COVERING MY JEWISH HEAD

by Rabbi Hershel Johah Matt

in: Matt, Daniel C., ed.,WALKING HUMBLY WITH GOD: The life and writings of Rabbi Hershel Johan Matt, Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1993, pp. 173-177.

Why do I wear a kippah when I do? Ought I wear it at other times as well--as many Jews do and I do not? Must I wear it even at the times I do--since many other Jews do not? And what difference does it make--to others, to me, to God, to anyone--whether I do or do not wear a kippah ?

When I cover my head for particular occasions--for public Jewish worship or private prayer, for study of Torah--I am following what has become a distinctive Jewish way of performing a ritual act, of showing reverence, of acknowledging that I stand in the presence of the Holy One.

But since there are numerous occasions throughout the day when pronouncing a berakhah is in order (upon washing the hands, for example; upon eating a meal or even a morsel, taking a drink, beholding a natural wonder or an exceptional person), and since there are innumerable moments when God's presence should be acknowledged and responded to ("there is no moment or place entirely devoid of His presence"), should I perhaps keep my head covered all the time, as indeed many Jews do, and as I myself usually do on Shabbat and on Yom Tov?

Entirely aside from its religious meaning, covering the head is meaningful in another way: not with regard to the particular act that I am doing, or to the particular moment when I am doing it, but with regard to who I am. For going about with covered head--especially with kippah-covered head--means that I am wearing a uniform, and thus will be immediately identified: to non-Jews, as a Jew; to Jews, as fellow Jew. (The kippah has become far more visible and far more widely recognized as a Jewish uniform than the Torah-commanded "fringes on the comer of the garment.") When I wear a kippah in public, therefore, I demonstrate my willingness, perhaps even my eagerness, to be so identified.

But merely to be identified as a Jew involves, paradoxically, more than mere identification. Even if in one's own eyes one is a secular, nonbelieving, nonreligious Jew, in the eyes of almost all others, non-Jew and Jew alike, the very word "Jew" points beyond the merely ethnic and, on some level and at least to some degree, points to Israel as God's covenant people, called to be a "kingdom of priests,a holy nation," involving mysterious chosenness and miraculous survival; revelation of God's word and way; and redemption, performed in the past and promised for the future. Thus when I wear a kippah I serve willy-nilly as witness and reminder of the Holy One of Israel.

These, then, are at least some of the reasons, aside from mere habit and the accompanying sense of "just feeling more comfortable this way," that I wear a kippah when I do.

 

In spite of these good reasons, covering my Jewish head poses problems and dilemmas.

For one thing, granted that covering the head can serve as a sign of, and an aid to, reverence in the presence of the holy, and granted also that every moment is potentially holy, is it not also true that wearing a head covering can degenerate into the magical illusion that the mere wearing of a kippah guarantees protection, and into the superstitious notion that the mere baring of my head will bring punishment down upon me?

Far more profoundly dangerous is the possibility that wearing a head covering may become so routine and automatic that I become almost oblivious to its intended meaning, thus allowing what is meant to be an act of piety to become utterly ineffective, and allowing what are meant to be moments of holiness to lose their force and even their frequency. Wearing a kippah constantly, I run the risk of reducing the distinction between the holy and the profane--and not by raising the latter to the former.

In addition to the peril of routine, there is the peril of self-righteous display: of always appearing to say, "Look at me: how pious I am!" It is true, of course, that peril lies also with the onlooker, who may be rationalizing his own lack of piety by projecting it on to the kippah-covered Jew; I dare not deny, however, the reality of this peril which accompanies me when I publicly wear a kippah. The effort to cultivate consciousness of God's presence, worthy and indeed crucial as this is, is no guarantee against self-consciousness, and self-consciousness runs the risk of becoming self-righteousness and self-display.

Even the ready and open acknowledgment of my Jewish identity through wearing a kippah, surely an admirable sign of Jewish self-respect and even of defiance in the face of non-Jewish hostility, carries with it some spiritual perils. For just as being identifiable as a Jew makes every worthy word I say and every worthy deed I do into kiddush ha-shem, sanctification of the name of God and of His people Israel, so is the converse also true: my every less-than-worthy deed or word calls Israel and Israel's God into disrepute. Besides, is it not permissible, or even preferable, for one person to meet another person, at least sometimes, simply as one human being to another, one image-of-God to another, I to thou--and only thereafter identify oneself as a Jew? In any case, wearing my Jewish identity on my head runs the risk of becoming too strident, too demonstrative, too proclamatory of my Jewishness. It is, of course, possible that my concern over this peril is but a rationalization for my embarrassment or even cowardice at appearing so openly Jewish--and I ought from time to time to reexamine that possibility; but the peril of judgmental, prideful parading ought not to be denied.

