Why do Jews put an emphasis on covering the head?
Now some Jews will say it’s a possuk in the chumash. וילך משה – Moshe went. Would Moshe walk without a hat, they say?
But actually we have to understand that there’s such a thing as etiquette. Etiquette means you should have proper manners toward Hakadosh Baruch Hu; when you go to tefilah you are told הכון לקראת אלקיך ישראל, prepare yourself to meet Hashem. You put on something better. You try to take off your soiled working clothing and try to put on something better when you want to pray. That’s why it’s the custom if you have a yarmulke so you put on a hat, you put on a jacket. You show that you respect Hakadosh Baruch Hu. That’s the etiquette. That’s the derech eretz.
Now we have national ways. The Jew is not going to yield his national ways. Just because the Lulus or because the Eskimos or the Germans have their national ways it doesn’t mean anything to us. Our national way is that we demonstrate politeness by covering the head.
Why not? What is hair? Hair is a lot of hay on top of your skull. So what’s so great about displaying your hay? You put on a hat to cover your hay.
You know, a hat means dignity. In lashon kodesh a hat is called migba’as from the word givah, a hill. It raises up your head. It makes a hill on top of your head. It means you’re taller. And in one place it’s written פארי המגבעת; it means the beauty of the hat. Kova, a hat, is the same as govah or givah, a hill. So the purpose of a hat is to make you taller. A yarmulke is also good but it doesn’t make you as tall as a hat. That’s why a hat is even better. If you put on a hat you’re showing dignity when you’re talking to Hashem.
That’s why when we bend down, we straighten ourselves by the word Hashem. It says Hashem zokef kefufim. At barchu you bend a knee. At atah you bow down. But when you say Hashem you stand up erect. Hashem zokef kefufim. At Hashem you have to be erect because you have to talk with dignity to Hashem. He doesn’t want you to cringe before Him. He wants dignity. Sometimes it’s necessary; sometimes ואנחנו כורעים ומשתחווים, we fall down on our face too. But in general Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants dignity and the dignity among Jews is covering the head. When we talk to Hakadosh Baruch Hu it’s with dignity, with a respect, and the that way we demonstrate it is in a Jewish way.
Now among let’s say, among certain savage tribes in Africa they have a different way, so what? Let’s say you’re an American airman in the air force and you have to forsake your plane in midair. It happens. Something is wrong with the plane and you have to parachute down in the wilderness. So you have instructions. You’re given instructions because you have to know how to deal with the natives, how to survive among the peoples where you’re going to fall down. Because in some places where you land if you stretch a hand to shake hands, they’re going to slaughter you immediately because that’s a sign of war.
You know in karate one of the first poses is you step forward and you grab his hand. That means you’re going to unbalance him and in one second you’ll be flying over his head to break his neck. That’s what karate is. You step forward and you put one foot like this and one foot like this so you’re balanced like a catapult and you take his hand and give him a little push to get him off balance and now he loses his weight and you give him a twist. Theoretically that’s how it’s supposed to be. It never happens that way. Don’t try it. Don’t try it. The best karate is to stay off dark streets.
But suppose you’re untutored. You’re American; you don’t know the ways of the natives. If you stretch out your hand it’s very dangerous. So in some places you have to know that. You’ll come down with your parachute among the natives and you’re sitting now on your collapsed parachute and the natives are now marching in against you. Don’t stretch out your hand! So you’re told to wave like this (the Rov made a clenched fist). That’s a sign of shalom: ‘Welcome comrade.’ You have to learn that. So it depends on the minhag hamedinah; hakol keminhag hamedinah.
So therefore are we going to say we’ll greet Hakadosh Baruch Hu with a clenched fist just because some Hottentots in Central Africa do that? Who cares what they do?
So therefore our custom is to put a hat on the head. That’s our sign of respect and therefore we wear a hat at all times. כסי ראשך – Cover your head, כי היכי דלהוי עלך אימתא דשמיא – in order you should have fear of Heaven. By covering your head it makes you think. It reminds you you’re always in the presence of the King. And you always are. You’re never out of sight. So if you keep on covering your head it will remind you about Hakadosh Baruch Hu and it will cause you to have yiras shamayim.
TAPE # 197 (December 1976)