The headdress (migbatt) of the kohanim is to be “for glory and beauty.” In fact, the headgear itself bore the name pe’er (beauty). Such a headdress raises a man. Likewise, a man with an uncovered head is like one in rags and half-dressed, and is accordingly forbidden to recite the Shema, to officiate as reader, to read aloud from the Torah, or to recite the name of God with due dignity.
The Midrash contrasts the attitude of Moshe in hiding his face before the Shechinah at the burning bush with that of Nadab and Abihu, who looked on with uncovered heads; the one showing reverence and awe, the others, insolence.
Halacha has therefore consistently equated bareheadness with light-mindedness and frivolity, and hence forbids it. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught that “a man ought not to walk four cubits in an erect position, which suggests overbearing pride, ignoring God’s omnipresence.” Rav Huna, the son of Joshua, refused to take so much as a single step without having his head covered, for he said that “The Shechinah is above my head.”
Going with one’s head uncovered is considered k’chukos hagoyim, the ways of the nations. By covering our heads, we are distinctly identified as Jews.The yarmulkeis not merely an article of identification, it is a statement of Jewish piety, demonstrating awareness that we stand beneath something so much greater than ourselves, greater than our intellect, our creativity and even our desire.
The yarmulke symbolizes our humility in the presence of God. The yarmulke reminds us of our ongoing and ever-present duties and responsibilities, and of the significance of individual actions and words.
* * * Each morning we recite, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who crowns Israel with Glory”in recognition of the glory and pride associated with being a Jew.
An examination of the many berachot recited by the Jew each morning reveals that in only two of the blessings is Israel mentioned specifically by name – Ozer Yisrael b’gvurah (Who girds Israel with strength) and Oter Yisrael b’tifarah (Who crowns Israel with glory.)
Belt and headgear: both have significance for the Jewish people. To the non-Jew, the belt is worn for both comfort and power. To the Jew, it has a deeper significance that speaks to our attachment to God and our deep moral strength. Similarly, non-Jews cover their heads to protect themselves from the elements. Jews cover their heads because of yirat Shamayim.
The belt divides the upper half of the body – the source of the spiritual and intellectual faculties – from the lower – the regions for performing physical and sensual functions. We wear a belt “that the heart should not see the nakedness of the organs of sensuality.” A belt prevents impure thoughts from entering the mind. The precept to wear a belt serves to strengthen our control over our sensual desires. So we thank God for the strength with which He guides Israel. Such strength, gevurah, is strength that comes from self-control.
This notion of subordinating our sensual nature to our intellectual or spiritual nature finds its greatest expression in the covering of the head. “To crown” expresses the honor that comes with such head covering. “Thou shalt be a crown of honor in the hand of God” (Isaiah 3:3).
The yarmulke, in one simple piece of cloth, reminds us constantly of the essential beauty and duality of our lives; to wear our glory humbly before God.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran, serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.