The most conspicuous hassidic garment is the fur hats sported by the men. This is the rule: Hassidic groups that trace their roots to Poland wear the taller, narrower and darker spodik; groups that originate in Galicia, Hungary or Romania wear the shorter, wider and browner shtreimel.
This regal headgear is reserved for Shabbat and festivals, and is worn by married men. Less well-known is the kolpik – a lighter version of the spodik, worn by some rebbes during the week and by some rebbes’ sons on Shabbat, before marriage.
The shtreimel and spodik are significant social markers for hassidim, yet their origins are clouded in mystery. In flowing prose, S.Y. Agnon described how the shtreimel dates back to 18th-century Poland, when Jews were forced to wear an animal tail as a public display of humiliation to indicate they were not being productive. Instead of despising it, Polish Jews embraced this decree as a proud symbol of communal membership and fidelity to the Almighty.
It is possible that hassidim drew inspiration from the military headdresses used by many European countries in the past, and even today for ceremonial purposes. Indeed, different armies and certain regiments pride themselves on their bearskins or busbies. It is most likely, however, that shtreimels, spodiks, kolpiks and the like were common headgear in eastern Europe. The hassidim, like their neighbors, wore these hats. Only later did this functional head covering become a ritual item of material culture.
Hassidim may give the impression they are immune to fashion trends, always appearing to wear traditional clothes of yesteryear. The truth, however, is that they are also subject to fads. The bushy, somewhat disheveled, multi-shaded shtreimels of old have made way for the uniformly darkened, meticulously groomed and perfectly combed shtreimels in vogue today. Moreover, the standard shtreimel used to be 11 to 12 cm. high, whereas nowadays a shtreimel is typically at 16-17 cm.
Despite the growth in popularity of the shtreimel, the spodik remains the top hat of hassidic headgear. Nonetheless, the spodik is still outdone by Buckingham Palace bearskins that tower at nearly 50 cm.
The halachic implication of wearing a shtreimel is discussed in the context of clothing strictures on Shabbat Hazon – the Shabbat before Tisha Be’av, during the mourning period. According to Jewish law, Shabbat Hazon is commemorated with a sign of bereavement, by abstaining from wearing regular Shabbat attire (Rema OH 551:1). This should mean that on Shabbat Hazon, Hassidim do not wear their shtreimels. Alas, this is not the case.
Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapira of Munkatch (1871-1937), in his commentary on the Shulhan Aruch, pondered why hassidim ignore this rule.
He explained that hassidic conduct took stock of another rule: the prohibition against public shows of mourning on Shabbat (B. Moed Katan 23a). Were a hassid to remove his shtreimel on Shabbat, it would be a display of grief and a desecration of Shabbat! Rabbi Hayim Elazar wondered why codifiers had not considered this rule. He explained that in days of old, Jews did not wear shtreimels.
Their Shabbat head covering was similar to their weekday headgear; perhaps newer, perhaps nicer, but not significantly or noticeably different.
This small difference meant that someone who wore his weekday hat rather than their Shabbat hat was mourning the exilic reality, without desecrating Shabbat.
A final word about shtreimels on Shabbat: According to a hassidic tradition attributed to Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz (1726-1791), the Hebrew word “Shabbat” can be interpreted as an acronym for shtreimel bimkom tefillin – a shtreimel in place of tefillin; suggesting that the shtreimel worn on Shabbat replaces the weekday tefillin. Just as tefillin are a sign of a Jew’s relationship with the Almighty, so too the shtreimel is a sign of connection to God.