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What’s A “Hassid,” Anyway?

What’s A “Hassid,” Anyway?

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You might have heard the old saying, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” But do you really want to ask one? Most people don’t want to be embarrassed, so if there’s a question to which they feel they should already know the answer, it usually goes unasked. Or perhaps, it never occurs to them to ask the simple question: What exactly is a chassid?

Most Jews, no matter their education level, have heard the terms “hassid” or “hassidic” (also spelled “chassid” and “chassidic”). I was recently visiting a friend back east, and while I was there, the subject came up. He was trying to explain to another buddy what a chassid was.

“The hassids are the ones who wear the long black coats and the beards.”

“No, no, no. All the Orthodox have the long black coats and beards. The hassids are the ones with the wide-brimmed hats.”

“No, they all wear the hats . . .”

They went back and forth for a while. It was like a Laurel and Hardy bit, which was funny to me at first, but it got me to wondering if I myself really knew what a (c)hassid was. So, I decided to investigate.

I vaguely remembered having seen the term “chassid” somewhere where it had looked out of place: somewhere in some book written way back then, before there even was a “chassidic movement” in Eastern Europe. It had bugged me, but in that hazy, lazy, something-doesn’t-seem-quite-right-but-I’m-not-going-to-stop-to-figure-it-out-right-now kind of way. But now that the question had come up, I decided to go back to it. It turned out I’d seen the word in Pirkei Avot, or “Ethics of Our Fathers.”

Pirkei Avot is a book of very short and pithy, but quite profound, statements written by the rabbis of the Talmudic era. The first time I read it, it reminded me of something out of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching or Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. I loved it. It’s called a book, but the whole thing is barely 25 pages, six chapters of about four pages apiece; each chapter contains a little over a dozen short bits of wisdom so deep you could mull it over for the rest of your life. And people do.

Anyway, the fifth saying in the second chapter of Pirkei Avot includes the statement, “A boor can’t be sin-fearing, and an ignoramus can’t be a chassid.” In the English translation, in the parenthesis next to the word chassid it says, “One who does more than the letter of the law requires.” That’s it. I was amazed. My friend and his buddy could argue all day long about hats, coats and beards. You and I might be more philosophical, but still not get to the heart of the matter. But our sages didn’t waste words. A chassid is simply someone who does more than he has to, someone who goes the extra yard.

You’ve got to love those Talmud guys. Totally to the point. Very clean. Not even a wasted syllable. Man, I wish I could be like that. Anyway, reading it really got me excited, because it made me remember something else I’d once heard a Chabad rabbi say.

He said that there are plenty of mitzvahs that you can do that are basically between you and G‑d: putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, etc. These are definitely awesome mitzvahs that you should do. However, he continued, what can you do that will really get G‑d excited? Well, suppose a friend of yours confides in you that he is heartbroken because his son in second grade was just diagnosed with a learning disability, and is having a lot of trouble learning to read. Well, you could bring the guy a pound cake, and that would be nice. But if you could find the right tutor or reading program that would help his kid—well, that’s what he really needs. You could save him endless heartache. Talk about going the extra yard.

The point is, if you want to make G‑d happy, be nice to His children. Don’t say mean things to people. Don’t gossip about them. Smile once, and a while. And, if you really want to be a chassid, help a fellow Jew who is really having a big problem. Or show him how to do a mitzvah he’s never done before. That’s what a real chassid would do.

Still, if after reading all of this you find yourself with a hankering for a long black coat and a wide-brimmed hat, go for it. You’ve got to start someplace.

Matt Lipeles is a Classic Jew who also is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at mlipeles@earthlink.net
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N. Rose Phila. January 10, 2017

I appreciate that you've brought out the idea of personal accountability towards good, but I think with the last line you missed the point. A Chassid has absolutely no connection to NY or European community standards. The only factor necessary is education- what the ten to fifteen+ campaigns are, how all Jews should look out for others, spiritually in addition to physically, concepts of growth, etc; sure a person could get a hat and coat, it represents the group that's pushing the movement of education, but it could be in the direction of a Chassid as much as buying Hawaiian shirts for a luau block party. It's a mirage that there is a necessary or even productive connection between a dress code and a Chassid, though it may and probably would differ for the few living in a Brooklyn styled community or 'representing' the part doing mivtzoim, which aren't public concepts. Reply

David Burleson, TX January 10, 2017

Thank you for this article. I started going to a Chabad House last summer. Yes, some of the men wear black pants and white shirts. However, they accept this NOOB ☺ for just wearing casual clothing while attending services. I just started to wear a kippah daily. They emphasize just to take baby steps when you feel comfortable. Chabad has inspired me to study Torah more and just be a better person overall. Thanks to Chabad.org for their absolutely awesome website. If it wasn't for this site, I would have never heard of Chabad or find my nearest Chabad House. Reply

Jennifer Connecticut November 20, 2015

The point :) Thank you. Very clean and clear point. If everyone tried this, wow what a spectacular world we would be in. I pray this to our Almighty and Ever Loving Father. Amen. Reply

Dean Connecticut, USA July 15, 2015

A Noahide thought I've read the term Hassidic Gentile in reference to a Noahide. Could this be in meaning of a Noahide's following the seven laws unlike a gentile that does not follow these laws. A gentile that goes the extra yard? Reply

