The minhag of wearing a kippah was not obligatory in the days of the Amoraim, but was significantly strengthened in the times of Geonim and the Rishonim * In our times, the covering of the head has become an obligatory minhag * Today, wearing a kippah has become a substitute for wearing tefillin throughout the day as was customary in previous generations * It is proper to be machmir and wear a kippah that covers the majority of one’s head, but those who wish to settle for a small kippah are permitted, and God forbid, should not be considered unserious
Q: I studied the issue of wearing a kippah for men, and I realized that m’ikar ha’din (according to the letter of the law) it is not obligatory to wear a kippah, and that in the times of our Sages they did not wear a kippah. If so, seeing as this minhag (custom) has become a differentiating feature between religious and secular Jews, perhaps it is better to do away with it in order to remove unnecessary divisions?
A: Indeed, our Sages did not enact an obligatory mitzvah to wear a kippah, as we can see from the story told in the Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) about Rabbi Huna the son or Rabbi Yehoshua, who would not walk arba amot (four cubits) without a head covering, because he said, ‘the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is above my head, how can I possibly walk with my head uncovered’? It is also told (Shabbat 156b) about Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzhak that astrologers told his mother while he was still a baby that according to the stars her son was definitely going to be a thief. To prevent this ill fortune from coming true, she instructed her son to wear a kippah at all times on his head so he would have fear of Heaven, and also instructed him to always ask for mercy in his prayer that the yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination) would not overcome him. Rabbi Nachman did not understand why his mother was so fastidious about him wearing a head covering until one day it fell off his head and as he looked up, he saw a cluster of dates on a palm tree. Although the tree was not his, temptation overcame him, he climbed the tree and bit off a cluster with his teeth. After experiencing the strength of his yetzer to steal, Rabbi Nachman understood why his mother was so careful about him always covering his head.
We see then that in the times of our Sages, it was not obligatory to wear a kippah, and only as a minhag chassidut (custom of extreme piety) were some of the Amoraim careful not to walk four cubits without covering their head (we have also learned in Talmud Berachot 60b that we begin saying Birkot HaShachar [The Morning Blessings] before covering our heads. Also, it is apparent from Berachot 22b, and Pesachim 7b that it is possible to recite Kriyat Shema in a mikveh and recite a bracha (blessing) without a kippah).
The Minhag of Wearing a Kippah in the Times of the Rishonim
However, in the times of the Geonim (589 – 1040 CE) and Rishonim (1050 – 1500 CE), the minhag of wearing a kippah was strengthened, and some poskim ruled that during the time of prayer and upon entering a synagogue it was obligatory to wear a kippah. We also find a disagreement among the poskim in the Tractate Sofrim (compiled during the period of the Savoraim (500 – 600 CE), or at the beginning of the Geonim period in Eretz Yisrael), about whether someone whose head is uncovered can be a chazzan (cantor) (14:12). And about eight hundred years ago, Rambam (Laws of Prayer 5:5) already ruled that it is forbidden to pray without a head covering. However, it can be deduced from his words that it is permissible to recite a blessing or enter a synagogue without a head covering (Prayer 7: 3-9, ibid Chapter 11). Rashba, Rosh, and Trumat HaDeshen were also of the opinion that this was the ikar ha’din. On the other hand, in the opinion of Rabbeinu Peretz, it is forbidden to enter a synagogue without a head covering, and Rabbeinu Yerucham ruled that it was forbidden to recite a blessing without a head covering. In any event, the Rishonim did not write that it was forbidden to walk four cubits without a head covering.
Beginning with the Period of the Achronim the Minhag was accepted as Obligatory
However, about five centuries ago, it was accepted as an absolute minhag not to walk four cubits without a kippah. Thus, it was codified in the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 301: 7) that it is permissible to enter a reshut ha’rabim (public domain) without a hat on Shabbat, and although the Chachamim decreed that it is forbidden to enter a reshut ha’rabim with a garment that may fall off lest it did, and someone transgressed and carried it in his hand four cubits in the reshut ha’rabim. This is permitted because it is inconceivable that if one’s kippah fell off his head he would carry it in his hand four cubits, even if there was strong winds, for one does not walk four cubits without a kippah (MB 153).
However, there is a safek (doubt) whether in the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch it is an absolute prohibition to walk four cubits without a kippah (as can be deduced from S.A., O.C. 2: 6), or that the prohibition is only when reciting a blessing, uttering verses, or entering a synagogue, but in other places it is a minhag chassidut (as can be deduced from S. A. 91:3; 206:3).
Poskim who believe the Minhag is Obligatory from the Torah
However, in the opinion of Taz (O.C. 8: 3) and before him Mahari Bruna, since the minhag had become a Jewish custom, someone who walked or sat in a house without a kippah, transgressed a Torah prohibition of halicha b’chukot ha’goyim (going in the ways of the Gentiles), as it is written: “Do not follow any of their customs” (Leviticus 18: 3). Nevertheless, in practice, the opinion of most poskim is that the custom of Gentiles to remove a hat or to walk without a head covering is not derived from religious worship and does not constitute pritzut (immodest behavior), thus, according to the principles of halakha, this does not contradict the prohibition of chukot goyim (Maharik 88; Ran, Avodah Zara 11:1; Rema, Y.D. 198:1; Igrot Moshe, O.C. 4:2).
