A cluster of references to men’s head coverings in our pages this week led me to explore this issue and how it was viewed in ancient times. Some mention the head covering just by the way. For example, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, as he leaves the bathhouse to study with his grandson, quickly dons an impromptu head covering, a דיסנא. Rashi explains that this a piece of cloth that is not really meant to be a head covering but he uses it to be able to go out quickly but without his head being exposed (Kiddushin 30a).
A page earlier, Rav Himnuna’s bare head indicates his unmarried status to Rav Huna (Kid 29b). And on daf 33a we hear that one is meant to cover one’s head as a sign of respect for a Torah scholar:
“Ravina was sitting before Rabbi Yirmeya of Difti, a certain man passed before him and did not cover his head. Ravina said: How rude is this man,” (Kiddushin 33a)
The Gemara also brings up head covering when discussing how a man should properly conduct himself:
“Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. He said: The Divine Presence is above my head” (Kiddushin 31a)
Today a kippah/yarmulke is a social signifier. In most Orthodox communities (although this is changing slightly now in Israel), males wear a kippah as a sign of their connection to Judaism. The types of kippot worn have also become significant on a sociological level. In addition, most Conservative and even Reform Jews (in a change from previous generations where the Reform movement advocated NOT covering the head) will wear kippot in synagogue, and it has become prevalent in those communities for women to do so as well. Where and why did this custom begin?
Senior Airman Elisabeth Rissmiller, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
When we talk about head covering in ancient times we are not referring to the modern kippah or even to a hat like Jews wore in medieval and early modern times. The references we have in our texts, along with some images from the ancient world, indicate that men covered their heads with fabric, either a cloth just for that purpose or the robe or tallit they were already wearing which they pulled onto their heads. Kippot come along much later in history but they stem from the same principles as the head coverings we will discuss here.
Did all Jewish men cover their heads all the time? While Rav Huna’s statement on Kiddushin 31 seems to indicate a mandatory head covering, the Gemara elsewhere is more equivocal. In a conversation about vows, we hear the following interesting statement:
“Men sometimes cover their heads and sometimes uncover their heads. . . But women’s heads are always covered, and children’s heads are always uncovered,” (Nedarim 30b)
So when are the times that men cover their heads? In the Bible we have a few mentions of head covering. Kohanim are required to wear special hats while serving in the Tabernacle and the Kohen Gadol has an additional piece of headgear above his hat, the zitz. The other time we hear about covering one’s head is to indicate mourning or shame. In this case the person is described as חפוי ראש, with his head wrapped or covered. For example, in the book of Esther:
“Then Mordechai returned to the king’s gate, while Haman hurried home, his head covered in mourning.” (Esther 6:12)
Similarly, King David in II Samuel 15 is barefoot and with his head covered as a sign of mourning (15:30). While the Gemara also mentions head covering for mourning, it also includes new situations where it is inappropriate to be bare-headed. Heads are covered as a preparation for prayer or study, as with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (Kiddushin 30) or Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (Hagigah 14b). A head covering can also be a signifier that the man is married (Kiddushin 29b). It is something that is obligatory for important people like Rav Kahana (Kiddushin 8a), but also a way to show respect for scholars (Kiddushin 33a).
What does the head covering actually signify? The simplest answer, and the one most often given today, seems to be what Rav Huna said: putting something on my head shows that I acknowledge that there is a Higher Power above me. But other sources point in different directions. One of the most interesting is a source in Rosh Hashanah that seems to indicate that covering one’s head, rather than showing respect for God, is actually a way to emulate God:
“that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself like a prayer leader and showed Moses the order of the prayer.” (Rosh Hashanah 17b)
The Maharsha (17th century) brings a Kabbalistic interpretation that God was “wrapped in a robe of light” when He created the world, as it says in Tehillim 104:2 עוטה אור כשלמה, and we imitate Him by wrapping ourselves as well. Another suggestion is that a head covering helps one to fight off the evil inclination, consciously or subconsciously, as we see in the odd story of the child who was predicted to be a thief:
“As Chaldean astrologers told Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak’s mother: Your son will be a thief. She did not allow him to uncover his head. She said to her son: Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and pray for mercy.” (Shabbat 156b)
Was there a social context to head covering? We have a passage in the New Testament (I Corinthians 11) which seems to indicate that Christian men should go bareheaded and women should cover their heads. One suggestion as to why is that in Roman society, important men like the Caesar would cover their heads at prayer. Christians wanted to set themselves apart from Romans so they were instructed to uncover their heads. Jews, in an example of what we call in Hebrew hafuch al hafuch, covered their heads to differentiate themselves from the Christians, even while bearing similarities to the Romans!
Emperor Augustus pictured as the high priest (Pontifex Maximus)
Vicenç Valcárcel Pérez, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
And what about depictions of Jews in art? Most of Jewish figures depicted in Talmudic period synagogues do not have their head covered. In the images of Akeidat Yitzchak in Bet Alfa, Abraham does not wear a hat though he does seem to be sporting a halo:
Talmoryair, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
None of the Jewish figures in the recently discovered mosaics in Hukok in the Galilee, including that of (perhaps) the high priest Shimon haTzaddik, have their heads covered. And in the multiple Biblical scenes in the Dura Europos synagogue in Syria, only one male figure has his head covered: Aaron the kohen.
artist unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This fits with the idea of covering one’s head for Temple service that we see in the Torah. However, the other important figures like Moses, Samuel and Abraham do not have their heads covered.
Samuel anointing David
reworked by Marsyas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Scholars posit that head covering was more common in Babylonia than in the Land of Israel, even through medieval times. Perhaps this explains our bare-headed representatives in Land of Israel (and nearby Syria) synagogues.
Shawl, tallit, kippah – today the custom is widespread and the art has become contemporary. It no longer showcases only your devotion to God but also who you are.
Maor X, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons