The prophet Amos proclaimed, “Prepare yourself to meet your G‑d, O Israel.”1 The rabbis explain this to mean that one should make preparations before praying, including preparing special garments, as if one were meeting an important dignitary.

Additionally, prayer nowadays takes the place of the offerings on the altar in the Holy Temple. Just as the priests who brought the offerings wore special uniforms, so should we pray in special clothing. This is one of the many reasons why we2 wear a tallit during prayer.3

But why is there a widespread custom to specifically cover one’s head with the tallit during (the morning4 ) prayers? Yes, the halachah is to wrap oneself—including one’s head—with the tallit while putting it on, but why is the custom to continue wearing it over the head for the duration of the prayers?

To add to the question, why is it that, in many Ashkenazic communities, only men who are married or who have been married cover their heads with a tallit while praying?

An Act of Humility

The basic reason for covering the head with the tallit is that it imparts an extra sense of humility that there is a G‑d above, thus bringing about an awe of heaven.5

Additionally, the Zohar says that one should cover his head, including the eyes, with a tallit during prayer so he doesn't look at the Shechinah.6 Some explain this to refer to obscuring your side vision, but not truly covering the actual eyes.7

Two Coverings

Aside from the reasons mentioned above, many are careful to pray with two head coverings, such as a hat or tallit over their kippah.

As mentioned above, prayer nowadays is in the place of the services performed in the Holy Temple. In the Talmud, we find that the high priest actually wore two head coverings—a kippah and a turban—when serving in the Holy Temple.8 Accordingly, it is appropriate to mirror the high priest by wearing a hat (or tallit) over a kippah.9

Additionally,10 the Midrash points out that the soul is referred to by five names: nefesh (soul), ruach (spirit), neshamah (breath), chayah (life) and yechidah (singularity).11

The Kabbalists explain that these five names are actually five different levels of the soul. Nefesh is the life-force of the physical self; ruach is the emotional self and “personality”; neshamah is the intellectual self; chayah is the supra-rational self—the seat of will, desire, commitment and faith; and yechidah is the essence of the soul as it is united with its source, the singular essence of G‑d.

While the lower three levels of the soul function from within the body, the higher two, chayah and yechidah, function from above. The Kabbalists explain that wearing a double head covering reflects these two loftier levels of the soul. By connecting these two transcendent elements of the soul with a physical act, we help reveal them in this lowly physical world.12

When to Wear the Tallit Over the Head

According to most opinions, the tallit is meant to be worn over the head for the duration of the prayers.13 Even those who aren’t careful to do so for the entire prayers are careful to do so during the Shema and Amidah, as well as the communal responses such as Barechu and Kedushah.

No Tallit Covering for the Never Married

Interestingly, although most Ashkenazic communities have the custom to wait until marriage to don a tallit (see Why some Ashkenazim Start Wearing a Tallit After Marriage), those who do wear the tallit before marriage14 don’t wear it over their head (but wear their hats).

This is based on the Talmudic statement that it was not the custom for those who weren’t married yet to wear a sudra (cloth) over their heads.15

Many explain this to mean that in Talmudic times, unmarried men would not cover their heads with a tallit. Based on this, many Ashkenazim have the custom not to cover their heads with their tallit before marriage.16

For a young, single man to wear a tallit over his head would thus be presumptuous, the opposite of the humility it is meant to achieve.