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A Fascinating Glimpse at the Rituals of Strictly Orthodox Jews Living in Israel

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A strictly Orthodox rabbi dances the “mitzvah tantz” at the wedding of his grand-daughter in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak. The “mitzvah tantz” is a dance ritual in which the Rebbe and the fathers and brothers of the groom dance around a rope with the bride. Each holds one side of a rope so as not to touch the bride, because according to the Jewish holy Torah, it is prohibited to touch a woman to whom you are not married.

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A Jewish woman walks a chicken before the Kaparot ritual, where the chicken will swung over one’s head. It is believed that the sins of the past year are then transferred into the chicken. In the strictly Orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim, the ritual is performed before the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. The chicken is later killed and given to charity.

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A strictly Orthodox Jewish man lays in an open grave after a body was taken out of it. This practice is said to lengthen one’s own life expectancy.

For The Lives of Orthodox Jews in Israel, photojournalist Yaakov Naumi sheds light on the rituals of the Haredi Jewish community in cities like Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, where daily life is conducted according to strict Orthodox adherence to Jewish law.

Naumi himself was raised in a Haredi home and taught at Haredi schools; he studied sacred texts at yeshiva. When he took a position photographing for Behardrey Heredim, a major international media outlet devoted to Haredim news, his view on the familiar traditions began to shift. Even though he had been intimately acquainted with most of the rituals he was sent to shoot, some were new to him and seemed entirely foreign. Working for a worldwide press, he began to observe the events as an outsider would, noticing from the inside the ways in which Orthodox practices might confound, mystify, and amaze mainstream audiences.

Naumi’s intention in photographing these events and rituals in an unfamiliar at at times mysterious way, he emphasizes, is not to make make his fellow Haredim seem strange or alien but to compel us to seek a deeper understanding of their chosen ways of life, which divide and isolate them from modern culture and society.

The people Naumi met and photographed, he admits, were often hesitant to permit him to join them with his camera, but ultimately it was his inherent understanding of their customs that opened doors. Sometimes, he was invited in without having asked first. At other times, some expressed unhappiness and anger with the way they are portrayed, but the photographer continues making these images in hopes that they will raise discussions and spark interest from members of the outside world, in people who have never encountered this kind of Orthodox Judaism. In the end, he says, his photographs are about sharing “my culture, their culture, our culture” and leaving each individual to draw his or her own conclusions.

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A strictly Orthodox Jew of the Lelov Chassidic dynasty whips another strictly orthodox man with a leather strap as a symbolic punishment for their sins as they perform the traditional Malkot ceremony in a synagogue in the town of Bet Shemeshm a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, also known as the day of Atonement, is the most solemn of the Jewish holidays. The central themes are atonement and repentance. It is observed by a 25 hour fast and intensive prayer.

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Strictly Orthodox Jews gather for the traditional Jewish wedding of Chananya Yom Tov Lipa, the great-grandson of the Rabbi of the Wiznitz Hasidic followers, in the town of Bnei Brak.

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A strictly Orthodox bride and groom dance the night before they are to be wed.

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Strictly Orthodox Jewish men of the Hasidic dynasty perform the Tashlich ritual beside a fish pool. Tashlich, which translates to mean ‘to cast away’ in Hebrew, is a ceremony in which Jews visit body of water and symbolically ‘throw away’ their sins by throwing a piece of bread, or similar food, into the water prior to Yom Kippur.

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Strictly Orthodox Jewish of the Chassidic ‘Toldot Aharon’ dynasty men dance on a table as part of a “tisch” (yiddisch word for table) ceremony during the Jewish holiday of ‘Purim’, in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. The festival of Purim commemorates the rescue of Jews from genocide in ancient Persia.

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The traditional Jewish custom of ‘Pidyon haben’, the redemption of the first-born son, in the city of Bnei Brak. The ceremony is also known as buying the first born son for five silver coins, and takes place when the baby is 31 days old. The custom is for the father to redeem the baby, who must have been born by natural means, as he buys the child from a Kohen, a member of the high priests from the ancient temples in Jerusalem, for five silver Shekels.

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Strictly Orthodox Jewish women wearing full covering as a means of modesty walk through the neighborhood of Meah Shearim.

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The rebbe seen with the bride during the “Mitzvah Tantz” dancing ritual at a wedding.

