A furry tale: On the tail of the ‘shtreimel’s’ origins

This colorful account is often retold, and was recorded by the early scholar of hassidism Ahron Marcus (1843-1916).

In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Beggars’ (1568) the tails pinned to the backs of characters are likely an indication of their status as social outcasts. (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Beggars’ (1568) the tails pinned to the backs of characters are likely an indication of their status as social outcasts.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
One of the great mysteries of the hassidic wardrobe is the origins of the various forms of fur head-wear that have become recognizable visual markers of hassidic affiliation: shtreimel, spodik and kolpik.
Where did the fur chapeau so favored by hassidim come from? One of the most cited narratives describes how the furs are distinctly Jewish items of clothing that were originally forced upon the Jews as a mark of shame. According to one version, an antisemitic Polish king decreed that married men must wear animal tails affixed to their heads on Shabbat. The wives, seeing their husbands with animal tails, would find them despicable.
With time, the decree lost its force, and the original reason faded from memory. Jews continued to wear the tails on Shabbat, but they evolved into a stylish cap that was donned in honor of special occasions.
This colorful account is often retold, and was recorded by the early scholar of hassidism Ahron Marcus (1843-1916), by Nobel Prize laureate for literature S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970), and by the hassidic master Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam of Klausenberg (1905-94). One contemporary writer – Rabbi Menahem Avinoam Makover – even identified the Polish king as Zygmunt I (1467-1548).
Agnon acknowledged that even before the supposed decree, Polish Jews and gentiles wore hats made of animal fur in winter. The king’s decree targeted married men, required tails, and included summer. In his classic wry style, Agnon quipped that even though the Kingdom of Poland is no more, its decrees are preserved by shtreimel wearers!
A similar narrative shifted the focus from Poland to Austria. Solomon Fruchter (c. 1890-c. 1965) was born in Izaszacsal, Hungary, which became Sacel, Romania, after the Great War. He served as the secretary of the Sacel community until sometime in the 1920s, when he emigrated to America. At the end of his life, Fruchter moved to Israel.
He published a short work on the state of Jews in the Diaspora, which he printed in Romania during the interwar period. In the introduction to the volume, Fruchter attributed the shtreimel’s origins to antisemitic legislation of a Habsburg ruler, who required Jews to wear a mark of shame – presumably the forerunner of the shtreimel. Fruchter did not identify the Habsburg ruler, merely stating that it was before the reign of Maria Theresa (1717-1780), who ruled from 1740.
According to Fruchter, when Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) decreed that Jews of his realm must be clean-shaven and without side-locks, Hungarian rabbis instituted that Jews must wear clothing that was visually distinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbors, thus enshrining the shtreimel as required Jewish clothing.
This narrative – whether it is a story of Polish legal history or of Austrian legal history – picks up on various themes in the annals of sartorial norms. Indeed, there are examples of marks of shame that evolve into identity markers worn with pride. Similarly, tails were worn as a mark of pariah status. This is evident in two famous paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-1569): The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), which is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and The Beggars (1568), which is in the Louvre, Paris. Scholars have debated how to interpret The Beggars, but it is likely that the tails pinned to the backs of characters are an indication of social outcast. But who was it that instigated the antisemitic legislation that led to the shtreimel? Was it an Austrian ruler, or was it a Polish king, perhaps even Zygmunt I?
The truth is that the shtreimel account lacks authenticated documentation. There is no evidence of Polish or Austrian legislation forcing Jews to wear tails on their heads as a mark of disgrace.
Even the identification of Zygmunt I as the instigator of the legislation, a detail that at first blush might seem to strengthen the narrative, is far-fetched. If anything, Zygmunt I had a favorable attitude to the Jews of his realm. Inter alia, he canceled the expulsion order that his brother and predecessor on the throne, Aleksander Jagiellonczyk (1461-1506), had decreed in 1495. Thus, the most prevalent version of the shtreimel’s origins lacks evidence, and the roots of the hassidic fur chapeau remain a mystery.
Notwithstanding the hazy origins, that the shtreimel is a symbol of hassidic affiliation is undeniable and not new.
Eighty years ago – on September 14, 1937 – on the front page of The Jewish Western Bulletin – British Columbia’s Jewish newspaper, there was a short item published under the heading “Trains Don’t Stop Here on Saturday.” The unnamed correspondent reported: “All trains passing Sodina will omit that stop because the ministry of railways has appointed Meyer Lefkowitz, a pious, streimel-wearing hassid, as stationmaster.” Sodina – or rather Zadne – was at the time in Czechoslovakia; today it is in Ukraine and known as Pryborzhavs’ke.
We can assume that Lefkowitz did not wear his shtreimel to work on weekdays. Yet when the reporter wanted to describe the specific religious affiliation of the new Jewish stationmaster, he referred to his Shabbat head-covering. Thus the shtreimel served as a visual and rhetorical marker of hassidic affiliation, even when it was not being worn.
The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the Pardes faculty and a postdoctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.