Legit for Believers or Not?"

by Mottel Baleston

(this article originally appeared in Ariel Magazine, published by Ariel Ministries)

During the very first day of my summer of living & studying in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, one thing struck me: What a variety of my fellow Jews there were!! If you went back far enough we all had originated from Israel, the Holy Land. But centuries of wandering in the Diaspora had influenced our appearance.

There were many light-skinned Jews like myself whose ancestors had spent 1000 years in Europe, there were other Jews who had never left the Middle East, the Iraqi and Syrian Jews who operated the fruit stands near my Jerusalem neighborhood. There were olive skinned Yemenite Jews who had lived almost unchanged from biblical times in an enclave of the Arabian Peninsula until the 1950’s, as well as recently arrived Ethiopian Jews who were even darker. There were Jews who were tall, Jews who were short, some who were wealthy and a surprising number who lived in poverty.

One item that many of them had in common was the wearing of a Kippah, a small head covering for men who are religious Jews.
Known in English as a skullcap, the Yiddish term “Yarmulke” is what I grew up with as a boy in my Jewish neighborhood in New York City. As kids we knew that whenever we walked into the synagogue we needed to have a Kippah on our heads. For convenience, the synagogue would have a box of inexpensive Kippot (plural) just inside the door for men who arrived without their own.

The Kippah is worn at all times by Orthodox Jewish men and boys, and during any sort of religious service by all other men who are not religious. In recent years there has been a small movement to wear Kippot among feminist women active in more liberal Jewish circles. Thus, it is common to see female rabbis in both the Reform and Conservative (which is no longer so conservative!) Jewish movements wearing them while conducting religious services.

The modern small size and round design of the Kippah is just that: relatively modern. It’s popular use is no more than several hundred years old. Older illustrations of religious Jewish men show a wide variety of headgear.
Modern designs vary: some are large, covering most of the head and very colorful like the Bukharan Kippah. The strictly Orthodox make sure that their skullcap is large, black and solid, while the modern Orthodox are often known as the “Knit Kippah” faction. In recent years the Orthodox movement have permitted
young boys to have cartoon, sports team or pop-culture designs, and so you shouldn’t be surprised to see a Superman logo painted on a leather Kippah.

If you were to ask knowledgeable Jewish Rabbis to explain the motivation for wearing a Kippah, the answers would all center on two factors first, the belief that wearing a head covering shows awe and respect before an Almighty God, and secondly, that the Kippah is a universal symbol that Jewish men used to identify with their community. The basic message a man sends when he wears a Kippah is that he is religious and observant of the Jewish Scriptures and traditions.

So, where in the Jewish Scriptures is the command to wear a Kippah? Ah, that’s where things get very interesting and a bit controversial. There are some in Rabbinic Jewish circles as well as a few in the Messianic movement who cite Exodus 28:4 as support for wearing a men’s headcovering. That verse requires the high priest to wear a specific uniform and head covering while ministering in the tabernacle, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. A quick glance at the passage shows that in addition to wearing a wrapped turban head covering, the high priest was also to wear a metal breastplate and a robe that had a checkered pattern. The two realities about this passage are 1. This was instruction for the high priest only, and 2. These were the garments worn by the high priest only during his Temple service. If one uses this passage to mandate a head covering, then why not also wear a checkered robe? Why not a metal breastplate with precious stones?

Still, some would persist and say that the high priest’s head covering was a reminder of the holiness of God and our willingness to be submissive to it. They cite the fact that the brim of the turban had the words Holy, Holy, Holy unto the Lord. Yet, if one looks at other Old Testament Bible passages where a head covering is mentioned, the three most prominent all refer to the act of covering one’s head as part of sadness and mourning: 2 Samuel 15:30, Jeremiah 14:3-4,  Esther 6:12.
In essence, no strong case can be made from the Old Testament for the wearing of a man’s head covering, in fact it was probably the prevailing custom to not require one.

The Talmud is a large set of books written by the Rabbis that covers nearly every aspect of living life as an observant Jew. It was completed around the year 500 A.D. and is authoritative for Orthodox Jewish life today. The difficulty is that if you approach the Talmud expecting to find a set of clear rules and regulations, you will be confused and disappointed. The majority of the Talmud, the Gemara section, is written as a narrative of discussions amongst Rabbis regarding how to live life as an observant Jew. It is often said that what a single page of Talmud supports, the next page rejects. So, it is possible to find passing examples that support almost any viewpoint as long as you very selectively ‘cherry pick’ the passages. That is why anti-Semites dishonestly pull a few isolated passages out of the Talmud as supposed proof for their anti-Jewish viewpoints. What they don’t tell you is that the objectionable statement by one Rabbi that they have cited is quickly rejected by other Rabbis on the next page of Talmud.

