Written by: Aaron Schatz

Why Do Jews Cover Their Heads?

Why do Jews cover their heads when they pray or read the Torah? What does Paul mean when he says, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his own head” (1 Cor. 11:4)?

The name of the Jewish headdress—kippah (Hebrew for "covering") or yarmulke (Yiddish)—most likely comes from different sources: from the Aramaic yaare malka (fear of the king), Hebrew yere meeloka (fearing God), from the Turkic agmurluk (raincoat)and from the Polish yarmulka (hat). A kippah is worn by religious Jews. Depending on the movement of Judaism, yarmulkes have different shapes and colors and are made of different materials.

The custom of wearing a kippah has no biblical or Talmudic basis but rather reflects a tradition symbolizing modesty, humility, and reverence for God.

The only incident that the Talmud describes tells us the story of Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak. When he was born, the sages told his mother, "Your son will become a thief. But to avoid this, do not allow him to walk around with his head uncovered.” Since then, she has constantly repeated to him, "My son, cover your head so that you always feel the fear of the Almighty, and pray that He does not give the evil spirit power over you!” And so, when he grew up, he became one of the greatest sages of the Talmud.

The obligation to wear kippot was prescribed much later in the medieval legislation of the Kitsur Shulchan Aruch, chapter 3:

“It is forbidden to walk through four amas with your head uncovered. It is forbidden to say anything related to the holiness of the Almighty with an uncovered head. Even small boys should be taught to cover their heads, as this is a sign that the Jew recognizes the constant authority of the Almighty over himself.”

There is also a prayer shawl that Jews wear when praying and reading the Torah. It is called tallit (Hebrew) or tales (Yiddish), which refers to a fringed garment with black or blue stripes on the edges and tassels at the four ends (tzitzit). It is of post-biblical origin. The Bible mentions the commandment to wear tassels (tzitzit) in Numbers 15:38, which were attached to the edges of clothing and served as a reminder of the commandments of the Lord and their fulfillment. Later, the tassels were attached to the cloak (aderet), which then turned into a tallit, which in turn became an integral part of the vestment of a religious Jew. The shape, size, color, and material of the tallit depend on the direction of Judaism, region, and community and are an attribute of Jewish religious culture.

Wearing a head covering in Judaism in Paul’s time was less a law than a cultural feature; therefore, turning to the Corinthians, Paul wants to explain to them that those customs and cultural features that were accepted in Corinth and do not contradict the commandments are welcomed and prescribed.

The custom of removing the headdress during prayer and the custom of putting it on during prayer represent two approaches to the worship of God. More precisely, representing the traditions of the West and the East, which are reflected in modern Western Christianity and, accordingly, in Judaism and Islam.

 

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