Since the days of old it was the Jewish custom to keep the head covered at all times. Thus, the skull cap became a familiar part of the Jew's attire.

Generally, Jews take it for granted that the head should be covered when they find themselves in a holy place, such as the synagogue, or engaged in a sacred occupation, such as the study of the Torah, reciting of prayers, partaking of food1, and the like. Actually, there is not a time in the Jew's life when he is not in the presence of G‑d, nor is there any part of his life which is free from the service of G‑d.

Shortly before Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rabbi, of sainted memory, passed away, a question was submitted to him by a prominent Jewish gentleman, regarding the significance of keeping the head covered. The Rabbi's answer, later supplemented by his successor, the present Lubavitcher Rabbi, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, forms the basis of this brief explanation of the practice of covering the head.

The Rabbi of sainted memory prefaces his answer with a reference to the dictum in the Talmud, "Why was the portion of 'Shema' placed before the portion of 'And it shall come to pass, if you will diligently hearken, etc.?' Because one should first accept the yoke of the reign of Heaven and then accept the yoke of the precepts." (Berachoth, 1st Mishnah, ch. 2).

The words of the Mishnah are clear that the Jew's submission to G‑d's reign and his acceptance of the precepts must be in a manner and condition of a "yoke," needing fundamentally no intellectual explanation, but only an acknowledgment that that is the decree of G‑d's will. To be sure, Jewish scholars, sages and philosophers have written volumes on the meaning and significance of various Mitzvoth. But whatever intellectual reasons may be advanced to explain any particular Mitzvah, they are really immaterial, and by no means do they represent all the real significance of the Mitzvah; for the Mitzvah is essentially a Divine "decree" which is above reason.

In practice we see that those who observe the precepts because they are G‑d's commands, decreed by His will - fulfill them faithfully at all times, and in all places; but those who would be guided by "explanation" often fall into error, for the human intellect is limited, while the precepts are given by G‑d, whose wisdom is infinite.

The Basis of All Precepts

The prayer of Shema forms the central theme of our morning and evening prayers. The Shema consists of three chapters, taken from the Torah.

In the first portion of the Shema we proclaim the Unity of G‑d and His Sovereignty: He is One, the Creator and Lord of the Universe. At the same time we profess our complete and absolute submission to G‑d's reign, with a love that is greater and stronger than anything we possess, including our very life.

The second portion of the Shema speaks of G‑d's commands, the Mitzvoth: G‑d is the Supreme Judge, rewarding the fulfillment of His commands, and warning about eventual retribution for their non-fulfillment.

The third portion has been added for its mentioning of the Mitzvah of Tzitzis and the Liberation from Egypt.

The first two chapters of the Shema form the subject of our discussion.

Our Sages, as quoted in the Rabbi's letter, observe that the order of the first two portions of Shema is not accidental, but is logical and purposeful. It tells us, first of all, that both in the case of our submission to the reign of Heaven and our acceptance of the Mitzvoth, such submission and acceptance must be in a manner similar to a "yoke." Secondly, that the first pre-requisite of observing the precepts and practicing our religion is the acceptance of G‑d's Sovereignty with absolute resignation and submission.

In the presence of the Supreme Being we must acknowledge our intellectual incompetence. This idea is conveyed in the expression of "yoke." The analogy is not used to suggest a burden; far from it. It is used in the sense that a) the animal has no idea of what is behind its master's will, b) the animal's absolute submission; c) the yoke is the means of enabling the animal to fulfill its functions.

Our faith is based upon the Divine Revelation and presentation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. We have accepted the Torah in the spirit of "We will do" (first) and (then) "we will understand" (Naase v'nishmo). The latter word, as also in the case of "Shema," does not mean only "hear" or "obey," but also "understand." In other words, we have accepted the practice of our precepts as decrees from the Supreme Master of the Universe in the full realization that our human intellect is limited and cannot grasp the Infinite Wisdom of G‑d. We do not know, nor can we know, the full effect of performing the Mitzvoth, what they do to us and for us and to the world around us. Any explanations or significances that may be advanced or attributed to any Mitzvah must be considered as incidental and incomplete.

The scientific method is first to establish the facts and then to seek to explain them. If a satisfactory explanation is found, well and good; if not, the facts still remain valid, even if the secret of their origin has not been discovered.

It is an established fact in Jewish life and experience that where the Jewish precepts, customs, and traditions have been observed with real submission to G‑d's Wisdom and Will, in a spirit of humility and simple faith, these precepts, customs, and traditions have been preserved and perpetuated. But where they were not accepted in this spirit, and became subject to intellectual scrutiny in a reckless search for explanation, and accepted because they appealed to reason or fancy, there the very foundations of Judaism were undermined (e.g., during the religious persecutions at the time of the Crusades the Jews of Germany could not be forcibly converted; they died to sanctify G‑d’s name (“Al Kidush Hashem”). In Spain, however, where the Inquisition brought to an end a golden era of philosophy and theological research, the religious persecutions led to comparatively numerous conversions).

Moreover, our Sages say, "He who says this tradition is a fine one, and that one is not so good, discredits the Torah (and it will eventually become forgotten to him, Rashi)" (Erubin 64a). We must regard all laws with equal sanctity, for they were all given by the same Lawgiver, and they all come from the same source.

Covering the head has been strictly observed by all Jews2. It is stated in the Talmud that covering the head is associated with Yirath Shomaim (piety). The story is told of a boy who was a kleptomaniac by nature, but by virtue of keeping his head covered always and being extra careful about it, his evil nature did not assert itself. However, when the wind once blew his headgear off, he immediately became the victim of his kleptomania (Talm. B. Sabbath 156b).

One might find many symbolic inferences in the observance of the practice of covering the head, based on the abovementioned statement of our Sages that covering the head is associated with piety. For example, keeping the head covered shows and reminds us always that there is something "above" our heads, and the like. Such interpretations are useful only if, and in so far as, they help to preserve the precept, but must by no means be regarded as the reason for the precept. The basic principle in performing a Mitzvah is the realization that it is the Will and Wisdom of G‑d that we perform it.