May 20, 2024
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May 20, 2024
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The world is getting together after the first few waves of the pandemic. Pope Francis and his Rabbi friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, have authored a book together as to how best to recover after the pandemic. This is probably a first ever Rabbi and Pope joint authorship in world history. This article, however, is not about that… It is rather about the authors’ head coverings. We will focus on both the skullcap and the zucchetto, which literally means “skullcap” in Italian.

Why Do They Wear Them?

The reasons why the popes and cardinals wear them are actually quite different from why Jewish people wear yarmulkes. The zucchetto is worn because it has been a Christian tradition for clergymen to wear them since the dawn of the 13th century. To place that in terms of Jewish history, 50 years before the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel) was born, Christian clergymen started wearing the zucchetto.

This custom developed because of extremely cold weather. It seems that, based on a verse in the Christian bible, it was considered unbecoming for a Christian to wear long hair. Christian clergymen would shave their heads bald to fulfill this verse (the haircut resembled typical male pattern baldness and was called “a tonsure”).

At the same time, the traditional cape and hood that everyone wore (called “the cope”) had lost its hood due to new fashion design. The zucchetto was created to warm up the clergymen — now mostly bald — in the cold and windblown cathedrals.

It seems that people who entered the cathedral did not all enter at one time. The doors of these cathedrals were quite large, and every time they were opened, the clergymen would experience a blast of freezing cold air. The cathedrals had no central heating system (nor any heating system at all). The zucchetto was clearly a direct result of the bitter cold that these clergymen experienced every time the door was opened. Current architects have developed the double door system, as do most of our shuls.

The Reason for the Yarmulke

The yarmulke, on the other hand, or any head covering for that matter, brings one to fear of Heaven, according to the Talmud (see Shabbos, 156b and 118b). Indeed, the etymology of the name is yorah Malka — fear of the Melech (it is Aramaic). The Shechinah — God’s Presence — is above us all, and the yarmulke reminds us constantly of God’s Presence.

Further Benefits

The Sefer Chassidim writes that covering the head also develops the trait of humility within its wearer. Although the quote of Rav Huna found in the Talmud (Shabbos 118a) seems to indicate that in Talmudic times, only the very pious made sure never to walk four cubits with their head uncovered — it has since developed into a custom that all the people observe.

Must It Be Worn?

Rabbi Shlomo Luria, author of the Maharshal (72), writes that wearing a yarmulke is only a middas chassidus, a pious act. On the other hand, Rabbi Dovid HaLevi, author of the Taz, writes (Orech Chaim 8:3) that the reason that walking four amos (seven feet, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein) without a yarmulke is forbidden is that gentiles used to do this; as a sign of honor, they would take off their hats. This is a violation of “U’bechukoseihem lo seileichu — do not walk in their ways.”

There is a further debate as to how to understand this Taz. Rav Moshe Feinstein has a responsum (O.C. 1:1 and 4:2) that this Taz is no longer halachically applicable, since nowadays gentiles walk bareheaded all the time. He, therefore, permits people in certain careers to remove their yarmulkes. Rav Moshe Stern, z”tl — better known as the Debreciner Rav — fundamentally disagrees with Rav Feinstein’s reading, and writes (Be’er Moshe 8:40) that the opinion of the Taz is still applicable nowadays.

So, according to the Taz (at least according to the Debreciner), there would be a prohibition involved in walking seven feet without a yarmulke. According to the other opinions, there would not be.

Changing Norms

There is another issue, however. Nowadays, it has perhaps become the accepted norm in klal Yisrael to wear a yarmulke. This may change the ruling; in that, a new minhag might have been established. Indeed, the minhag may have made things more stringent; in that, it would apply even to walking less than four cubits and, perhaps, even to sitting or standing without a yarmulke (see Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 13, No. 12). This, however, would depend upon the custom in the particular locale under discussion.


It should be noted that Sefardim — as a general rule — follow the opinion of the Maharshal and not the Taz in this regard. They are, therefore, more lenient than Ashkenazim when it comes to the wearing of the yarmulke.

While in Shul or at the Kotel

There are other issues with regard to the yarmulke, as well. Even if one is standing still, if he is in a batei knesset, he must wear a yarmulke or other head-covering. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch in Orech Chaim (151:6). The Kosel is now considered a full-fledged shul and, thus, would require it as a matter of alacha. This is the ruling, as seen in the Mishnah Berurah (2:12).

Similarly, when one is speaking words of Torah or reciting a beracha, his head must be covered at all times. If a person’s yarmulke has blown off, he may place his sleeve over his head and recite the beracha. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (see O.C. 91:4). But, he may not use his bare hand (see Mishnah Berurah, 71:4).

My father, z”l, once observed how one of his grandson’s placed his hand over the head of his younger brother, so that he could recite a beracha. He told the younger grandson: “Amen – that was a beautiful beracha!” and then, directed himself to the older grandson and said, “Now you repeat after me. ‘Am I my brother’s kippah?’”

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

 The author may be reached at [email protected]

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