I am often asked a question: “Why do Jewish men cover their heads during prayer?” Those who pose this question sometimes assume that Paul’s discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:1-6 stipulates that I should take off my yarmulke (Hebrew כִּפָּה; kippah). While I can offer a number of explanations for my yarmulke based on traditional Jewish practice, I would also like to propose an alternative reading of the pertinent 1 Corinthians passage.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul states, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you because you… hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you… Messiah is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Messiah. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head.” (1 Cor 11:1-5 NASB).

In this passage, Paul states that the Corinthians should imitate him, just as he imitates the Messiah. Paul praises his Corinthian congregants for continuing in “traditions” (παραδόσεις; paradoseis – literally, “something handed down”). Next, Paul discusses these very traditions (cf. 11:16). For Paul, Messiah is the “head” of every male and males are the “heads” of females. By “head” (κεφαλὴ; kefale or, in Hebrew, רֹאשׁ; rosh) Paul refers to a leader who is in a position of authority. Paul bases his logic on the creation story in Genesis, and he emphasizes a respect for the chain of authority that begins with God.

While it may come as a surprise, there is actually nothing in these verses about wearing (or not wearing) items on one’s head. Paul declares, “every man while praying or prophesying having [something] over his head (κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων) disgraces his head” (1 Cor 11:4). Is wearing a Yarmulke during prayer really against Paul’s teaching? No, not at all. Yarmulke is a Yiddish word that comes from two Aramaic terms “to fear/ tremble” (יָרֵא; yarei) and “king/ ruler” (מַלְכָּא; malka). Jewish men cover their heads in recognition of God’s authority; that is, as a symbolic presentation of the way they “fear the one who rules over all”. Since Paul stresses the importance of having God as one’s ultimate authority, as well as the value of traditions, the apostle would have encouraged the wearing of a yarmulke, provided that the Messiah remained at the center of one’s life and faith.

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149 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry, but I find your explanation illogical. Paul's statement sounds clear: every man with something over his head is disgracing the Lord. Every woman without her head covered is disgracing the Lord. So says Paul, who, though a great theologian, was nonetheless still just a man, and subject to some of the prejudices of his day. All men are not the heads of all women; it was not the case then, and it is not the case now. In Genesis, God created men and women in His own image: "Male and female created He them." No indication before the Fall that the female is in any way inherently subordinate to the male.

    Would Paul have dared to say such a thing to the wife of an emperor? I sincerely doubt it. Then there is the question of whether Paul really wrote such a phrase, or was it a later addition to the New Testament inserted by someone long after Paul was dead and gone? In other places in Paul's writings, "In Christ there is not male nor female, slave nor free.." In other words, in Christ, all are equal. Therefore, head coverings on the basis of gender should not be an issue for Christians.

    Jesus wore a tallit, we can be quite sure of that, and while praying covered his head with it as was the Jewish custom, to represent humility and repentance. Women probably also covered their heads during worship, and perhaps all the time by custom; but nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus make any remarks as to what to wear on one's head, or what not to wear. But Jesus said to John at the time of his baptism "We must fulfill all righteousness;" which, although not directly connected with his immersion by John, would include pulling his tallit over his head to pray if he really meant "ALL righteousness," which would include all of Leviticus plus later accepted customs deemed to be holy.

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    • I think we need be careful of an overinterpretation of "neither male nor female" as we may easily get it out of context. In Christ, no dissimulation because that is a spiritual reality and so we'll even be in heaven. But what about our physical reality on this side of eternity, as man is spirit, soul and body? There is still gender difference, otherwise we'll be inadvertently legitimising the mentality of fluidity of sexuality that satan is using to decimate our societies.
      Besides, have you read 1 Corinthians 11: 1-16 again to realise that "woman" in that passage is actually referring to the married and NOT all females? Check please

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    • There is always a dilemma for moderns when it comes to understanding the Scriptures, because we are given to imposing our personal world view upon the narrative. The persuasive interpretation that a Hebrew scholar or an Early Church historian can bring to bear in a discussion such as this either convinces us or challenges us. We struggle because we know that only Jesus was faultless, and the disciples and apostles (Paul included) made mistakes. However, there can be something that we all can agree upon. At the time that the epistles were written, and continuing until the modern era, it could be assumed that both men and women would dress modestly and with respect for the sacred when they were in a Church. The atmosphere of a Church was for all who entered a bit like walking into another world... where shafts of light poured down upon darkened stone floors, large candles flickered upon an altar and golden vessels glinted visible. The fragrance and smoke of incense rising to the sound of choirs chanting and bells tingling all added to the unique aura of the space that was holy, holy, holy. It was never a question of women being treated unfairly or men covering or uncovering their heads. It was for both men and women a time when in the presence of the living God, they would humble themselves in adoration and worship.

