Ask the Rabbi: The way you wear your hat

Male head coverings originated in Babylonia and only spread to Israel in early medieval times.

kippa people 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kippa people 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Q What is the source and reason for men to wear a kippa (yarmulke)?- A.S., Jerusalem A Religious garb, and head coverings in particular, stirs strong religious and sociological emotions. The Muslim hijab, the Catholic miter and the Jewish yarmulke, to take a few examples, each represent, in their own ways, important symbolic messages and shape the identity of individuals and communities. The ambiguous legal origins of the kippa, as we shall see, only underscore its evocative power. While the Babylonian Talmud depicts in multiple places male head coverings, known as sudra, it appears that in the talmudic era not all men covered their heads at all times. Covering one's head, the Talmud explains, expresses one's reverence for the divine power above (Kiddushin 31a). Indeed, the word sudra itself connotes those who fear Him (Shabbat 77b). As such, the Talmud implies that head coverings are only worn by those who possess this desired characteristic of fearing God, such as married scholars (Kiddushin 29b). In particular, it is worn on occasions that require greater reverence, such as court decisions (Shabbat 10a), life cycle ceremonies (Kiddushin 8a) or grace after meals (Brachot 51a). Prof. Yitzhak Zimmer, author of an authoritative historical study on the kippa, has further noted that the Jerusalem Talmud never mentions a sudra or other coverings. Similarly, an eighth-century gaonic text contends that in the Land of Israel kohanim offered the priestly blessing with their heads uncovered, as opposed to their Babylonian counterparts (Hillukim Bein Bnei Mizrah Uma'arav 42). Collectively, these sources indicate the male head coverings originated in Babylonia and only spread to Israel and other localities in early medieval times. Be that as it may, by early medieval times, the practice of wearing a kippa had extended to major Jewish populations and included the entire male populace. Spanish authorities in particular contended that one should always cover his head. They cited, for example, the talmudic statement prohibiting one from walking four ells with his hair uncovered (Shabbat 118b). Similarly, prayers and blessings require head coverings (Sofrim 14:12). Others, however, treated these sentiments as pietistic exhortations but not normative requirements, and a number of sources indicate that early medieval French males, among others, did not always cover their heads (Sefer Kolbo 11). In his various writings, the preeminent 16th-century decisor Rabbi Yosef Karo argued that head coverings are mandatory for all males and all times (Beit Yosef OC 8), and this became the dominant position. Two notable detractors were Rabbi Shlomo Luria (16th century, Poland) and the Vilna Gaon (18th century, Lithuania), both of whom insisted that kippot are not always required. Nonetheless, even these sages acknowledged that popular practice adopted constant head coverings. Many Italian and Moroccan Jews still follow their heritage that asserts kippot are non-normative requirements. As Prof. Zimmer speculates, the symbolic differentiation created by kippot helped distinguish the Jews from their gentile neighbors. A couple of 15th-century German sources, for example, indicate that leaving one's head uncovered inappropriately imitates gentile habits and leads to assimilation. Similarly, in the 17th century, Rabbi David Halevi Segal ostracized those Jews who, like their non-Jewish neighbors, remove their hats when sitting down (Taz OC 8:3). Conversely, those who wanted to break down the laws and symbols that distinguish Jews from non-Jews historically fought against this practice. While the earliest Reform Jews did not abandon their kippot, by 1844 this requirement was dismissed as an act of talmudic pietism. American Reform Jews in particular downplayed this custom, ruling it unnecessary not only in public but in synagogues as well. Recent traditionalist trends within the Reform movement have reintroduced kippot to this community, and some Conservative and Reform women have begun to wear kippot as an egalitarian sign of their proud Jewish identity. Some of the most fascinating questions regarding kippot shed much light on the larger cultural context. One 18th-century rabbi, for example, struggled to emphasize the obligation of always wearing a kippa while allowing his congregants to remove it in order to greet the king and other noblemen. Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, the famed 19th-century German leader of neo-Orthodoxy, allowed local youth to remove their head coverings to attend gymnasium classes. One decisor who dedicated much ink to these questions was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (20th century, United States). He famously allowed American Jews to remove their kippot for work purposes, but insisted that they put them back on when returning home (Igrot Moshe OC 4:2) In one particularly fascinating responsum, he ruled it was better not to remove one's kippa when (sinfully) entering an inappropriate place like a dance club, even though some feared this would desecrate God's name (YD 2:33). As with many other decisors, Feinstein recognized that the kippa has served an important sociological role for many centuries, and refused to allow this person to remove himself, even in the most irreverent of places, from the community of those that fear God. The writer, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.