Under the Big Top

With apologies for the delay in sending this out…

Since parshas Eikev teaches that “all Hashem wants from us is to fear Him,” it is an opportune time to discuss:

Under the Big Top

skullcap“Why do some people wear big yarmulkes that cover their entire head?”

“How large must my yarmulke be?”

“Is there a halachic difference between going bareheaded indoors versus outdoors?”

“Why don’t we clip a waterproof yarmulke to our heads while we swim?”

“May one swear an oath, using G-d’s Name, while bareheaded?”


All of the above questions concern the laws regarding covering one’s head and walking bareheaded, a topic mentioned several times in the Gemara. For example:

“Rabbi Huna, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, did not walk four amos (about seven feet) with an uncovered head, saying ‘The Shechinah is above my head’” (Kiddushin 31a). Similarly, the Gemara says elsewhere that Rabbi Huna the son of Rabbi Yehoshua said about himself “I will be rewarded, because I never walked four amos with an uncovered head” (Shabbos 118b).

“Ravina was sitting in front of Rav Yirmiyah of Difti, when a man passed by and did not cover his head. Ravina said to Rav Yirmiyah of Difti, ‘How arrogant is this man (for walking bareheaded in the presence of Torah scholars)?’ Rav Yirmiyah responded, ‘Perhaps he comes from the town of Mechasya, where the people are so familiar with talmidei chachamim (that in their presence the townspeople do not cover their heads)” (Kiddushin 33a).

“An astrologer told the mother of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak: ‘Your son will be a thief.’ To avoid this from happening, she made sure that his head was always covered, and cautioned him: ‘Cover your head, so that you will always be in fear of Heaven and always pray for Divine assistance in serving Hashem.’ Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak was unaware of the reason behind her instructions, but always followed them meticulously, from his youth and on into adulthood, when he became a great Torah scholar. One day, he was studying Torah under a date palm that was not his, when his head covering fell off. Raising his eyes, he saw the dates, and his yetzer hora overwhelmed him. It was so powerful that he snapped off dates with his teeth, thus fulfilling the prophecy of the astrologer” (Shabbos 156b).

Mesechta Sofrim, which is a collection of beraisos, or halachic teachings of the tanna’im not included in the Mishnah, quotes a dispute whether someone whose head is uncovered may lead the services by being poreis al shema, which means to recite kaddish and borchu that follow the pesukei dezimra. (There are various opinions as to how much of the prayer is included in poreis al shema, a topic beyond the scope of this article.) The first opinion, mentioned anonymously, permits someone bareheaded to lead the services, whereas the second opinion prohibits doing so, because one may not say Hashem’s name with an uncovered head (Sofrim 14:15). In a dispute of this nature, the general rule is that we follow the first opinion, although, in this particular dispute, we find authorities who rule according to the second opinion.

The Rambam about being bareheaded

The Rambam prohibits praying the shemoneh esrei bareheaded (Hilchos Tefillah 5:5), and he also states that it is appropriate for a talmid chacham to cover his head at all times (Hilchos Dei’os 5:6). Thus, in the dispute of Mesechta Sofrim quoted above, he follows the first opinion.

Interpreting the Talmudic sources

Based on the above sources, most, but not all, halachic authorities contend that, in Talmudic times, covering one’s head was performed on special occasions, such as when praying, reciting blessings, and in the presence of a Torah scholar, but was not always otherwise observed (Tur, Orach Chayim 8, as explained by Darkei Moshe; Shu”t Maharshal #72; Gra on Orach Chayim 8:2). These rulings imply that someone other than a talmid chacham is not required to cover his head, except when davening. As we will soon see, most authorities conclude that, today, one is required to cover one’s head, because of reasons that did not apply in the time of the Gemara.

A minority opinion

We must note that one prominent late authority, Rav Shlomo Kluger, understands the Talmudic sources in a different way. He contends that, even in earlier times, it was forbidden to leave one’s head completely uncovered. In his opinion, the passages that imply that a person may go bareheaded are, in fact, allowing him to have his head partially covered. (Shu”t Ha’elef Lecha Shlomo #3). I will soon explain the practical ramifications of this dispute.

Protecting from sin

According to all opinions, covering one’s head helps achieve yiras shamayim, being in constant recognition and awe of G-d’s presence, as borne out by the anecdote of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak that I quoted above. Let us understand this story in its context, which concerns the topic of ein mazal leYisroel.

Ein mazal leYisroel

Hashem set up the world in such a way that the events that transpire in one’s life, and even one’s personality and tendencies, are influenced by one’s mazal. However, because of the principle of ein mazal leYisroel, one can override this preordained fortune through prayer. Recognizing that Hashem is The Source of all, and praying to Him for help and assistance, can change one’s situation.

