Author Archives: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

About Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the author of works bringing traditional Torah scholarship and Hasidic thought to a contemporary audience. He lives in Jerusalem.

Kippot, Hats and Head Coverings: A Traditionalist View

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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. 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.

 

A woman wearing a hat (left), a man with a yarmulke. Photo credit: Michelle Mason

Male Head Covering: Religious Meaning from Social Consensus

It is for this reason that covering the head has become significant and valuable, not because it has any inherent meaning but rather as a conventional sign of belonging to a certain group of people and of commitment to a certain way of life. The [newly observant Jew] must be aware of this symbolism. On the one hand, if he does not cover his head, he will be regarded by the Orthodox (particularly in Israel) as a deviant from the true path, no matter how observant he is. On the other hand, if he is not fully observant, at least in public, the fact that he covers his head may lead others to see him as hypocritical. Indeed, it may cast a shadow of hypocrisy over the entire observant community. Thus, [for a man] covering the head is an act fraught with significance that must be weighed very seriously.

Because the male head covering is not explicitly a matter of mitzvah [commandment], either in the Torah or in the Talmud, there are no requirements as to how it should be made. Presumably it should cover most of the head, but as to the shape or materials to be used there are no limitations. Here too, halakhically meaningless details can take on a certain significance in the public mind, so that various kinds of kippot may signify very specific things to both religious and non-religious people. Thus, to avoid confusing or misleading people, it is best to find out what the various current significations are.

Women’s Head Coverings: A Sign of Marital Status

In the case of women, too, there is, in addition to a general requirement of modesty of dress, a specific one concerning covering the head. Married women are required to cover their hair. This is an ancient law, already hinted at in the Torah, that has been observed among Jews all through the ages. In some communities, even unmarried women have been known to keep their hair covered, though this custom never became widespread. The law is not related to that requiring men to cover their heads, and it is even more stringent. The fact that a married woman covers her hair whenever she leaves the house is a sign of her special status.

The form in which this practice is observed varies from one community to another. In the communities that were under kabbalistic influence–in parts of Eastern Europe and the Arab world, and among the Sephardim–the practice was observed more strictly, such that the hair would be covered completely, with none at all showing, not only in the street but in the home as well. In some countries, pious women go so far as to braid their hair in addition to covering it. But in most areas of Eastern Europe and the Middle East it was considered sufficient to cover the greater part of the hair, and this in fact is all that halakhah requires. In any case, there is no doubt that some covering of the hair, however symbolic, is called for.

In recent times it has become customary for women to cover their hair with wigs, and this can indeed be seen as fulfilling the requirements of the halakhah. Married women are not, after all, expected to make themselves “ugly.” Nevertheless, there have been scholars who have ruled that wigs too must be covered, particularly when they look so natural that they cannot be recognized as head coverings and the women who wear them are not recognizable as married. But this too is a matter of custom and not of definitive halakhah.

Covering the Head as a Spiritual Statement

In Jewish tradition, and even in very old linguistic usage, “an uncovered head” means unbridled license. By the same token, covering the head, be it for prayer and study or at any other time, represents, by general usage at least, the acceptance of Divine sovereignty, of the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven.”

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Non-fixed Fast Days

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Excerpted from A Guide to Jewish Prayer with permission of the publisher, Schocken Books.

It is accepted practice for Jewish communities, in times of trouble and distress, to declare a public fast on a certain day or days, hoping that the power of prayer and charity, fasting and self-purification, will bring heavenly salvation. The Bible refers to this several times, e.g., "Blow, the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast… then will the Lord be jealous for His land and pity His people" (Joel 2:15-18).

Among other instances, the people of Israel fasted for salvation from the Philistines (I Samuel 6:6), when their fields were devastated by a plague of locusts during the period of Joel (1:14), and on the three-day fast called in support of Queen Esther’s efforts to overturn Haman’s decree in the time of King Ahasuerus (see Esther 4:16). The Mishnah declares that this should be done "for any trouble that comes upon the community" (Mishnah, Ta’anit 2:8). Tractate Ta’anit is devoted to the laws and customs for such fast days. 

