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Why Do Orthodox Jews Carry Plastic Bags?

“Why Do Orthodox Jews Carry Plastic Bags” is one of the top questions trending on Google now if you search for Orthodox Jews, which is pretty weird, since that’s not the sort of thing I think we, Orthodox Jews, do a lot of. At the same time, this is not the first time this question has been presented to me. I thought it was weird then too!

I believe there are two different reasons Orthodox Jews carry plastic bags on two different occasions and why people notice.

The first time this question came up was when I was doing a corporate diversity training seminar for a medical organization in Manhattan. The clinic was getting a lot of Orthodox Jewish patients, and the medical staff wanted to know why their Hasidic patients were all carrying shopping bags instead of a purse.

I have to say, out of all the questions I was expecting to hear, this was not one of them. And frankly, I had no idea what they were talking about. There’s no reason a Hasidic woman wouldn’t be allowed to carry a purse. After speaking to some Hasidic friends, what I discovered is that when many Hasidic women come from Brooklyn or Rockland County, to go to a medical appointment in Manhattan, they will not miss the opportunity to also go shopping! So, yes, they are carrying a purse, but it is mixed it somewhere with all those shopping bags!

The second reason people may be Googling “Why Do Orthodox Jews Carry Plastic Bags” is because of the Jewish Sabbath. On Shabbos, there is a prohibition of touching objects we would use to do creative work – something we are not allowed to do on that day. That would include car keys and a wallet – things normally found in a purse. So women don’t carry purses on that day and if we need to transport something on Shabbos, like a book or a cake, many people just use a plastic bag, though some do use reusable tote bags.

I don’t think I use a plastic bag any more since I became Orthodox than in my pre-Orthodox days, but the idea of seeing people walking (on Shabbos) is an unusual thing, since most people drive to their destinations these days. So perhaps walking on the street, on Shabbos, carrying something (which more often than not will be in a plastic bag) is why this is trending on Google. But to be honest – I still don’t really get it!

UPDATE: Many of our readers believe that the characters on Shtisel, like Shulem and Chanina, carried plastic bags more often than they would have expected them too. Some noted that carrying one’s belongings in a plastic bag, as opposed to a backpack is the norm in charedi circles, so as not to waste money on an unnecessary luxury. I did not notice this in the show, but now must re-watch it! The weird thing about this topic is that as we hear from more fans and Haredi members of Makom, there is not a clear cut answer. Some Hasidic Jews are telling me they have so many pockets, they don’t need bags. Non-Haredi Israelis are telling me they also carry plastic bags.

One more idea that came up in several comments to this article – the need to pack kosher food. We just went to an amusement park during Pesach (Passover) and as a kid, growing up not religious, if we went to an outing, we’d just buy food there. Unless you’re at an amusement park that has kosher food you have to pack your lunch and snacks. So my family used an insulated backpack to carry our food, but inside our bag, we had…plastic bags.

 

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  • Miriam says on April 19, 2021

    I was curious when I saw the headline of this article. I am an Orthodox Jewish woman, and I always carry a purse, but sometimes I also carry a plastic bag. Plastic bags are ideal for storing lunches, and I like to be able to throw them away when I finish eating instead of having to bring a lunch bag home. Also, Orthodox Jewish women have to bring their own lunches more often than people who don’t keep Kosher, because there isn’t always a restaurant available near where they are going.

    Reply
    • Yekutiel Iyov ben Avraham says on April 20, 2021

      I just like carrying my stuff, although I prefer to have a cloth tote bag. Better for Hashem’s creation that way; it’s not much, but I like to think it helps. 🙂

      Reply
  • Lazar says on April 19, 2021

    Could they have been referring to men’s tallis bags, which are often covered with clear plastic?

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on April 19, 2021

      Apparently not. On our Facebook group, many people are saying that Haredi men carry plastic bags instead of backpacks or briefcases. It seems Shtisel highlighted this.

      Reply
      • Esther Rottenberg says on April 20, 2021

        This so true. I’m Hasidic and my husband always uses plastic bags and for a very simple reason; he doesn’t own any backpacks or purses! It’s just that Hasidic men don’t really own accessories like these…

        Reply
      • I says on April 21, 2021

        My son made this observation that men do not use backpacks which are much more utilitarian but either plastic bags or the trustworthy black briefcase looking thing that is too boxy and plastic to be an actual briefcase. It’s purely cultural and has to do with avoiding any resemblance to a beast of burden. Although the tribe of Yissachar is represented as a donkey carrying the heavy load of Torah scholarship, it is beneath the dignity of Torah scholars to carry things on their backs as would a merchant or porter.

