Why to Jewish men cover their heads?

August 2, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ak the rabbi!

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Is Judaism flawless?

A. If you had asked whether Jews are flawless, the answer would of course be no.

All Jews probably do their best, but some behave foolishly, irresponsibly, cruelly, sinfully. Not that they are born this way; Judaism does not believe in “original sin”.

The Jewish approach would be to say that everyone really wants to do the right thing but an occasional “ru’ach sh’tut” – a “spirit of stupidity” – gets in the way.

Conscious, however, of having acted badly, one has a remedy available – genuine repentance – though if one has harmed another person, it is not enough to ask God’s forgiveness. Peace must be restored with the wronged person.

But you ask about whether Judaism is flawless. We believe so. The Psalmist says, “Torat HaShem t’mimah” – “the law of the Lord is perfect” (Psalm 19). As a balance between thought and deed, individual and community, vision and reality, Judaism is remarkable.

The Jewish system does not make gods out of men but tries to bring Godliness into every human being. It does not legislate for angels but for earthly creatures living on earth. It does not claim that God has handed man the world on a platter, but that He has given us a share in the perfection of the creation.

It does not leave everything up to man, but neither does it leave man with nothing to do. It sees what mischief often happens on earth, but it never loses its faith in tomorrow.

What do we say about other religions?

In his fascinating book, “A Jewish Theology” (London, 1973, pages 287-291), Louis Jacobs says there are three possible attitudes:

1. Judaism is true: all other religions are false.
2. All religions are equally true (or false).
3. There is more truth in Judaism than in other religions.

There is much to be said for the first option. We deeply respect the conscience and convictions of adherents of other faiths, but we have to deny the crucial positions that they take on the nature of God, the status of their leaders, and their view of Torah.

But on the other hand we cannot fail to recognise that there are elements of truth in every religion.

One suggestion is to say that Judaism is true for Jews, and other religions are true – for their own adherents.

But this also creates problems, because it implies that all religions will continue in their own ways to the end of time, when the more Jewish approach is that in the end of days, “Out of Zion will go Torah (to the world), and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).


Q. Why do Jewish men cover their heads?

A. Not just Jewish men but married women too.

For men, it is a sign of humility before God. The Talmud records that Rav Huna said he would never walk four cubits without a head-covering since “the Divine presence is above my head”.

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak’s mother said, “Cover your head so what the fear of God may be upon you.”

Covering the head became in time a mark of piety, though in the medieval period there were still some rabbis who recited the blessings and even the Shema bareheaded, though this was increasingly disapproved of.

Obviously the head-covering has to be visible. There is a question about whether some of the tiny kippot that are sometimes seen these days are adequate.

For women, head-covering is a sign of modesty before men. The sages speak of covering the hair as “dat y’hudit”, “the Jewish rule” (Ket. 7:6). There is strong disapproval of flaunting one’s body. Even showing off one’s hair can have a seductive message.

The various styles of head-covering for women include the sheitel or wig, though this is a relatively recent innovation.

It must, however, be pointed out that sometimes a sheitel is so magnificent that it may appear to defeat the purpose.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


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