We now understand what Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak’s mother did. The astrologer understood the mazalos and knew that her son was born under a mazal that would influence him to steal. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak’s mother knew that although mazalos have a strong influence on a person, their power is not absolute. Therefore, she understood, correctly, that the astrologer’s diagnosis presented her with a reason to treat her son in a special way. Since prayer and being careful about mitzvah observance can offset the influence of mazalos, this is what she taught him, knowing that covering one’s head provides a strong influence. She was proven correct, because her son developed into a great Torah scholar and yarei shamayim, despite the influences of his personal mazalos. Still, only when he remained on guard and kept his head covered was he able to combat his tremendous drive to steal. The moment his head became uncovered, the temptation to steal overwhelmed him. He now knew that, in spite of his tremendous accomplishments in ruchniyus, he could not relax his guard, even for a second. We also understand why the custom developed that people cover their heads at all times, even though the Gemara did not require it.

Responsum of the Maharshal

With this background, we can understand the following responsum, penned by the sixteenth-century halachic luminary, Rav Shlomo Luria, known as the Maharshal. “I am unaware of a prohibition to recite a brocha without a cover on one’s head, although the Terumas Hadeshen was certain that it is prohibited to mention G-d’s Name without one’s head being covered, I am unaware of the source of this ruling. He writes that it is a dispute in Mesechta Sofrim, and, furthermore, Rabbeinu Yerucham writes that it is prohibited to recite a brocha bareheaded. Even though I do not dispute the earlier authorities unless I find a major scholar on my side of the dispute, I am inclined to be lenient in ruling that one may recite a brocha and even recite keri’as shema bareheaded. I can prove this from a Midrash Rabbah that states that a human king requires people to rise and uncover their heads in respect, prior to reading a declaration that he has issued, which they then read with great awe and trepidation. Hakadosh Baruch Hu told the Jews that when you read My declaration, the shema, you are not required to stand while doing so, nor are you required to expose your heads.” The Maharshal notes that this midrash implies that uncovering one’s head while reciting shema is not required, and it is certainly not prohibited.

The Maharshal continues: “Despite my own proofs to the contrary, what can I do that people consider being bareheaded to be prohibited? However, I am astonished at the custom of treating uncovering one’s head as a prohibited activity, even when not praying, and I have no idea where they got this from, since the only source that we find about having one’s head uncovered is regarding a woman, and it is only a midas chasidus (exemplary conduct) to be careful not to walk four amos bareheaded — but this midas chasidus applies only to walking four amos and not one who walks for a shorter distance, as is implied by the statement of Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua… . Furthermore, I found written that being bareheaded is a concern only when one is outdoors… . Avoiding reciting G-d’s Name with an exposed head is a midas chasidus, just as is avoiding walking four amos bareheaded. However, the Rif wrote that we should protest someone’s entering a shul bareheaded, and the Tur wrote that one should not pray bareheaded, but did not prohibit reciting shema bareheaded.”

The Maharshal then concludes: “I am powerless to change this approach. Since people are in the practice of not being bareheaded anywhere, I may not be lenient in their presence. I heard of a talmid chacham who used to study Torah bareheaded, saying that the covering bothered him. Nevertheless, although, technically, there is nothing wrong with being bareheaded, provided one is not saying G-d’s Name, even from a perspective of exemplary conduct (midas chasidus), nevertheless, a talmid chacham should be careful not to do this, since people may think that he is not serious about his observance of Torah and mitzvos. Therefore, a talmid chacham should not study Torah bareheaded, even in the privacy of his own home, lest someone see him and, as a result, treat him without the proper respect he is due.”

In his conclusion, the Maharshal rules that a talmid chacham is required to cover his head. He also contends that one may recite a brocha by placing his hand over his head, despite the rule that one part of the body cannot cover another part (see Brachos 24b and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 74:1). The Maharshal reasons that since, in his opinion, halacha does not require one to cover one’s head when saying Hashem’s Name, and the reason one needs to cover his head is only so that people not consider him to be someone who does not take the Torah seriously, it is sufficient to place one’s hand over one’s head to fulfill this concern.

Other authorities

Although the Gra (on Orach Chayim 8:2) echoes the Maharshal’s approach to the subject at hand, other early poskim follow a more stringent approach. The Terumas Hadeshen (1:10), the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 91:3, 4) and the Rema (Orach Chayim 74:2) rule that it is prohibited to say Hashem’s Name bareheaded, following the second opinion of Mesechta Sofrim. As a result, they conclude that a person may not recite a brocha with only his hand on top of his head, although the Shulchan Aruch permits reciting a brocha with someone else’s hand covering your head. As I will explain shortly, the Taz agrees that one may not recite a brocha with only one’s hand on top of his head, but he permits standing or walking four amos with one’s hand on top of his head.

The Bach (comments to Tur Orach Chayim, Chapter 2) takes issue with a different lenient ruling of the Maharshal, contending that it is forbidden to walk even less than four amos bareheaded.

The Taz’s approach

Although the Maharshal concluded that the only reason one should not go bareheaded is because people will look at him askance, the Taz (Orach Chayim 8:3) concludes that, in our day, it is halachically prohibited to be bareheaded. In his opinion, since the gentiles of the western world are meticulous to uncover their heads upon entering a building, being bareheaded violates the law of bechukoseihem lo seileichu (Vayikra 18:3), one may not follow the practices of the gentiles. This lo saaseh of the Torah is often called chukos akum. There are many opinions among the rishonim and the poskim as to the exact definition of what is included under chukos akum. The Taz explains that since the gentiles consider it unacceptable to have one’s head covered indoors, uncovering one’s head violates this prohibition.

