under their shirt and not visible, although most Hasidim do not wear it this way. Still, it's mostly a matter of custom and style. (Also a concern for safety on jobs where they might get caught in machinery, etc.) All groups of Jews wear the larger fringed prayer shawls in the synagogue, but the non-Orthodox tend not to wear the small everyday fringed garment.
Do Hasidim really have sex through a hole in a sheet?
NO! According to urban legend, this silly rumor got started in the ghettos of Europe, where some people saw the four-cornered garments with fringes (which do have a hole in the middle for the head) hanging on the wash line. They didn't know what they were for, so their imaginations took over...
Hasidism -- and Judaism in general -- regards sex as a natural and beautiful thing, so long as it remains between spouses in privacy. The fact that Hasidim tend to have a lot of children should tell you that we have nothing against sex! We do, however, object to seeing intimate moments and bare bodies in movies and billboards, because we feel it cheapens something that is sacred and private.
I suppose this is also the place to dispel the urban legend about how Hasidim supposedly display the bloody sheets on the morning after the wedding night to prove the bride was a virgin. No, we don't do that one, either.
Why don't Hasidic men shake hands with women?
The question should actually be, "Why don't Hasidic Jews shake hands with the opposite sex," since the women don't shake hands with the men, either. The rule is for modesty and privacy, and is not limited to Hasidim. The non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews have this same rule also. It is observed with varying degrees of strictness, depending on the location and circumstances. In New York City and in Israel, most Orthodox Jews will not shake hands with the opposite sex at all. However, when I was in Amsterdam, I was told by fellow observant Jews that it is such an insult there not to shake somebody's hand, that they do shake in business situations, but not among themselves or at the synagogue. (The same is true in much of Europe.)
In general, Orthodox Jewish men and women do not shake hands or touch each other unless they are married, and then only in private. It is not that women are considered dirty or unclean as some people -- even some Jews -- wrongly think. Quite the opposite. It is because both men and women consider our bodies to be sacred and not for everybody else's gaze or touch. When you consider the amount of sexual harassment in the secular workplaces nowadays, you can see the wisdom of this rule.
Also related to this rule is the tendency for a Hasidic man to not look directly into the eyes of a woman who is not his wife, and vice versa. Again, this is not limited to Hasidim. Many American Indian tribes -- even matriarchal ones -- avoid eye contact between men and women in this way. In both American Indian and Hasidic cultures, it is considered very rude to stare at somebody from across the table, so there is a tendency for both men and women to look down or off to the side during conversations.
Do Hasidim have arranged marriages?
Not in the way that people usually think of it. Nobody is forced to marry somebody they don't want to marry. So no, it's not like in Fiddler on the Roof. Although, we should note, even Tevye did not force his daughters to marry someone they didn't like. He agreed to a match between his eldest daughter, Tzeitel, and the butcher, Lazar Wolf, but broke off the engagement when Tzeitel wanted to marry the tailor instead.
In the Bible, when Isaac's servant saw Rebecca at the well and thought she would make a good wife for Isaac, the girl's father, Bethuel, agreed to the match. (Genesis 24:34-54). But they also asked Rebecca if she wanted to go with the servant to marry Isaac (Genesis 24:57-58).
Granted, she had never met Isaac. Presumably she could have said "No" if it didn't work out. But she knew of Abraham, Isaac's father, and she also saw the lavish gifts that Isaac had sent her. Clearly the proposed groom was a rich man of good social standing. Out there in the desert, such an offer did not come every day. Not to say that she married only for money, heaven forbid. But she was a practical, hard-working girl (as witnessed by her offer to water the servant's camels) and this match certainly looked like a chance to marry well.
She may also have recognized Isaac as her soulmate, or bashert. Earlier in the story, the servant asks God to give him a certain sign: Let the woman who waters his camels be the one for his master, Isaac. That woman was Rebecca. Was she guided by God to do this, because she was meant to marry Isaac? Believing Jews would say yes.
So what about love? Love is important, but a marriage cannot be founded on romantic love alone, no matter what Hollywood tries to tell you. In previous centuries, people everywhere were a lot more practical about marriage. Hasidim still are. When two Hasidim are thinking about getting married, they sit down and discuss the practical things up front: Where will we live? How many children do we want? How will we support ourselves? What occupations will we pursue? What is your family background? Etc. Romantic love alone cannot keep a family together. There must be common goals, common values, a common lifestyle and worldview that will last a lifetime together. True love is not mere sexual attraction -- and besides, Hasidim don't have sex before marriage. True love develops over time as the ups and downs of life are shared together. I speak from experience: as of this writing, my wife and I have been married for over 25 years.
