[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]
While learning with my son through the Qissur Shulhan Arukh – Hazon Ovadyah, we came upon a curious passage regarding the [supposed] modern meaning of kippoth. Now, to be sure, we do not learn the Qissur Shulhan Arukh as halakhah le-ma’aseh, but primarily as a guide for discussing halakhah, as some of the time what it puts forth as law is actually latter-day custom and ritual which one may either take or leave. However, since Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l was overwhelmingly driven by the sources and by iqqar diyn in his halakhic approach, this particular edition usually does a fine job of spelling out the basics.
In the section of Orah Hayyim, Hilkhoth Hanhaghath Adham Ba-Boqer (siman alef – siman zaan), I encountered the following statement:
גילוי הראש לאנשים אינו אסור מן הדין ואין בזה משום בחוקותיהם לא תלכו אלא מידת חסידות היא לכסות את ראשו אולם בזמנינו שהחופשיים הולכים ברשות הרבים בגילוי הראש אדם שהוא דתי עליו להזהר במשנה זהירות לכסות ראשו תמיד שיש בזה יותר ממידת חסידות כי הכיפה שעל ראשו היא לסמל ולמופת שמעידה עליו שהוא דתי
“Bareheadedness (giluy ha-rosh) for men is not halakhically prohibited, and there is no relationship between not covering one’s head and the Torah prohibition of ‘you shall not walk in their statutes’ (cf. Wayyiqra 18:3). Rather, it is noted [in the sources] as a practice of the exceptionally pious (middath hasiydhuth). However, in our times where secular people walk around in public bareheaded, it is incumbent upon a religious man to be careful in following the advice of the Mishnah that advises one to cover their head always because there is something more in covering the head than just an exceptionally pious practice, for the kippah upon his head is a symbol and a sign that testifies concerning him that he is [properly] religious…”
Upon reading this, my son and I were both struck with the vast assumption that the final line was making and how, for the most part, it was simply untrue. The kippoth on many people we have encountered in the religious Jewish world are simply not a “symbol and a sign” that they were religious. It seems that in many cases the kippah on the heads of “frum” Jews “testifies” about them, but this testimony is nothing more than `eduth sheqer. With so much blatant dissonance between perceived values and the significance attached to kippoth, I think it is an important question to ask what actual purpose they serve.
In our times, far from being an assurance of actual piety, the kippah has become little more than a sectarian I.D. badge. And I would further contend that, because the Haredi-Hasidic world has decided to focus so much on external modes of dress while allowing spiritual and moral bankruptcy among many of their members, the kippah has essentially become meaningless as an indication of yirath shamayim and instead serves in most cases to project false piety. So it behooves us, in my opinion, to ask the fundamental questions of who, when, where, why, and how Jewish men are supposed to cover their heads after it has been clarified whether Jewish men are even required to cover their heads at all. And, as with most halakhic discussions on this site, we will begin with the statements of Hazal.
Passages from the Gemara
Masekheth Berakhoth 60b – Gives the nosah for the berakhah of “spreading one’s sudar upon his head” as “oter yisra’el be-thif’arah – who crowns each Jew with beauty.” The nosah found in the siddur of Rav Saadyah Gaon, however, is “‘otef yisra’el be-thif’arah – who wraps each Jew with beauty” and he instructs that the berakhah should be said upon donning a [main; outer] garment that is exempt from ssissiyoth (Siddur Rasag, p.89). A sudar that is not too large may be such a garment (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Ssiyssiyth 3:1). Giving the text of a blessing without an explicit directive to wear a particular garment carries with it the strong implication of “if” a person chooses to wear such a garment, then they must pronounce the appropriate blessing, but if they choose not to, then they [obviously] do not need to do so. However, there is nothing in this Gemara that would suggest that it is required for Jewish men to wear a head covering.
Masekheth Shabbath 118b – Among various hakhamiym stating why they felt that they merited to greater spiritual reward(s), Rav Huna is recorded as saying that his reward will be due to the fact that in his life he never walked even the distance of four cubits with a bare head (giluy ha-rosh). This, too, does not mandate that Jewish men cover their head, and it shows that Rav Huna’s practice was a matter of personal piety, not a universal law.
Masekheth Shabbath 156b – Perhaps the central reference to covering the head within the talmudhiym, in this passage astrologers are said to have informed the mother of Rav Nahman bar Yisshaq that he is destined to become a thief. Because of this his mother famously told him, “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and request [Divine] mercy.” The Gemara says that Rav Nahman was unaware of the reason for her instructions (apparently she did not tell him about the astrologers) and that one day while sitting bareheaded under a fig tree belonging to someone else he was so overcome by temptation that he climbed the tree and began eating a cluster of figs using just his mouth. This passage does not address the covering of the head being required, in fact it indicates again that most Jewish men did not cover their heads. However, doing so – when coupled with prayer – can be a tool for personal development and mussar.
