Torah Observant

Kippah and Tallit
A Series of "Practical Messianic Living (halakhah)"

By Rabbi Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy
(Note: all quotations are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., unless otherwise noted)

"If the New Testament commands men not to pray with their head covered, why do Jewish men wear yarmulkes? In fact, I've even seen them cover their heads with their prayer shawl as well. How do you explain this?"

This is such a common question of non-Jewish believers to Messianic Jews, that I felt it deserved some attention here. The verses that many Christians are referring to are found in 1 Corinthians chapter 11. The verse taken at face value seems to prohibit head coverings for men, while at the same time, admonishes women to cover theirs. By the way, before we get into the answer posed above, if today's average believer would use a little logic here, we should have women in churches all over covering their heads. But the fact that we don’t goes to show that the verse cannot be taken at face value alone. It demands a deeper interpretation, else, we Jews are not the only ones violating Scripture, many believers are as well.

First of all, what exactly does the Torah say about the yarmulke, which I'll call a "kippah" from here on out (the name "kippah" comes from the Hebrew word for "covering")?

Now I must admit that, in my opinion, using the tallit to "shield the face during public prayer" is questionable. I’ve heard from my other rabbi associates that this is a "prayer closet", which creates privacy. It is true; it does create a sense of privacy, during those public prayer times when personal privacy with HaShem is desired. But in my opinion two important aspects need to be examined.
  1. Was the teaching of Rav Sha’ul addressing a specific issue regarding the tallit?
  2. Should modern Messianic Rabbis be open to the sensitivities of non-Jewish believers, in messianic congregations, during public prayer?
The first answer, according to most scholars, is "no". The issue was in regards to a first century custom (one that we are apparently no longer familiar with) that involved crossing and confusing the roles between men and women in social Messianic gatherings (examine the entire context of the chapter and verse in question). Judaism has never confused the tallit with a veil. It (the tallit) simply does not function that way. In fact, to exercise a lesson in logic, when Moshe veiled his face in the TaNaKH period (Exodus 34:29-35), the Scriptures don’t record the people confusing his veil with a tallit! Perhaps the different functions of the two separate articles of clothing were rather obvious to them. Why do we confuse the issue today?

The second answer is a very big "yes". If our personal use of the prayer shawl during public prayer meetings causes a "little one" to stumble, then shame on us rabbis (or other Jewish men)! It would be better if we would just bow our head and close our eyes like everyone else, than to interrupt someone’s focus by our strange behavior. I don’t mean foregoing Gentile education of Jewish sancta, what I mean is, we should not be so wrapped up (pardon the pun) in our (Jewish or Christian, for that matter) traditions that we miss one of the main points of prayer—communion with the Almighty!

(For more on the "shomer mitzvot" series, read the next issue!)