The Tisch: They did not change their clothing

The historical origins of the shtreimel are hazy, but hassidic masters did not hesitate to describe biblical personalities wearing fur headgear.

Hassidic Jews (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hassidic Jews
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The shtreimel is undeniably the most visible marker of hassidic affiliation nowadays. How far back can we trace the fur chapeau that is so clearly associated with Hassidism in collective consciousness? The historical origins of the shtreimel are hazy, but hassidic masters did not hesitate to describe biblical personalities wearing fur headgear.
In a manuscript that was first published in 1998, hassidic master Rabbi Sinai Halberstam of Zmigrod (1869-1941) quoted his grandfather Rabbi Hayim Halberstam of Sanz (1793-1876), who declared that we have a tradition that our forefather Abraham wore hassidic garb: a shtreimel and a tunic, with boots and stockings, and a long jacket.
The Sanzer Rebbe’s tradition dated back to the Hozeh (Seer) of Lublin, Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak Halevi Horowitz (1745-1815). When the Hozeh first came to Lublin, he arrived on Friday afternoon. He went to synagogue, and after the service a person wearing hassidic garb greeted him. The Hozeh realized that this person was not of this world, so he asked him who he was. The mysterious person responded: “I am the one to whom the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Go forth from your land’” (Genesis 12:1) – a biblical reference to Abraham.
Another descendant of the Sanzer Rebbe – Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam of Bobov (the Second, 1907-2000) – related that Rabbi Meir’l of Premishlan (1783-1850) had a hanukkia decorated with the biblical scene of the Binding of Isaac.
In the artistic representation, Abraham was standing wearing a kolpik – a different version of the hassidic fur cap – “and white socks” as per the custom of Bobov Hassidim! Why would hassidic masters anachronistically place Eastern European furs on the heads of biblical personalities? Surely such sartorial descriptions are climatically incongruous! Before suggesting an explanation, let me add that Abraham was not the only biblical personality to wear a shtreimel.
In a compilation of pithy teachings attributed to the hassidic master Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), we find a vignette from the biblical episode of the spies returning from their mission to the Land of Israel. The storyteller notes that the spies, “with shtreimelekh and white clothing” were leaders in Israel. As soon as the spies defamed the Land of Israel, Joshua and Caleb rent their garments and exclaimed: “Why are you still wearing shtreimelekh?!” The anachronistic clothing is actually a brilliant literary device: it serves to identify the spies as hassidim, or perhaps even hassidic masters. Dressing the spies in hassidic garb brings the biblical episode into the present and turns it into a critique of hassidim who would disparage the Land of Israel. The shtreimel, therefore, turns the ancient biblical narrative into a contemporary moral lesson. This is a classic homiletic device that is prevalent throughout the corpus of Midrash.
It was not just biblical protagonists of a bygone era who wore shtreimelekh; future heroes were also depicted with hassidic chapeaus.
When Rabbi Shlomo Shapira of Munkatch (1831-1893) was about five years old, he woke up one morning and told his father, Rabbi Elazar of Lancut (1808-1865), about a fantastic vision that he just had.
“I saw in a dream three people walking alongside the river just outside Rybotycze.
Who were these three people? My grandfather, [Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech] of Dynów [1783-1841]; on one side of him the king Messiah; and on his other side Elijah the Prophet. And they were all wearing shtreimelekh on their heads.”
The young boy continued, explaining that the caps of the three shtreimelekh were different: “My grandfather’s was made of velvet, as is customary.
[The cap] of our master the king Messiah was made of gold, and the cap of the prophet Elijah was made of silver.”
Young Shlomo’s vision excited his father, who quickly hired a wagon driver and asked one of his trusted disciples to take the young boy to see his grandfather in Dynów.
When they arrived in Dynów, young Shlomo related the dream to his grandfather. Rabbi Tsevi Elimelekh was moved and excited by the vision, and he interpreted the mystical significance of the gold and silver shtreimel caps in the dream.
In these tales, the shtreimel serves to bridge the gap in time and space and bring the heroes – whether they are biblical personalities of the past or messianic figures of the future – into the contemporary sphere.
With this in mind, let me conclude by sharing a vignette that appeared in the 1965 Tomaszów Lubelski memorial book. The writer described how an artist was brought in to paint scenes from Jewish history. At the entrance to the synagogue the artist had depicted the Binding of Isaac. The writer described the scene: “Isaac was portrayed lying stretched out on the altar for the slaughter, and Abraham was standing with a big knife in his hand. Abraham was tall with a lovely white beard, a patriarchal figure, with a wide gartel [hassidic belt] and a high forehead with a Polish shtreimel on his head.”
The writer added: “The artist had painted my grandfather as Abraham. ‘That is how your grandfather looked’ – my teacher told me.”
■ The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a postdoctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.