Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A few insights into Chassidut Satmar


Chassidut Satmar is one of the world's most famous chassidic groups. Not only one of the most famous groups but also the largest with 150,000 members. Many times, the Lubavitcher (Chabad) claim to be the biggest group; however, no one really has exact figures about the Chabad members but Satmar does. You cannot just call yourself Satmar but have to undergo an official process of acceptance into the group.

Chassidut Satmar (originally from the town of Satu Mare in today's Romania) is a vast subject and it is extremely hard to put everything into a few articles. As an introduction, I decided to take some insights out of the book "Satmar – Two Generations of an Urban Island" by Israel Rubin. However, not all the information are taken from one book but I also added from other sources. The author Israel Rubin is not a Satmarer Chassid but successfully convinced Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum to give him permission inquiring about the group. Later on, he wrote a book about Satmar. The book came out in the seventies but he wrote a Chidush in 1997, as many things had changed.

Whoever hears the name "Satmar" immediately thinks of fanatic loonies; totally anti – Zionist, militant and extremely closed. They just seem to be nuts.
This is the known image of Satmar. Many things are true and others are not. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of rumours going on about the group but Satmar is not interested in doing some public relation in order to improve their negative image. They simply don't see a necessity in explaining their actions. Outsiders, on the other hand, hear something about the group or read some news in the paper. The subject "Satmar" is rather complex and whoever deals with the matter in detail has anything but an easy job.

The founder of Chassidut Satmar was Rebbe Yoel (Yoelish) Teitelbaum. His name it totally connected with Satmar and both are not to be separated. Satmar is Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum. Still alive, people used to say that he is an inaccessible person but Israel Rubin claims the opposite. One just had to know where to find the Rebbe, then wait and if he was lucky, he could speak to him.

Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum

Another severe mistake people make is to think that Satmar and the Neturei Karta are the same. However, both groups act as independent entities although, among others, Satmar finances the Neturei Karta. But Satmar finances other groups as well; the Toldot Aharon, for instance.

Chassidut Satmar has a relatively short history because Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum only founded the group in the early years of the 20th century. His ancestor was the famous "Yismach Moshe – Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhel (1759 – 1841)". Due to his ancestor, Rebbe Yoel has a direct connection to the Baal Shem Tov (approx. 1700 – 1760), as the "Yismach Moshe" was a student of the "Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin (1745 – 1815)". The "Yismach Moshe" was well – known but never founded his own chassidic group.

Rebbe Yoel (Yoelish) Teitelbaum was born on 18 Tevet 1887 in Sighet (today Romania). In 1904, at the age of 17, he married Chava, the daughter of the Plantsheh Rebbe (Rabbi Avraham Chaim Horovitz). The Horovitz dynastie was friendly with the Teitelbaum and the Halberstam family. Shortly after the wedding, Rebbe Yoel's father passed away and his older brother, Rabbi Chaim Zvi Teitelbaum, took over the job as the Rabbi of Sighet. Rebbe Yoel was not too excited about this fact and left for Satmar (then Hungary, today Romania). At the age of 24, Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum was anything but a reserved quiet, organized and a person with tact but his brother Rabbi Chaim Zvi was. This is the reason why the Jews in Sighet preferred his the older brother as their rabbi and for many years. Whereas Rebbe Yoelish tried to find recognition in Sighet as well.

At that time, the region belonged to Hungary and when the Hungarian religious Zionist Mizrachi Movement started, Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum began his attacks against the members. According to Rebbe Yoel, Zionism was even more dangerous when it operated under religious disguise. A religious Jew cannot be a Zionist.
Despite his militant attacks against the Zionists, Rebbe Yoel's group was relatively unknown and insignificant in 1926. And they were overshadowed by the big groups such as Sighet and Munkatch.

Rabbi Chaim Zvi died unexpectedly in 1926. His son was only 14 year old and Rebbe Yoel saw his chance to become the next Rebbe of Sighet. Nevertheless, the towns politics prevented him from becoming their new Rabbi and four years later, the son of Rabbi Chaim Zvi, Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, became the new Rabbi of Sighet. However, the new Rabbi was too young and inexperienced and many Chassidim decided to travel to Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum. After different rabbi's positions, in 1934, Rebbe Yoel went back to Satmar where he stayed until 1944.

From May 1944 – the end of 1945, Hungarian Jewish life only took place in Budapest. Elsewhere the Nazis had destroyed any Jewish life. Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum escaped from the Nazis and ironically, the Zionists helped him. The Rebbe escaped on the legendary "Kastner – Transport" to Switzerland; a train taking 1700 out of Nazi Germany because Rudolf Kastner had made a deal with Adolf Eichmann. A very controversial deal even until today. The other 450,000 Jews remaining in Hungary were taken to Auschwitz and murdered. On 7 December 1944 (21 Kislev), Rebbe Yoel arrived at the Swiss border and until today, the Satmarer Chassidim commemorate this day.