 

If covering the head were clearly commanded in the Torah, or explicitly ordained in the Talmud, or laid down as mandatory law in the classical codes, or if it had been always and everywhere the accepted Jewish practice, I might have no alternative. Since I strive to abide by the basic discipline of theTorah-tradition, I would accept the obligation of covering myhead, and then seek God's help in avoiding these spiritual pitfalls. None of the above, however, seems to be the case.

There is no biblical command for anyone except the kohen (priest) to cover the head. And in the Talmud, though married women were required to cover their head in public (exposing their hair was considered to be an indecency), the practice of covering the head by men (other than those who were fasting, in mourning, under the ban, or afflicted with leprosy) appears to have been limited to scholars and other dignitaries, and to have been a voluntary act of special piety and humility. Indeed, for an "ordinary" man to cover his head was considered in some circles to be presumptuous. In Palestine it was not required even that kohanim cover their heads during their recitation of the priestly blessing, although in Babylonia this was required.

In medieval Europe the practice varied. Some rabbinical authorities considered covering the head even during prayer and Torah study to be optional; and some of them prayed with uncovered head. Even when covering the head became more widely practiced, almost all authorities granted that this was merely custom, and that there was no law against praying with head uncovered. Even when covering the head had become the dominant practice, authorities as eminent as Rabbi Solomon Luria and the author of the Shulhan Arukh, though urging its practice, continued to acknowledge this distinction between custom and law. As late as the eighteenth century the famous Elijah of Vilna ("the Vilna Gaon"), though strongly recommending the practice of covering the head in the synagogue as good manners, makes the same theoretical acknowledgment.

True enough, when long practiced and widely observed, custom can come to be considered law, and when subsequently defied, can even overide the law. Thus when in the nineteenth century leaders of the Reform movement, basing themselves on this theoretically nonmandatory status of the practice, did away with it, some of them going so far as to make baring the head mandatory, Orthodox leaders responded by condemning bareheadedness as a gross violation of "the law," as an outrageous example of the forbidden "walking in the ways of the gentiles," and by pronouncing the practice of covering the head to be absolutely mandatory--some even extending the duty of keeping the head covered to all the time.

In the contemporary period the extent of the practice among traditionally observant Jews has varied. Some keep the head covered at all times; some whenever they are at home or in any Jewish environment, but not otherwise in public; some while studying Torah, praying, or eating. In some circles observant Jews have been known to don a kippah (or merely to cover their head with their hand) for the benedictions at the beginning of the meal, to remove it for the balance of the meal, and at the conclusion of the meal to don it once again for the birkat ha-mazon (grace after the meal). In other circles the kippah has been considered to provide insufficient covering, at least for some prayer situations, and so the kippah is replaced or covered by a hat.(1)

 

In view of this record of varied historical practice and varied halakhic ruling, what are the standards that should guide me with regard to covering my Jewish head?

First, I must guard against the double error of either asserting that covering the head has always been the required and only proper Jewish mode--or of denying that in recent centuries it was widely considered to be just that.

Secondly, I should normally cover my head for Jewish prayer and Torah study and at least occasionally for other pursuits as well, depending upon the particular situation or company, or even the particular mood, that I am in. And I should not be apologetic to others or to myself for having such personal preferences.

I should be sensitive, however, to the feelings of other Jews who, because of difference in background and experience, in temperament and personality, in present environment or circumstance, have preferences and principles different from mine, and who therefore cover their head more frequently or consistently, or less consistently or frequently, than I do. I should therefore not try to coerce or pressure others to follow my preferences and principles rather than their own. Nor should I insist upon always following my own, if doing so will greatly offend or pain those in whose company I am, unless I find their insistence on my compliance to be so coercive and intrusive, or so self-righteous, that it becomes for me an intolerable burden.

Finally, I should acknowledge the possibility that my present views and feelings on this subject, my present understanding, and even my present principles, however deeply held, may some day change. I should not necessarily fear the prospect of such change, nor feel obliged to resist it if and when it comes, for change sometimes betokens spiritual growth.

With regard to covering my head, the only kind of change that I should fear and, with God's help, should endeavor to resist, is any change that involves the loss or diminution of this crucial double awareness: that I am a Jew, party to God's covenant with my people Israel, and that as a Jew I stand at every moment before the One whose hallowed and hallowing presence is above my covered (or uncovered) head.

FOOTNOTE

(1) In Orthodox circles the closest parallel among women to the male practice of covering the head is the rule that married women must not appear in public with their hair exposed; unmarried women are spared the problem--and denied the privilege--of deciding whether and when to cover their head as an expression of 1ewish piety or identity. Perhaps some Orthodox married women, or some unmarried women stirred by feminism or egalitarianism to cover their Jewish head on certain occasions, will find in this essay a reflection of certain aspects of their own situation.

© 1993 Daniel C. Matt, Reprinted with permission.

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12/12/97

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