Amiram Kupfer Canada January 15, 2015

Still looking for reasonable answer.. Personally, I wear knitted kipa and whatever is comfortable. that doesn't make me to be not a Hassid. I love hassidut, but don't want wearing black. Reply

Barbara Albany, NY January 14, 2015

Thank You Thank you from this Gentile woman. Reply

Susan M. Risk Kanata January 14, 2015

What I learned In Judaism in University, I learned that Chassidic people evolved a dialectic between Muslim and Jewish Orthodoxy, since these families were not only intermarried, or marrying, they were attempting to include modernized Hebrew terms, which facilitated sciences that had mostly evolved from Arabic nations. So Chassids relate to both religions, somehow, or so I believe. I am sure there is a definition on history books or online. Perhaps you would not mind going that extra yard in finding a justifiable explanation as to why all Chassids are now expected to wear only black? Reply

GAIL FOREST HILLS January 14, 2015

I am not a Hassid, but my parents, Holocaust survivors, taught me well!!!
A friend of mine told me he was having problems with his some who just dropped out of college, I hooked him up with someone who could help him!!!
My mitzvah for the day!!! Reply

Dennis McKinney EVANSVILLE January 14, 2015

Thank you from this gentile guy. Hassid is exactly what Christians are supposed to do but generally don't do. Thank you, again. Reply

yaakov . January 13, 2015

Chassid= an embodiment of Chesed Chassid can mean an embodiment of the quality of Chesed, or lovingkindness. Reply

Shira Bristol January 13, 2015

I'm a Chassid woman and have been wonderfully blessed by belonging to a small Chabad community but we attend an Orthodox Shul on High Days. We are not poor and most of us are not from Eastern Europe, and most of us are highly educated. it is the same with the other Chabads I know. I enjoyed this article. It is somewhere to start. Someone asked me this today and I just said we follow the path of life L'chaim and Chessed, Lovingkindness of HaShem. That is somewhere else to start. Then follow it with all your being trusting HaShem will grow you. Hope that helps. Blessings Reply

lazer January 13, 2015

levush On the Lubavitcher Rebbe's 70th birthday, he was asked by a college student if it was possible to be his Chassid without donning the Chassidic garb, without growing a beard.
The Rebbe replied, "Every day, even now, I wake up each morning seeking to make it better than the day before. If you only make the commitment to do this, to consistently add in goodness, I will be proud to call you my Chassid." Reply

Anonymous lake city, florida January 13, 2015

Still in the dark. Reply

Anonymous January 13, 2015

the long black coat, the hat, the white stockings, are all examples of minhag, meaning a custom that has become almost a law because of its age and the wisdom and learning of the people who observe it. It is a group identifier .There is no religious meaning. Reply

Anonymous Montreal June 26, 2014

Chossid and Rebbe To briefly respond to two posts:
fish: slightly a bit off, the first Hassidim were giant scholars and mystics, who were taught to love even the poorer, less educated, simple Jews, despite the gap in scholarship and practice.
In regards to worshipping their Rebbes, Hassidism reawakened, so to speak, a fundamental relationship that has always existed as an anchor of Judaism and the Jewish people, that of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses), and the Jewish people. What may seem like worship to those who do not experience it first-hand, is in reality an essential relationship that is the continuation of a thousands-year-old Jewish tradition.
Missing the point: I believe that there are many who reside in Brooklyn today who would tell you that they see themselves as a continuation of the Hassidic movement, theologically and philosophically. If you're looking for proof that love of your fellow Jew is still a real thing, just look at all the young couples that left comfort to help Jews around the world. Reply

Anonymous USA December 4, 2013

fish I was always under the impression that the Hassids were poorer, less education Eastern European Jews who got caught up in mystical kabbalah and ended up worshipping their Rebbes....

Not to dig this website or anything. There's a wealth of information here and I refer to it regularly. Just don't believe everything you read.... or hear. Reply

Doinokay Shofar November 22, 2013

Chassid versus frum, anyone? Reply

Anonymous Boston November 28, 2012

Maybe missing the point a bit Yes, this sounds nice, but I think it does miss an important point when talking about a Hassid vs. a hassid. Using the description in this article to understand the Hassid population is a little like studying the philosophy of Marx to understand the Communist Party in China today (which, though sharing the name of "Communism," certainly bare little resemblance to each other). There is definitely a difference between the original philosophy as someone defined it ages ago and a particular population that took up that term as their moniker and practice some version of it now. I don't think a Hassid in Brooklyn would agree that anyone who went the extra mile would be an honorary member of their community, and to understand the community properly, one needs to look at those many, many differences. Unfortunately, I don't know them, but I would love for someone to explain them to me. Reply

Jilimon Qro, Qro/MEX April 29, 2012

Hassidic Jew vs Chabad Jew The important point I've learned in this article is that a Hassidic Jew is not exactly the same as a Chabad Jew. Now that I know the difference I feel much comfortable while reading these articles in Chabad.org Reply

Anonymous Newton, MA April 28, 2012

But I Can't Wear a Black Hat and Coat I am a woman. I cannot wear the Black Hat and Coat. Is a chassid only a male? Can I be one? Why the discussion about clothes anyway. Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.