New York - The History of The 'Yarmulke'

Published on: December 10th, 2009 at 07:54 PM

New York - A very talented fabric designer who worked at a top-name fabric company would receive a certain type of phone call rather regularly. The caller would ask, “You have velvet scraps, maybe?” As a perceptive person, she knew right away that the caller would invariably be a chassidishe man who wished to manufacture yarmulkes (kippot) to be worn by Jewish men in accordance with the tradition of keeping one’s head covered.

What is the history of the yarmulke? What are its halachos? And when, if ever, is one permitted to remove it?

The Gemara in Kiddushin (31b) tells us that Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk four cubits (six feet) with a bare head. He would say in response to any inquiry, “The Divine Presence is above my head!”

The implication of this Gemara is that Rav Huna was unique in this regard, and that others in his time would not necessarily conduct themselves in such a fashion. This does not mean, however, that he was the only one who always covered his head. The Gemara in Shabbos (156b) informs us that Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak’s mother used to constantly exhort him to cover his head so that he would develop a fear of heaven.

The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 52) tells us that the greatest of the sages were careful not to reveal their heads on account of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, that surrounded them. The Rambam also writes in Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Deios 5:6) that talmidei chachamim conduct themselves with great modesty and they should not bare their heads. Apparently a socio-religious change happened sometime between the time of the Gemara (c. 450 CE) and the time of the Rambam (c. 1100 CE).

It is an established principle in halachah that, within certain parameters, when there is widespread socio-religious change within Klal Yisrael, halachah itself undergoes a change. Thus, for example, we find that certain berachos may be recited that were not recited in previous times. The Talmud does not say that a blessing is recited upon lighting Shabbos candles. Reciting the blessing on Chanukah candles in shul developed later than the Talmud. Another example is that we may now wear silk, contrary to the Mishnah in K’layim, because the socio-economic changes negated the reason behind the prohibition. One must be careful, however, to carefully understand the parameters of how and why these changes have occurred.

In regard to the socio-religious change of the head-covering, what type of halachic change transpired? Also, was there a second or third socio-religious change after the Shulchan Aruch was compiled?

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 2:6) rules that one should not walk four amos with a bare head. Did the Shulchan Aruch mean this as a strict halachic prohibition? Or did he mean it as merely a midas chassidus, a pious custom?

To address this question, we find a contradiction in the words of the Magen Avraham. In O.C. (2:6) he seems to qualify the words of the Shulchan Aruch, writing, “And it is a pious custom to cover the head even less than four amos.” The implication of his words are that he understood the Shulchan Aruch’s obligation in regard to more than four amos as a strict halachic requirement. Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah 2:11 understands the Magen Avraham in this manner.

The Machatzis HaShekel (O.C. 2:6) reads the Magen Avraham differently. He writes that the Magen Avraham meant that the obligation even for a distance of more than four amos is just a pious measure.

Our discussion so far has centered on socio-religious change number one.

The Maharshal (Responsa No. 72) writes that in our times—regarding socio-religious change number two—it is forbidden (for a Jewish man) to go with his head uncovered, because it is viewed as a major social breach by the masses. It is therefore considered like a violation of das Yehudis—the religion of the Jews.

The TaZ (O.C. 8:3) writes that in our times, since it is a gentile requirement to remove one’s hat upon sitting, to go bareheaded is now a violation of “U’vechukoseihem lo seilechu—do not walk in the ways of the gentiles.” The TaZ clearly has a slightly different socio-religious change number two than does the Maharshal.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, O.C. Vol. IV, No. 2) deals with what we can call socio-religious change number three. He deals with the question whether a person may accept a job where there is a requirement not to wear a yarmulke. He writes that in our times, the gentiles do not remove their head coverings on account of a requirement to do so; they remove it because it is easier and more comfortable. Hence the reasoning of the TaZ no longer applies in our times.

He also writes that the majority of authorities held that social change number one was only a midas chassidus, not an actual requirement. He therefore invokes the view of the Rema (O.C. 656:1) that one is not obligated to risk vast amounts of money to fulfill a positive mitzvah (one must do so to avoid a negative mitzvah, however). Indeed, the limit on positive mitzvah spending is 20 percent of assets. Since a job is much greater than 20 percent of assets, Rav Feinstein permits it.

It is interesting to note that Rav Feinstein seems to be disagreeing with the conclusion of the Mishnah Berurah, who held that socio-religious change number one was a requirement and not a midas chassidus. Thus Rabbi Feinstein’s initial heter would not have been held by the Mishnah Berurah. If there are cases of need, however, even the Mishnah Berurah would perhaps hold that one may rely upon the lenient view of the Machatzis HaShekel.

One final note for our Lubavitcher readers out there: The Tzemach Tzedek (third Rebbe of Chabad) writes (O.C., Ch.2, notes 1 and 7) that even the lenient view that it is a midas chassidus is only referring to short periods of time. However, being bareheaded for long periods of time would be an actual violation. Thus he too disagrees with the leniency of Rav Feinstein. Once again, however, it must be stressed that in cases of need, poskim allow one to rely upon a more lenient view. For any questions regarding work and yarmulke-wearing please ask your rav or poseik.

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