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
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
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.
OLD TESTAMENT HEADCOVERINGS
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.
TALMUD & JEWISH TRADITION
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
"Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you."
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
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
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
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.
NEW TESTAMENT SCRIPTURE AND PRACTICE
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.
NEW COVENANT GRACE
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
Mottel Baleston is the Director of the
Messengers Messianic Jewish Fellowship of New Jersey
Box 274, Ledgewood, NJ 07852
e-mail: MessiahNJ @ aol.com