HomeMarch 2018On Orthodox Judaism’s Rules of Head Covering

On Orthodox Judaism’s Rules of Head Covering

Shabbat eveIN YESHIVA HIGH SCHOOL we had a genius mathematics teacher who also was an Orthodox rabbi. In our first two years we easily covered four years of high school math, with some college math to boot. Thanks to him, I entered Columbia with the maximum number of credits the college would grant for advanced placement, even though, as life curiously unfolded, I never took another math course.

I remember that our great rabbi math whiz wore a toupee. He had all his hair, but to “make ends meet” financially he also taught at a New York public school that was not “yarmulka-friendly.” Therefore, to comply with the obligation to cover his head during all waking hours, he wore a toupee at his “day job.” To-pay the bills.

The man’s obligation to cover his head at all times stems from Talmudic sources. In Tractate Shabbat 156a-b, we learn that, by wearing the yarmulka, we remind ourselves that G–d is above us. In Kiddushin 31a, a major Talmudic rabbi states that the kippah imbues us with fear of Heaven. Indeed, the word “yarmulka” is an Aramaic portmanteau combining the words “yara malka” (fear of the King). “Kippah” is a Hebrew word that means “dome.” Many laws govern a man’s obligation to cover his head: during prayer, when eating, when learning Judaic religious texts, when walking outdoors and in the home. Interesting discussions center around the proper covering and dimensions as pertain to fedoras, other hats and skullcaps, and knitted kippot.

In emergency circumstances, rabbis weigh considerations, balancing the the law’s lighter severity, inasmuch as it stems from “custom” (minhag) that now carries legal authority but is not rooted in Torah commandment. For example, in a situation where a man would be precluded from supporting himself or his family because of anti-Semitism, a rabbi might advise that he is permitted, as was my math teacher, to don a toupee. Rabbinic leniencies have allowed working without yarmulkas at the office, particularly in communities and cultures where the kippah would be misinterpreted as a confrontational statement or might violate accepted culture. Thus, it might be permitted for an Orthodox Jewish male not to wear a kippah while running for Vice President of the United States or seving as United States Attorney-General (Michael Mukasey) or Secreatary of the Treasury (Jacob Lew), while an attorney or doctor running his own office in Brooklyn or Queens might be denied that leniency.

Like men, Orthodox women also honor Judaic laws governing covering their hair. Jewish law on this front governs women who are married, and the primary purpose of the law is to remind both the married woman herself and the men who encounter her that she is married. During much of the Twentieth Century, it was common for Modern Orthodox married women not to cover their hair at all, although most would place symbolic lace doilies on their heads when entering holy places like the synagogue sanctuary for Shabbat prayer. The doilies in fact never had any real Judaic meaning, but they accorded with a governing secular American aesthetic, much as the American aesthetic sees funeral directors offer mourners a crepe-paper black ribbon to pin on their lapels and cut at their deceased’s gravesite, even though the ribbon has no Judaic meaning whatsoever and is contrary to the halakhic purpose of “kriah” (garment tearing) that an immediate relative in mourning must perform.

In time, deriving partly from augmented community yeshiva education efforts in teaching men and women primary Judaic textual sources that were not taught a century ago at lower-tier “Hebrew Schools,” and partly because of enhanced community social influences, more married Orthodox women have embraced the practice. Some wear scarves. Some snoods. Some wear hats of any kind that grabs their fancy. Some wear wigs. (A fallacy among those not acquainted with Orthodox life perpetuates a myth that married Orthodox women shave their heads and remain like Sinead O’Connor for the duration of their lives. That silliness is as nonsensical as the myth about a hole in bedsheets, or about tattooed Jews being barred interment in Jewish cemeteries, notwithstanding that each myth dominated its own respective fifteen-minute segment of a Larry David “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode.)

The Orthodox woman, in covering her hair, is not obligated to make herself look yukky or homely. She may wear as nice or as commonplace a wig, a hat, a scarf, a snood, or whatever else she finds that society sells and that culture adopts. The man wearing the yarmulka or toupee or fedora never loses awarness that he is wearing it—and I know exactly that feeling as I wear my yarmulka while teaching at Loyola Law School or at UCI Law School before student bodies that are overwhelmingly non-Jewish, or while shopping in Irvine’s University Park community, where every store purchase turns into an encounter with someone who wants to know where he can find gefilte fish or kosher salt or whether Chanukah will fall on the same day as Christmas in five years. So it is that the woman wearing hair covering remains on heightened consciousness throughout every day that she enjoys an enhanced religious relationship with her Creator. Along with her wedding ring, she knows that the morally loose and often coarse society in which she lives is not one where she spiritually reposes, just as the kippah-wearing man remains tagged with a symbol that inhibits him from participating in lunches “with the boys” where sexually improper discussions predominate, or at evenings at the bar or at “Gentlemen’s clubs.” Not a man with a yarmulka. Not a woman wearing a wig or other head covering when she feels bidden by Jewish law and community social practice to do so.

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