Wearing a Kippa on One’s Head
Question: Is one halachically obligated to wear a Kippa (skullcap) on one’s head?
Answer: The Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) relates that Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua would take care not to walk four Amot(approximately six feet) without a head covering, for he would say, “Hashem’s Divine presence is above my head.” The holy Zohar states that one should not walk four Amot with one’s head uncovered, for the light of Hashem’s Divine presence rest above one’s head and infuses one with life.
It seems from the Gemara though that Rav Huna’s behavior was not in accordance with the letter of the law and was merely an act of piety, for the Gemara does not instruct all individuals to behave this way. Indeed, the Orchot Chaim (Hilchot Tefillah, Chapter 48) quotes Maharam of Rottenberg (one of the great Rishonim and teacher of Rabbeinu Asher bar Yechiel) as saying that according to the letter of the law, there is no prohibition to walk around bare-headed and when the Gemara relates the incident regarding Rav Huna, this is meant to illustrate pious behavior. Other great Rishonim rule likewise.
Nevertheless, the Turei Zahav writes that nowadays, there is a complete prohibition to walk around without a head covering, for since the custom of non-Jews is to remove their hats when seated (or at least that was their custom in his times), this constitutes the prohibition of “You shall follow their tenets.”
On the other hand, Maran Ha’Bet Yosef quotes the opinion of Rabbeinu Yosef Cologne that the prohibition regarding following non-Jews tenets applies only in one of two instances: The first instance is if this custom is based on an unknown tenet which has no apparent reason behind it in which case if one follows this custom, it will seem that one is certainly doing so in order to follow their ways and agree to them since there is no basis for it and one is doing so merely to emulate them. Alternatively, if the non-Jewish custom is practiced for an immoral or vulgar reason, this prohibition likewise applies. The Rama quotes the words of Rabbeinu Yosef Cologne as Halacha. Based on this opinion, it would appear that the words of the Turei Zahav are not necessarily accepted as Halacha, for one who walks around without wearing a Kippa would seem to do so for reasons such as heat, fatigue, and the like and not as a baseless tenet without a reason. Just because this is a non-Jewish practice, this does not necessarily mean that it becomes forbidden for Jews to behave the same way.
Similarly, we have mentioned in a Halacha published before the holiday of Shavuot that the great Gaon of Vilna would prohibit placing tree branches in the synagogue for the Shavuot holiday, for the non-Jews likewise adorn their homes and houses of worship with branches and trees during their holidays. We have explained that Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that the words Gaon of Vilna here are in tandem with his opinion that the prohibition of following non-Jewish tenets applies to all non-Jewish customs. However, according to Rabbeinu Yosef Cologne and many other Poskim, this prohibition only applies to customs which non-Jews observe as a “tenet,” i.e. without basis or reasoning.
Regarding our situation as well, it seems that walking around with one’s head uncovered does not constitute the prohibition of following the path of non-Jews and is merely a pious behavior as mentioned by the Talmud and the holy Zohar.
Nevertheless, Maran zt”l writes that nowadays, wearing a Kippa is more than just a pious custom, for it is well-known that non-religious people who have rid themselves of the yoke of Torah and Mitzvah observance walk around. The Kippa on one’s head serves as a clear symbol to distinguish between one who serves Hashem and one who does not, for Torah-observant Jews take care to always walk around with their heads covered and the Kippa has become a religious symbol which causes one to be imbued with fear of Heaven. Thus, if one walks around bare-headed in a place where most Torah-observant Jews customarily wear a Kippa, there is concern that people will suspect him of shirking the yoke of Heaven. It therefore seems that nowadays, the practice of wearing a Kippa is more than just a pious measure and one who does so has certainly avoided concern of raising the unwarranted suspicion of those around him.
In the following Halacha we shall, G-d-willing, discuss the law regarding wearing a Kippa while at the beach and the like.