Based on the story of Isaac and Rebecca, Jewish law says the couple must agree to marry each other. Granted, in past centuries this was often a formality if the bride and groom lived far apart, for the simple reason that travel was difficult, so there wasn't a lot of back-and-forth visiting. And saying "No" to one's parents was a lot more difficult. So there probably were arranged marriages where the couple didn't meet until their wedding day. But that is no longer true in today's world, with telephones, email, cars, airplanes. (My middle son met his wife over the phone. They had a long-distance courtship for months before meeting face-to-face. When they finally did, they knew immediately that they were right for each other. He proposed that very same weekend. They have a happy marriage.)
So what about matchmakers? Yes, we do meet people through matchmakers, both professionals and helpful friends, relatives, neighbors, even computers... In the Hasidic world, everybody is a matchmaker of sorts, because it's a big mitzvah (holy deed) to help someone get married. Before I met my wife, everybody and their uncle was asking me over for Sabbath dinner in the hopes I would meet somebody I liked! I got a lot of free meals that way (big grin) but in the end, I met my wife at a Sabbath retreat at the Hillel House (Jewish student center) on the University of Minnesota campus.
It may not sound very romantic to go through a matchmaker, but it sure beats the bar scene and other random, sometimes dangerous ways that non-Hasidim meet each other. When a Hasid is looking for a spouse, there are no "dating games," no come-ons or "lines" no sexual expectations or whatever. You simply tell the matchmaker(s) that you are interested in marriage, what kind of person you want to meet, etc. It's really not much different than using a computer dating service, except that you are talking to a real live matchmaker instead of a machine. A matchmaker helps to screen out people you wouldn't want to meet anyway, and to find someone who will not just fall in love with you over your good looks or money or whatever, but will also be compatible with your family, your congregation, your community, your goals in life.
Ah yes, the old "they smell bad" stereotype -- so common in prejudices of all kinds, that the latest Star Trek show, Enterprise, is now using it in human-alien relations. The Vulcans think Humans smell so bad, they use nasal inhibitors in order to stand being around them in Starfleet. Then again, the Chinese word for "European," I am told, means "stinking of foreign hair." Maybe the Vulcans are right.
There is no "Hasidic custom" to bathe only once a week, and it would not be on Saturday in any case, since it is forbidden to bathe on the Sabbath. However, the "Saturday night bath" was very common in Christian homes at one time, in preparation for church on Sunday. It sounds as if your "friend" is confusing Hasidim with 19th-century Christians. If Hasidim did take a weekly bath, it would be on Friday afternoon, in preparation for the Jewish Sabbath, which begins Friday evening.
Regarding baths in general, keep in mind that, before the second half of the 20th century, most people did not have indoor plumbing. A weekly bath was considered sufficient by all but a few eccentrics. (Napoleon Bonaparte was so paranoid about body odor that he spent hours in his bathtub and even conducted state business from there. Talk about weird!) In many parts of the world today, people still don't have adequate sanitation facilities and, if you grow up under those types of conditions, you don't get into the habit of daily baths. Especially if you have to haul water from a pond or well and heat it on the stove every time. Hence the stereotype of immigrants from poor countries as "dirty."
I myself remember discussing this issue with some Israeli exchange students back in the 1960s. They were horrified at how wasteful Americans were with water (a very precious commodity in the Middle East). The Americans thought that the Israelis stank. The Israelis only bathed once a week, and the girls only washed their hair every two weeks. They thought we were nuts to bathe so often. And these were not Hasidism, they were secular kibbutzniks from a desert area where water is scarce. Similarly, when I was in the Ukraine in 1997 (where many Hasidim originally came from), the plumbing didn't work half the time, and when it did, it was always freezing cold. Nobody had hot running water, so nobody took tub baths.
I also recall a story of a man recently arrived from Eastern Europe, who had horrible breath and was looked down upon by the members of his Reform Jewish congregation. Turns out, his teeth were rotten. With all the medical people in that synagogue, not one person ever thought to see if he needed dental care. They all assumed (wrongly) that he was a slob who never brushed his teeth. The truth was, good medical care was not available in the Russian village where he came from. Neither was good diet to form healthy teeth.
