The Kippa in History and Tradition

    April 2008 Passover Edition            
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Kippot in Jewish Custom

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

The kippah is a defining symbol of Jewish identity. In the religiously, culturally, and ethnically diverse regions of the Jewish Diaspora, kipppot are often worn as outward symbols of Jewishness. Yet due to the internal diversity of the Jewish people—owing largely to geographical and sectarian/denominational differences—kippot have taken on a multiplicity of appearances and meanings.
In the contemporary world, a Jew may wear a kippah to demarcate theological, social, or even political positions. In Hasidic communities, Jewish men often wear fedoras with large black kippot underneath, representing the Kabbalistic understanding of two levels of the intellect. In Israel, religious Zionists are sometimes called kippot serugat for the knitted head coverings they wear; and in recent years crocheted "Kabbalist" kippot have become popular among Jews with a mystical bent. Most liberal Jews wear kippot only during religious ceremonies, and in many egalitarian congregations women wear kippot to assert their equality with men.

These and other kippah variations permeate the world's Jewish communities. However, while the kippah plays a prominent role in the contemporary Jewish world, the obligation to wear a head covering has its origin in regional customs, rather than halakhah (Jewish law). Indeed, it is due largely to its status as minhag (Jewish custom) that a wide variety of head coverings have been accepted as kippot. Without clear guidelines for dimensions, fabric, color, or requirements, the world's diverse Jewish communities have produced a variety of regulatory and stylistic interpretations of the kippah.

The Tanakh (books of the Prophets and Writings) contains few references to head coverings, and nowhere does it suggest the modern practice. In Exodus 28:4, for instance, a head covering is listed as part of the priestly vestments, and in II Samuel 15:30 the covering of one's head and face is regarded as a sign of mourning. The kippah does, however, have some basis in Talmudic literature, where it is associated with reverence for God. In Kiddushin 31a, for example, R. Honah ben Joshua declares that he "never walked four cubits with his head uncovered . . . Because the Divine Presence is always over my head." In like manner, tractate Shabbat 156b states, "Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you"; and in Berachot 60b, it is written, "When he spreads a cloth upon his head he should say: Blessed are you (God) . . . Who crowns Israel with splendor."

These short verses provide the foundation for the "kippah-concept": the covering of one's head as act of devotion and humility. In the Middle Ages, French and Spanish rabbis introduced the practice of covering one's head during prayer and Torah study, and Maimonides (1135-1204) similarly ruled that a Jewish man should cover his head during prayer (Mishne Torah, Ahavah, Hilkhot Tefilah 5:5). These rulings do not, however, address specifically the wearing of a kippah at all times, and in purely halakhic terms (as stated by Maimonides), it seems that kippot were not required, but strongly recommended during prayer.

As mentioned, regional customs developed regarding head coverings, and in many locations took on variegated purposes. In thirteenth-century Germany, for instance, Jewish boys were not required to wear kippot when they were called to the Torah. In contrast, seventeenth-century Russian scholar David Haley suggested that Jews should always keep their heads covered in order to distinguish themselves from the Christian majority. Years later, Reform polemicists, led by Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), rejected kippot altogether as part of their campaign to eradicate "antiquated" and "unnecessary" practices from Jewish life.

The practice of wearing kippot did, however, make its way into the Shulhan Arukh (Jewish Code of Law - mid-16th century), which reiterates the decree that one should not walk more than four cubits with an uncovered head. A century later, Mogen Dovid (known as the TAZ) added that a man should not even sit in his house with a bare head, and R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (known as the Chofetz Chaim - 1838-1933) later wrote in the Mishnah Berurah that "It is virtuous conduct not to go even less than four cubits with an uncovered head and even to keep one's head covered while one sleeps at night."

Still, halakhic experts agree that the wearing of kippot is a matter of custom. With its virtual absence in the Bible and the ambiguous nature of Talmudic and post-Talmudic rulings, local kippah-customs have been freely developed, reinterpreted, and rejected. At the same time, however, the prevailing view among traditionalist rabbis is that, while it is a custom, the wearing of kipppot has taken on the force of law and is considered an act of Kiddush Ha-Shem (Sanctification of the Holy Name). And others have argued that, because of its almost universal acceptance (at least during worship), the wearing of kippot has transcended its minhag-status (custom), and is, at the very least, a highly regarded defacto-law.

A story told of Solomon Luria, a prominent sixteenth-century Polish rabbi, illustrates this point. A man suffering from severe headaches asked Rabbi Luria if he was permitted to eat bareheaded. Rabbi Luria responded that, while there is no official requirement to wear head coverings even during prayer, the custom had become so widely accepted that anyone going about without a kippah was considered impious. He therefore suggested that the man wear a soft kippah made of fine linen or silk.

Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor at Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, and teaches religious studies at Whittier College.


from the April 2008 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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