Men's Head Covering in Synagogue: Reform Judaism's Views

Changing ideas about whether men should wear a kippah (skullcap) during prayer reflect development and maturation of American Reform attitudes toward tradition.

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The author, a historian of American Reform Judaism and one of those helping to shape contemporary practice, surveys the history of attitudes toward headcovering by men at worship or Torah study. He advises that, as in other aspects of Jewish life, Reform ideology requires each person to learn the arguments for and against traditional practice and choose a path with meaning and significance for him or her as an individual. Reprinted with permission from the author's book Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, published by the UAHC Press (Union of American Hebrew Congregations), 2001.

Praying with uncovered head was the rule for many years in American Reform synagogues. This rule, at odds with traditional Jewish custom, was evidently based on the prevailing standards of honor and respect in the general culture which dictated that one remove one's hat when inside a building and during solemn occasions such as worship.

reform perspectives with kippahIn 1928, Rabbi Jacob Z. Lauterbach, a professor at the Hebrew Union College and chair of the CCAR Responsa Committee, wrote a richly-detailed study in defense of the Reform practice, declaring that "there is no law in the Bible or Talmud prescribing the covering of the head for men when entering a sanctuary, when participating in the religious service, or when performing any religious ceremony."

Where the Customs Arose

The practice of covering the head is not based on any explicit statement in Jewish legal sources; it "is merely a custom, a minhag, that first appeared among the Jews in Babylon" during the rabbinic period (roughly, from the beginning of the Common Era to 500 C.E.). In Palestine, by contrast, the sources indicate that "people would not hesitate entering a synagogue, reading from the Torah, and participating in the religious service with uncovered head."

This difference in custom made its way to medieval Europe: in Spain, which tended to follow the Babylonian practices, authorities required that the head be covered during prayer, while in France and Germany, which were more influenced by Palestinian ritual traditions, there is some evidence that Jews would pray bareheaded.

Although by the thirteenth century the Northern Europeans (Ashkenazim) had begun to adopt the Spanish (Sephardic) custom, later authorities in central and eastern Europe continued to write that the prohibition against worshipping bareheaded "has no foundation in the Talmud." As one of them remarked (in Lauterbach's translation): "There is no prohibition whatever against praying with uncovered head, but as a matter of propriety it would seem to be good manners to cover one's head when standing in the presence of great men, and also during the religious service."

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Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D., is associate professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and serves as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.