The painted ceiling of the Chodorow synagogue (17th c., reconstruction  of Bet ha-Tefutzot).The Temple of Lwow. Postcard, early 20th c.Maurycy Gottlieb.  Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878

Levi Cooper, “Galician Halakha”: The Nineteenth-Century Clothing Decrees as a Case Study

Distinct garb is one of the most visible markers of hasidic Jews. Hasidic Jews continue to be depicted wearing distinctive garments, in particular fur headwear of different types: shtrayml, spodik, and kolpik. Indeed, when hasidic Jews are the subject of ethnographic studies, museum exhibitions, or art installations, the fur headwear is likely to feature. Despite their contemporary ubiquity, hasidic fur hats were not always “hasidic.”

            Phase One of this project will reconstruct an ethnographic and legal history of Jewish fur headwear. I will begin by mining legal literature in order to demonstrate that fur hats were standard attire for both men and women, for Jews and non-Jews, before the advent of Hasidism. Surviving communal ordinances from the seventeenth-century, eighteenth-century prenuptial agreements, as well as memoires and visual evidence, indicate that different types of headwear indicated social status within the community. This raises the question: When did fur hats become markers of hasidic identity?

            Phase Two of this project will strive to determine when and how the shtrayml became a signifier of hasidic identity. At this preliminary stage it seems that the feature evolved in the wake of the mid-nineteenth-century clothing decrees in Imperial Russia that were part of broader social engineering initiatives of Tsar Nikolai. The Russian legislation peaked in the middle of the century, and explicitly prohibited, inter alia, fur headdress. If this hypothesis is accurate, a further line of enquiry needs to be examined: How did fur headwear become popular markers of identity across the border for Galician Hasidim?

Phase Three of this project turns to the responsa literature that deals with the clothing decrees. In response to the legislation, Jewish jurists debated whether Jewish law required that people give their lives rather than change their garb. Preliminary findings suggest that jurists living in Russia agreed that sacrificing one’s life was not necessary, while jurists in Galicia took a harsher stance. This suggests a paradigm based on a Legal Realism, whereby the geo-political location of the jurist is a determining factor in fashioning his legal opinion.

This project will demonstrate how clothing legislation designed to erase sartorial particularity had the opposite effect: Fashioning distinct hasidic garb that survives to this day.