        Reply
    • Nina says on April 20, 2021

      I wonder if there is an age skew? For example my husband who is first generation American grew up with his family carrying plastic or paper bags because they were free. He still has the same habit no matter how many totes or leather briefcases I buy him. He’s in his sixties and I’m wondering if it skews to first gen Americans like him.

      Reply
    • Rivki says on April 20, 2021

      The question actually made total sense to me. The image of an ultra orthodox man in long black frock coat carrying a flimsy bag instantly came into my head. I have seen this a million times.

      My explanation is two fold: 1 many regions in the USA have bag bans which make it uncommon to see flimsy plastic bags/any plastic bags at all. Israel doesn’t have this ban. When I am in Israel I notice this flood of plastic bags everyone is holding. Since many online images of charedi men come from israel it is no wonder that they will be holding bags just like all Israelis do.

      2. It’s most of a contrast thing. Charedi men and woman dress very formally. Normally when we see people dressing up they have a fancy bag to go with their outfit. Think of all the clutches you see on the red carpet or at weddings. If someone in shorts and flip flops is holding a cheap bag, no one looks twice, but in the hands of a person in black silk it is much more noticeable.

      Reply
      • Leah says on July 20, 2021

        Personally speaking, it is not at all sustainable, carrying a plastic bag, just think forward what will and what is currently happening with the Ocean life??? Yes, of course I do understand it is very handy, and I strongly believe many Hasidic men& women just don’t care what others are thinking about them, that is fine… but how about simply pushing yourself and investing in a recyclable bag? Just make your “ very very strict Life” easier , We all Iive in 2021! If you think about Hashem, how about thinking a tiny bit of the Ocean life??? Fish is kosher, yet all the plastic cheap bags ends up in the Sea! Selfish thought, the “ I don’t care attitude”…

        Reply
        • Allison Josephs says on July 20, 2021

          I think these bags are reused. They’re doing exactly what environmentalists say “reuse.”

          Reply
    • baila says on April 22, 2021

      I find this article very interesting! I come from the chasidic community and I do often carry plastic bags. It is very practical, especially when bringing food and toys for kids when going out, and when it gets dirty I can throw it out. It is something that I never even thought about, it’s just something that I’m used to doing. Whenever I need to carry things anywhere, I find plastic shopping bags to be the best size, better than a reusable tote, and another benefit of the plastic bag is that if it rains whatever is in my bag stays dry.

      Reply
  • Y. says on April 19, 2021

    One way to ensure you are not being blindsided by questions you don’t expect is not to force the modern-Orthodox into the same, shall we say, bag as the ultra-Orthodox. And perhaps have a Haredi person teach diversity awareness about Haredim.

    Boys and all adults in Williamsburg, for example, carry no backpacks. Men in particular use only plastic bags. These are just the facts, and Shtisel got that right because they humbly did their research before speaking for ultra-Orthodox people.

    Suggesting that everything ultra-Orthodox people do or don’t do must be explained by what is allowed or not allowed hints at a lack of appreciation for cultural mores and norms that develop alongside and often outside religions perfection.

    Reply
    • Allison Josephs says on April 20, 2021

      Thanks for your comment, Y. I certainly know there are differences between different Orthodox Jewish groups and have spent quite some time trying to understand them. I lived among Charedim in Israel for a few years, have Lubavitch family, friends from a diverse set of communities, and work closely with the members of Makom. The diversity seminars I did were about all Orthodox Jews and Jewish laws and then there were some specific questions about Hasidim which I humbly, researched beforehand.

      The plastic bag question was surprising because the Google query did not specify “Charedi Jews or Ultra-Orthodox Jews.” It also didn’t specific Shtisel. I discussed the topic with staff members from different communities before writing this post and no one came to the Charedi or Shtisel conclusion.

      Only one we published this did our readers pipe up about Shtisel and certain plastic bag carrying trends. Once they did, I guess I noticed it, but it never struck me as unusual. Perhaps most surprisingly, many members of Makom – some who even live in the Williamsburg that you mention – do not agree that “men carry plastic bags.” Some members said it’s not done at all, others said Hasidic men have many pockets and don’t need bags. I don’t think there is a simple answer to this question. I think some do it, some don’t. Some notice it, some don’t. The more I speak to numerous people from numerous backgrounds, the more I see that there isn’t one reality for any community.