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    • Hi Johanna -- I certainly agree with the jist of what you're saying -- just a few comments:

      "Then there is the question of whether Paul really wrote such a phrase, or was it a later addition to the New Testament inserted by someone long after Paul was dead and gone?" Would you ask that question if thge passage was favorable to women. In other places in Paul’s writings, “In Christ there is not male nor female, slave nor free..” In other words, in Christ, all are equal. Therefore, head coverings on the basis of gender should not be an issue for Christians."

      To question what Paul really wrote is a statement that is difficult to throw into a case making point.
      Biblical inspiration has been well covered throughout the ages by way of the original languages and scholarly compilation of data -- several thousand documents covering the NT alone -- one has to consider whether statements like this are true, for example, John 14:26:
      "But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you."

      John 16:12-14:
      "12 I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. 13 However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and He will declare to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify Me by taking from what is Mine and disclosing it to you."
      So, surely we should consider the exegesis, because the Bible answers itself, as well as the assembly of ancient documents.
      Yes, certainly in Jesus all are equal but while we are still in the curse that's a position that doesn't seem to garner a lot of respect. Yet I agree with you -- even if the world doesn't behave spiritually it doesn't mean you shouldn't be true to what you know is exegetically without doubt.

      "But Jesus said to John at the time of his baptism “We must fulfill all righteousness;” which, although not directly connected with his immersion by John." It is actually connected to John's work and well as attracting the Israelites.

      no physical rites can coakes the Holy Spirit (John 3:8) to come to anyone -- only faith in Jesus can summon the Spirit. So when non-Jews, 2000 years later talk the righteousness in Matt. 3:15, it doesn't make sense.
      However, John 1:30-33 tells us exactly why Jesus was baptized:

      30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit."
    • Joanna, I think you want to believe what you want to believe. Scripture must be wrong if it disagrees with you. Put the covering over your head, for you do not honor the authority of Paul, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God.

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  2. After all those years, even reading the original sounds like listening to a two thousand years old piano. The instrument is still the same but sounds different.
  3. You don't tie in why this passage wouldn't refer to head coverings, which a yarmulke is of course. You just say "Not at all", referring to it not being a problem. Please explain more.
    • Paul speaks of not wearing anything that represents an authority other than God's authority over us. This is what Yarmulke actually represents.
  4. I'm still confused about the "something" that would disgrace a man's head. Do you have a link to something that addresses this exact expression more clearly? If not a Kippah, then what was disgraceful?
  5. Now I am even more confused:
    What was Paul saying men must wear over their heads whn praying or prophesying?
    What was Paul saying men must not wear over thir heads?
    What must women likewise wear ór not wear over thir heads?
    • I am not dogmatic about this, and I will oversimplify this for the purpose of answering the questions just as you asked them, but here is one way of reading this:
      What was Paul saying men must wear over their heads when praying or prophesying? - Authority of Christ whose is in submission to the Father.
      What was Paul saying men must not wear over their heads? Authority of anyone else but Christ and God
      What must women likewise wear ór not wear over their heads? Authority of men, who wear the Authority of Christ who in turn submits to the Father
  6. If it is as you say, then what meant apostle Paul by saying to men to not put something on their heads? What would they put on their heads that could disgrace their heads?
    • A symbol of authority (leadership/rule) that belongs to anyone else but the Messiah would be an example of something which would dishonor a man's head (leadership)

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    • I am a Christian, and I am researching because although I am nor Jewish, I feel that the Kippah is important. My question for you is simple: do you think it would be wrong or disrespectful for a Christian male to wear a Kippah if it's not meant as a trend or disrespect, but rather ss something that a Christian might agree with the Jewish?
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