Orthodox Hasidic Jews have unique ways in which they wear their hair. Their appearance might seem unusual to an outsider. This page will explain these devout traditions. First it will explain about women, and then it will explain about men.
Hasidic Jewish women have strict rules about their hair.
What are the rules?
The following is their Orthodox tradition: when a woman is married her hair must be covered in public. It must be completely obscured so that it is totally invisible to any man. Many women go further with this restriction and they keep their hair covered at all times, including in their home.
How do they do this?
The most common ways that women will cover their hair is with a wig or scarf, and sometimes a hat. The wig they use is called a "sheitel" in Yiddish. It can be made of synthetic material, or made from real human hair. These wigs are quite expensive, costing as much as $500-1500. It is common that Hasidic women will own 2 or more wigs: one for everyday use, and another for holidays and special occasions. The scarf that some Orthodox women will wear is called a "tichel." It will be tied in place over the hair. A hat may also be worn, although it typically will not fully cover all the woman's hair alone, so it will be in conjunction with a wig or scarf.
image attribution: Judge Rachel Freier - Photo by Jordan Rathkopf. Image modified by size.
What is the reason for these rules?
The reason for these rules about Hasidic womens' hair is: modesty. Orthodox Jews are very strict about this matter, which is called "Tznius". They keep their whole bodies covered at all times - with sleeves past their elbows and skirts below their knees. The purpose of these regulations are so that men will not be tempted by the sight of a woman's body. Sexual fidelity is a major thing which is taken seriously by Orthodox Jews. Genders are kept separate at schools, synagogues and even sometimes on transportation buses or in the street.
Do Hasidic women shave their heads?
Some Hasidic women shave their heads, while others do not. For those who shave, they are being extra-observant of the rule. They are making it to be impossible that their hair can ever be seen, because they don't have any. Not all Orthodox Jewish women do this. Many of them do not. For the ones who do not shave, they don't consider it necessary to go to such an extent. They are satisfied with just carefully keeping their head covered. Either way, most women will maintain the hair coverage within their home and maybe even within their bedroom.
More about female Hasidic Jewish lifestyle
Gender roles are kept traditional: men are the breadwinners who go out from the home each day to work. Women are mainly homemakers - they remain in the house and cook, clean, care for the children etc. Hasidic Jews are famous for the large family sizes! The average family can have 6 or more kids. So there is alot of potential work for the wife! Typically older children (especially female teenagers) will be enlisted to help with their younger siblings. Also, Orthodox women may have a large job at cooking, as each Sabbath (Saturday - known as "Shabbos") there are 2 large feasts to prepare, and all cooking must be finished by Friday afternoon. Once Shabbos begins no cooking is allowed.
image attribution: Orthodox couple on Shabbat in Jerusalem 2 by David Shankbone. Image cropped and modified by size.
Hasidic Jewish men typically wear sidecurls and a beard. The sidecurls - called "Payos" - are usually in front of each ear, extending downwards. They can be long and often curly. The curls are not based on any scriptural rule - they are just a style that has become widespread.
What are the rules?
The rule is that a man must not cut or trim his hair within a special facial region. The boundaries of this zone are on each side of the face - roughly between the middle of the ear and the eye, below a bone which is there. Many Orthodox Jews simply do not trim their sideburns above this line. Other Jews - primarily Hasidic ones - go further with this tradition. They do not trim or cut their hair here at all. Rather, they allow it to grow indefinitely. The result is long sidecurls that visibly extend downward.
What is the reason for these rules?
Unlike the rules for women (which are based on the practicalities of modesty), the reason for the mens' hair rules is not clearly known. The original basis is a scripture which states that a man should not "round the corner of his head." Authoritative talmudic scholars have determined that the meaning of this scripture are these sidecurl rules. As for the reason behind the rule - it is commonly thought that this is a type of commandment which G-d has provided no explanation for. G-d simply instructed it, and devout Jews are expected to adhere. Overall, many commandments are based with logic or practicality (such as washing one's hands before eating) while other commandments are dictated and the worshiper is expected to follow without questioning it.
What about the beard?
The reason for the beard is as follows: there are regulations on how a man may shave. Most Orthodox Jews will not use a razor to shave. Other Hasidic Jews go further with this and they do not shave at all. They are making a clear open statement that they go above and beyond the minimal requirements of the rules.
Mens' head coverings
Orthodox men are known for having their heads covered. There are several items which they may wear. The most basic is called a "Yarmulke" or "Kippah." A Hasidic Yarmulke is usually made of velvet and covers the head only partially. An observant Jewish man will always have this on his head. This is an essential rule, and the purpose is to remind himself constantly that G-d is above him in heaven. Any other item that a man wears, he will be wearing a Yarmulke underneath.
Hasidic men also frequently wear hats. There is a variety, although all of them are usually a black color. The hat is a European Jewish tradition to wear while praying, and many men will go further and wear it all of the time. The basic hat worn on weekdays commonly resembles a fedora or bowler hat. On Sabbath and holiday festivals, a fancier hat is worn, made of velvet or fur. This grand hat is known as a "Shtreimel" in Yiddish. A young man begins to wear a shtreimel upon marriage.
The man on left is wearing a Yarmulke, the 2 teenagers are wearing regular hats, and the man in center is wearing a Streimel .
Mens' body garments
Men and boys typically have their full bodies covered, even though modesty rules are stricter for women. The basis for the clothing is the following: it was considered formal or respectable attire in Eastern Europe back when Hasidic Jews lived there (1800's and early 1900's). Clothing is usually black or white. Commonly, a man will wear a white formal button-up shirt, with a special garment underneath called "Tzitzis." Tzitzis are another rule for which G-d instructed it and did not provide a logical explanation. This is another case where people go beyond the actual requirement, because the original rule of tzitzis is only for a garment with 4 corners - special strings must be tied to each corner (usually a white color). However most Orthodox men go beyond this and wear a designated garment that has 4 corners - with strings - just for this purpose.
Commonly, on top of their shirt a Hasidic man will wear a formal jacket. All jackets are usually long (extending down until around the knees) and are a black color. On weekdays there is a basic jacket called a "Rekel." For Sabbath and holidays there is a fancier one called a "Bekesheh." A bekesheh may have some basic shapes or patterns on it. A detailed pattern on the bekesheh might suggest a higher status of piety for the man wearing it. Many jackets are secured with a special belt called a "Gartel." A gartel is narrow and long, possibly wrapping around the body several times and then tied with a knot.
First image: a young man with his stringed Tzitzis exposed. Second image: a pair of Hasidic men wearing bekesheh jackets.
Understanding Hasidic Jewish lifestyle
Much of the Orthodox culture and rules seem unusual in today's Western society. However in the past this was not as much the case. These sets of clothing and customs used to be less dissimilar to the surrounding people.
Clothing: the Hasidic men's clothing attire is based heavily on Eastern Europe in the 1800's. Their clothing back then would have not been seen nearly as different. Also, the heavy layers they wear would have been more appropriate in the colder climates of Poland, Russia, Ukraine, etc. where they lived.
Gender roles: It is only in the last generations that women have achieved such equality in Western society. More than 70 years ago, basically anywhere in the world, women would have been in the home cooking, cleaning etc rather than working outside the home. A woman's husband would have asserted alot of control over her. These types of gender roles (which are practiced in Hasidic Jewish communities and still in many parts of the world) would have been seen as totally normal.
Beards, top hats or formal jackets would also have not been unusual in the past. Even in the United States or Europe, almost all men wore hats and jackets until the recent past.