Kippas In Jewish Law

Posted on June 24 2016

There is much debate among Jewish theological authorities as to whether or not wearing a kippa is required at all times. According to the Rambam, Jewish law says that a man is required to cover his head during prayer but there is no mention that a Jew is required to cover his head at all times.

However, according to some authorities it has since taken on the force of law because it is an act of 'Kiddush Hashem' (sanctification of the name of God). 

The 17th-century authority Rabbi David HaLevi Segal (The Taz) suggested that the reason was to distinguish Jews from non-Jews. He wrote that nowadays wearing a yarmulke is required by law.

Other halachic authorities like Sephardi posek, the Chida (Rabbi David Yosef Azulai) say that wearing a head covering is an additional measure of piety. Former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef ruled that a kippa should be worn to show affiliation with the religiously observant community.

The Talmud states, 'Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you.' Rabbi Hunah ben Joshua never walked 4 cubits (6.6 feet, or 2 meters) with his head uncovered. He explained: 'Because the Divine Presence is always over my head.'

Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Arukh wrote that Jewish men should cover their heads and should not walk more than four cubits bareheaded. Covering one's head, such as by wearing a yarmulke, is described as "honoring God".The Mishna Berura modifies this ruling, adding that the Achronim (later Rabbis) required one to wear a head covering even when traversing fewer than four cubits, and even when one is standing still, indoors and outside. In many communities, boys are encouraged to wear a kippah from a young age in order to ingrain the habit.

The Bible implies that covering one's head was a sign of mourning:

'And David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, and wept as he went, and his head was covered and he walked barefoot. Then all the people who were with him each covered his head and went up weeping as they went.'

—2 Samuel 15:30

'[Judah mourns,] and their nobles send their lads for water: they come to the pits, and find no water; their vessels return empty; they are ashamed and confounded, and cover their heads. Because of the ground which is cracked, for there hath been no rain in the land, the plowmen are ashamed, they cover their heads.'

— Jeremiah 14:3-4

'And Mordecai returned to the king's gate. But Haman hasted to his house, mourning and having his head covered.'

— Esther 6:12

The argument for the kippa has two sides. The Vilna Gaon says one can make a blessing without a kippah, since wearing a yarmulke is only a 'midos chassidus' ('exemplary attribute'). 

According to Rabbi Isaac Klein, a Conservative Jew ought to cover his head when in the synagogue, at prayer or sacred study, when engaging in a ritual act, and when eating. In the mid-19th century, Reformers led by Isaac Wise completely rejected the kippas after an altercation in which Rabbi Wise's yarmulke was knocked off his head. There is still great debate about whether or not wearing a kippa is Halachic law or simply a custom. Many Sephardic Jews only wear a kippah when praying and eating but otherwise go without one.

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