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Tens of thousands of Strictly Orthodox Jews of the Belz Hasidic Dynasty take part in the wedding ceremony of Rabbi Shalom Rokach, the Grandson of the Belz Rabbi to Hana Batya Pener.

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Strictly Orthodox children of the chassidic Nadvorna dynasty attend a “chumash” party celebrating receiving the first book of the ‘Torah’, the Jewish written law.

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Strictly orthodox Jewish men and children set the Israeli flag on fire at a bonfire during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of “Lag Ba’Omer” in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. “Lag Ba’Omer” commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the most important sages in Jewish history 1800 years ago. The most well-known custom of Lag BaOmer is the lighting of bonfires throughout Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide.

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Strictly Orthodox Jewish men covered with prayer shawls hold the four plant species – palm leave stalk, citrus, myrtle and willow-branches, as they take part in the ‘Hoshana Rabbah’ prayer (on the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot) at the Slabodka yeshiva, in Bnei Brak.

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A young boy peers through the stands where strictly Orthodox Jews gathered for the traditional Jewish wedding of Chananya Yom Tov Lipa, the great-grandson of the Rabbi of the Wiznitz Hasidic followers, in the town of Bnei Brak.

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Strictly Orthodox Jews follow an ancient Biblical command and harvest wheat with a hand sickle in a field near the central Israeli town of Modi’in. They will store the wheat for almost a year and then use it to grind flour to make unleavened bread for the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover.

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Strictly Orthodox Jews decorate a sheep with pearls, tinsel and flowers as part of a ceremony called the ‘Redemption of the first born donkey’ or in Hebrew ‘Pidyon Peter Chamor’ in Jerusalem. The tradition of the Redemption of the first born donkey is part of the 613 laws commemorated in the Jewish Bible.

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Thousands of strictly Orthodox Jews attend the funeral of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in the orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Meah Shearim, Jerusalem.

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Strictly Orthodox Jews seen dancing at a massive protest attended by hundred of thousands in Jerusalem, against a proposed plan formed by the Israeli parliament to introduce compulsory military service to the Haredi community.

All images © Yaakov Naumi/Flash90

  • Guest

    What a bunch of freaks

  • Inamara Bellina

    I’m always fascinated by these things. Trying to understand different cultures and religions is just interesting for me Living in NYC and going by the Jewish Orthodox community in Brooklyn intrigued me. Thanks for the share.

  • Noa Magger

    what an ignorant comment

  • Jimmy

    I, for one, thought it hit the nail on the head. Total lunatics.

  • BabbaZee

    Jewish Taliban, bagging women and burning Israeli flags. They have lived among Muslims too long. Charming people.

    Nice photos though.

  • 47th Problem of Euclid

    It is disingenuous to call these people “strictly Orthodox” and disingenuous to claim that they are following Torah law. Most of the superstitions depicted with chickens and graves have nothing whatsoever to do with the Torah, and many of these rituals are denounced in the Talmud. These are peculiar innovations particular to various sects of Hasidism and are not part of Jewish observance outside of these cult-like groups. Most of these sects of Hasidism are cults of personality, where the Rebbe has absolute power over his followers, and if the Rebbe deviates from Jewish law, they follow the Rebbe.

  • Elie Khoury

    Can’t believe there are still people in a “state” in the 21st century that can be “this” stupid. Lunatics is probably an excellent description… This explains the reason why their politicians are “Lunatics” as well!!!

  • BabbaZee

    this is true.

  • RoyShastid

    Were it not for their very high birthrate and their demanding anyone coming in contact with them submit and respect their backwards practices (especially toward women) I would be neutral in my feelings. Demanding that governments support their lifestyle and beliefs with money and exemptions just sticks in my craw.

  • Jumanji242

    Tradition is all fine and dandy, but they are essentially irrational superstitious folks who believe in magic and arcane uselessness. Nothing like living in the past, rationalizing behaviors based upon the beliefs of uneducated desert war tribes who have no proof for their beliefs other than the fantasy gray areas and gaps they live in. Backwards to the extreme ++.

  • zzz05

    Everybody’s got their superstitious side. Some Americans believe they are magically eating the body and blood of their messiah once a week. Others think they are going to win the lottery. Others think 9/11 was an inside job, or that global warming is a deliberate fraud, or that various Middle Eastern countries are planning to invade us.
    Actually, now that I think about it, all in all I think I prefer the dancing with a rope.

