Why Avigail's Father Does Not Wear a Kippah

Avigail has asked this question repeatedly.
It seems to be a subject for discussion among her friends.
I finally sent this to Avigail at EIE via email on May 9, 1999


Wearing a Kippah is a custom that has developed in fairly recent Jewish times. We could almost call it a style. Some people wear ties to work, others do not. Some people wear slacks that require belts; others' slacks do not. Some men wear fanny packs or carry purses. Other men carry the objects that would fit in a fanny pack or a purse in their pockets.


I have noted elsewhere that a transformation has occurred among the Jewish people in the past generation. In this short time, the national costume has changed from the wearing of Tzitzit (which is biblically ordained) to the wearing of the Kippah (which, even in Talmudic times was unknown).


There was a time when I did wear a Kippah as a way of identifying with the Jewish people. I now, still, often wear some form of head covering, but I will not wear a Kippah unless I am in a setting which "requires" it (this means a Conservative or Orthodox synagog in the United State which requires a certain kind of head covering). I do this out of political reasons. I alluded to this in the discussion I mentioned above. But I'll quote the relevant parts here and then elaborate.



When I graduated from high school (1964) I went to Israel on the Year Course of Young Judaea. We lived in the San Remo Hotel at Strauss and haNevi'im, not far from Me'ah She'arim. On a street corner a block or so away from the "hotel" a young Dati woman (perhaps a couple years older than I) sat and crocheted Kippot. I bought one and began to wear it as if it were part of the "national costume" along with my Nimrod sandals and my blue shorts (Noam now, periodically, wears this one). While in Israel, the girl with whom I had a hand-holding relationship crocheted another one for me which I wear at rare intervals. In all respects I remained a secular Jew, even though I kept Kosher (not consciously or purposefully, that was what we were fed). I should add that in the winter time, growing up in Los Angeles, the males in my family wore berets. I had an old red one that I had with me in Israel and wore most of the time and even when I began to wear the Kippah. When I travelled out of Jerusalem on Shabbat, I wore the beret instead of the Kippah.


I wore the beret throughout the '60s and into the '70s, though I switched from red to black. My brother wore red. We were recognized around town. For a short time I wore a Greek fisherman's cap. (I appear that way in the Jewish Catalog.)




Now, I generally wear a "baseball" cap to keep the sun out of my eyes and my head warm. I look for a visor cap with no logo. I wore this on my last trip to Israel [and have bought a new one for our trip this summer (July-August 1999)]. In this way I do not have to carry a Kippah. I neither need to switch and put on a Kippah in those many places where it is expected/required, nor am I identified with that aspect of Israeli society with which I generally do not want to be identified.



So, let's go back and review some of the history. (My source here is the Encyclopaedia Judaica.)


In biblical times, the high priest wore a pressed gold crown with letters pressed into it. (Fascinating, these p'sukim [Exodus 28:4-40] form the basis of my rabbinic thesis about what the medieval rabbis knew about printing.) The regular priests wore some kind of a hat.


One could say that, since Jews are to be a "nation of priests, a holy people" we should all wear hats. But let's get real. If that was the case, we would have all been wearing hats since biblical times.


In Second Samuel (15:30 and other sections of the Prophets and the Writings) we have reports of people (men) covering their heads - and faces - as signs of mourning.


But, give me a break. We don't really consider ourselves in mourning, and, even those few who do, don't cover their faces. So, this can't be a reasonable source for an argument for wearing a Kippah. Even in Talmudic times, when (one could argue) that the whole Jewish people was (or should be) in mourning due to the destruction of the Temple, reports indicate that only those mourning the death of a particular person (and specified other individuals) were required to cover their heads.


Need I say more?


OK, in the Middle Ages in Spain and France, rabbinical authorities considered the covering of the head *during prayer and Torah study* as custom and (even) they prayed with bare heads!


There *is* a section of the Talmud (Soferim 14:15) that does indicate that a hazzan or Torah reader, or the one who recites the priestly benediction must have some headgear. We could ask whether this might be the temporary covering of the head by a Tallit (as is common during "duchening" or whether it must be a separate garment. Regarding this we don't know.


Even in late medieval times the custom of wearing a head covering was considered a personal matter.


We may be able to date the insistence of wearing a Kippah (at least while praying) to the 17th century, when David haLevy of Ostrog (a tiny town (though a renowned center for Jewish learning - at least until the Chmeilnitzky revolt) between L'vov and Zhitomir - a bit south of Rovno which is on the main road between those two cities) reasoned that: because Christians prayed bareheaded, Jews should not, so as not to imitate the "heathen custom." Forgive me, but this is ridiculous. Christians are not heathens, and Jews had prayed bareheaded since ancient times when (it is likely) that the true heathens also prayed bareheaded.


So we seem to have the origins of the insistence of wearing a Kippah in a political distinction between Jew and Christian. This, then becomes an argument between the early Reformers and those who resist Reform.




An article in today's New York Times (May 9, 1999) illustrates part of how the Kippah has become a political identifier. [You may not be able to get to the NY Times page.]


I've downloaded and saved the text; this is a quote:


The tribal trend is graphically evident among those Jews who are religious enough to wear a yarmulke (kippah in Hebrew) at all times. For these men, the size and color of the kippah can be an indicator of their religious and political bent. A black velvet kippah is typical of the followers of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party Shas. A knitted kippah often means the wearer is a religious nationalist, perhaps a Jewish settler. And the larger the kippah, the more religious or nationalist the wearer is likely to be.



I do not (nor do I want to) identify myself with any of those who do wear a Kippah.

© Mark Hurvitz 1999