After a short stay in Switzerland, Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum came to Jerusalem where he lived until 1946. Eventually he moved to Brooklyn where he founded the Kehilah "Yeter Lev D'Satmar" in Williamsburgh in 1948. The new community grew extremely fast and already in 1961, the included 860 households. 90% of the community members were not original members of the earlier Satmarer community but came from other places. Today you cannot just join Satmar but have to fulfill certain requirements and a special committee has to decide your case.

In 1968, Rebbe Yoelish suffered a stroke paralyzing him. Although he partially recovered, his further activities were very limited. In August (Av) 1979, The great Satmarer Rebbe passed away at the age of 92. He had been married twice (his first wife Chava died in 1936). He had three daughters with his first wife of all dieing at a young age. A year after the death of his first wife, Rebbe Yoel married his second wife: Alte Feiga, the daughter of Rabbi Avigdor Shapiro. Alte Feiga Teitelbaum was an extremely charismatic person and one could write whole books about her.

After the death of the Rebbe, a male heir was missing, as the Rebbe never had a son. His nephew, the Sigheter Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, took over the position as the new Satmarer Rebbe.

Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum at a weddings' dance

There was a small group which refused to accept Rebbe Moshe because they claimed that the widow Alte Feiga Teitelbaum should have a position as a female Rebbe replacement. Obviously they thought that through her they still would be very close to Rebbe Yoelish. Anyway, the new Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum was very controversial. First of all, he had his own Sigheter community. Furthermore, Rebbe Yoelish had never announced him as his successor and no will was found.

Satmar's great concept is "Chesed – Charity". They are extremely active in doing kindness such as hospital visits or inviting people into their homes. Their religious believe should remain very simple and without any intellect. The followers should not feel a need for analytic discussions. The Satmarer Chassidim are not history oriented but look into the future and especially at the coming of the Meshiach. As anti – Zionists, they believe in the three oaths mentioned in Tamud Ketubot 111.
The Holocaust was a G – dly punishment for Zionism.

Until today, Satmarer Chassidim still consider Rebbe Yoel as a cult figure. They simply see him as a "saint". In Satmar, only the Rebbe makes all the decisions and nobody else. Even in personal matters, as it says that the Chassidim are unable to make their own decisions. By taking over any kinds of decisions, Rebbe Yoel avoided the adjustment and assimilation into American society. Chassidut Satmar is an elite group. It is divided into classes such as, for example, the Toldot Aharon. The highest status have the "Sheyneh Yidden" – like Shochtim (ritual slaughterer), rabbis, relatives of rabbis, Sofrim (scribes), business people, Talmidim Chachamim (learned people) as well as militant anti – Zionists. The authority of the Rebbe is even stipulated in the Takanot (internal laws) Article 8. The Takanot are written down in Yiddish.

"His honorable holiness, our lord, teacher and master, the scholar and saint Reb Yoel Teitelbaum – may he live for long and good years, Amen ! – is our rov, may he be thus for long years to come. No one may replace him without his consent. He is the sole authority in all spiritual matters. No religious functionary may be appointed without his approval. His decision is binding for every member."

The group considered Rebbe Yoelish as infallibly. Despite the Rebbe's authority, sometimes he did loose control. Especially over the militants who he critizised but in the end, the did whatever they wanted. Satmar claims to represent the most authentic Judaism. However, I am not sure if authentic Judaism should have anything to do with spying on each other. The famous "Watchdogs" seem to know everything and as soon as someone breaks the law, they appear and give out personal warnings. If this doesn't help, they threaten to inform the Rebbe. The Toldot Aharon follow a similar system.

A Satmarer Chassid is visiting his Rebbe on a regular basis. If possible, as there are 150,000 members. The waiting list is endless but one has to consult the Rebbe in different personal matters. One of the most important issues is family life. "Sexual satisfaction is in itself valued as a deterrent to sinful thoughts. Also mystical reasons are important for having sex. Sex is also regarded as man's most vulnerable point". The highest goal is to marry into a respected family; status is very important and should be improved.

Who would have thought so ? The husband is obligated to help his wife in the household, as both spouses are responsible for making a living. Children have to respect their parents. Relatives are expected to help weaker family members and support them. The ideal age to get married is 18. Both candidates meet in the living room in the girl's home. They are allowed to talk to each other in the presence of the parents. The future groom is giving a speech on Torah which is traditionally interrupted by songs.

In chassidic circles it is very common to sign a binding contract at the engament party. Chassidut Satmar doesn't make a difference. After the signature, a plate is broken and refreshments are served. Usually men and women celebrate in separate rooms. However, this is only the case when there are guests. If family only family members celebrate, everyone sits together in one room. Israel Rubin states that the whole engagement ceremony is less complicated today. Nowadays, the two fathers would just shake hands as a sign for a deal. The wedding is taking place after a few months. The date is stipulated according to the girls being a Niddah (woman menstruating). Familiy purity laws (Taharat HaMishpacha) are extremely important and in Satmar, a woman has to wait at least 12 days until after her menstruation. Then she is considered as clean (tehora) and can go to the Chuppah.

