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A Philosophical Perspective

A Philosophical Perspective


Headgear is part of man's general attire. It would be helpful first to consider the origin and significance of human attire in general, before discussing the question of covering the head.

According to the opinion of many scientists, human attire is considered to have originated for two reasons: (a) as a protection against climatic conditions (heat, cold, rain, etc.), and subsequently also (b) for decorative purposes.

On closer investigation, however, it would seem that this "scientific" view is highly questionable. Inasmuch as the cradle of the human race was in a place where climatic conditions were ideal, yet clothes were worn in these early days, the weather motive of attire does not hold good.

According to the Torah, clothes had quite a different origin. We are informed by the Torah (Genesis, ch. 3) that when the first human beings, Adam and Eve, were created, they did not require any clothes and "were not ashamed." But after their sin with the Tree of Knowledge, "they knew that they were naked," and prepared themselves clothes to cover their bodies.

This radical change of outlook in the first human beings is explained by Maimonides (Guide, part I, ch. 2). His explanation is quoted in Chabad literature, which throws further light on the subject. Briefly it is this:

Man was created all good, without any evil in him. He had no evil inclinations nor did he know any temptation for physical pleasures. Consequently, all organs and parts of the body were equal to him, each one having to play its part in carrying out man's Divine mission on this earth. In his purity of mind, the feeling of shame was foreign to him. Just as there would be no reason for shame in teaching the Torah to someone, an act which is likened to begetting a child spiritually, so there would be no reason for shame in begetting a child physically, for here, too, man was fulfilling the Divine command of "Be fruitful and multiply." In both cases, indulgence in physical pleasure was ruled out, there being but one consideration: The fulfillment of the Divine Will.

After the sin with the Tree of Knowledge, there was born in man a consciousness of physical pleasure, of which he was not aware before when his spiritual self was absolutely predominant. Good was no longer purely good in his contaminated mind. He saw that certain parts of the body were more directly associated with the sense of physical pleasure. The exposition of those parts of the body now brought forth in him a feeling of shame on two counts: first of all, because these parts of the body were a reminder of the humiliating downfall of man into the power of lust, and secondly, because they were a source of temptation. For these reasons, man felt ashamed of his nakedness and wished to cover his body.

From this point of view, it would appear at first glance that the feeling of shame would certainly not apply to the head, the seat of the intellect, the highest possession of the human being, which distinguishes him from the lower species of animals. For is not the intellect the zenith of the entire creation?

Indeed, the man who thinks that there is nothing higher in the universe than his intellect, would consider it a contradiction to cover his head, the seat of his intellect, his pride and prized possession.

However, the man who believes in G‑d has a different conception of man's status. We know that despite man's intellectual prowess, he is a very humble being; we realize that the intellect, unfortunately, far from getting us out of the mire of temptation, often is itself influenced by it, and acts as an accessory. Even he who does not belong to this category, nevertheless experiences shame by reason of the insignificance of even the intellect in the realm of the Divine.

Consequently, not only the lower parts of the body are witnesses of man's downfall, but even the head, which houses the intellect, and perhaps more so. I say "more so," because the failure of the intellect is man's greatest failure. For while an immature child may not be fully responsible for his actions, the mature person has no excuse. So it is with regard to man's faculties themselves: the failure of the highest is the greatest failure.

The more one is conscious of one's intellectual responsibility, the greater must be one's sense of shame at failing to fulfill it. Intellect and knowledge, far from giving the Jew a sense of pride, give him a sense of humility, for they have been given to him by G‑d for higher and sacred purposes. In so far as he does not fully live up to these purposes, the average man must always be filled with a sense of shame. Even the righteous man cannot be free from a sense of shame, for, being more fully aware of the presence of G‑d, each intellectual step forward brings him closer to the realization how infinitely insignificant is his intellect in the presence of the Infinite. For "the culmination point of knowledge (in the knowledge of G‑d) is to realize that we do not know."

Thus, our covering the head always, is a demonstration of our awareness that there is something which is infinitely above our intellect, and symbolizes our humility and sense of shame in the presence of G‑d (Yirath Shomaim).

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Rabbi Shmary Brownstein For July 1, 2015

To Michael Lingard Other philosophies might indeed see things differently. However, total openness is not always the path to receiving. Sometimes a filter or a way of focusing the light is needed. This is especially true when the light is infinite, while we are finite.

In practical terms, a student cannot only be open to listen to the teacher's words, but should be in awe and reverence of the teacher. Without this awe, the student cannot be a true recipient, because he or she does not adequately esteem the teacher's words. A Jewish man's covering his head acknowledges that to know G-d we must realize our insignificance before him. Reply

Michael Lingard Kent, UK June 14, 2015

Is there not an alternative vision? With the ultimate source of enlightenment above our heads should we not be as open as possible to that and not shield ourselves figuratively with a cap or covering of any kind? Perhaps the shaving of the head of certain eastern spiritual groups sees this point. Reply

Raziela September 5, 2010

Kippah I think its a wonderful way of looking at the kippah, as a symbol that man's intellect is inferior and always subject to error.

To Michael : interesting point, hope the Rabbi's respond. Reply

Michael Cember Chicago, Il July 7, 2010

The Kippah Please indicate where in the Torah one finds the commandment to cover one's head, as I have been unable to do so.

My understanding is that, in ancient Babylonia, it was considered disrespectful to appear bareheaded infront of a social superior. Since G_d is clearly man's superior, Jews in the Babylonian exile concluded that, as a sign of respect, and since they were always in the presence of G_d, they should keep their heads covered. at all times.

Therefore, the kippah, as a symbol of Galut (Exile), and really should not be worn in Land of Israel. Reply

Thomas Dayton Dundalk, MD April 6, 2010

Size I do not think of a "hat", the same as a kippah. There is less identity recognition in a "hat". Many wear "hats". A kippah is not the same. Size though, I agree that, for the purpose of identifying one's, recognition of G-d, above them.Then it is important that it be seen. Reply

Steve Edelman Fayetteville, North Carolina April 9, 2009

The kippah choice I am 60 years old. It took until now to release that it is important to wear a kippah/yarmulkah daily. The initial reaction of others is curiosity. However, the kippah distinguishes us from others in very positive ways. The humility in G-D's presence helps prevent others from trying to subject us to proselytizing (in my opinion). It creates recognition of our commitment to a believe system. More people who live as Jews in areas where we are an extreme minority need to wear them. I believe that G-d will protect us with the view from above. Reply

Anonymous July 4, 2007

Kippah size The size of the kippah doesnt matter as long as it serves as a reminder that G-d is above you. Ideally, you should have a big head covering to serve as a more prominent reminder. Reply

Anonymous La Jolla, CA/USA October 4, 2006

size of kippa your comments please on the necessary size of the kippa? do you think bigger is better? is a hat even better? thank you! Reply

avi leb staiman TORONTO, ONT January 23, 2006

TORAH AND HEAD COVERING AND MOSHIACH According to this, when moshiach removes the curse of the earth, there will no longer be a need to wear a head covering? Reply

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