To the uninitiated, it appears that many chassidim wear round fur hats called shtreimels on Shabbat and holidays, but I must point out that, in truth, there are different hats, with different names. One can often discern which chassidic group one belongs to based on the type of hat and other nuances in garb.

To overgeneralize, there are shtreimels and spodiks. Shtreimels are shorter, wider and somewhat donut-shaped, and are generally worn by chassidic groups that originated in Hungary and Galicia (although some Polish groups do so as well). Spodiks, on the other hand, are narrower, taller and overall more cylindrical. They are made from black fur and are generally worn by chassidic groups originating in Poland. (In recent years, the shtreimels have become taller and more angular, looking more cylindrical and less donut-like.) Additionally, there are less common hats like the kolpik, which looks like a spodik but is made from brown fur.

For simplicity’s sake, we will just refer to them all as the shtreimel.

Origin of the Shtreimel

It isn’t entirely clear when exactly the custom of wearing a shtreimel started. One popular legend points to around the 18th century in Poland, when the government wished to humiliate the Jews and forced them to wear an animal tail as a public display of shame. However, many rabbis, including many students of the Baal Shem Tov, decided to not only embrace the decree but turn it around by making a regal headgear out of the animal tails, which they then wore with great pride.

The second Rebbe of Shtefanesht (1862-1933) wearing a shtreimel. Note the cone-shaped center, unique to the rebbes of the Ruzhin tradition.
The second Rebbe of Shtefanesht (1862-1933) wearing a shtreimel. Note the cone-shaped center, unique to the rebbes of the Ruzhin tradition.

In truth, however, the shtreimel was mentioned in 17th-century Jewish texts, before the times of the Baal Shem Tov.1

There are many reasons given for specifically wearing a shtreimel on Shabbat. Here are just a few:

A Crown Like Tefillin

The Talmud explains that the verse “Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of the L‑rd is called upon you, and they will fear you”2 is a reference to the tefillin worn on the head.3 On Shabbat, when we don’t wear tefillin, some wear the regal-looking shtreimel, in line with the above verse.

[An interesting tidbit is brought in the name of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, who was a student of the Baal Shem Tov, that the word Shabbat is an acronym for Shtreimel Bimkom Tefillin—“the shtreimel is in place of tefillin.”4

Others point out that the word שטראמל (with an alef) has the same numerical value as the word תפילין.5 (Of course, the intention was never that a shtreimel, which is merely a custom, could literally take the place of tefillin, which is a biblical commandment. Rather that the shtreimel on Shabbat also serves the purpose of differentiating between the Jewish people and the nations of the world.)]

A Unique Shabbat Crown

According to Jewish law, one should have special garments to honor the Shabbat. Wearing a special, regal hat represents the “Shabbat crown,” which also corresponds to the “crown of Torah” since the Torah was given on Shabbat.6

Uplifting the Mundane

Another explanation given in the name of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is that part of our mission in this world is to refine and uplift the mundane and physical. However, there are some objects that, in the normal course of a regular weekday, we are unable to uplift. This is represented by the tail, the lowest part of an unkosher animal. However, on the holy day of Shabbat, when the world is on a higher spiritual plane, we are able to uplift even these objects. Hence, the shtreimel is made of animal tails.7

The Question You Want to Ask Next

Most of the time when this question is asked, it is accompanied by another question: Why don’t Chabad chassidim wear shtreimels?”

Let me first explain by saying that at the onset of chassidic history, the garb was much more fluid than it is now. Our generation is probably the first in which virtually every married male member of most chassidic communities wears shtreimels. In the past, the poverty that was prevalent in much of Eastern Europe would have precluded this from ever having happened.

In addition, the shtreimel was significantly less popular among the chassidim in certain parts of Ukraine and Russia, both Chabad and non-Chabad.

Although the Chabad rebbes (and their sons, as well as certain elite chassidim) generally wore a shtreimel, this was far from universal. Before Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch (the Rebbe Rashab) got married, his father Rabbi Shmuel (the Rebbe Maharash) instructed him to only wear a shtreimel while he was in the town of Lubavitch. The Rebbe Rashab followed his father’s instructions and would not wear his shtreimel when he was out of town for Shabbat. The last years of his life, when he had to leave the town of Lubavitch and he resided in Rostov, he did not wear a shtreimel.

The Previous Rebbe wearing his shtreimel (or more accurately, a kolpik).
The Previous Rebbe wearing his shtreimel (or more accurately, a kolpik).

His son, the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, initially didn’t wear a shtreimel. The first time he wore one was at the wedding of his daughter Chaya Mushka to the future Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Afterward, he started to wear a shtreimel on Shabbat and holidays.

The Rebbe himself didn’t wear a shtreimel. The story is told that when the Rebbe and his wife arrived in America, the Previous Rebbe, who, because of ill health, was unable to greet his daughter and son-in-law personally, sent four of his most eminent chassidim to greet the Rebbe. The Previous Rebbe described his son-in-law as “one who recites Tikkun Chatzot; knows by heart the entire Babylonian Talmud with the commentaries of the Ran, the Rosh and the Rif; he knows by heart the Jerusalem Talmud, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah and Likkutei Torah with its commentaries . . .” But despite all this, he humbly “goes with a hat that has its brim down. Go and greet him!"

But why? We can only speculate, but this exact question was once posed to the Rebbe by a very prominent rabbi from Israel, who sat on the rabbinical court in Jerusalem. The visitor remarked to the Rebbe that if he would wear a shtreimel, he would gain another 50,000 chassidim. The Rebbe replied, “Where would these chassidim come from? From other chassidic groups, or from Hashomer Hatzair (a very left-wing, secular kibbutz/group in Israel)?”

This brings us to what is perhaps the main reason why Chabad doesn’t wear a shtreimel.

Different Ways of Creating Warmth

Wearing a modern shtreimel at a wedding in New York.
Wearing a modern shtreimel at a wedding in New York.

It was right after World War II, and the grand rabbi of what was to become a large chassidic group arrived in America. Noticing that many of his chassidim didn’t wear a shtreimel, he taught that although in Europe a shtreimel may not have been so critical, since it was worn more as a sign of “honor and respect,” in America it was more important to wear a shtreimel and other trappings of chassidic garb, as he saw them as a means of preserving the warmth, customs, and way of life of the chassidic community. And more importantly, it was a way of insulating the community and holding back the tides of assimilation.8

In the teachings of Chabad, however, the emphasis was not so much on how one looked on the outside, nor on creating an insular community by dressing differently. Rather, the emphasis was on creating the internal strength and warmth to withstand assimilation, through studying and internalizing the teachings of Chassidism.

It is this internal warmth which gives Chabad emissaries throughout the world the strength and warmth to go out to remote communities where there is no Judaism. Not only do they have no fear of being assimilated, but on the contrary, they serve as a beacon of light, bringing the warmth of Judaism to the remotest of regions. In the end, while garments have importance, it is our actions and convictions that truly define us.