The Tisch: Black-belt hassidism

Modern gartel requirements are minimal. They are generally black, though some hassidic groups use white ones, particularly on Yom Kippur.

Orthodox praying kotel western wall 521 AP (photo credit: AP)
Orthodox praying kotel western wall 521 AP
(photo credit: AP)
If you see a hassid praying, you most likely will be looking at someone who has girded his loins with a black belt. This belt is called a gartel, a word in Yiddish that comes from the same root as the German Gürtel and the English “girdle.” What is the source and purpose of this custom? Is it a custom invented by the hassidic movement? The truth is that wearing a belt for prayer is an old-new custom: Old in that it indisputably has talmudic roots; new in that it fell into disuse and was revived by the hassidim.
From talmudic times through the earliest codes of Jewish law, a belt has been mandated for prayer (Shulhan Aruch OH 91:2). From the writings of medieval scholars of Western Europe, however, it is apparent that in some locales the practice was no longer common.
The authorities explained that the change in dress code precipitated a disregard for the prayer belt. As draped Middle Eastern long shirts were replaced by pants that were held up by a belt, there was no longer a need for an additional belt for prayer.
While this license was generally accepted among those who wore breeches, the hassidim – though they too wore trousers – adopted the practice of tying the gartel round their waists for prayer and for other religious occasions.
It is unclear, however, when the hassidim revived this custom, as there is no mention of the custom in the earliest hassidic works. We could expect that it would be mentioned alongside the other hassidic innovations in the polemical writings or bans issued by those who opposed the new movement, the mitnagdim. Alas, it is missing from these writings, too. The earliest written mention of the practice appears to be in the work Menahem Zion (Czernowitz 1851), a record of the teachings of the hassidic master Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanow (1745-1815), as transcribed by one his students.
Rabbi Menahem Mendel explained why hassidim had two belts – the belt that is worn with trousers and the gartel – by citing a biblical verse: “And righteousness should be the girdle of his hips and faith the girdle of his loins” (Isaiah 11:5). Two girdles are mentioned in the verse. He said that the first belt mentioned in the verse is aimed at righteousness; it is an attempt to imitate the Almighty about whom another verse says that “He put on righteousness as a breastplate” (Isaiah 59:17). The second belt is aimed at ensuring that faith in God is foremost in our minds.
A later authority – Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro of Munkacs (1871- 1937) – explained that the belt originally served two purposes. Citing earlier sources, he explained that the belt was first aimed at separating the heart and mind from the sexual organs. The goal of this separation was that the supplicant could commune with God while temporarily leaving behind base physical desires. For this purpose, the belt on the trousers sufficed.
The second purpose of the belt was to assist the supplicant in preparing for prayer in accordance with the biblical verse, “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (Amos 4:12). Such preparation should be done immediately before prayer, and hence the need for another belt.
Non-hassidic authorities agree with the need to prepare before meeting the Creator, and while they may agree that a gartel fulfills this requirement, it is not the sole mandated method of preparation (see, for instance, Mishna Brura 91:5).
Modern gartel requirements are minimal. They are generally black, though some hassidic groups use white ones, particularly on Yom Kippur. There is no prescribed number of strings in a gartel, though some will use numbers that have significance in Jewish mysticism.
In recent times, the gartel has been adopted beyond the hassidic milieu, probably in an attempt to seek assistance in the lofty goal of attaining focus in prayer and perhaps in identification with the beloved hassidic masters of old.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.