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.