Kippot (Head Coverings) in Synagogue

Changing trends in the use or non-use of a head covering in synagogue has been an indicator of changing relations with the surrounding community.


Reprinted with permission from Jewish Worship, published by The Jewish Publication Society.

ln Western society a gentleman “tips his hat” to a lady, and a Christian removes his hat upon entering a church. Not so in the Moslem world. To be bareheaded is to show disrespect and to be barefooted is a sign of reverence. No one is permitted to enter a mosque without first removing his shoes. In Judaism both the hat and the shoes have retained their symbolic meaning, though not with equal weight or consistency.

If the symbolism of removing the shoes has faded somewhat among the modern Jews, the covering of the head as a symbol of reverence during worship has remained a religious symbol of significance. But the origin and development of this religious symbol is shrouded in uncertainty. We know that among the priestly vestments of Aaron and his sons there was a “headdress” for Aaron (Exodus 28:4) and “turbans” for Aaron’s sons (Exodus 28:40). These, the Bible tells us, were “for dignity and adornment.” In the [Babylonian]Talmud we read a lone but telling reference: “Rabina was sitting before R. Jeremiah of Difti, when a certain man passed by without covering his head [as a sign of respect]. How impudent is that man! he exclaimed” (Kiddushin 33a).

Moses Maimonides [12th century Spain/North Africa] makes reference to this talmudic incident in his famous philosophic work, The Guide of the Perplexed. He says: “The great men among our Sages would not uncover their heads because they believed that God’s glory was round them and over them.”

Though covering one’s head was regarded during the talmudic period as a sign of respect, there is scant evidence that Jews in the Temple court or in the early synagogue were required to wear any headgear. In Christian Europe we have evidence of a disregard for this tradition, or at least inconsistency in its observance. “In the thirteenth century,” says Israel Abrahams, quoting a contemporary work, “boys in Germany and adults in France were called to the Law in synagogue bareheaded” (Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, London 1932, 301-2).

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Rabbi Abraham Ezra Millgram (1900-1998) served as a congregational rabbi, a Hillel director, and from 1945 to 1961, Educational Director of the Commission on Jewish Education of the United Synagogue of America. During several decades of active retirement in Jerusalem, he published a number of books, including Jerusalem Curiosities (Jewish Publication Society) and A Short History of Jerusalem (Jason Aronson).

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