Haredi Jew walking in Tzfat Old City.
Hasidic Jews are called Hasidim in Hebrew. This word derived from the Hebrew word for loving kindness (chesed). The Hasidic movement is unique in its focus on the joyful observance of God’s commandments (mitzvot), heartfelt prayer and boundless love for God and the world He created. Many ideas for Hasidism derived from Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah).
The movement originated in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, at a time when Jews were experiencing great persecution. While the Jewish elite focused on and found comfort in Talmud study, the impoverished and uneducated Jewish masses hungered for a new approach.
Fortunately for the Jewish masses, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760) found a way to democratize Judaism. He was a poor orphan from the Ukraine. As a young man, he traveled around Jewish villages, healing the sick and helping the poor. After he married, he went into seclusion in the mountains and focused on mysticism. As his following grew, he became known as the Baal Shem Tov (abbreviated as Besht) which means “Master of the Good Name”.
In a nutshell, the Baal Shem Tov led European Jewry away from Rabbinism and toward mysticism. The early Hasidic movement encouraged the poor and oppressed Jews of 18th century Europe to be less academic and more emotional, less focused on executing rituals and more focused on experiencing them, less focused on gaining knowledge and more focused on feeling exalted. The way one prayed became more important than one’s knowledge of the prayer’s meaning. The Baal Shem Tov did not modify Judaism, but he did suggest that Jews approach Judaism from a different psychological state.
Despite united and vocal opposition (mitnagdim) led by the Vilna Gaon of Lithuania, Hasidic Judaism flourished. Some say that half of European Jews were Hasidic at one time.
Hasidic leaders, called tzadikim which is Hebrew for “righteous men”, became the means by which the uneducated masses could lead more Jewish lives. The tzadik was a spiritual leader who helped his followers attain a closer relationship with God. The tzadik would pray on behalf of his followers and advise them on all matters.
Over time, Hasidism broke up into different groups headed by the different tzadikim. Some of the larger and more well-known Hasidic sects include Breslov, Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Ger, Belz, Bobov, Skver, Vizhnitz, Sanz (Klausenberg), Puppa, Munkacz, Boston and Spinka Hasidim.
Like other Haredim, Hasidim don distinctive attire, which is similar to that worn by their ancestors in 18th and 19th century Europe. And the different sects of Hasidim often wear different clothing – such as different hats, robes or socks – that identify their particular sect.
The largest Hasidic groups are located today in Israel and the United States. Hasidic Jewish communities also exist in Canada, England, Belgium and Australia.