Yes, diet can be a factor in all this. I am a vegetarian, and I've noticed that the sweat of heavy meat-eaters (Jewish or not) often stinks to high heavens. Not to mention people who smoke. In my opinion, stale cigarette smoke beats all other odors combined.
Concerning deodorants and such, there is no prohibition in Hasidism against using them, and in America, most Hasidim do. But in many parts of the world, people barely have enough to eat, let alone money for nicities like deodorants. Even most Americans did not use them until the 1960s when commercialism hit the airwaves and convinced us all that B.O. is bad. When I was growing up, deodorant soaps did not yet exist -- and I grew up in the USA, too.
We must also ask: are all these scented chemicals really good for us? My wife, who is seriously allergic to perfumes, finds many scented household products so obnoxious that she must leave the room or risk an asthma attack. Ours is the first generation (post-WWII) to grow up with all these chemicals in our homes, and, as we get older, the cumulative negative effects are showing up. The day may come when we will all have to go back to tolerating some body odor in the name of better health.
The one time when Jews might smell for "religious" reasons is on holy days such as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), when it is forbidden to bathe. (This prohibition, by the way, is basic Jewish law and applies to all Jews, not just Hasidism.) On fast days and certain other holy days, one is not supposed to be concerned about worldly things. On Yom Kippur, we abstain from food, drink, bathing, sex, and wearing leather items (out of humility) as a form of self-denial. I suppose a congregation might smell rather ripe at the end of Yom Kippur if the weather is warm. Then again, if that's what you are thinking about on Yom Kippur instead of examining your own heart and soul, then I would strongly suggest re-evaluating your priorities.
Update 2/27/05: Since writing this section, dozens of people have been sending me their "I sat next to a smelly Hasid on the bus/train/subway" stories. OK, so an individual Hasid smells bad. So what? I've sat next to a lot of really smelly gentiles, too. If the guy was dressed in blue-collar work clothes and wearing a hard hat, you would attribute any body odor to his rugged outdoor job, right? So nu -- how do you know what that Hasid was doing all day? Maybe he was working without air conditioning in a hot, sweaty warehouse. Maybe he lives without air conditioning. Maybe he was cleaning the elephant cage at the Bronx Zoo. Maybe he's homeless. (Yes, there are homeless Jews. We are not all rich. Read the article, Henny's Secret.) My point is, if that smelly guy wasn't in Hasidic clothes, you wouldn't think of him as a "dirty Jew," you would just see him as a person who needs a bath for whatever reason, period.
Why don't Hasidim have dogs? Why are they so afraid of dogs?
The first time I got this question, I was puzzled by it, because I myself have three dogs. I know other Hasidim with dogs also. There is nothing in Hasidism per se that forbids keeping a dog. In fact, the Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish law) says that it is a mitzvah [good deed] to feed or otherwise help a stray dog, because the dogs of ancient Egypt did not bark or snarl at the Jews during the Exodus.
However, it is true that many Hasidim, especially in the New York City and Israeli communities, have a cultural aversion to dogs, and very few Hasidim in those communities keep dogs. Those who do keep a dog often find that their Hasidic friends and neighbors will not come to their homes because they are afraid of the dog. So it is a self-perpetuating circle, and most urban Hasidim simply don't have dogs. There are also certain complications regarding the issue of having non-kosher dog food ingredients in the house, or handling animals on the Sabbath, etc. (There are work-arounds for these problems, but I won't go into detail here.)
The cultural dislike of dogs seems to trace back to Eastern Europe, where it was common for Jew-hating peasants to sic their dogs on Jews. An elderly Hasidic woman from Poland once told me that the first thing she would hear before a pogrom (a violent attack on a Jewish community) was the howling and barking of dogs in the distance, which got louder as the mob came nearer. The Nazis also used dogs to track down Jews during the Holocaust, and there are many eye-witness accounts of Jews being torn apart by vicious dogs in the concentration camps. So these are the images that many Hasidim have in their minds about dogs -- not as "man's best friend," but as the vicious accomplices of rampaging antisemites.
