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TCS Question - Why do we cover our heads?

Two months ago I quoted that great Jewish teacher Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof. He sang to us: 'we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl', but as he continued he has no answer as to how these traditions started. Two months ago we dealt with why we wear a tallit - the prayer shawl; this month it's time to deal with why we keep our heads covered.

People often think that covering the head is a central commandment within Judaism; after-all it is one of the clearest external signs that a person is Jewish. However, it is very hard to say definitively where this minhag (custom) developed. While the Torah instructs fringes on the corners of the garment, nowhere does it say that a person must cover their head.

In the Talmud there is evidence that some of the Rabbis would cover their heads. In Kiddushin 31a we read that Rabbi Hunah ben Joshua never walked four cubits with his head uncovered, because of God's presence always being over him. And in Shabbat 156b we read that Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac’s mother was told that her son would become a thief and so she told him: 'Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you.' While this may be considered one of the origins of the minhag of covering one's head, it is clear that in neither instance was the covering of the head considered to be a commandment.

The transition of the covering of one's head from minhag (custom) to halacha (law) seems to have happened as Jews began to develop law codes supplementing the instructions of the Torah and the Talmud. In many of the law codes which were created the covering of heads was required or strongly recommended for prayer and for life as a whole. Maimonides (twelfth century) in his Mishneh Torah law code ruled that a Jewish man should cover his head during prayer. The Shulhan Aruch (a mid sixteenth century Jewish law code) instructed that a person should not walk more than four cubits with his head uncovered, echoing Rabbi Hunah from the Talmud.

One can understand why Tevye could not explain where this commandment comes from. And today while we may still be unable to definitively answer the question of why we cover our heads, there are many texts we can draw upon. And in our community it is worth stressing that the covering of one’s head with a kippah, yarmulke, skullcap, etc. is encouraged for both men and women. 

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