Occasional Public Fasts

Fasts held on occasions of public distress may be declared for universal observance, for one country, for one city, or even by one community within a city. There is no clear-cut definition as to what is considered proper cause for a public fast day, the matter resting with the judgment of the local Jewish religious court. Thus, it might sometimes happen that a fast day is declared in one place where the community has been harmed by a particular event, even though the same event may be fortuitous for another community.

There was a fixed sequence of public fasts, of progressively increasing severity, for a scarcity of rainfall, or drought, in the Land of Israel. If the rainy season began and rain did not fall, a series of fasts was held (as many as 13, on Mondays and Thursdays of each week), culminating in several as stringent as the fast on Tisha B’Av. During Temple times, there was also a special order of shofar blowing, an additional six blessings were inserted into the Amidah [central standing prayer], and there was even a Ne’ilah service [a closing service like the one at the end of Yom Kippur].

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Fast Days: Synagogue Laws & Customs

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Excerpted from A Guide to Jewish Prayer with permission of the publisher, Schocken Books.

During the course of the year, there are various days of fasting on which, in addition to the fast itself, there are a number of changes and additions in the order of prayer services. (Yom Kippur, although a day of fasting, is not considered among these, because it is essentially a festival, and the fasting on that day is intended for purification and spiritual elevation). 

The fast days may be categorized, on the basis of their essence and the customs practiced on them, as follows: (a) Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), whose laws, customs, and prayers give it a unique status; (b) fast days held in memory of tragic events: some are mentioned in the Bible; other, later ones, are either recognized by all Jewish communities, or are kept only by particular communities; (c) fixed fast days for atonement and purification; (d) other fixed fasts; (e) fast days declared on the occasion of public calamities, whenever they occur.

The Service on Memorial Fast Days

All these [memorial] fast days share a common pattern of laws and customs. The fast itself only applies during the daytime (from dawn till nightfall). When one of these days occurs on Shabbat, it is postponed to Sunday. The Fast of Esther is not postponed till the following day, because that day is Purim; instead, it is brought forward to Thursday, as Friday is also not an appropriate day for fasting (the one exception to this is the Tenth of Tevet, on which we fast even when it falls, as it occasionally  does, on a Friday).

The Ma’ariv [evening] service is conducted as on regular weekdays (since the fast doesn’t begin until the following morning).

Shaharit [morning service], through the Amidah [central standing prayer]remains the same as on weekdays. The Shaliah Tzibbur [service leader] repeats the Amidah as on weekdays, but after Go’el Yisrael [the benediction "Redeemer of Israel"]he adds Anenu ["answer us"]as a complete benediction, which ends with the words "Blessed are You, O Lord, who answers [His people Israel] in times of distress."

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Fast Days for Repentance & Atonement

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Excerpted from
A Guide to Jewish Prayer
with permission of the publisher, Schocken Books.

Various days of the year have been instituted as fast days for the purposes of repentance and atonement for sins. 

Monday-Thursday-Monday Fasts

Among these days are to be included the Monday, Thursday, and Monday following the Sukkot and Pesach festivals. These days were decreed as fast days because, as stated in the Talmud (Kiddushin 81a), the festivals, which are days of joy and leisure, may also result in transgressing the limits of responsible conduct. Consequently, these fasts were supposed to have been held immediately after the festivals, in order to atone for any such laxity. But since the months of Tishrei and Nisan are considered joyful months, and it is customary not to fast during them, the Monday-Thursday-Monday fasts are held during the following months–Heshvan and Iyar.monthly calendar

There are further reasons for these fasts: During Heshvan one fasts to plead for rain to fall on the newly planted fields, and during Iyar so that the harvest should not be ruined by blight or mildew. Heshvan and Iyar are also periods of seasonal changes in weather; hence, one fasts and prays for physical health.

Since these days were fixed as public fasts (although not everyone observes them), there are special selihot [penitential prayers] for them also. There is a Torah reading in Minhah, and daily prayers are the same as on any other public fast days.

Fasts Related to the Book of Exodus

Some people fast on the Thursdays of those weeks during which the first eight portions of the book of Exodus (whose initial letters spell out, in Hebrew, the appellation Shovavim Tat) are read. This custom originated among Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples, the point of it being that this period is a propitious time for purifying the soul from sin. The period was also set aside for fast days, since it generally occurs during the months of Tevet, Shvat, and the beginning of Adar, during which there are virtually no days on which it is forbidden to fast (except for the 15th of Shvat).

