A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear

Dear Josep,

In May of 2007 I received the following missive from you:

“Hi Dee,

Just a fast¬†question: How can I clean my kippah? ūüôā

Hugs,

Josep”

I¬†found the question pretty hilarious, given that A) I did not, at the time, own any kippot of my own, much less clean them; B)¬†Why do you even have a kippah to clean?! You’re supposed to be Catholic!!!¬†ūüėõ

So I relayed it¬†to my mom, who helpfully responded, “Vacuum cleaner? Car washing? Sandblasting?” And¬†the other converso-descended friend we were in touch with at the time responded with an equally helpful, “Tell him to toss it in the washing machine with some holy water and ‘star’ himself seven times.”

…Oh, we were an entertaining bunch, weren’t we. ūüėõ

Nine years later, I have finally given you a solution: a new one!

Yes, of course I took a picture of it for the blog before I sent it to you. What use would it have been otherwise?! :P
Yes, of course I took a picture of it for the blog before I sent it to you. What use is anything if I don’t get a blog post out of it?! ūüėõ

And in its honor I think it’s time for a post on the various things Jews wear on their heads.¬†But first:

Why Do We Wear Things on Our Heads At All?

Wearing a kippah regularly is not a Torah obligation; in fact, it’s hardly even a rabbinic obligation, except when studying Torah or praying. The Sages decreed it necessary to cover one’s head in those contexts, to encourage humility before God. But it became a very strong and virtually universal Ashkenazi custom for men to cover their heads at all times. (In some Sephardi communities, this custom was never adopted, and men only cover their heads for prayer and Torah study.) It doesn’t have to be with a kippah; it could be a hat, or a cloth, or a napkin, or a flowerpot. (Okay, I’m not sure about the flowerpot.) The point is that the head must be covered.

So what about women? First, we have to differentiate between two separate¬†issues here. There’s covering one’s¬†head, and covering one’s¬†hair. Covering our¬†heads falls under the same category as the kippah, and theoretically, we should all be obligated to cover our heads when studying Torah or praying. But since unmarried Jewish women tended not to cover their hair, the custom of covering their¬†heads¬†eventually faded, and in Ashkenazi communities it is generally not expected of young women to cover their heads in those contexts. Sephardi custom, however, maintained that women must cover their heads while praying or studying Torah¬†until very recently, when they were influenced by the Ashkenazim. The late Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (may his memory be for a blessing) tried to reestablish that custom in Sephardi girls’ schools in Israel.

So that’s¬†head covering.¬†Hair covering is a different story altogether. Most halakhic authorities maintain that married Jewish women must cover their hair as part of our customs regarding modesty. They link¬†it to a passage in the Bible, which gives it a lot more weight than the head-covering thing. I took a class on this once and it’s a very complicated issue, but in short, there is a wide variety of opinions on how much hair needs to be covered. In some old-school American Orthodox families the women do not cover their hair, but today most religious women do cover their hair to some degree. Historically, unmarried women may have covered their hair too, but today it is universally accepted that unmarried women don’t cover their hair.

Note that this is one different between Jewish women’s hair coverings and¬†the Muslim practice of wearing a¬†hijab. The¬†hijab is worn when the young woman hits puberty, regardless of whether she is married.

Okay. So now we know why. Now, let’s talk about what:

For the Gentlemen

The Kippah

Also known as a yarmulke in Yiddish, this is the little dome-shaped cap that most religious Jews wear. More than a cap to fulfill the head covering requirement mentioned above, the kippah has become a statement, a declaration that the wearer is a religious Jew. As you saw yourself, there are many different styles and types, from the crocheted ones (like your FCB one above) worn by the modern Orthodox to the black velvet ones worn by the ultra-Orthodox, from the leather ones associated with American Jews to the highly decorative embroidered caps associated with Bukharan Jews.

by Yaffa Phillips [CC BY SA 2.0]
A kippah stand, probably at the shuk in Jerusalem. Photo by Yaffa Phillips [CC BY SA 2.0]

The Black Hat

The term “black hat” has become a way to identify a certain stream of Judaism–usually ultra-Orthodox or Hassidic. It tends to be part of the black and white “uniform” worn by most ultra-Orthodox men, which reflects the clothing worn by the noble class in 17th century Poland. These come in a variety of shapes, but they are usually round with a medium-wide brim. Jewish men who wear these black hats usually wear a black velvet kippah underneath it.

jerusalem-980328_1920
A sea of black hats at the Kotel

The Shtreimel

This is the furry round hat certain streams of Hassidim wear on Shabbat and special occasions, once again based on the clothing of the nobility in 17th-century Eastern Europe.

By Boaz Gabriel Canhoto (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Boaz Gabriel Canhoto (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Other Hats

Throughout history Jewish men have worn other hats, in combination with or instead of the kippah. In America, baseball caps were popular at one point. The¬†hat worn by¬†Tevye the Milkman in the various productions of Fiddler on the Roof was typically worn by Jews¬†in¬†Eastern Europe of that time period.¬†In the Middle East and India, Jewish men wore turbans or other types of hats that were common in that area and period. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, for example, wears a special Middle Eastern-style hat. I’m not elaborating on all those here because most of them¬†were not unique to Jews, and the idea of this post is to help you recognize specifically Jewish headgear. But my friend Shimon, for example, feels that this¬†is a very Jewish hat:

Shimon in his pinstripe flat brim ocho. Photo taken by his amazing wife, photographer Mandy Detwiler
Shimon in his pinstripe flat brim ocho, and yes, those are his real payot. Photo taken by his amazing wife, photographer Mandy Detwiler; you can view more of her work on her FB page here.

