Rabbi Steinsaltz’s guide to Jewish head coverings is directed at the newly observant Jew in an Orthodox setting who must decide what head covering he or she is going to wear, and under what circumstances. In doing so, he offers a survey of the religious and sociological significance of various practices, but only from a traditionalist perspective. For example, outside the Orthodox communities, few Jewish women regularly cover their hair in their daily lives and some women choose to wear kippot. Reprinted with permission from Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew (Jason Aronson).
For men, the primary question is whether or not to cover the head. This practice has evolved from a minhag (custom) of the very pious to an accepted norm, incumbent on all observant males. Talmudic law does not require covering the head, through there are hints there that doing so is to be regarded as a sign of reverence. But the practice became more and more widespread, until by the Middle Ages Jewish legal authorities everywhere were unanimous that sacred words (prayers, words of Torah) could not be spoken, nor sacred precincts (synagogues, houses of study, even cemeteries) entered bareheaded. Today, too, there is complete halakhic [Jewish legal] agreement on this question.
Some Men Keep their Heads Covered Always, Everywhere
Covering the head at all times is a different matter. In Europe, it was the universal custom among Orthodox Jews, except for some in Germany, to do so indoors and out. The most orthodox even did it while sleeping. In the Near East there was greater latitude in the matter, and many religious Jews only covered their heads for sacred activities. Keeping the head covered at all times has a kabbalistic [mystical] significance, leading some to cover their heads twice–a hat over a kippah (skullcap), or a tallit (prayer shawl)over a kippah–while praying.
For various historical reasons–chiefly because most Jews no longer wear a distinctly Jewish garb–the head covering has, for many, taken on the significance of a badge. Once such a view takes hold, it acquires a certain significance in the eyes of halakhah. Even practices with no inherent meaning sometimes acquire real importance from the way they are viewed in the popular mind, due to the notion of kiddush hashem (glorifying God) and hillul hashem (sacrilege). When a given act comes to be perceived by most people as one of hillul hashem, ipso facto, it is so, even though intrinsically there may be nothing wrong with it.