Why Men cover their Heads: the Kippa
By Larry Fine
One of the most conspicuous symbols of Jewishness is the kippa or yarmulke, the small skullcap that is worn by the hundreds of thousands of observant Jews around the world. Interestingly enough, this overt sign that designates the wearer as a pious Jew is does not owe its origin to a commandment from the Torah.
What is the source of this prominent sign of the devout Jewish man?
There is a famous story about a young Talmudic student who asked his Rabbi about the background of the kippa. His Rabbi answered him, "The Torah tells us that Isaac when out into the fields to converse with G-d, you don't think that Isaac would pray with out a yarmulke, do you?"
The source for the wearing the yarmulke is brought down in two places in the Talmud. The first place is from the Tracate Kidushin:
"Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi says that it is forbidden for a Jew to walk six feet in the extreme upright position since G-d's glory fills the entire world. Rabbi Huna the son of Rabbi Yoshua says that one should not walk six feet with out a covering on his head."
This rationale of Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi is that since G-d's presence fills the earth, when man walks bent slightly, his head does not extend beyond the area in which G-d granted to man. If he walks upright, as those who exhibit their inherent feelings of self importance, then their heads extend above the area in which G-d designated to man and in effect man pushes the Divine Presence out from its rightful place. Therefore a man should walk in a manner exhibiting humility which is in a mode in which his head is not extended straight up but inclined slightly. In this way, he does not intrude on the area given to the Divine Presence.
Rabbi Huna the son of Rabbi Yoshua extends on Rabbi Yoshua's teaching. He says that he would not walk six feet with out his head being covered since the Divine Presence is above him. He can feel the Divine Presence and as a matter of modesty he conceals his head. This is an expression of humility in face of the Divine Presence.
However, these statements are not directives that we must cover our head. Instead these are expressions of sensitivity towards the G-dly Presence, that it is the nature of a person who is aware of G-d, Who's glory fills the world, will seek to cover himself.
In reality the Rabbis whose judgments are brought in the Code of Jewish Law explain that in reality covering the head was at this time in history merely an individual expression of piety. Only when one desires to mention the name of G-d is one obligated to cover his head. It is only that a pious person whose mind is continually focused on the Creator wears the skullcap or hat.
However, since the purpose of the covering is to permit one to mention the name of G-d, therefore when one enters a synagogue, one is required to cover the head.
Although the Code of Jewish Law says that if indeed the law of the land requires that if under certain circumstances it be forbidden to wear the yarmulke, such as in the governmental offices or courts, it may be removed, the custom has evolved over many generations that the religious Jewish men always cover their heads.
The other place that it is mentioned in the Talmud is in the tractate of the Sabbath. This concerns a story about the mother of Rabbi Nachman ben Yitzchak. She heard from the stargazers that her son was destined to be robber. To avert this from happening, she became very insistent that young Nachman always wear a head covering. One day as the young man was sitting under a neighbor's date tree; the wind blew his head covering from his head. He looked up at the date tree. His evil inclination overpowered him to the point that he bit off a date cluster from his neighbor's tree with his teeth.
We see from this story that the covering of the head has an effect on the person's ability to deal with inherent evil tendencies. This will become apparent in our modern society when exposure of the flesh is the custom of those who scoff at conventional wisdom and piety. When a person comes into contact with such people, they will separate from him, since his head covering has identified him as one who seeks piety and treasures fear of G-d.
Although the origins of the yarmulke are rabbinic in nature, its significance far out weighs the original source of origin. If you remember, it was Rabbi Yehosua ben Levi who said that it was forbidden to walk upright. This was indicative of self-importance that pushed the Divine Presence out from the man. Only afterwards did Rabbi Huna the son of Rabbi Yoshua tell us that it is forbidden to walk six feet with out a head covering.
We should keep in mind that the original teaching is against prideful and smug actions that weaken the Divine Presence in Israel, and that the head covering is an expression of our sensitivity of the Devine Presence and not a source of arrogance.
from the April 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine