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Shabbat Parashat Naso| 5770

Ask the Rabbi: Origins of headcovering

Question: When and from where did the practice for a man to cover his head originate, and in what circumstances is it required? Does it make a difference what one is doing and where he is?


Answer: The practice of men covering their heads has evolved toward stringency and there was likely also a geographic/cultural element to it. The Talmudic references to covering one’s head continuously deal primarily with midat chasidut (the practice of the particularly pious) (Kiddushin 31a) or in cases where one needed to reinforce his fear of Heaven (Shabbat 156a).

We do find distinctions based on the person and the circumstances being discussed. The Rambam sees keeping the head covered as a high level of modesty about which Torah scholars should be concerned. Massechet Sofrim (14:15) brings two opinions as to whether one may recite parts of prayers that contain Hashem’s Name with his head uncovered, and most poskim rule stringently on the matter (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 91:6). It is also likely objectionable to enter a shul in that manner (ibid.). The simple implication is that otherwise, it is not a real problem. The Gra (to OC 8:2) champions the view that all of the examples of covering are matters of piety and not real halacha.

On the other hand, there are indications that head covering applies to all Jewish men under normal circumstances. The gemara (Berachot 60a) says that the morning beracha of “oter Yisrael b’tifara” is said when one puts a cloth on his head. Some understand from the fact that a set beracha is said on the matter that it is a mainstream practice. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 2:6) says that one should not go more than 4 amot with his head uncovered. The Gra (ibid.) though claims that this is a suggestion for those who strive for piety (notice that it precedes the instructions not to walk with too straight a posture).

An important element of this machloket is dynamic. The late Ashkenazi Rishon, Mahari Bruna (Shut 34), says that while in Talmudic times the matter was just a matter of piety, now that we live among the non-Jews, it is a binding law. The Taz (OC 8:3) takes this approach to its limit. When, he says, Jews live among non-Jews who considerate it proper etiquette to specifically uncover their heads out of respect, while the Jewish approach values covering one’s head as a sign of respect to Hashem, uncovering the head violates the Torah prohibition of copying gentile practices. Some take a somewhat compromise approach. The Maharshal (Shut 72) says that while he is skeptical about a classic halachic requirement to cover one’s head, possibly even for prayer, once it has become expected for Jews to do so, it is improper to arouse people’s suspicion by failing to follow suit. Thus, there is a sociological connection. Not surprisingly, the custom was much less widespread among Jews from non-Christian countries. The Mishna Berura (Sha’ar Hatziyun 2:17) claims that had the Gra lived in his time (only around 100 years later) he would have agreed that one is halachically required to cover the head.

The validity of a weak covering might depend on the reason behind it. If one requires it for innate halachic reasons (e.g., according to many, for prayers) then covering with one’s own hand is not considered covering (Taz, ibid.). However, regarding not walking four amot or sitting in a manner that it is uncomfortable to keep one’s head covered, a hand is enough of a sign that he generally tries to keep it covered.

Obviously, it is now practically the universal practice among religious Jews to wear a kipa at least within the Jewish community, and that should be continued. Perhaps the most pressing question is that of people who are afraid of discrimination if they wear a kipa. What to do in such a case is a major dilemma which requires a separate halachic discussion. One should discuss the matter with a local Orthodox rabbi, who is familiar with the local modalities and the situation of the person who asks the question.


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R' Meir ben
Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld

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Les & Ethel Sutker of Chicago, Illinois in loving memory of
Max and Mary Sutker and
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