On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Jewish Law Question: Kippahs & Sheitels... to cover or not to cover?

Covering your hair is one of the most difficult things for Ba'al Teshuvas to deal with.  As the only real exterior manifestation or sign of our new found choices, it makes a bold statement about our faith and observance.

For men, the kippah is like wearing a big sign saying “Jew Here!” For me it was hardest Jewish law to take on.

For women, both hats and wigs can be uncomfortable and equally as challenging considering the emphasis that must women place on their hair.

Before I go onto my helpful hints on how to incorporate hair coverings into your life, I want to take a few moments to discuss the laws of hair covering. For men over the age of 13, it is forbidden to walk a few steps without their heads covered.  A kippah, hat or even a toupee does the job. That being said, other than in the shower, a Jewish man’s hair should ideally covered at all times. For women, the requirement to cover ones hair starts at marriage, and just like men, there are no circumstances other than bathing or in her bedroom alone with her husband that a woman is permitted to uncover their hair.  For women, there are different opinions regarding how much of their hair can be exposed. I'm not an expert on the subject and you should contact a competent orthodox rabbi for explanations.  If you don't have someone to speak to, let me know and I'll find you someone well versed on the subject.  Maybe I’ll even have someone write an article to post.

That's the ideal... As anything else with BTs, it takes time to incorporate these things in our life and it’s often easier to do it in steps.  Here are some levels that may be helpful to start incorporating hair coverings into your life.

Level 1 - Around the house: Whether you live alone, with your spouse or with other family, displaying your new headgear around the house is an easy way to start.  Keep in mind that you don’t need to wear a purple satin kippah from the 1980s.  There are plenty of nice plain black kippahs out there.  If that’s too much, start with a baseball hat.  Sports hats displaying Philadelphia teams are the best, but I may have a personal bias.  The same goes for women.  You don’t have to wear a wig.  Hats or scarves are fine.

Level 2 – Among the tribe: When you’re at the home of or at an event for religious Jews, it’s also very conducive to cover up.  First of all… you’re not the only one doing it.  Second, nobody is judging you or even looking at you funny.  I never understood why some people keep their heads covered in synagogue, but when they go to someone’s home for Shabbas lunch, the hair gets bared.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not judging them.  I just think that they’re missing an easy opportunity to score some mitzvah points and save their shortcomings for a more difficult challenge.

Level 3 – Out and about: When you’re running errands or are in social settings, seems like the next logical step.  When you’re at the supermarket or Home Depot, nobody really pays that much attention to what someone is or isn’t wearing on their head.

Level 4 – A New Beginning: If you’re going on vacation or taking a new job, it’s another good opportunity to sport the new look.  The people you’re meeting don’t know that you just started wearing it and won’t question it.  Thank G-d, America is such a welcoming society, that diversity is expected and appreciated in most settings.  Of course, if you’re vacationing in Syria, it may not be the best time to start wearing a kippah.  That being said, vacationing in Syria may not be the best idea either.

Level 5 – In familiar territory: Maybe it’s because I’m a man, but I think that women have an advantage in the more uncomfortable situations.  Any half decent wig isn’t going to make people take a second glance, but a man walking around with a “Yid lid” is pretty unmistakable.  For me and, I think, for most people, this is the toughest area.  To go around old friends or old co-workers, especially non religious or non Jewish was the emotionally brutal.  This is where you’re going to draw the most attention and questions.  It’s so hard that I knew a guy who let is beard grow in to a good six inches or so to be stringent in the area of shaving, but still wasn’t wearing a kippah at his job.  One day I was visiting him and we were discussing it in front of a few of his non Jewish co-workers.  I jokingly said to him in a whisper loud enough for everyone to hear “They all know you’re Jewish.”  We all had a good laugh, including the non-Jewish co-workers and he told me later that he started to wear a kippah at work from that time onward.

For me, Level 5 was extremely hard.  Among old friends, I still wear a hat on the rare occasion that I meet someone for a drink.  I also find myself avoiding situations where I know I would feel comfortable walking in with a kippah and decorum won’t allow me to wear a hat.  It took a Jewish co-worker in my office, who wasn’t as observant as I was, to start wearing a kippah first at work to give the guts to join in afterwards.  My co-worker took his kippah off within a couple weeks, but from the time mine went on at work, it’s never came off in any setting.

On a lighter note, the good news is that a kippahs cover up any male pattern baldness that may be surfacing which is a huge advantage.  You may be saying… what do I do if my hair starts receding from the front?  My answer is simple… get a black hat.  J


  1. As an unmarried woman, I'm not as well-versed in the hair-covering laws as I eventually will be. However, I know enough that there are many opinions different than what you've said for women. Most women I know (yes, even wives of rabbis and rabbinical students) uncover their hair when in their own homes, even if non-family women are present. Not non-family men, however. I live in a "just plain orthodox"/MO machmir community.

  2. Skylar,

    Thank you so much for commenting. Other people have emailed me or facebooked me questions and comments, but you're the first to actually post it on the blog.

    The Rabbis say that when the sage Reish Lakish died, his former mentor and study parter, Rabbi Yochanon could never replace him. He said that when he would say over a point in Jewish law, Reish Lakish would question him many times. Questioning is the only way to derive at the truth.

    In regards to your comment, let's discuss 3 possibillities.

    1. I should have been clearer that women can also uncover their hair among other women when they are getting their hair or sheitel styled or even showing different hats or hair coverings to female friends.

    2. Maybe I'm wrong. I don't know a source for married women keeping their hair uncovered as a usual practice at home, but perhaps there is one out there that I dont know about. If you find a source for this, I'd love to hear what it is. I'll also do some research on my end.

    3. Perhaps the people who do this mistakeningly believe that there's a source out there or, being human, this is an area that they're not doing in the most proper way. Supposidly, the wife of the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's wife kept her hair uncovered around her home, even when other men would visit. Some people use this as their source for their behavior. As I understand it, there was no basis for this and covering her hair at home was simply a level that she was not up to. Rabbi Berel Wein says that you cant judge Judiasm by Jews. I dont know the answer to this question, but I'm sure the people you refer to are rightous Jewish women no matter how this discussion turns out.

    Thanks again for the feedback.

  3. First of all kippah wearing has no biblical basis; it is not mandatory. It is a strong minhag (custom) adopted by many Jewish communities. Would I encourage kippah wearing? Yes.

    As to married women covering their hair. There is debate as to whether the practice is d'raisa (biblical law) or dat yehudit (based on community standards of modesty). Even if one were to assume that that hair covering is mandatory, there is debate as to whether it is mandatory in her own home, no matter who is present. (See what Tosafot says on Ketubot 72b)

    Although I cover my hair in my own home at all times when men are present, I know many frum women that uncover theirs no matter who is present when they enter their own home. To say "they are just not on that level yet," would be condescending, since they have whom to rely on.

  4. Rachel,

    Thanks for the comments.

    What makes you say that headcoverings (kippahs) for men aren't mandatory? Do you have a source?

    While you are correct, the commentaries to the Gemara allow women to uncover their hair at home (thank you for pointing this out) the implication seems to be home with her family to. Interpreting that to mean that it's ok for a woman to uncover her hair no matter who is visiting may be a stretch. If you know of any opinions that are more specific to this case, please share them.