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The Rabbis’ Shabbat Part I: Prohibitions

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In this first part of a two-part article, Rabbi Steinsaltz describes in some detail the prohibitions for Shabbat as understood by traditionalist Jews. Reprinted from Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew (transl. Michael Swirsky), published by Jason Aronson Inc.

The Jewish Sabbath is unique. Indeed, a comparison with the Christian and Muslim imitations of it–not to mention the modern secular “weekend”–only underlines this uniqueness. Shabbat is not simply a day when it is customary to attend public prayer. It is a day when one enters a completely different sphere. The rabbinic sayings comparing Shabbat to the world to come are more than mere figures of speech. Basically, Shabbat means putting aside creative activity in order to concern oneself completely with personal reflection and matters of the spirit, free of struggle and tension. 

The key element in Shabbat observance is a kind of passivity: refraining from “work.” Yet, over a period of three thousand years, the Jewish people have developed a tradition that transforms what might otherwise be a day of mere inactivity into one of joy and inner peace, “a day of rest and holiness,” in the words of the liturgy. This tradition is one of the hallmarks of Jewish culture as a whole.

Approached from a distance, the body of Shabbat prohibitions can appear to be an endless maze of details: “don’t do,” “don’t move,” “don’t touch.” Yet for all the elaboration these prohibitions have received, the principles underlying them are actually quite simple. The key formula here is, “Thou shalt not do any manner of melakhah.” The concept of melakhah is understood both in the simple sense of “work,” which is its plain meaning, and in the more complex sense that flows from the context in which it first appears, the story of the Sabbath of Creation. In the latter case, the term has the meaning of an act of physical creation. What is decisive is not the degree of effort involved, or whether the action receives monetary compensation, but rather whether it results in the appearance of something new in the physical world. Thus, relatively effortless activities like writing and profitless activities like landscaping one’s house become forbidden. Similarly, it is not permitted to kindle or handle fire on Shabbat, a fact that has always been of great practical significance. Not only is smoking prohibited, so is operating a vehicle or tool requiring internal combustion.

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The Rabbis’ Shabbat II: Enjoyment and Spiritual Fulfillment

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Reprinted from Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew (transl. Michael Swirsky), published by Jason Aronson Inc.

The heart of Shabbat observance is, as I have said, refraining rather than doing: cessation. But there is also the positive dimension of the “culture” of Shabbat, the dimension that makes it, in the words of the liturgy, “a day of joy and rest, quiet and security,” a day of holiness, a day when one acquires an “extra soul.” 

Thus, before Shabbat begins, candles are lit, preferably on or near the dinner table. This practice, which was originally intended to make the Sabbath evening meal more enjoyable, has always had a festive quality to it: the brightness of the light gives added honor to the day. Every Jew is obliged to light candles, but over the centuries the tradition arose that it should be done, wherever possible, by the woman of the house. (There is also a beautiful custom according to which each female member of the family, even little girls, lights her own Shabbat candles). The connection between the night of Shabbat and the woman’s role is a deep and ancient one, of which the candlelighting is but one part.

shabbat spiritUnlike weekday meals, those eaten on Shabbat are not for physical sustenance alone but serve to fulfill the mitzvah of Sabbath joy. It is also a mitzvah to eat three Shabbat meals: evening, noon, and late afternoon. These are “sacred meals,” both in their ceremonial character and in their deeper meaning, meals in which the Jewish family, as a religious (and not merely social) unit, communites with the sanctity of the day. The first two of the three meals begin with kiddush (“sanctification”), a special benediction usually said over a cup of wine (or spirits or grape juice in the case of people who do not tolerate alcohol well). After netilat yadayim (ritual hand washing), the meal itself begins. In most Jewish communities it is customary to sing zemirot, special Sabbath hymns, at the table. This custom is not restricted to people with special musical talents; rather, each person at the table participates as best he can. The effect is to reinforce both the sense of togetherness and the element of zevah mishpahah–familial offering–appropriate to the Sabbath table.

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