  • zzz05

    If only the being supported by public funds was a crazy superstition.

  • zzz05

    Most of this weirdness probably developed in the backwoods of Eastern Europe, though. Although living in the Middle East does appear to be mentally destructive. Jerusalem syndrome and all.

  • Meshi Gaas

    Many of the captions are wrong, and I doubt they were written by the photographer. Others, while technically correct, are misleading. For example, the “four species” photo depicts an entirely different ritual than described, though it takes place on the same holiday. The women in Burqas are a rarity, and disparaged by most of the haredi community. The flag-burners are also a small minority, though more common than the Burqas and somewhat more integrated with the larger community. Disinterment is very rare, and I have not heard of the practice described in the caption, but it is possible.

    However, as bad as the captions are, many of the comments here are worse, displaying xenophobia and lack of curiosity.

  • Putrid Polecat

    Agree, calling them “Strictly Orthodox” is very misleading. Modern Orthodox Jews are nothing like this and are also strictly orthodox. What makes the Charedim interesting is the layer of additional superstition, custom and dynastic cults of personality (idol worship). These things have nothing to with the Torah or Talmud.

  • Ron Angel

    9/11 was an inside job

  • BabbaZee

    Yes… and some of it developed in the backwoods of Brooklyn!

  • Jimmy

    Why aren’t you interested in our comments? Perhaps go and lie down in an empty grave or whip your buddy with a leather belt to feel atonement instead? These ‘Ray-Legion” lunatics worship the sun or moon in the same way as the Egyptians. Any custom that occurs according the calendar is bereft of any worthy meaning and probably more akin to snake charming poltergeist worship than sanity.

  • shahnyboy

    Yes, everything horrible always happens b/c of those damn muslims. There was only peace & harmony and farts that smelled like fresh tulips before THEY came.

  • Jimmy

    No way bro – Bin Laden’s box cutter wielding crew defo put that whole thing together.

  • Ron Angel

    The flaw in your idea is that their mothers would not let them have box cutters in case cut themselves or hurt somebody.

  • lsamsa

    A very interesting article…very informative. I am curious to reading about different cultures…also rather drawn to learn more about more, shall we say, extreme religious practices.
    It was very evident to me that there were no women present at these various ceremonies. I do somehow recall reading that they are not ‘allowed’ to attend, but have to be in a separate room.
    The only woman I saw was holding on to the other end of a ‘rope’ and completely covered head to toe.
    I somehow couldn’t detach from thinking about the chicken on the end of a rope…later to be thrown about & then killed.
    Both at the mercy of the men seemingly.

  • Meshi Gaas

    Who said I was uninterested? I said that I think comments of Dillinger others above were showing a lack of curiosity about these photographs. They (as you) were being dismissive.

  • TeachESL

    The majority of these practices of these Haddisim are so outside normative Orthodox Judaism. They don’t reflect normal Orthodox Judaism except for the observance of the major holidays which the vast majority of Jews in Israel observe. It is embarrassing that they are presented as representing ‘Orthodox Judaism’ and if they find Israel so abhorrent, they can leave.

  • Jimmy

    Who said we weren’t curious about these photographs… I am curious as to how people could be such dullards as to require this type of activity in their daily lives… Curiosity aside, it seems odd that anyone with some form of thought process could participate in such activities in this day and age. Indeed, if we all carried on like this the world would still be a cold and dark place.

  • Cvc

    I believe in freedom, but this appears to me to be more like some cage. Somebody born into this is not free to go or think differently. I find this just as bad as any kind of religious fanaticism, and the extent of these fanatics` intolerance of others is the huge hypocrisy of it all.

  • Robert Leather

    Are you able to back that statement up with uncontroversial evidence? If you can, I’d be fascinated to see it (sincere)

  • Robert Leather

    Not ignorant, just rude.

  • or at least STOP taking entitlements

  • TeachESL

    This has nothing to do with ‘living among Muslims.’ It is simply their strict interpretation that has developed over the centuries.

  • TeachESL

    Actually, many have left but find the ‘outside world’ very very difficult. That’s why some org’s have been created to help them in the secular world – if that is what they want to do. Other org’s help them be placed in a religious community but one that is less strict.

