Illustrative photo of a man wearing and holding a shtreimel, a fur hat.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
On the evening of December 19, 2016, a rally was held in Jerusalem for girls studying in Bais Yaakov seminaries. The goal of the rally was to dissuade the girls from pursuing an academic education, even in institutions or programs that are under haredi auspices.
The first speaker was Rabbi Baruch Shapira, who related a conversation he had with Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman (b. 1913) earlier that day about the event.
Shteinman is widely regarded as the foremost authority of the non-hassidic Ashkenazi world. Besides being a renowned scholar, Shteinman is the head of the Degel Hatorah faction of the Agudat Yisrael Party. Consequently, a message from the respected centenarian carries significant weight.
According to the message delivered by Shapira, as reported by news outlets, Shteinman supported the rally, summing up his distaste for the haredi academic programs with a pithy remark: “Haredi academics?! That is [like] a pig with a shtreimel.”
Shteinman’s crisp quip may have been drawing on the Yiddish expression “From a pig’s tail, you cannot make a shtreimel.” The expression is often taken to mean that from something bad, you cannot make something good. Alternatively, the expression may mean that something holy, like a shtreimel, should not be made from something that is impure. In Jewish collective memory, the pig is the most nonkosher thing in the world and the symbolic antithesis of holiness. Perhaps Shteinman had another Yiddish expression in mind: “If you put a shtreimel on a pig, does that make him into a rabbi?!”
Shteinman himself does not wear a shtreimel. In the image that he conjured up, the traditional fur hat represents the haredi community, while the pig represents academia. Putting a shtreimel on a pig is incongruous; so, too, is haredi academia. The two just do not go together.
This was not the first time an animal had been caught wearing a shtreimel. In 2011, an American Yiddish magazine that caters to hassidic communities advertised a shtreimel sale before Passover. It showed a lamb wearing a shtreimel, tied to a bed with pyramids in the background – an image suggestive of the biblical Passover.
To be sure, animals wearing shtreimels are not a common image in Jewish consciousness. Having said that, I believe that the first source for an animal donning a shtreimel comes from Lubavitch lore – an interesting fact in itself, given that Lubavitch Hassidim no longer wear fur hats. Before recounting the short tale, a few words of introduction about the provenance of the tale are appropriate.
The tale appears in different versions, though I have not seen it outside the Lubavitch tradition. The earliest reference I found comes from a discourse delivered by Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Maharash) in 1879. The discourse was presumably delivered in Yiddish, though it is recorded in Hebrew, and the term “shtreimel” does not appear; rather, the more general “kova shel Shabbat” (a Sabbath hat) is used. Maharash’s son and successor, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Rashab) also recounted the tale, as did his son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Rayatz). When retelling the story in 1941, Rayatz specifically referred to the shtreimel. So too, Rayatz’s son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch, when he recalled the tale in 1984.
According to the tale, the Ba’al Shem Tov (Besht) instructed his disciples to close their eyes, and they suddenly perceived an ox wearing a shtreimel. The Besht explained that this was a Jew who sits and eats ox meat in honor of Shabbat. Alas, instead of savoring Shabbat, he savors the ox meat. The power of this colorful image to evoke emotions lies in the ability of the audience – namely, the followers of the Lubavitch Hassidic masters – to imagine themselves as shtreimel-wearing oxen. The shtreimel in the tale is what indicates that these are hassidim who are acting like oxen, not real oxen. The message is clear: You may be wearing hassidic garb, but you are behaving like an animal. The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the Pardes faculty and a postdoctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.