      In terms of putting everything into “allowed or not allowed,” I’m certainly aware that somethings are cultural and other things are categorized in terms of Halacha or minhag, but on the topic of plastic bags being used instead of backpacks, some of the feedback that I’m hearing is that for some the idea of using a backpack is “chukos hagoyim,” so it’s not a big leap to imagine that in some universe, someone could say that a purse is the same thing.

      Reply
    • Heather ODonnell says on May 20, 2021

      Thank you for sharing this. I had wondered about the plastic bags after watching Shtisel. Your mention of taking kosher food to amusement parks led me to wonder how you handle it when places, like concert venues or sports venues don’t allow outside food? Do they normally make exceptions to that rule for those who are kosher?

      Reply
      • Allison Josephs says on May 20, 2021

        We just went to some Orlando parks during Passover. They made us eat outside the park. Wasn’t exactly a very welcoming feeling. In an age with so much focus on inclusion, you get a message of who it doesn’t apply to.

        Reply
        • Yehoshua Friedman says on June 3, 2021

          IMHO not allowing people to bring food into various public places is not meant to be prejudicial but just a way to squeeze more money from patrons via overpriced concessions at movies, sports events etc. If you don’t like that, don’t go and don’t give them your money. If you convinced them to have a kosher option in the concessions, they could soak you, too!

          Reply
  • Trish says on April 20, 2021

    I just thought that was a NYC thing because I’m always carrying a plastic bag instead of a purse and I’m not even Jewish, let alone Orthodox. I’ve been doing it for 30+ years. I was mugged once in the 80’s walking home from work and he was mad because i didn’t have a purse – he never even looked at the plastic bag I was carrying, probably because it looked like it didn’t have anything in it except my dress shoes – which it didn’t – but my wallet and apt keys were inside the shoes.

    Reply
    • Sara says on April 20, 2021

      Besides for carrying food/lunch, many chasidush men carry plastic bags when they go to and from the mikvah. Everyone saves the Krm grocery bags and reuses them.

      Reply
  • Bruce J Friedman says on April 20, 2021

    Since covid we can’t store tallis and siddur and sefarim in our shul. On Shabbos you put everything into the plastic bag to bring there and back

    Reply
  • Daniel Rosen says on April 20, 2021

    I often carry a plastic bag for my tallis and tefillin. I also use plastic bags for my papers, instead of my briefcase. I thought it was just because I had extra plastic bags and wanted them to feel useful.

    Reply
  • Kat says on April 20, 2021

    In Israel you can find both men and women carrying plastic bags. Honestly, I see both orthodox and secular people walking with plastic bags. On occasion, I see women carry their purse inside a plastic bag as well. Definitely an interesting question

    Reply
  • Olivia says on April 20, 2021

    It might also be an Israeli thing. I know, for example, that many eaten Europeans carry things in plastic bags (I know my family did), so it might be more “old world” than anything specifically religious.

    Reply
    • Yehoshua Friedman says on June 3, 2021

      Who eats Europeans? Haven’t heard about such a thing since the flying purple people eater.

      Reply
  • Sarah says on April 21, 2021

    I do believe chareidi jews, including the ones in shtisel, carry more plastic bags than other groups of people for a few reasons. Men specifically do not have purses or messenger bags or backpacks for reasons of begged isha and looking honorable (purses and messenger bags for the former reason and backpacks for the latter as they are casual). For women, a backpack and even an oversized tote bag is also seen as too casual and not honorable. Other bag styles may also be considered immodest, such as a messenger bag that cuts across the body. Plus there is always the fact that plastic bags are free and the shtisel characters are not known for having extra spending money.

    Reply
  • Jennifer says on April 28, 2021

    I pack my husband’s lunch in a plastic bag everyday! I also use them in the small trash cans around the house. Having plenty of purses and bags, I still find myself using plastic bags too. Never gave it a thought. Recycling minded maybe? This is a funny article, thanks Alison!

    Reply
  • Marc Aron says on April 28, 2021

    Sorry to upset anyone but you will soon see less and less plastic bags on the street. New York and New Jersey will ban them, New York already did in most cases, but they will hard to find. Additionally, the reusable bags that are being pushed are not cloth as thought, but they are plastic. what a shock.

    Reply
  • ASF says on April 28, 2021

    Many (not all) haredi Jews don’t take steps to preserve the environment. Almost no one in my local kosher store brings reusable shopping bags – even pre-covid. They fill a crazy number of garbage cans compared to non-Jewish families. I’ve had numerous conversations with right-wing Orthodox Jews who claim they have no interest in climate change or the environment. This is actually a known and studied phenomenon among religious Christians, though I haven’t seen scholarship about Jews per se.

    Reply

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