Word of the Day / Hasidim: Black Hat Optional

In Hebrew, you can be a hasid of Madonna just as you can be a hasid of the rebbe.

Think of Hasidim (pronounced in Hebrew as kha-see-DEEM rather than the Yiddish-inflected kha-SEE-dim) and you probably picture men in black coats and hats and women in long skirts and wigs who follow the rebbes of the dozen or so Hasidic sects, including Belz, Ger, Vizhnitz and Lubavitch.

That’s quite a generalized image, of course, but it serves as a rough description of what we might call Hasidim with a capital “h.” On the other hand, hasidim with a lowercase “h” -- in English, at least; the Hebrew doesn’t actually distinguish between uppercase and lowercase letters – means “devotee,” “adherent,” “follower” or “ardent fan” and as such, can refer to Scientologists, capitalists or Madonna fans as easily as to followers of the late Lubavitcher rebbe (whether they believe him to be dead or merely biding his time).

On its own, hasid (from hesed, “benevolence” or “grace”) can mean “pious,” “righteous” or “charitable,” as in the verse from Psalms, “The Lord is righteous [tzadik] in all his ways, and hasid in all his works” (145:17).

The Hasidic movement later borrowed the word to describe an ideology, founded by the rabbi known as the Ba’al Shem Tov in Eastern Europe in the 1700s, that emphasized spirituality and closeness to God over the intellectualism prized in centers of Torah study like the Lithuanian capital of Vilna (as Jewish texts refer to Vilnius).

If you were a capital-“h” Hasid, you’d know it. But just in case you weren’t sure, here’s a tip: You probably aren’t one if you are also a hasid of Scientology -- even though the Hebrew Scientology website states that its adherents, including one of its most famous hasidim, Tom Cruise, can actually be “hasidim of any religion.”

Last year Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted his capitalist credentials by saying he is “a big hasid of competition” and opposes monopolies and cartels. And while big-“h” Hasidim may insist on keeping the Internet at bay, the Hebrew Web is rife with small-“h” hasidim, whether of the Beatles, of Apple or of togetherness. Which just goes to show that being a hasid may be easier than you thought, even if black isn’t your color.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Yael Engelhardt