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December 25, 2010

By Rabbi Wayne Allen

In Hebrew, the head-covering is called “kippah,” from the Semitic root meaning “bent” or “rounded.” From here, any cap that fits on the head that is of a domed-shape was also called a kippah (cf. Gittin 20a). In Yiddish, the head-covering is called “yarmulke,” a word that remains somewhat a mystery. The popular etymology was that the term is a conflation of two Hebrew/Aramaic words, yarei malka, meaning “God-fearing.” That is to say, those who wear this head covering are pious Jews. But the research of Rabbi Gunther Plaut (“The Origin of the Word Yarmulka,” Hebrew Union College Annual, Volume 26, 1955, pp. 567-70) reveals that the word has sources only from 1608 with no special connection to Jewish ritual. Some trace the origin to the Polish skull-cap called “jarmulke” or Ukranian “yarmulke.” It is Rabbi Plaut's contention that the diminutive term for the head-covering worn by Catholic priests, almucella, was the name Jews in Central Europe eventually gave to their own head gear, albeit in a corrupted form. But the term “yarmulke” as such did not enter Jewish use until the turn of the twentieth century.

Among the priestly vestments for Aaron and his sons was a headdress for Aaron (Exodus 28:4) and turbans for his sons (Exodus 28:40). These were for “dignity and adornment.” It seems, however, that these head coverings were only part of the priestly wardrobe. There is no Scriptural source that indicates that other Israelite men wore any similar item. And the archaeological record suggests that ordinary Israelites went bare-headed (cf. Emil G. Hirsch and Wilhelm Nowack, Jewish Encylopedia, s.v. “Head-dress”). Rabbinic literature tells a different story.

The passages in rabbinic literature that consider the matter of head-coverings for Jewish males are neither unanimous nor consistent. While there are texts that assume that such head-coverings were optional, signals of personal piety or humility, moral prophylactics, and even considerably disrespectful, there are other texts that considered head-coverings desirable and even necessary.

There is a fascinating geographical component regarding the historical development of the wearing of head-coverings. From his analysis of the sources, Jacob Z. Lauterbach (Should One Cover the Head When Participating in Divine Worship? in Central Conference of American Rabbis Year Book, Volume XXXVIII, 1928, reprinted in Lauterbach, Studies in Jewish Law, Custom and Folklore, pp. 225ff.) concluded that there was a fundamental difference in practice between Jews in Israel and Jews in Babylonia. The former were not accustomed to covering their heads and would generally go bare-headed, in or out of the synagogue. For the latter, however - at least among the pious - head-covering was customary. Up to the thirteenth century, Spanish Jews followed the Babylonian custom while Franco-German Jews followed the Palestinian. From the thirteenth century on, the Babylonian-Spanish custom began to penetrate into France and Germany and rabbinical authorities there recommended head-covering during prayer or study. Even so, there were considerable authorities who still resisted. Lauterbach further contends that in reaction to the first attempts to “reform” Judaism in the nineteenth century, suggesting that hats be removed in synagogue, rabbinical authorities became more emphatic in their insistence of head-coverings for those entering synagogues or engaged in study or worship.

Reviewing all the sources, twentieth-century Sefardic Rabbi Joseph Mesas [d. 1974] (Responsa Mayyim Hayyim, No. 23) writes that there is absolutely no halakhic requirement for wearing a head-covering. At best, it remains a matter of personal piety. Nevertheless, he ends remarking that today a head-covering serves as the only visible symbol of religious commitment, distinguishing the observant from the non-observant and may be useful for that purpose alone. But should the day come when all Jews are observant, then head-covering would prove altogether unnecessary. Although there is no consensus on the history of head-coverings or the permissibility of going without, Rabbi Isaac Klein (A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, pp. 51-2) advocates covering one's head “when in the sanctuary of the synagogue,” “when praying and when studying or when reading from our sacred literature,” “when performing a ritual,” and “when eating.” He cites similar reasons to those offered by Rabbi Meshash: it is a means of identification and a barrier against assimilation.

So while today the wearing of head-coverings is normative among Conservative Jews, its history suggests that the practice should not be cause for dispute. Better not to evoke controversy at the drop of a hat.

This week's Haftarah commentary was written by
Rabbi Wayne Allen, Ph.D.,
has served Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto for over 23 years.  He is the author of Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Israel, e-mail: Books@schechter.ac.il.
Rabbi Allen is editorial board member, The Unraveller.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

This week, Masorti congregations around the globe have registered for the World Wide Wrap including congregations in Chile, Australia, Germany and Sweden. If you, dear reader, are a member of a Masorti/Conservative congregation make certain that your congreation participate and is registered. Last year fifty sets of tefillin were donated by participaing congregations and distributed to Masorti congregations in Europe, Latin America, the FSU and Israel. We encourage you to assist us in the great mitzvah. Click here to register your Wrap.

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