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Israel becomes first to ban furs — but makes exception for shtreimels

Israel has become the first nation in the world to ban the import and sale of animal furs, thanks to a bill signed into law in the Knesset on Wednesday, after it was first passed in the fall of 2020

Its one major loophole allows fur to be used for religious purposes, and so it permits the import of shtreimels, the cylindrical fur hats worn by many Hasidic men which are often made from the tails of sable — a small, furry mammal found in northern Asian and Russian forests.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which had long lobbied for the law, praised the move and Gila Gamliel, the MK who first proposed the bill.

But many have opined, according to the Times of Israel, that a fur ban with a shtreimel exception is no brave feat for the nation, with its desert climates in the south and humid forests and hills in the north. Shtreimels are overwhelmingly the most common use of furs in Israel, despite the price.

Full fur shtreimels can easily cost upward of $5,000 and are often wedding gifts for Hasidic grooms from their in-laws.

How the shtreimel first made its way into Jewish fashion is a matter of historic debate.

Jews were heavily involved in the sable trade in the Russian empire, where the small fox-like creature can be found across the Siberian Tundra.

According to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Hasidim likely adopted the dress in the 17th century in emulation of Polish and Lithuanian nobility, for whom the hat itself was an imitation of Turkic, Iranian and Middle Eastern styles as part of the Sarmatism movement. The movement held that Polish culture evolved from the nomadic Sarmatians, an ancient Iranic people who occupied the steppe lands of Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

Another popular legend claims that Jews first began donning the hat as part of an antisemitic decree which required them to wear tails on their heads as a mark of disgrace. In an act of defiance, the Jews fashioned the tails in a manner that imitated the crown worn by the Polish king, and would use a certain number tails in the hat — 13 or 18 — which have positive associations in Jewish tradition.

Despite their popularity in the Hasidic world, Hasidic leaders have also grappled with the use of fur in the traditional hats, out of concern both for the animals’ welfare and the skyrocketing prices of shtreimels.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, who was a member of the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect and the chair of the Edah HaChareidis, a council of Jerusalem’s ultraorthodox leadership, in 2017 called for synthetic hats to become the norm in the community, citing concerns about animal cruelty.

In the summer of 2019, the New York City Council also debated a ban on the sale of furs, a move opposed by many in the Orthodox Jewish community, though the bill also provided an exemption for religious purposes.

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