This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Wrongheaded Thinking *

I take my hat off to those busy politicians in Quebec who have succeeded in alarming so many of their minorities with their proposed “Charter of Values” and its ban on the display of religious symbols in the public sphere. Surely it’s about time they renamed all those towns and streets that bear the names of Catholic saints. —Oh, you say that they’re not planning to do that? Well then, how about that huge cross that looms atop Mount Royal? —Hmm, so they’re not going to be dismantling that either?

The list of offending symbols does however extend to Jewish yarmulkes and Muslim hijabs—while making allowances for discreetly small crosses or stars of David.

The Jewish community’s generally negative reaction to the Quebec charter seems to stem largely from suspicions of ulterior anti-semitic motives or from the difficulties it will create for observant Jews employed in the public sector.

My own initial reaction, as a scholar of religion, was to deride the formulators’ ignorant misunderstanding of basic religious practices. The wearing of a yarmulke / kippah hardly qualifies as a religious “symbol,” nor is there is any category in Jewish religious law that singles out that particular type of cap as a religious obligation. The skull-cap is, at best, subsumed under the more general rubric of “covering the head.”

The expectation that men wear some kind of hat is, at any rate, a relatively recent development in Jewish legal discourse. Indeed, the Talmud assumes that—unlike women, whose heads were consistently covered—most men were covering or uncovering their heads as they pleased. An old midrash asked about the origins of this elemental difference between male and female behaviour—without apparently regarding it as a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. Ancient sources from the land of Israel contain no references to Jewish men covering their heads whether by law or custom. While the practice is mentioned several times in the Babylonian Talmud, it was confined to a narrow demographic sector consisting chiefly of married rabbinic scholars.

It thus appeared to me fundamentally wrongheaded for the Charter to be classifying a Jewish head-covering as a “religious symbol.” Certainly if we consult our classic texts, we find no indication that the practice was intended to identify the wearer as Jewish; rather, it functioned as a religious obligation designed to promote moral values and attitudes that are not necessarily distinctive to Judaism.

Several talmudic sources portray the wearing of head-coverings—they were referring to turbans or scarves (“soudarion”) rather than skull-caps—as an act of extraordinary piousness. For example, after astrologers predicted that the child Naḥman ben Isaac was destined to a life of crime, his mother instructed the future rabbi to keep his head covered in order to reinforce his constant awareness of the reverence due to Heaven. Most of the relevant rabbinic texts present some variation of this rationale. In keeping with the widespread perception—whether literal or metaphoric—that God dwells above us, it was considered disrespectful and arrogant to bare one’s head before the divine presence. In a similar spirit, several sources characterized the wearing of head-coverings as an expression of humility or of exceptional saintliness.

One midrashic passage proposed a more prosaic reason for wearing hats: to do otherwise might cause rheumatism. Some later authorities in Spain and Italy were prepared to exempt students from the obligation because of climate-related discomfort.

It took several centuries for the wearing of head-covering by men to establish itself as the recognized norm among traditional Jews. A work from the early eighth century notes that the Jews of Israel and Babylonia differed on the question of whether the Kohanim should cover their heads when reciting the priestly blessing. One responsum even ruled that it was only allowed if the hat was being worn for protection from the elements, but not if it was intended as a sign of reverence! The tenth century commentary from the school of Rabbi Gershom of Mainz suggested that a lay person who insists on always wearing a hat may be guilty of arrogantly assuming the prerogatives of a Torah scholar. Other compendia tried to formulate systematic lists of which liturgical passages or religious activities that do or do not require covered heads. Even after the authoritative Shulḥan Arukh forbade walking four cubits with a bare head, distinguished scholars like Rabbis Solomon Luria and Elijah of Vilna protested that there was no real talmudic basis for such an obligation.

Nevertheless, a perception eventually took root among many Jews that covering the head did function as a “religious symbol ” that differentiated between Jews and Christians. Thus, one author writing toward the end of the thirteenth century berated “those wicked and presumptuous people...who enter a synagogue just like the gentiles when they frequent their idolatrous shrines haughtily and disrespectfully.” When Rabbi Israel Isserlein was asked whether a Jew was allowed to remove his hat in order to conceal his religious affiliation in a locality where Jews were unwelcome, he forbade such conduct; he argued that since most gentiles believed that Jews are strictly forbidden to uncover their heads, observers would conclude that the hatless Jew was an apostate. In a similar vein, Rabbi Israel Bruna identified bare-headedness as an identifiably Christian practice, and hence Jews who went about without hats were committing the grave offense of following in “the statutes of the gentiles.”

It is interesting to note that around the same time, the Catholic Church was deeply concerned that Jews and Muslims in many European communities were indistinguishable in their apparel—including their head-gear—from their Christian neighbours, giving rise to a scandalous extent of inter-religious fraternizing and romantic liaisons. It was this situation that prompted the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 to institute the infamous Jewish badge. The decree noted that the Jews should have no objection to this measure since their own Torah prescribed distinctive clothing (in the form of ẓiẓit). Evidently, the authors did not consider the presence of absence of hats to be a sufficient indicator of a person’s religious affiliation.

The perception that baring one’s head or respectfully doffing one’s hat were identifiably Christian customs became increasingly entrenched among Jews in eastern Europe. In the seventeenth century Rabbi David Halevi went so far as to conclude that this instance of avoiding the “statutes of the gentiles” should be observed with especial zeal.

This might lead us to maintain that not wearing a hat is as much a Christian religious symbol as wearing a kippah or hijab is a Jewish or Muslim one. As it happens, some Jewish religious authorities were careful to point out that in more recent times the conventions of European and American etiquette have been secularized and no longer have any specifically Christian associations. Rabbi Leone de Modena (1571–1648), in a responsum defending his own practice of going bare-headed, made a cogent case for adapting Jewish law to changing social realities. In nineteenth-century Frankfurt a/M, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch ordered students and teachers in his community’s school to remove their hats in the presence of non-Jewish teachers or administrators. Rabbi Moses Feinstein declared that in contemporary American society there are rarely any religious considerations behind most non-Jews’ choices about wearing hats. Consequently the matter could be treated leniently when it creates social or economic hardships.

I look forward to the Pope’s next official visit to Quebec when he will presumably be instructed to remove his skullcap at all public ceremonies.


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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, November 8, 2013, p. 10.
  • For further reading:
    • Krauss, Samuel. “The Jewish Rite of Covering the Head.”Hebrew Union College Annual 19 (1945): 121–168.
    • Plaut, W Gunther. “The Origin of the Word ‘Yarmulke’.”Hebrew Union College Annual 26 (1955): 567–570.
    • Rabinowitz, Dan. “Yarmulke: A Historic Cover-up?”Ḥakirah: The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought 4 (2007): 221–238.
    • Rivkind, Isaac. “A Responsum of Leo da Modena on Uncovering the Head.” In Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday. English Section, edited by Saul Lieberman, Shalom Spiegel, Solomon Zeitlin, and Alexander Marx, Hebrew:401–424. New York: The American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945.
    • Zimmer, Eric. “Men’s Headcovering: The Metamorphosis of This Practice.” In Reverence, Righteousness, and Rahamanut: Essays in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung, edited by Jacob Schacter, 325–352. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1992.
    • ———.Studies in the History and Metamorphosis of Jewish Customs. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1996.