Thursday 9 July 2015

054) What You May Not Know About Your Yarmulka

The story of the yarmulka is indeed a very intriguing one. Being perhaps the greatest universal symbol of religious Judaism, the journey from its simple halachik origins to the status it enjoys today is remarkable, though little understood. Much of this article has been taken from Dan Rabinowitz's brilliant research in his 'Yarmulka: A historic cover up?'

300 - 400's CE:

We start in Talmudic times with a Gemora[1]  singling out Rav Huna for his exceptional pious behaviour, as he never walked a distance of four cubits without a head covering. From this it is evident that his practice was rather unusual and not the norm for that era.

Another Talmudic source[2] tells of mother who was concerned about raising her son to be G-d fearing and not to develop a propensity for stealing. She was advised to encourage her child (who turned out to be Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak) to pray, and also to keep his head covered. This too, indicates that head coverings were surprisingly not common, even in Talmudic times.

Centuries later, the Rambam writes that; “Our great sages were careful to prevent their heads from being uncovered”[3], the implication is that this was the practice of ‘great sages’, and not necessarily the practice of the masses[4].
What is certain is that there is no Torah imperative to wear a head covering, nor is there any indication of a halachik obligation to do so in any of the early sources we have mentioned.

1500's : 
Rav Yosef Karo writes in his Shulchan Aruch[5] that one should not walk four cubits without a head covering[6] - implying that he was not intending to write a head covering into law. He did, however, encourage it as a ‘should’, but not as a ‘must’.

1600's :

Surprising, in the mid 1600’s, the Taz wrote in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch[7], that in his view the wearing of a head covering may actually be in keeping with a Torah command ‘Do not follow in their ways’. The Taz draws our attention to idolaters who, when sitting down to eat intentionally removed their hats. Not wanting to follow their practices, he suggests that Jews specifically needed to cover their heads, and he gives this practice the status of a biblically ordained law[8].  His view certainly stands out from all the others as being exceptional.

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh of Modena[9], an interesting character in his own right, used to go bare headed, as was the custom of Italian Jews at that time. When one of his books was published in 1637, it had a portrait of him on the cover, clearly without a head covering.
The author of the Torah commentary Melechet Machashevet, Rabbi Gentili[10], similarly had his portrait on the front cover of his book when it was published in 1710.  However, in the second edition which was published a hundred and fifty years later, a large yarmulka suddenly appears on his head.


In a landmark ruling, the Vilna Gaon, or Gra, maintained that there is never an obligation to wear a head covering, even when reciting a beracha[11]. Of course this does not mean that one shouldn’t wear a head covering, it’s just that we need to understand its halachik status is one of laudable but not obligatory. For some reason, the Gra, who usually makes use of short responses, is particularly long winded in support of his thesis in this regard.


Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann[12], who taught in the academy of Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch, noted that the students sat bareheaded for secular classes and only wore head coverings for Torah study. This section of his book was censored[13] in subsequent publications. He writes (in the uncensored version) “that today, amongst the Hungarian rabbis, they are extremely strict with regard to covering one’s head. However the Gra in his notes says that there is no prohibition to cover one’s head even when saying G-d’s name, and that doing so is only a midat chassidut, or pious custom.[14]

[The responsa of Rabbi Yehudah ben Asher[15] records the question; “Does one need to wear a head covering while studying?” To which he responds; “It is best to cover one’s head...but, because of the heat, I do not do so.”[16]  About five hundred years later, Rabbi Hildesheimer pointed out that according to one manuscript in his possession, the correct version should have read; “I myself sit with a lighter linen head covering during the heat.”  This is another example of a text being censored one way or another to push for or against the necessity to wear a head covering.]


R Yisrael Brodsky was a wealthy supporter of the Volozhin kollel. In a photograph of him, which is probably the only one in existence, he can be seen without a head covering. However, in a recent publication of that same picture, he can be seen with an added yarmulka adorning his head.

An amazing picture of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, apparently taken during his official registration at university, shows no yarmulka.  (I am not saying he never wore one at the time, it’s just that no yarmulka is visible. It may have been official policy to have no head coverings on registration photographs.) But in a later publication of the same photograph, a large yarmulka is now evident.

A lovely example of censoring gone too far, is a recently published illustrated Mishna, showing a cohen with his hat removed. This was done as part of the lottery process which took place in the Temple.  In the illustration, the cohen has his hat off, but underneath is a yarmalka. In the publisher’s enthusiasm to promote head coverings, an embarrassing oversight was made – namely, that by wearing a yarmulka, that cohen would have been guilty of the capital offense of altering the priestly garb.