Masekheth Qiddushiyn 29b – Rav Hisda is praising the person of Rav Hamnuna, his friend, to Rav Huna. Rav Huna says that when Rav Hamnuna visits he would like to meet him. Upon his arrival, Rav Huna noticed that Rav Hamnuna did not wear a sudar and when he asked him why he didn’t cover his head, Rav Hamnuna responded that the reason was because he was not yet married. Rav Huna is then said to have turned away from him, telling him not to appear before him again until he was married. This Gemara indicates two things:  that in some parts of the Jewish world in the times of the Amora’iym men did not cover their heads at all until they were married and  that appearing before hakhamiym with an uncovered head was considered disrespectful in the opinion of some, but not all.
Masekheth Qiddushiyn 31a – As mentioned in Masekheth Shabbath, Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, is said to have not walked even the distance of four cubits because he stated that he believed that the Shekhinah (the “presence” of God; a created light sometimes accompanied by other physical phenomena to indicate holiness and/or blessing – NOT a manifestation of the Divine itself) resided just above his head and he wanted to be reverent. Again, no directive for all Jewish men to cover their heads.
There are other instances in the talmudh where kisuy ha-rosh (“covering of the head”) is mentioned in passing, but these are the main ones that are generally referenced by the literature. And, as is clearly seen, no universal directive for Jewish men to cover their heads exists as a matter of law.
The Opinion of the Rambam
The Rambam essentially codifies the sentiments expressed in the above sections of Gemara and relates them to the practices of the talmidhey ha-hakhamiym in which they engage due to their exalted status in Jewish society (cf. Hilkhoth De’oth 5:10). In the Moreh HaNavokhiym (III:52), he relates similarly to covering the head, again calling it the practice of Torah scholars, but also noting that – metaphysically – it is a recognition that the Shekhinah hovers just above the head of a person. His reference there is specifically to the spiritually elite who are on a high level of personal piety.
There is one place in the Mishneh Torah where the Rambam requires that the head be covered – during tefiyllah and especially as shaliyah ssibbur (cf. Hilkhoth Tefiyllah 5:5). This requirement is based on the explicit directive in this regard in the minor tractate Masekheth Soferiym (14:15). However, the Rambam is not referring to a kippah, but rather the covering of one’s head with a talliyth gadhol.
The opinion expressed by the Rambam is generally considered as normative across the board, encompassing the views of both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi rishoniym.
The Opinion of the Taz
The Turey Zahav (pop. “Taz” – Rabbi David HaLevi Segal, c. 1586-1667) was a Polish rabbi whose commentary on the Shulhan `Arukh by the same name is one of the central works reprinted since the 17th Century. Segal was likely an admirer and believer in the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi (yimah shemo wa-zikhro), although he passed away before the entirety of his pseudo-messianic charade came to light.
In his comments on Orah Hayyim 8:3, the Taz states that it is forbidden halakhically to uncover one’s head – even for a moment. His reasoning is that being bareheaded is, in his view, an explicit practice of the non-Jewish nations and their cultures, being therefore a violation of Wayyiqra 18:3, which says, “be-huqqotheyhem lo telekhu – in their statues you shall not walk.” Although Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l rules based on the strict opinion of the Taz that one should do their best to keep their head covered whenever possible (cf. Iggeroth Mosheh, Orah Hayyim 1:1), most authorities – including Rav Feinstein himself – reject the position of the Taz and instead maintain that wearing a kippah is a matter of custom, not law, and that covering the head in general is a middath hasiydhuth for men and is not a halakhic requirement.
The Coup de Gr”a
Perhaps the most famous opinion on the matter is that expressed by the Gaon of Vilna (pop. “Gra” – Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, 1720-1797). After examining all of the aforementioned passages and opinions, the Gr”a states emphatically that there is never a halakhic requirement for any Jewish man to cover his head, even while praying. His conclusion (as found in Biur HaGr”a, Orah Hayyim 8:6) is as follows:
“The fundamental principle of the matter is that there is not a prohibition at all to have an uncovered at any time. Only in front of great Torah scholars and also during prayer is it the astute thing to do from the standpoint of proper character development (mussar). And the rest of the day [i.e. outside of prayer and standing before Torah scholars] is only for those holy ones who stand continually before HaShem.”