Thus, according to the Taz, there are two different reasons to have one’s head covered: to encourage one’s yiras shamayim, and because of chukos akum. Placing one’s hand over one’s head is sufficient to avoid chukos akum, since this shows that one does not want to sit bareheaded, but it is not sufficient to allow one to recite a brocha.

Bareheaded indoors

Based on the Maharshal, the Be’er Heiteiv (Orach Chayim 2:6) rules that, under extenuating circumstances, one is permitted to have one’s head exposed while indoors.  However, the Bechor Shor (Shabbos 118b) opposes this ruling, contending that having one’s head exposed indoors is a more serious violation of chukos akum than outdoors, since the practice of the gentiles is deliberately to be bareheaded indoors.

At this point, we can refer to one of our original questions: “Is there a halachic difference between going bareheaded indoors versus outdoors?”

According to the Maharshal and the Be’er Heiteiv, although, under normal circumstances, one should cover one’s head in both venues, walking bareheaded outdoors is of greater concern. Under extenuating circumstances, the Be’er Heiteiv permitted walking indoors bareheaded. However, the Bechor Shor considers walking bareheaded indoors to be a bigger violation of halacha, since it violates chukos akum, whereas walking outdoors with one’s head exposed violates only the minhag Yisroel.


Although Rav Moshe Feinstein rules according to the Taz that one is required to cover one’s head whether indoors or outdoors, he concludes that when one’s employment or livelihood may be jeopardized, it is permitted to work bareheaded. This lenient ruling applies only while someone is at his place of work, but once he leaves his place of employment, he must cover his head, since his livelihood is no longer jeopardized (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:1 and 4:2; Choshen Mishpat 1:93). (Those interested in seeing two very different approaches to this question are encouraged to compare Shu”t Nachalas Binyamin #30 and Shu”t Melamed Leho’il, Yoreh Deah, #56.)

Different gentiles

Some authorities note that the Taz’s reason should apply only in western countries and other places where the gentiles have a specific practice to uncover their heads. However, in places where the gentiles have no such concerns, such as in Moslem countries, there is no prohibition of chukos akum in leaving one’s head uncovered (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:1). It may still be prohibited because of Jewish custom.

Swearing bareheaded

At this point, let us examine one of our opening questions: “May one swear an oath, using G-d’s Name, while bareheaded?” Is it not forbidden to recite Hashem’s Name with one’s head uncovered?

This question returns us to the dispute in Mesechta Sofrim that I quoted earlier, whether one may recite Hashem’s Name bareheaded. According to the Rambam, the Gra and the other halachic authorities who rule like the first tanna, there is nothing technically wrong with reciting Hashem’s Name bareheaded. Even among those authorities, such as the Terumas Hadeshen (1:10), who rule like the second tanna who prohibits enunciating Hashem’s Name bareheaded, many, including the Terumas Hadeshen himself (2:203), rule that one may recite an oath bareheaded. For example, the Beis Lechem Yehudah (Yoreh Deah 157:5) rules that, when no other option exists, it is permitted to swear an oath while bareheaded.

Under the big top

At this point, we can examine two of our opening questions:

“Why do some people where big yarmulkes that cover their entire head?”

“How large must my yarmulke be?”

In the above-quoted responsum of Rav Shlomo Kluger, he ruled that one is required to cover one’s head completely when walking outdoors four amos or more. When walking less than this distance, or when walking indoors, one must cover one’s head, but it does not need to be covered completely. This explains why some people wear big yarmulkes that cover their entire head.

However, this ruling is not universally accepted. Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked how can people walk in the street wearing only a yarmulke, when Rav Shlomoh Kluger required covering one’s entire head? Rav Moshe demonstrates that all the major authorities disagreed with Rav Kluger’s ruling. Rav Moshe concludes that even a small yarmulke meets the halachic requirements, but that individuals who would like to follow the more stringent opinion of Rav Kluger as regards walking outside  should cover their heads in a way that covers more than half the top of the head.

Swimming bareheaded

Previously, I quoted the following question: “Why don’t we clip a waterproof yarmulke to our heads while we swim?”

One of the authorities mentioned above, the Bechor Shor, rules that there is no requirement to cover your head while swimming or while walking from the changing room to the mikveh, not even as a midas chasidus. He demonstrates from passages of the Gemara that midas chasidus does not include covering your head in the mikveh, and also notes that swimming bareheaded does not violate chukas akum, since it is obvious that the uncovered head is not because one is trying to mimic gentile practice.


We see from the halachic sources that covering one’s head was a highly respected practice that assisted a person’s growth in yiras shamayim. With time, covering one’s head became part of the “uniform” of the Jewish man. In addition, there are other halachic reasons to keep one’s head covered, such as chukos akum. When donning a yarmulke or other head covering, one should avail himself of the opportunity to think about our Father in Heaven.