Generally, when not specifically in shull, the vast majority of sources do not ascribe any legal obligation to the wearing of a yarmulka other than the fact that is only a minhag chassidut, a pious custom. However, when entering a shull, or when about to say a beracha or study Torah, there may be a rabbinic requirement to wear a head covering[17].


The Maharshal[20] writes five hundred years ago (as if it were today); “Come and see the hypocrisy of the Ashkenazim. If he is wealthy, he can drink wine in a non-Jewish tavern, eat non-kosher foods, and people will show him respect. But one who keeps kosher and does not wear a head covering is considered as if he has left the fold.”[21]

Notwithstanding all the sources we have looked at, the fact remains that the Yarmulka has become one of the most powerful symbols of religious Jews today.  Why this is so remains a mystery. Was is by design, or did it just evolve so over time? Perhaps it shows our commitment by taking something that is only a pious custom, and elevating it to the level of a non- negotiable.

Whatever the reason, it is a most visible sign to the outside world (although unfortunately not to ourselves, as no one can see his own yarmulka) – yet we need to intentionally become especially conscious of it, so as not to let the rest of our people down by bad behaviour or chillul Hashem
On the contrary, a Jew who wears his yarmulka and makes a positive contribution to society, becomes a proud ambassador of our people and makes a kiddush Hashem.  

One thing is certain, no observer sees a yarmulka and walks on by without making a call one way or the other.

[1] Shabbat 118b. See also Kidushin 31a.
[2] Shabbat 156b.
There is however, a source in Sofrim 14, where a view is presented requiring one to cover the head whilst reciting G-d's name. Rabbenu Yerucham, one of the leading Rishonim, ruled according to this view. See also Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, p. 169. 
[3] Moreh Nevuchim 3,52.
[4] The Zohar also says that a Torah scholar may not walk four cubits without a head covering. Zohar Parshat Pinchas p.245.
[5] Orach Chaim 2,6.
[6] His word choice is significant because in the same sentence, he uses the words ‘asur leylech bekoma zekufa’, it is forbidden to walk with an arrogant posture – and then velo yelech daled amot begiluy harosh’, one should not walk four cubits with an uncovered head, in relation to a head covering. The juxtaposition of both terms shows that the first was meant as law while the second, although laudable, was not.   
[7] Orach Chaim 8,3.
[8] The Taz does preface his comment with ‘venireh li’, it appears to me. But he also says that it may be an ‘issur gammur’, a serious prohibition to go bare headed, under a general Torah prohibition to be separate from idolatrous practices. The Neta Sorek, however, is surprised by the Taz’s ruling and believes he was only referring to a Jew who intentionally removes his head covering when performing a Jewish religious practice, such as davening. He takes this view because he says we have no precedent for a head covering to be a religious requirement as say, tzitzit.
[9] 1571-1648. He wrote a commentary on Ein Yaakov, and sat on the Beit Din of Venice. See the brilliant article; ‘Yarmulke: A Historic Cover-up?’ by Dan Rabinowitz, who points out that at the age of just 13, Rabbi Modena wrote a book against gambling, entitled Sur MeRa, but who ironically became a gambler himself later on in life.
[10] 1663-1711.
[11] See Biur HaGra Orach Chaim 8.6. He does say, however, that a head covering should be worn in the presence of great rabbis, but that even so only as midat chasidut.
[12] 1843-1921. Author of Melamed LeHoil.
[13] See Kotzk Blog 52.
[14] See Melamed LeHoil vol.2, 26.
[15] 1270-1349
[16] Dan Rabinowitz points out that in the Middle Ages, head coverings were elaborate and uncomfortable, as opposed to the smaller yarmulkas of today.
[17] See Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah 5. See also Peninei Halacha, Likkutim 1, p 169, who writes that the source for the rabbinic imperative to cover the head in shul or while reciting prayers, is in Masechet Sofrim 14. A view is brought there that it is forbidden to say Hashem's name without a head covering. Rabbenu Yeruchum, a Rishon, brings this view as Halacha.
[18] Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4,2.
[19] Rabbi Feinstein explains that although, nowadays, the yarmulke has assumed an ‘obligatory’ status, the threat of financial loss would push aside that status. (Fascinatingly, the threat of financial loss even sometimes can be applied to a Torah obligation, such as Lulav, where one is not required to spend more than one fifth of his wealth on the mitzvah.)
[20] Rabbi Shlomo Luria 1510-1573.
[21] She’elot Uteshuvot 92.

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