The last line is meant as a reference to those who, of their own personal piety, decide to cover their heads continually in imitation of those hakhamiym of the Gemara who were said to have done likewise. But the reiteration of the sources by the Gr”a, and his exposition of them, is generally taken as iqqar ha-diyn, as was initially stated above by Qissur Shulhan Arukh of Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l.
What to do?
Let me be perfectly clear: I am NOT suggesting that anyone change their current practice. I am not on a campaign to have anyone remove their kippah. However, what I am certainly suggesting is that we see kippoth for what they are – a Jewish custom that is both expedient and astute in certain religious and social contexts, but also possessing the potential (under the current general mindset) to deceive. Therefore, kippoth are not “meaningless” as a symbol of Jewish identity in and of themselves, but they are “meaningless” as a tool for one Jew judging another.
I was once learning with a close friend of mine – who softly identifies as “Haredi” – and in the course of our discussion, the subject of wearing a kippah came up. My friend related that his rav, a prominent Haredi-Hasidic rabbi under whom he learned in yeshivah for years, once stated emphatically that if a Jew does not wear a kippah in public, then he may be assumed to be a qal (“a lightweight,” i.e. someone who is lax in their observance of the Torah and halakhah; in other words, such a person cannot be trusted with kashruth or other religious duties). I was taken aback. “Just like that?” I said, “Without any halakhic basis or personal knowledge of the individual?!” My friend almost immediately realized how harsh and potentially damaging a statement that was and started to try and find a justification for it. I told him that his rav had no right to classify good Jews as sinners without sound halakhic basis for doing so. I further told him that if his rav truly upheld such a position, then ironically it was he himself that was the “qal.” To treat someone as a sinner when they are not – or for a contrived reason not based in halakhah – is the classic definition of siynath hiynam, or “baseless hatred.”
There is a fear, I think, that if rabbis assert the actual laws regarding kippoth and headcovering in general that people will become even more assimilated into non-Jewish culture and eventually leave Judaism as a result. I have seen many great rabbaniym, including Rav Ratson Arussi shlit”a, assert that today “it is different” and that we are now obligated by popular [Haredi-Hasidic] custom to cover our heads, especially when making a berakhah or mention a Divine Name, even though no such halakhic obligation exists. But this begs the question that if not wearing a kippah was somehow some sort of a fast track into apostasy, why didn’t either Hazal, the Geoniym, or the Rishoniym address it? With all of the persecutions and the outright practices of idolatry by the non-Jewish nations around them which historically led to assimilation and apostasy among Jews, yet never was there a decree by Hazal made that Jewish men need to cover their heads in order to solve the problem. And if they did not see it as a solution, then why should we?
The fear is that as secularism encroaches daily upon our faith and our morality, we need every bit of sanctity and personal piety that we can get as religious Jews. Ergo, so this line of thinking goes, giving orthodox Jews the room to choose whether they will wear a kippah or not puts us in danger of losing spiritual ground. We must make a para-halakhic decree and force everyone to abide by it! In my humble view this is a mistaken philosophy. Not mistaken as in a misunderstanding of the sources, has wa-shalom, but rather a misunderstanding of social reality. As noted above, the orthodox world has unfortunately developed into a situation where dress, not (or, at least more than) deeds or manners, dictate one’s level of devotion to Judaism, and where the presence of a kippah – or lack thereof – can determine how someone will be treated and how their family will be treated. Even the mere color or style of a kippah leads others to make grotesque personal judgments – all completely divorced from an actual examination of moral character. Le-`aniyuth da’ati, it would serve the spirituality and moral atmosphere of Kelal Yisra’el if such empty, external, and ultimately baseless ways of relating to fellow Jews were discouraged, not reinforced. Not placing so much ill-founded emphasis on the wearing of a kippah would eventually force orthodox Jews to relate to actually relate to the person and not their choice of hat.
A Possible Way Forward?
I think that if a significant number of orthodox Jews returned to the practice of carrying a kippah with them to wear at times of prayer, religious ceremonies, or for showing respect to prominent Torah scholars – while all other times being without one – it would eventually cause the Jewish world to be forced to redefine their values. A person who is meticulously shomer shabbath, is careful with kashruth, and in all other ways follows halakhah, yet does not usually wear a kippah while in public might be a moral force to be reckoned with. Perhaps.
So, “to kippah or not to kippah?” is a meqori question – with an answer that definitely comes out on the side of not needing to wear one, but the social impact such a decision makes is potentially complicated and someone who chooses to take that option should think carefully about this.