The wedding is always celebrated in two different halls due to modesty reasons. Men and women sit separate. The groom wears a long Kaftan (chassidic coat) and his new Streimel (traditional fur hat).

A traditional Streimel

In other chassidic groups, the groom is wearing the Streimel for a whole week before the wedding. Right before he goes under the Chuppah, he puts on a white Kittel. White is the colour representing purity. The climax of a special chassidic wedding is always the Mitzweh – Tanz of the Rebbe with the bride. For this, the bride is standing at the men's side and therefore, her face is covered. Not to make her blind but to avoid that the men might follow their Yetzer – thoughts. After the Mitzweh – Tanz, the wedding is over.

In the past, the new Satmarer husbands had to look for a job immediately after getting married. But then, Rebbe Yoel made a new decree (Takana) that first the new husband has to study in a Kollel for one or two years. Children are expected to respect their parents. Even when the children are already married off. At an early age, boys and girls are taught their role in life. Of course, girls have to help their mothers in with the household and learn how to knit and sew; boys, on the other hand learn what ? Yes, Torah.

Satmarer Chassidim refuse any autopsy, as they consider it against Halacha. At the time of Meshiach, the death will be resurrected and how does it look when someones body is cut into pieces ?
The Talmud actually teaches at one point that the resurrected won't have wounds, as the sun or the Infinite Light is going to heel everything. Anyway, no autopsy is a Satmar decision and I cannot change their internal laws. A dead body is not only washed according to Jewish rituals but also taken to the Mikweh.

Satmar sends its girls to the "Beit Rachel – Schools" and not to any Beit Yaakov. Beit Yaakov is an institution of the Agudat Israel (Gur, Vishnitz, Belz) and is totally rejected. Instead they follow the Chatam Sofer who was against any new innovations. Satmar is very proud of its own school system; also because it has created many new jobs – especially for women.

The headquarter is in New York. About 30 miles outside New York you can find "Kiryat Yoel". A Satmar village near Monroe in Orange County which was established in 1976. It includes 340 acres and in 1990, Kiryat Yoel had 8000 inhabitants.

Kiryat Yoel

After Rebbe Yoelish passed away (in Aug. 1979), his nephew Rabbi Moshe took over the Rebbe's position. Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum died in April 2006. He was an Auschwitz survivor and his first wife Leah was murdered there. Later, he got remarried and had three sons and four daughters. His oldest son, Rebbe Aharon Teitelbaum (born in 1948) is married to the daughter of the Vishnitzer Rebbe in Bnei Brak, Rebbe Moshe Yehoshua Hager.

Since Rebbe Moshe died, his two oldest sons have been fighting about the Rebbe's position. There is an open war between them which, unfortunately, divided the group into two separate groups. Rebbe Aharon Teitelbaum rules of Kiryat Yoel and his brother, Rebbe Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, rules over Williamsburgh. In Israel the Rebbe Zalman Leib Center is in Mea Shearim, Yoel Street, and Rebbe Aharon has his follower located in Ge'ulah (Yonah Street) and in Bnei Brak.

One of the two Satmarer Rebben, Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum

The second Satmarer Rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum

More than thousand things could be said about Satmar. Their policies, Sidur, Chassidut, etc. However, I limited my article and mostly mention the information given by Israel Rubin.
For the future I am planning an article on the Satmarer anti - Zionism including Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum's book "Vayoel Moshe".

Satmar women with the traditional Shabbat - Tichel on their wigs


  1. Great post Miriam!! thank you

  2. B"H

    Well, it is just a very short insight but I am working on more.:-)))

  3. Very interesting and informative but not well edited. Many spelling and grammatical mistakes.

  4. B"H

    I am going through the text again in order to find the spelling or any other mistakes. Otherwise I am sorry but English is not my mother - tongue.

    Maybe I should concentrate on Hebrew or German.:-)

  5. I had no problem understanding your English, and I could see that you were raised in another language. You did a great job of explaining many things that someone born American and gentile would not necessarily know about or pick up on just from seeing Satmar people. Please keep up the good work of explaining this fascinating group.

  6. B"H

    I was raised with German but my grandmother knew Polish.
    Now I live in Israel, mostly speak Hebrew but also plenty of English.

    Concerning Satmar:
    I am just preparing something new on them. Especially about the changes after Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum passed away.

  7. Thanks Miriam - very informative. Interesting to see the even a group (Satmar) guided by an unwordly spiritual philosophy, can still be dogged by very wordly jockying for power from within. Even the Hasidim have their problems, it seems.

  8. Thank U! I would like to read more about Alte Feiga Teitelbaum. There's nothing online.

  9. aharon teltalbaum is more like a gangster,rather than a rabbi