For the Ladies

The Tichel/MitpaŠł•at

“Tichel” (that’s “tikhl”) is Yiddish, and “mitpaŠł•at” is Hebrew, and they both mean “scarf.” This is what I usually wear.¬†There is a wide variety of types and shapes and ways to tie them, from oblong rectangle scarves to square scarves folded into triangles to pre-sewn “apron scarves” that achieve¬†the many-layered look without requiring an obscene amount of bulk and wrapping and matching. As you can imagine, some ladies have this down to an art. See, for example, the Wrapunzel website.

The style I've been favoring lately: a single Pashmina scarf wrapped around and tied in back.
The style I’ve been favoring lately: a single Pashmina scarf wrapped around and tied in back.
Here's one from when I was feeling fancier.
Me in a fancier multi-scarf wrap.

How to tell a tichel from a hijab:

The modesty standards of Islam require that a woman cover all (or most) of her hair¬†and her neck. Judaism is more lenient than this. If you can see the woman’s neck, it’s probably a tichel. If it wraps all the way around her face and hides her neck, it’s probably a hijab.

The Sheitel

“Sheitel” is Yiddish for “wig.”

…I know. Why would you cover your hair–for modesty’s sake–with something that looks exactly like your hair?

Well,¬†frankly,¬†that’s why I don’t wear them. ūüėČ But it’s actually a lot more widespread in the ultra-Orthodox world than in the modern Orthodox one, mostly for societal reasons. You see, when the question was first asked if it was permissible to cover one’s hair with a wig, wigs didn’t really resemble natural hair.

One might argue that these things resemble nothing found in nature.
One might argue that these things resemble nothing found in nature.

Therefore it was ruled that there was no problem. As wigs became more and more realistic, the question was revisited, and most rabbis agree that covering one’s hair is a more complex question of modesty than, say, covering one’s knees; after all, if it was immodest to show one’s hair, why should it be okay for unmarried women to do so? Therefore they concluded that it’s more of a mystical issue than a practical one pertaining to modesty, and the important thing is that the natural hair be covered–even if someone looking at the woman can’t tell that that’s the case.

Furthermore, many ultra-Orthodox rabbis feel that wigs are preferable because it’s much easier for a woman to cover all of her hair with one than with a scarf. (Most modern Orthodox rabbis hold that married women can show a certain amount of hair in the front, which is why you can see some of mine in the pictures above.) They also argue that women are more likely to cover their hair if they can cover it with a wig, because¬†covering it with something else makes them stand out. And I can certainly testify that there is something to this. Every time I go back to the USA I feel more and more like an alien from outer space with my covered hair and long skirts. People are polite about it, but it draws a lot of attention, and it’s exhausting. Sheitels are much more common in the USA than they are in Israel for that reason, even among those who consider themselves modern Orthodox.

Deborah Friedman was kind enough to send me these photos of her in her sheitels. The one on the left is called a "fall", which is held in place by a headband, and the one on the right is a full wig.
This is Deborah, a friend of my in-laws’ from Denver, who was kind enough to send me these photos of her in her sheitels. The one on the left is called a “fall”, which is held in place by a headband, and the one on the right is a full wig.

Some¬†ultra-Orthodox rabbis also maintain that there is a maximum length that is permissible (usually down¬†to the woman’s chin).¬†In contrast, the¬†Lubavitcher rebbe, leader of the Chabad Hassidic stream (described here), asserted that women should wear long, luxurious wigs so they will get enjoyment out of this mitzvah and feel¬†beautiful.

The Hat

Obviously, another option for covering one’s hair would be a hat. Berets are very popular because they are comfortable and super easy to put on. Just stuff your hair in and you’re good to go. They’re what I wear when I’m in a rush and can’t be bothered with all the wrapping and hair clips and whatnot.

levys-35 (2)
Like this one

Fancier, more formal hats are also worn, but they tend to be associated with the older generation; it’s the fancy scarves that are most fashionable among young women today.

On the most casual end of the spectrum is a very curious hat known as the snood.

The only time I ever wore this in public was when traveling. You try sitting on an airplane for 11 hours with one of those multi-scarf contraptions on your head.
The only time I ever wore this in public was when traveling. You try sitting on an airplane for 11 hours with one of those multi-scarf contraptions on your head.

They may look kind of odd but they are certainly the most comfortable of all the options, especially for those of us with long hair. Many women, especially ultra-Orthodox women, choose to wear them around the house or in other casual settings.

I don’t know if your son will inherit your odd obsession with Judaism–he could end up rebelling and becoming a priest, or something ūüėõ –but for whatever it’s worth, I hope he enjoys the gift from his self-proclaimed Jewish aunt. <3

Oh, and by the way–hand wash it. With detergent. And stretch it out to dry over an upside-down bowl to help it maintain its shape. ūüėČ

Much love,

Daniella

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