Head Covering In Judaism

Posted: October 17th, 2013





Head Covering In Judaism

Among members of the Jewish faith, covering of the head is a tradition and a keepsake of their religious beliefs. Head coverings may be worn for different reasons usually based on gender considerations. according to author Koltach, the first allusion to a Jewish head cover is from exodus 28:4, where it is referred to as  mitzneft and means a piece of the high priest’s attire (koltach, 38).

Jewish men are said to wear a hat known as a kippah or Yarmulke for religious reasons. In early Rome, slaves were obligated to cover up their heads while in contrast to free men who were not. It is stated in the Talmud (72) that a man shall not walk a distance of more than 4 cubits, which is roughly 2.5 meters without a head covering. The Torah gives the reason for the kippah as a sign of humility and awareness to the presence of God. In addition, some men may wear the kippah. In addition to showing reverence to God, they may do so to show that they are of a higher social status such as priests or persons of the cloth or to show that they were wealthy. Some women of low social standing would also sometimes wear it to garner this same effect and portray an impression of wealth. These rules seem to be strictly enforced with some translations stating that a man is to wear the kippah even when traveling less than 4 cubits such as in his home or during mealtimes with the most orthodox of Jews wearing it even while asleep. Traditionally, only men wear the kippah but in recent times, even women have taken to wearing it as a sign of their identity with the Jewish faith (Gutmann 70).

In 1928, Rabbi Jacob Z. Lauterbach disputed the fact that the requirement to wear the kippah was in the Talmud and gave an alternate version of where he thought the practice arose. He posited that the practice began in with the Jews in Babylon. There have been sources that have stated that Jews in Palestine partook in the service without the head covering. It would seem the practice started gaining popularity in the 13th century but was done only as a sign of decorum. However, the book of Leviticus 21.10 commands that a priest is to have his head covered at all times even during mourning. This was a significant distinction as the practice during mourning in that time was to wear sackcloth and dishevel ones hair.

In more recent times, when Jews no longer wear strictly Jewish garments, the kippah has gained more significance as a way for them to identify with their faith and as a sign of belonging to a particular group who adhere to a particular style. The kippah need not necessarily reflect a religious sub grouping, sometimes a particular style may be worn simply as a reflection of ones mood for example a black kippah may be worn at a funeral and so forth. After the Star of David, the kippah is probably one of the most identifiable representations of Jewish identity. The Torah and Talmud do not give any specifications or dimensions as to the style of the kippa thus in recent times, different styles and makes may hold different significances within the Jewish community.

Jewish women also cover their heads with what is known as a Kisui Rosh or Sheitel. Some sources point to the fact that this may have once stated as a cultural occurrence which stated with the practice of women in ancient Greece covering their heads when going out, maybe due to modesty’s sake or perhaps as a fashion and later became a regulation. Unlike the male version, which only covers a small portion at the top o the head, the women’s Sheitel may range in style from small to one that covers all their hair. For women it is usually a sign of marital status. According to the law known as Halakha, Jewish women are required to dress decently as a general requirement and specifically, married women are required to cover their hair. The idea behind this is that Jewish tradition views the hair as very sexual, and as such should be hidden from all men except the husband. Unmarried Jewish women are not required to cover their hair, perhaps just tie it but in some Jewish factions though, even unmarried women observe this tradition of covering of the hair. The prestige bestowed associated with the veil was such that in the olden times prostitutes were not allowed to wear veils for they were considered of the lowest social standing.

The origin of the covering of the head lies in the Jewish ritual of Sotah. This ritual is described in the bible as a measure for the fidelity of a woman who has been accused of adultery. The bible prescribes that the rabbi is to first uncover the woman’s hair before beginning the ceremony and this is meant to disgrace  the woman (Numbers 5:18). Despite this, the Kebutoh (7.6) implies that this tradition of women’s head coverings does not have its origins in the religion. The book describes grounds for which a man can apply for divorce and among them is when a woman “appears in public with loose hair”. The implication here is that head covering is not a strict law from God but rather one of modesty and humility.

The issue of head coverings has certainly a controversial one within the Jewish community. Today especially as a means of identification given that one would not tell a Jew based on their garments. It would definitely weigh upon one who did not wish to wear it. There would certainly be pressure from society to not only be a good Jew but also even to “look Jewish”. In traditional times a woman with her head exposed might have even been taxed up to four hundred zuzim for this transgression.

Any observant Jewish male must be aware of this symbolism. On the one hand, if he does not cover his head, he may be regarded by Orthodox Jews as one who chooses to rebel against the true course, no matter how observant he is. This could be harmful not only to the individual but could also lead to the whole community being viewed as hypocritical.

For a woman the situation may be worse. The decision for an unmarried woman not to cover her hair may be seen as a sign of immorality within the community. Since the hair is considered an ornament, which enhances the appearance of a woman, she showing of it would be considered as a deliberate act of deviation from the faith. In ancient times women began wearing wigs in response to the call to cover their hair. They borrowed this affectation from their counterparts who were non-Jews particularly in France. It seems this was not to be as it was stated that even though the hair was covered, the effect the wig had was the same as when the women uncovered their hair (Kershen 90).

While many religions observe the tradition of head covering, in recent times it is considered by them to be restrictive and oppressive especially by women in the west (Badran 26). The state of Oklahoma recently ratified house bill 1645 which prescribes what a person can wear while posing for an official national photo. The restrictions include headgear that covers the head with the inclusion of headscarves. It goes on to include those worn for religious reasons. In state sponsored schools in France, the wearing of any clothing with religious connotations is banned. The reasoning the schools give is that with the separation between church and state the wearing of such is in opposition to the spirit of the law.

With this it seems that the controversy that started in the 13th century still rages on to date. This controversy about the head covering has raged so fierce that it has led to the breaking of some factions from the main branch of the orthodox Jewish faith with seemingly no end in sight.



Badran, Margot. Feminism Beyond East and West: New Gender Talk and Practice in Global Islam. New Delhi: Global Media Publications, 2007. Print.

Gutmann, Joseph. Beauty in Holiness: Studies in Jewish Customs and Ceremonial Art. New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970. Print.

Kershen, Anne J. 150 Years of Progressive Judaism in Britain: 1840-1990. London: London Museum of Jewish Life, 1990. Print.

The New Jerusalem Bible. Ed. Susan Jones. New York: Doubleday, 2011. Print

Strack, Hermann, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, 1945. Jewish Publication Society,. pp.72, 48 & 97.

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