Ask The Rabbi

Kippa - why??

The Color of HeavenArtscroll
Topic: Kippa, reasons

Dr. David Mitchell at Hebrew University wrote:

"Yasher ko'ach" on your continuing electronic divrei Torah and especially your Wonderful Wry Wrabbinical Written Wit! I looked in the Ask-The-Rabbi index, and didn't see anything on kippot. Would you please write a commentary on kippot, whether it is a law or a custom, the different sizes and why women don't wear them.


Dear Dr. Mitchell,

The wearing of a kippa (skullcap) first appears in the Talmud as an act of piety. Another word for kippa is Yarmulke, which means "awe of the King [G-d]" in Aramaic. This practice is codified in the Shulchan Aruch as an obligation at the time of prayer, and as something that one "should do" at other times. Therefore according to the Shulchan Aruch, a head cover is a Halacha (Law) during prayer, and an important custom at other times.

However, the Taz (mid 17th century, Eastern Europe) suggests that although a headcovering was originally an act of piety, it gained the status of Torah Law, due to the custom of non-Jews to remove their caps as a sign of honor. Since the Torah prohibits Jews from "going in the ways of non-Jews," one who does not cover his head would therefore be in transgression of a Negative Commandment of the Torah.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in his Responsa, rules that, based on the Taz, one should be stringent. He adds, however, that there are indications that even the Taz might agree that in America [and elsewhere] where it is no longer the way of Gentiles to remove their head coverings as a sign of honor - for the most part they don't even wear head coverings at all - the prohibition against going about with an uncovered head is no longer considered to be a Torah prohibition.

Since one is nonetheless obligated to wear a kippa, what does it matter whether it is a custom or a law? It becomes important when we consider the case of someone who is denied work because he wears a kippa. The Talmud states that one doesn't need to forfeit more than a fifth of his wealth in order to fulfill a Positive Commandment. Therefore, Rabbi Feinstein writes that since a custom is certainly not more stringent than a Positive Commandment, if a person cannot find work unless he removes his kippa, then when he is at work he is permitted to remove his kippa. If, on the other hand, not wearing a kippa would be a transgression of a Negative Commandment, (like the ruling of the Taz), then removal of the kippa for the sake of employment would not be sanctioned since one is obligated to forfeit all of his wealth rather than to transgress a Negative Commandment.

Keep posted for further discussions on silver-dollar Yarmulkes, black versus knitted, and women & kippot.

Sources:

  • Talmud Kiddushin 31a, & Shabbat 118b.
  • Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 8 & 92, and Taz.
  • Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, vols. 1 & 4; & Choshen Mishpat, vol. 1.

 
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