Friday, June 5, 2009

Shtreimels and Spodiks

One of the most distinctive pieces of clothing in the diverse world of Jewish life is the shtreimel, the round fur hat worn by Chassidic men. In the modern world, where the vast majority of men go about without any head covering at all, the shtreimel is a unique symbol of the Chassidic world.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, lived in the mid-eighteenth century in what is now the Ukraine. His followers, who became the first generation of Chassidic Rebbes, spread out across the world of Eastern European Jewry (Russia, Poland, Hungary, etc.).

The Baal Shem Tov lived in the aftermath of the Chmielnicki massacres (1648-1649) and the false Messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi, (1676), two cataclysmic events that shook the Jewish community to its core. At the heart of the Chassidic movement was the belief that the Jewish people needed to be spiritually and emotionally uplifted. The Jews of Eastern Europe needed to be reminded of their special and joyous relationship with God.

Chassidism focused on the understanding that the Jewish people were the “firstborn” children of God, and of special royal status. One method of feeling special was to honor Shabbat by wearing the finest clothes possible. In 18th century Poland, the Polish nobility wore fur hats, and so the Chassidim began to wear fur hats, shtreimels, to honor Shabbat. (Some Chassidic groups wear a taller version of a shtreimel known as a spodik, other Chassidic groups wear black, felt fedoras, instead.)

Centuries passed and fashions changed, but the shtreimel remains a distinctive feature of Chassidic dress.

Shtreimels are almost always made of real fur (sable, marten, fox, etc.) and are generally worn by Chassidic men only after marriage.

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