Kippot, Hats and Head Coverings: A Traditionalist View

How and when a Jew covers his or her head is a spiritual declaration and a nuanced social statement.

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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.

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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.