All that needs to be kept in mind when going to find versus regarding a man’s head covering. There were many different traditions during the years the Talmud was compiled. So with that disclaimer, here are a few pertinent passages and their Talmudic locations:
"Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you." Shabbat 156b.
Rabbi Hunah ben Joshua never walked more than 4 cubits (2 meters) with his head uncovered. He said: "Because the Divine Presence is always over my head." Kiddushin 31a
These personal examples and admonitions were not universal, and if one spends enough time researching Talmud, a variety of practices were in place. This is seen in the viewpoint of the revered ‘Vilna Gaon’ , a Jewish sage who lived from 1720 —1797. He said that one can pronounce the formal Hebrew prayer before a meal without a Kippah, since wearing a Kippah is only an instance of having an "exemplary attribute". (see the footnotes for a URL of a Jewish document tracing the history of the dispute)
Yet it is clear that the practice of wearing a head covering, and not just during religious ceremonies, was becoming more and more expected within Jewish circles as it contributed to a group identity, something that strengthened the community. From the Medieval Age through the Enlightenment the Jewish people wore a wide variety of head coverings with a little resemblance to the small skullcaps of today. In some locations where government was influenced by large institutional churches, local edicts would be enacted as anti-Semitic measures to force Jews to wear certain types of identifying headgear. In some cases what was originally meant as an emblem of shame became in the eyes of the Jewish community a badge of honor as it showed their willingness to suffer at the hands of unjust government rather than converting to the prevailing form of apostate Christendom.

A seismic shift within Judaism during the 1800s brought about the liberal Reform movement with its abandonment of many Jewish practices. This brought in a new reality: the head covering being removed for everyday wear by Jewish men who now saw themselves as full participants in a modern world. So today, while the Kippah is universally worn by Orthodox Jewish men, all other Jewish factions will wear it only for religious occasions.

The core New Testament passage about the head covering, and the one with varied translations and interpretations is this:
“Every man praying or prophesying with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head. For it is one and the same as having been shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her cut off her hair. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, let her cover her head. For surely a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of man. 1st Cor. 11:4-7
Even among conservative evangelical scholars there are varied understandings of this passage. In connection with the subject of a man’s head covering several points could be made, though they may not be embraced by all:
- Some imagine that Paul is mandating a total change for their new Christian practice in order to differentiate it from Jewish practice. However, that view is weak because the reasoning that Paul himself gives is related to eternal theological truths, not those that were ushered in by the Dispensation of Grace.
Secondly, Paul reminds them that a woman ought to have an appropriate head covering at all times. That was exactly the practice that the Jewish community already had, so there was no attempt to create a new doctrine or practice.
- Some point out that the Greek word prohibited for a man’s head covering in v. 4, “kataischunei”, is seen by two prominent NT Greek scholars, Kenneth Wuest in his “Word Studies” and Joseph Thayer in his ‘Lexicon’ as meaning “something that covers the head and hangs down”, something far different than today’s skullcap. That ‘hanging down’ appearance can be understood as either a full veil for mourning, or a woman’s style cloth head covering, or very long natural hair on a man, obscuring his gender. Again, what is being described is something very different than a modern skullcap Kippah.

As a major theme of Corinthians is the gender distinction within creation and the New Testament congregation, there is good support for understanding the prohibition of v. 4 to apply to a man having an appearance like a woman, and wearing that which “pertainith” to a woman, something strongly condemned in the Torah. That possibility is reinforced by first Corinthians 11:14 , which clearly and directly says that a woman’s length and style of hair when worn by a man is dishonoring to him. Again, the main issue is that of gender distinctions, something our modern world is in rebellion against, a foolish position which goes
against God’s natural created order.

So, to borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer, How should we then live? For those of us who are Jewish believers, the question of whether to wear a Kippah occurs more often than you might imagine. I believe there are two major Scripture passages that should govern our practice and behavior in this matter of a man’s head covering:
“For though I was free from all men, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, not being myself under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak: I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 1st Cor. 9:19-22
“One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” Romans 14:5
We remind ourselves that we are not under law, but under grace. The prevailing evidence is that the Greek text of first Corinthians 11:4 is pointing out the shame of a man being a “gender bender”, as the modern culture calls it, rather than prohibiting the wearing of what is a man’s garment, a small skullcap, the Kippah. Additionally, the first Corinthians 9 passage above has Paul, the great New Testament Apostle, willingly participating in Jewish style and ritual, with all it’s garb and practice, not only to make his evangelism more acceptable as seen in first Corinthians 9, but also as a matter of personal preference as seen in the Romans 14:5 passage. Looking at the entirety of that Romans 14 chapter shows us that within our Christian community there are going to be differences and preferences regarding cultural practices, and that’s fine, not something to be worried about or cause us concern about a brother.

Mottel Baleston is the Director of the
Messengers Messianic Jewish Fellowship of New Jersey
Box 274,  Ledgewood, NJ 07852

website: www.MessiahNJ.org

e-mail:  MessiahNJ   @    aol.com 
(just remove the spaces in the address, an anti-spam measure)

This article copyright 2020 by Ariel Ministries and Mottel Baleston. All Rights Reserved

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