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Why do orthodox Jewish men wear a kippah or skullcap?


Orthodox Jews wearing a kippah in Warsaw, Poland. Photo: Alex Proimos/Flickr/Creative Commons

Orthodox Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Photo: Alex Proimos/Flickr/Creative Commons

With Jewish groups in Europe warning Jewish men against wearing a kippah or skullcap in public for fear of attack, I was a bit curious as to why they actually wore one. There are no passages in the Old Testament requiring men to wear a cap.

After a bit of research, I discovered through Chabad.org that the tradition is based on the Talmud which is a collection of ancient Jewish writings interpreting the Old Testament Law — essentially an ancient Jewish commentary.

The Talmud tells the story about an astrologer who told a Jewish woman that her son was destined to be a thief. To prevent this from happening, the woman demanded her son wear a cap as a reminder that God was watching his every move and to remind him of God’s presence.

It even includes an incident that happened to the boy as he was sitting under a palm tree. His hat had fallen off and when a fruit fell to the ground he was strongly tempted to eat it, even though it did not belong to him.

It was then the boy realized the power of the kippah.

The practice of wearing a cap started initially with Jewish religious leaders wearing one during prayer. Centuries later it had changed from a voluntary practice to an obligatory one for all Jewish men.

To many orthodox Jews, a skullcap (others wear distinctive hats) reflects they have separated themselves from the world and failure to wear one indicates they are walking in the ways of the gentiles (Leviticus 18:3).

This story about the kippah in some ways explains Jesus’ numerous confrontations with the pharisees found in the Gospels. The pharisees were a religious order that used the Talmud and their own oral traditions (the Mishnah) as the basis for how the law should be interpreted.

They considered the Talmud and Mishnah equal in authority to the Old Testament and set up schools specifically to study the Talmud.

The pharisees’ life was controlled by hundreds of man-made rules from the Talmud or those which they created to fulfill the law. You can see an example of this in the Pharisees confrontation with Jesus recorded in Matthew:

Then some Pharisees and scribes *came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:1-3 NASV)

Notice how the pharisees accused the Lord’s disciples of breaking with the “tradition of the elders” — a reference to their own rules and regulations — not the Law.

Basically, Jesus’s disciples were not performing a ceremonial cleansing created by the pharisees to wash off any contact a Jew may have had with gentiles while in the market place purchasing bread.

By Jesus’ day, the pharisees had an elevated position in Jewish society which they achieved by working through the synagogues. They even had more influence than the priests when it came to interpreting the law.

In fact, Jesus accused them of sitting in the seat of Moses (Matthew 23:1-5) meaning they had put themselves at the same authoritative level of Moses in Jewish society.

When Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the pharisees accused the Lord of working (Matthew 12:10-11). In response, Jesus referred to their tradition that allowed a farmer to pull a sheep out of a well on the Sabbath, if it accidentally fell in.

Jesus pointed out their hypocrisy of allowing one and not another saying a man was more important than a sheep.

Several years ago, a friend of mine was visiting an orthodox Jewish family on the Sabbath. He described them as a wonderful couple that would do anything for you.

During the visit, the man’s wife approached my friend with an odd request. She wanted to use the washroom and wondered if he could turn on the light switch for her which she considered work.

He of course did it. But what she would have done if he hadn’t been there?

Like the pharisees we all have a tendency to veer down the path of legalism with our own sets of extra-Biblical rules and regulations.

I remember years ago having a discussion on smoking with a fellow Bible school student who considered it a sin. Though it is very unhealthy for you, I was not sure you could classify it as a Biblical sin.

I never smoked, and feel a person should break the habit for health reasons. Yet many Christians who do smoke feel like spiritual outcasts believing it is a sin.

Could the “smoking sin” be part of Christianity’s oral tradition?

In the end there is nothing wrong with wearing a kippah. If that boy cited in the Talmud sincerely believed it reminded him that God was watching, it served a legitimate purpose. But when others insist you must wear one, without that personal meaning it can easily veer into an outward form — religion and legalism.

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