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Once considered deviant and reformist, Hasidic Judaism is now viewed as a branch of Haredi Orthodox Judaism.

Hasidism began in the late 17th century in the southern part of what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, particularly in what is now Western Ukraine, although the largest concentration of Hasidic Jews today are in Israel and in the United States.

A contributing factor in the rise of Hasidism was the spread of the mystical lore of Kabbalah, an esoteric teaching that had previously been practiced in secret by a few. The proliferation of the Kabbalah prepared Jewish people to accept Hasidic ideas, as they were, in essence, a more public version of the teaching. There was vehement opposition to Hasidism by the rabbinic elite.

Another factor was the decline of traditional authority within the Jewish community, allowing for the rise of Hasidic rabbis and communal elders.

This was also a time of religious upheavals worldwide, including the First Great Awakening, German Pietism, Wahhabism, and the Old Believers in Russia, who opposed the established church.

Israel ben Eliezer, considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism, assembled a sizable following. Although most of his followers were from an elitist background, they adopted a populist approach. Other significant early Hassidic leaders were Rabbi Dov Ber, Jacob Joseph of Polonne, and Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk.

By the turn of the 19th century, the Hasidic Jews had become a significant power within Eastern European Judaism. Opposition to Hasidism was blunted somewhat by the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment, which was soon perceived as a dire threat.

The 20th century saw mass immigration to the United States, while World War I and the Russian Civil War uprooted Hasidic communities in Europe, particularly the resultant secularization of the Soviet Union. By the start of World War II, strictly observant Jews made up no more than a third of the total Jewish population in Poland, then the world's most Orthodox country.

Easily identifiable by their appearance, the Holocaust hit the Hasidim particularly hard. Hundreds of Hasidic leaders were killed along with their congregations, while the flight of some of its notable leaders resulted in bitter recrimination. Many of those who fled Europe became Modern Orthodox.

Hasidism proved to be resilient, however. New Hasidic leaders emerged, drawing new followers.

Originally, the Hasidic movement challenged the rabbinic establishment, but soon endorsed the importance of scholarship in the Torah. Although the mystical teachings that were central to the early history of the movement have not been repudiated, and many of its leadership are spiritualists, these teachings have been de-emphasized, and its more radical concepts neutralized.

Hasidic Judaism holds strongly to the doctrine of immanence, which suggests that the spiritual world permeates the natural world, in contrast to the concept of transcendence, which maintains that the divine is outside of the material world.

The ethical and mystical teachings of Hasidism are not far apart from other Jewish movements, but its doctrine is one of a saintly leader who serves as the ideal, and as a figure around whom followers are gathered. In its literature, this figure is referred to as the Tzaddiq, or the Righteous One, who may also be known as Admor, which is a Hebrew acronym for "our master, teacher, and Rabbi."

Hasidic Jews are Orthodox, but not all Orthodox Jews are Hasidic. There are various threads to the Hasidic movement. Hasidic sects (courts) include Aharon, Baal Shem Tov, Belzer, Bobover, Breslov, Chabad, Dushinsky, Gur, Munkacz, Satmar, Toldos, and others, each headed by its own hereditary leader, known as Rebbe, who is viewed as a spiritual authority. These courts share a set of basic convictions but are organized separately, and maintain individual traits, customs, and traditions.

Hasidic Jews generally use a variation of Nusach Sefard, a blend of Ashkenazi and Sephardi liturgies, although several courts have their own adaptations.

Hasidic Jews use the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Aramaic and Hebrew in their liturgies, reflecting their Eastern European origins. Wordless, emotional melodies are common.

Hasidic services tend to be long and repetitive, and some Hasidic courts have done away with the specified times in which prayers must be conducted, which are traditional in Judaism.

Most Hasidic Jews wear long black coats, black hats, and have side curls, known as peyos. However, careful observers may be able to tell the difference between various Hasidic groups by subtle differences in dress. Hasidic dress codes are influenced by the style of Polish-Lithuanian nobility, although symbolic and religious qualities are also attributed to specific items of clothing.



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