Obligatory Minhag and Dat Yehudit
In summary, in terms of halakha, wearing a kippah began as a minhag chassidut, and over time the minhag spread to all Jews, to the point where it went from being a minhag chassidut to become an obligatory minhag not to walk four cubits without a kippah, and the minhag chassidut is not to walk even less than four cubits without a kippah (MA, 2:6; MB 11).
Moreover, since in recent generations the minhag of covering one’s head has become a distinct Jewish symbol and a sign of loyalty to Torah and mitzvot, it is regarded today as an obligatory minhag of Dat Yehudit (Netzer Matai 3; Igrot Moshe 1:1; Mayim Chaim, sect. 23; Y.O. 9, O.C. 1; and others), as written first by Mahari Bruna, Siman 34.
Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of God)
Although the foundation of wearing a kippah is a minhag that has become obligatory, it can be said that after the kippah has become the symbol of Jewish religious identification, someone who wears a handsome kippah, thus showing his loyalty to Torah and mitzvot, in doing so fulfills the Torah mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem (see, Rambam Yisodei HaTorah, 5: 5).
As as a Substitute for Tefillin
It seems the deep reason for the minhag of the kippah being so widely accepted among Jews is that it serves as a substitute for tefillin. For from the Torah, it is a mitzvah to wear tefillin throughout the six working days, because tefillin is an ote (sign) for Israel that they are connected to God, as written: “These words must also be a sign on your arm” (Exodus 13: 9). However, Shabbat and Yom Tov, which are called an ote, in their very sacredness, express the special relationship between God and Israel, and therefore tefillin are not worn on these days (S.A. 31:1).
However, since one must be careful about the sanctity of tefillin, not to flatuate or be distracted while wearing them, our Sages decreed not to eat a meal while wearing them lest one gets drunk, and not to wear them at night, lest one fall asleep (S.A. 30:2; 40:8).
Moreover, in the times of the Achronim, out of fear of harming their sanctity, the custom already was to fulfill the obligation of the mitzvah of tefillin by wearing them only during Tefillat Shacharit (the Morning Prayers), relying on what our Sages said: “Tefillin demand a pure body, like Elisha, the man of wings” (Shabbat 49a). And in the Jerusalem Talmud they went as far saying: “Anyone who is not like Elisha, the man of wings, should not wear tefillin” (Berachot 2: 3).
As a substitute for expressing fear of Heaven, Jews are accustomed to wear a kippah, for a kippah delineates the boundary of man, reminding him there is someone above him.
Poskim who are Machmir (Stringent) a Kippah Must Cover Most of the Head
Many people ask if there is a specified measurement for the size of a kippah. There are three methods in this issue.
Some poskim are machmir, and are of the opinion that since a kippah needs to cover one’s head it must cover the majority of the head, but if it only covers part of the head, it is not considered as if one’s head is covered (Rabbi Shlomo Kluger in the Responsa ‘HaElef Lecha Shlomo’ siman 3; Yaskil Avdi Vol. 6, Hashmatot O.C. 1; hearsay from Chazon Ish; Rabbi Mazuz).
Some poskim are of the opinion that during the day, and while reciting blessings or studying Torah, a kippah does not have to cover the majority of the head, rather, it is sufficient it be noticeable in a way people consider it to be covering one’s head. However, when praying and entering a synagogue, since the obligation to cover the head is more severe, it is obligatory to wear a kippah that covers the majority of the head (Tzitz Eliezer 13, 13; Or L’Tziyon, Vol.2, 7: 13; Aseh Lecha Rav 7: 76; Y.D. 4:1).
The Poskim who are Maykel (Lenient) a Kippah Does not have to Cover Most of the Head
There poskim who are maykel, and are of the opinion that there is no specific measurement for a kippah, and it is not necessary it cover the majority of the head, rather, it is sufficient for it to be seen by others and considered as having covered one’s head. And even while praying and entering the synagogue, one can settle for such a kippah as is the custom of many people, and God forbid, they should not be considered unserious in their observance (I.M., O.C. 1:1, according to Bach and MB 91:10, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and others).
The Practical Halakha
In practice, since the foundation of the law is in minhag, those who wish may settle for a kippah that does not cover the majority of the head even during prayer and entrance to a synagogue. However, it is appropriate to be machmir, since today the kippah is a symbol of identifying as an observant Jew, and anyone who covers the majority of his head with a handsome kippah, by doing so, fulfills the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, showing that, yes, here is another Jew who is not ashamed in his appearance to declare he is faithful to the ways of Torah and mitzvot.
Calculating the Majority of the Head
In practice, to cover the majority of a normal adult’s head a kippah needs to be at least 13 centimeters, and those with a large head need a kippah of at least 14.5 centimeters.
Calculation: From the size of hats, we learned that the average circumference of men’s heads is 57 centimeters, and consequently, the area is approximately 258 square centimeters. In order to cover about 130 square centimeters, which is the majority of the area of the head, one needs a kippah of at least 13 centimeters in diameter. And men with big heads wear hats 64 centimeters in circumference, and their kippah should be at least 14.5 inches in diameter.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.