New American Reform Responsa
12. Kippot for Women and Men
QUESTION: What is the origin of the covering the head for women and men? May women wear kippot as a sign of equality or would tradition prohibit this as imitation of masculine garb? How did the practice of wearing kippot develop? What is the Reform view? (Aaron Phillips, Cleveland OH)ANSWER: Tradition stated that any woman who wore her hair loose and uncovered was considered a virgin (Sifrei #11); if a married woman exposed her hair in this way she was considered a loose woman. A married woman either had to cut her hair very closely or had to cover it in some manner. Any married woman who left her hair uncovered provided grounds for divorce and forfeited the money and property of her dowry (M Ket 7.6; 72a). Furthermore, all women were to cover their hair during the reading of the shema (Ber 24a; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 75.1 ff; Sheelat Yaavetz Vol 1 #9; Vol 2 #718). This in essence meant that women were required to cover their hair in the synagogue whether single or married; this has also been discussed in the next responsum. We can see that the wearing of a covering over the hair for married women is very old and has generally been followed by traditional Jews through the ages. Women, both married and unmarried, are required to cover their hair. As styles of hats, scarfs, and other head gear have varied according to fashion through the ages, it would be difficult to accuse women of imitating masculine garb through any head covering. We Reform Jews would object vigorously to this requirement for women which places them in an inferior position and sees them primarily in a sexual role. As Reform Judaism has stressed the equality of men and women, we would reject this path of tradition. Reform Jewish practice does not require women to cover their hair within or outside the synagogue. A number of women do, however, wish to keep their head covered during worship in the same manner as men, and do so as another symbol of the equality between men and women. Let us now inquire into the origin of this custom of head covering for men. An excellent essay on this subject has been written by Jacob Z. Lauterbach (Studies in Jewish Law, Custom, and Folklore pp 225 ff). He demonstrated that there was no Biblical or rabbinic basis for this custom. In fact the priest in the ancient temple performed their ritual with bare head (Yoma 25a), and individuals covered their head principally when they were in mourning (M K 15a, 24a) . A statement from the age of the Maccabees indicated that the pious of that period objected to a regulation of Antiochus Epiphanes which forced individuals to wear hats (II Macc 4.12); Paul registered the same custom of bareheaded worship in the Jewish communities which he visited two centuries later (I Corinth 11.4-7). In late tractate Sofrim the text specifically indicated that the shema may be recited bare headed (14.5 see also Ber 60b). In Babylonia, however, it became a sign of respect to cover one’s head in the presence of a scholar. In other words, precisely the reverse of the Biblical and modern Reform custom (Kid 33a). Various historians have assumed that this practice was later adopted by the synagogue and may have been borrowed by the Babylonian Jews from their Persian neighbors (J. Z. Lauterbach Op Cit 232). As Jewish communities of the Mediterranean were influenced by Babylonian custom during the hegemony of the Islamic empires, authorities in these areas insisted on a head covering during worship. On the other hand, communities influenced by Palestinian custom as those of France, Germany and Italy worshiped with uncovered heads (Or Zarua 2.43; Solomon Luria Responsa #72; Isserles to Tur Orah Hayim 282.3 in which he argued against the custom). This custom of covering head eventually spread and became standard in Germany and Central Europe from the thirteenth century onward although we still find some discussion of this matter later. The most radical element of the Reform movement in the nineteenth century called for the removal of all head covering during worship as this was seen as a general sign of politeness. This was intended to distinguish Reform Jews from the rest of the Jewish community and so became a symbol for this group. This practice, however, was not followed by continental European Reform Congregations with one exception; it became standard only in the United States. There has been a trend now toward wearing a head covering in some American Reform congregations and among individuals in others as a symbol of kelal yisrael. This is appropriate especially as the Reform movement is well established in the United States; it does not need an obvious symbol in order to distinguish it from the remainder of the Jewish community. The historical studies have made it clear that prayer both bareheaded and with head covering have a strong basis in Judaism so both should be permitted without argument. As women seek to express their equality with men in a wide variety of ways there is nothing wrong with their adopting a head covering for this reason. Nor would we consider this a violation of the Biblical commandment against women wearing the clothing of men (Deut 2.5). In summary then, if a woman wishes to wear a kippah or any other head covering in order to indicate a mood of worship akin to men it would be appropriate for her to do so in a Reform setting.February 1990
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.