Because a high percentage of Hasidim are Holocaust survivors or descendants of such survivors, these stories have become part of the family folklore and, sadly, are perpetuated as strong prejudices and phobias against dogs in general. When I bring up this issue in the Hasidic community, I get various answers. One rabbi said that "It is the nature of a dog to be dangerous," which, of course, is simply not true. It is the nature of a dog to be loyal to its owner, and it is the owners who have sometimes trained dogs to attack Jews. I would see this as a human perversion of the use of a dog, not its true nature.
On the other hand, a young Hasidic man I recently met in Boston remarked that "the dogs in Europe were very vicious, but the dogs in America seem to be more friendly." Again, it is a matter of how the dogs are trained. But this remark may indicate a change in attitude among American Hasidim who have had more positive experiences with dogs than their European ancestors did. It is also true that in America, Jews are not being attacked by raging mobs of peasants with pitchforks and howling dogs.
There are also some Hasidim who maintain that our homes are like the Holy Temple, and, because dogs were not a species of animal that was sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple, we should not bring dogs (or any other non-kosher animal) into our homes. The Lubovitcher Hasidim even go so far as to say that children should not even have toys that represent non-kosher animals. (What? No more Noah's Ark toys???) In my opinion, this is taking the Temple symbolism too far. We must ask ourselves: is this really how our ancestors lived? When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, a clear distinction was made between times when the priests were actually serving there and when they were not. Before going into the Temple, the priests underwent various ritual purifications precisely because it was impossible to maintain a totally purified state in the outside world. I highly doubt that they kept their private homes in the same level of purity as the Temple.
The Torah clearly tells us that our ancestors kept camels, donkeys, horses and other non-kosher animals for work or other purposes. I find it hard to believe that our shepherd patriarchs would not have used herding dogs -- and we know dogs were available back then, because they are mentioned in connection with the Exodus. So , ask any sheep farmer how easy it would be to round up their flocks without the help of dogs. The fact is, until the 20th century, Jewish people came into contact with animals on a daily basis. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, used to stable his own horses when he traveled, to be sure they were properly cared for. The earliest compilation of Hasidic stories, In Praise of The Baal Shem Tov (Shivchei Ha-Besht), contains stories about Hasidim adopting stray dogs. Cats were also common in stetl households. Several elderly Jews have told me that their village synagogue had a cat to keep the mice from nibbling on the leather-bound books. Only in modern times, when Hasidim moved from the rural villages of Eastern Europe to urban communities, has this attitude developed that we should not keep non-kosher animal species.
As a dog lover myself, I hope that someday the time will come when more Hasidic children will know the joy and companionship of having a dog. (Yes, I am aware of certain negative things in kabbalah about dogs, but kabbalah is in the category of midrash, i.e., not binding as law. It has been amazing how many readers have felt a need to "enlighten" me about why I should not have dogs. This question generates more emails from Hasidim than the whole FAQ combined! The prejudice against dogs runs far deeper than I ever could have imagined.)
But, my dear Hasidic brothers and sisters, even if you yourself do not want to keep a dog, be aware that you are endangering your children by teaching them to run in panic from dogs. Dogs are pack animals and they are hierarchical, i.e., they need to know who -- dog or human -- is the Alpha, i.e., leader of the pack. A dog can literally smell fear in human pheremones, too. If you run, the dog is more likely to attack than if you confidently stand your ground as the Alpha male or female. For our own safety and that of our children, isn't it time for us Hasidim to face this dog phobia and overcome it?
There is also considerable scientific evidence that emotionally bonding with animals (not just dogs) has a positive effect on the health of humans. To explore this idea, I recommend reading The Healing Power of Pets by Dr. Marty Becker, DVM. According to numerous scientific studies and anecdotal stories in this book, people who have pets live longer, healthier lives than people who don't have pets. In one Brooklyn study, dog owners were eight times more likely to still be alive a year after a heart attack than people who did not have a dog. The bond between humans and their pets is so therapeutic, that some physicians have actually prescribed pets as treatment for depression and other illnesses. Therapeutic animals were also used to help children recover from the trauma of the 9/11 attacks and the Columbine school shootings. Many nursing homes also schedule visits by gentle animals and their owners, to cheer up lonely residents.
Considering how few Jews have pets compared to the general population, I recommend we read The Healing Power of Pets and begin to re-evaluate our attitudes about keeping animals. Why should we let irrational fears deprive us of a source of emotional and physical healing?