  • deadswitch

    And the Rebbe becomes their god.

  • deadswitch

    And no Western person or US religious group will say that women in the Jewish communities are secondary citizens.

  • dabble53

    I expect they would consider many of your christian beliefs and rituals to be signs of lunacy as well.

  • Meshi Gaas

    There’s a difference between being curious about something and finding something a curiosity. The former is a sign of an active mind and an interest in gaining knowledge. The latter is OK by itself, but if it leads to disparaging comments, it means the person is just close-minded and, in your case, a moron.

  • Jimmy

    My christian what? speak when spoken to scuzzbucket

  • Jimmy

    Making up word your own disambiguation is the typical response behaviour for many sufferers of the dunning-kruger effect – thanks though it did evoke a slight chuckle – and attempting to insult me as a moron (intellectually impaired) for simply making my own views heard confirms you as the xenophobic zealot….and rather simple minded. To clarify curiosity is a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in human and many animal species. It can also be used to denote behavior, itself being caused by the emotion of Curiosity (from Latin curiosus “careful, diligent, curious,” akin to cura “care”). Being curious means being inquisitive and tending to investigate or explore, in the passive sense as strange, surprising, odd, or as a euphemism for erotic as in ‘curious art’. Neither relate to ‘active minds’ (*whatever you mean by that) nor ‘open-mindedness’ nor intellectual impairment. So you are wrong in every sense. Perhaps you should get back to your normal routine of ‘opening your mind’ with some ritualistic pagan based religion since you are obviously a world expert in such matters (and utter twot). One can only hope you are a cat with curiosity…

  • Ken

    While some people may find these customs and beliefs as quaint, there is nothing quaint about them. No wonder there is so much strife in the Mideast. They are fundamentalists to the extreme, and refuse to join modern society! They are no better than their Muslim Fundamentalist neighbors. There will never be peace until these extreme groups join the modern world!

  • MrMLK

    It’s also a bit disingenuous to make the claim that most of what the “normal” jews do is following Torah law either. I just spent 8 days following a bunch of complicated dietary restrictions that are not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. I sat through two interminable sedars and recited an entire book that may quote the Torah (at points) but was mostly made up by Rabbis much later.

    Why are their non-Torah behaviors considered peculiar innovations, and our non-Torah behaviors considered normal?

  • 47th Problem of Euclid

    The difference is that they are claiming to be “strictly Orthodox” and that that claim has real repercussions that affect human lives. They push vigorously to be exempt from the draft based on being Torah scholars, they ostracize whistleblowers who point out corruption and child sex abuse in their communities. In the USA, there was recently a terrible house fire where seven children burned to death, caused by a hot plate on the floor during Shabbat. The house had no smoke detectors or fire alarms. At the funeral for the children, the father said the fire was caused by God’s wrath about sinful things on the internet, and his community still builds houses that violate building codes, that don’t have smoke alarms, because their Rebbe tells them to look at magical explanations rather than practical causes of the tragedy.

    The cookie I ate during Pesach hurt nobody but myself.

    Understand that I am using the term “Torah” similarly to the way they use it, but with a divergence that I will point out. Torah (or law) is not merely the Pentateuch, but also the halakhic rulings mentioned in the rest of the Tanakh, as well as the Rabbinic writings that include Mishnah, Gemara, the Midrash, and various Rabbinic writings from ancient to present times. Where I diverge in my use of the term Torah from their use is that I do not think that a Rebbe, speaking ex cathedra, speaks Torah. I also feel free to question the decision each Posek makes, because I have free will and I will decide for myself. I do not believe that turning on a light switch counts as starting a fire, but I respect those who disagree, and I respect their minhag (custom). I know that respect is not reciprocated, but that doesn’t matter.

    But I don’t respect simultaneously faking the process and claiming that one is holier than the rest of us for doing so.

  • MrMLK

    Don’t get me wrong. I think that most of them are nuttier than the fruitcake I didn’t eat last week.

    I’m just saying that when you post on featureshoot that they follow a bunch of rules that aren’t in the Torah, you might be making people here believe that most of the rest of jews don’t. With very few exceptions, all jews follow a set of rules that are mostly not in the Torah.

