Invisible fence that unites Chassidim unveiled in former Marin rabbis book

Sometimes a beard isn't just a beard.

When a man stops trimming his facial hair, according to a Jewish mystical teaching, the individual strands become conduits for God's merciful attributes. The full beard actually draws down God's blessings and goodness into a man's personal and family life.

Such tidbits are found in a new primer on Chassidic philosophy and practice, written by the former director of Marin County's Chabad satellite.

Rabbi Chaim Dalfin doesn't expect everyone to accept at face value this rationale for a full beard. "Either you believe or you don't," he said.

But he hopes "To Be Chasidic: A Contemporary Guide" will persuade fellow Jews to take on these practices or at least show more respect toward those who do.

Written both for those unschooled in Chassidism and for those considering a more observant life, the book specifically cites the beliefs and practices that distinguish full-fledged Chassids from other Orthodox Jews.

Both groups, for example, observe the fundamentals of Jewish law — kosher food, daily prayer, Shabbat restrictions, women's use of the mikveh (ritual bath).

Dalfin goes a step further, detailing the Chassidic spin on these basics. To help readers, he even includes a 12-point "Suggested Checklist of a Chasid."

Some of the checklist suggestions can be easily adapted by any Jew, regardless of observance level: always putting the needs of others before your own, letting girls light Shabbat candles, serving God with a joyful heart and praying without watching the clock.

Others are quite specific to those who are already observant: men's daily use of the mikveh, men's use of two sets of tefillin during prayer, connection to a rebbe.

For 36-year-old Dalfin, following such a checklist is natural. A fifth-generation Chassid, he now lives in Brooklyn's Boro Park with his wife and five children, among a half-million Orthodox Jews and 300 Orthodox synagogues. He works as development director for United Lubavitcher Yeshivoth, the Chabad school system for preschoolers through post-graduates in the New York area. He has written three previous books about Chassidism.

Dalfin acknowledges that some of the practices might be difficult for non-Chassidic Jews to understand or accept without a true understanding of Chassidic philosophy.

Among them are the custom of eating leftovers from a rebbe's plate, mimicking the dress of Polish nobility from centuries ago and consuming only those dairy products processed under the supervision of Jews.

The latter practice of eating or drinking cholov Yisrael, for example, evolved from a time when Jews couldn't be sure if their milk came from kosher animals. Today, Dalfin asserts, there are still reasons to follow such a practice.

Dalfin points to the parallel of drinking only wine deemed kosher. The injunction tends to prevent Jews from spending free time with non-Jews, he noted. Thus, this invisible fence unites Jews by separating them from non-Jews.

One tale that Dalfin includes in the book notes that drinking "milk of the Gentiles…can also cause a person to have doubts about whether or not God exists, or whether Torah is divine." The Baal Shem Tov, who founded Chassidism, noted the "positive impact…on unborn children and nursing babies" of cholov Yisrael.

Though this might sound like superstition to those unfamiliar with Chassidism, Dalfin said these examples emphasize the spiritual, rather than the physical, benefits of adhering to Jewish tradition.

In the book, Dalfin steers away from questions of whether the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the Moshiach, or Messiah.

In an entire chapter devoted to the concept of Moshiach, Dalfin never directly lays out the belief of many Chabadniks that Schneerson is the Messiah.

"This book is not a book on Chabad, even though I am a Chassid of Chabad. There are other Chassidic groups. I'm presenting a universal Chassidic approach," he said.

Acknowledging that many Jews will never become Chassids, Dalfin suggests that Jews take on any Chassidic practice they find individually meaningful regardless of their current observance level.

"The fact is that a non-Chassid can and should incorporate a practice into their life that would bring them more happiness, fulfillment and Jewishness."