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.