    Your use of the “Torah law” to mean the entirety of jewish law may not be familiar to all the readers here. And while I think that many of the things the ultra orthadox do is crazy, I’m not sure why you are ok with some Rebbe from 2000 years ago speaking ex cathedra can speak Torah, but some Rebbe doing it in the 19th or 20th century cannot. Particularly since the guys speaking 2000 years ago often didn’t agree with each other.

  • 47th Problem of Euclid

    I trush Jewish dialectics. It has made us who we are. The dialogues between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai in the Mishnah are utterly fascinating. In Talmud, the minority opinion is always printed in full. It has to be, since the argument is “for the sake of Heaven”.

    So nobody (except maybe Yehuda ha-Nasi) just declares something and then it’s Torah. There’s a debate, and those debates are more valuable to Jews than their conclusions. There’s an old adage: “Two Jews, three opinions.” The dialectic has always made us strong.

    Ditching the dialogue in favor of entrenchments based around cults of personality is deeply damaging to Judaism. The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam (baseless hatreds). The Haredi cult of personality exacerbates those baseless hatreds, and claims to do so for the sake of Heaven, which never ceases to disturb me.

    The Mishnah is a dialectic about the Torah, as is the Midrash. The Gemara is a dialectic about the Mishnah, and Rabbinic writings ever since have been a dialectic about everything that has gone before. When you and I voice an opinion, we are entering into a conversation that spans millennia and immerses us in what it fundamentally means to be Jewish. To end the conversation with sinat chinam slams shut a door that has always been open to every Jew.

  • Adamchik

    The most mainstream (English-language) traditional (Orthodox if you must) siddur (prayer book) clearly has the ritual of kapparot, where chicken, a fish, or money are traditionally used. It’s fine not to like it, but it is mainstream Orthodox and not a “superstition”. It appears that there is also some confusion here about what is in the Talmud or in the Torah (Jewish bible) – daily behavior is governed by the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), which discusses redeeming of the firstborn son, etc. It is essentially impossible to learn the rules from Talmud – it’s to learn the philosophy and the debate. Philsophical questions are much more open to debate and discussion, as there is no requirement believe much in particular (i.e. beyond Maimonides 13 principles of faith).

    After the tragedy in Brooklyn, Agudath Israel (the main, very Orthodox organization in the USA) came out and clearly said that smoke detectors have nothing to do with the Sabbath and should be in all homes. That should be clear.

    Certainly there are many flavors of traditional observance (Sephardic vs. Lithuanian etc.), but there are some certain basic premises that if you don’t accept, fine, but it is no longer Judaism. The conversation and opinion have boundaries as set by the Code of Jewish Law and other important works, such as Chofetz Chaim’s laws of speech and what we may say / write about others.

  • Lino de la Guardia

    Sick, disturbed, delusional humans.

  • N00less Cluebie

    By that logic both Christmas and Easter should be eliminated as they were based on Pagan festivals….

    There is a difference between healthy and unhealthy practices as well as violent vs non-violent practices. Swinging a chicken over your head isn’t hurting anyone (except maybe the chicken). Laying in an open grave may be disturbing but again to each their own. Mistreatment of women is more problematic–but it’s tough to do something about it when a large percentage of the women are not interested in being “liberated”. Burning a flag is one thing but fighting with the Israeli army when they are trying to evacuate Gaza is another matter entirely.

    It is important that we separate the simply weird from the destructive….

  • Cvc

    I`ve heard they make it very hard to leave too.

  • wcapurro

    Fascinating discussion. It appears to me that fundamentalist Jews have more in common with fundamentalist Muslims, and fundamentalist Mormons (Christians), than some here would like to admit. Perhaps it has something to do with their common linkage to Abraham…?

  • buckman21

    Mormons are in no way Christians. They may claim that, but noooooo way are they anywhere close to being Christians.

  • wcapurro

    Mormons say they are Christians so I generally take them at their word on the matter. However, I’ve made a hobby of studying Abrahamic religions and I would describe Mormons as Christian-Muslims……. much like our current president would like us to think of him…. while he behaves more like an atheist than any kind of religionist. Great political strategy if you can pull it off.

  • violetteal

    Seems that Jesus of Nazareth had problems with this kind of superstition as well. G-d is loving, and simple to please. Going through all of the motions to get to Heaven, is all about you and not about G-d.

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