By Rabbi Cal Goldberg
The subject of head coverings has been a source of confusion for many believers in the body of Messiah. As we progress through this study it will become evident that the reason why it is a source of confusion is because of a lack of understanding as to its purpose. Is there any scriptural basis for men to wear a Kippot and or a prayer shawl? What about women, should they wear a head covering? As a messianic community how should we relate to these customs and practices? Are they merely traditions? Were they simply cultural practices observed in the first century that has no relevance today? Is there any basis in scripture to support and honor these valued traditions? How should we as a messianic community relate to them?
Every culture has its own set of traditions. The word “Tradition” is a word that often stirs many different types of emotion both good and bad. The Jewish scriptures have for centuries been the foundation for Jewish life and practice and have birthed many customs and traditions that have become beautiful expressions of our faith. Traditions can hold meaning for our lives. Without them, we can lose an important link to our past and an understanding of who we are in the present.
Why is it that so many people are fearful of customs and traditions? Many fear that an emphasis on tradition can lead us away from the word of God, others are concerned that the roots of the tradition were not holy and rooted in Gods word. As Romans 11:16 tells us, “If the roots be holy so are the branches.”
Many traditions have also become a source for legalism which has all too often afflicted and divided the church and the synagogue. A famous Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) of the middle ages once gave a very insightful quote:
“Man should try to understand why he is asked to observe precepts and customs, but even when he fails to fathom the reason, he should not hastily pronounce them as trivial (Birbaum, Mishneh Toraha, Me’ilah 8)”
There have been many biblical customs and traditions that have been rooted in the word of God and have brought a richness and depth to ones faith, yet many in the body of Messiah have chosen to distance themselves from them ( i.e the Shabbat, Gods appointed times, the dietary laws, brit Milah, the mikveh, bar/bat mitzvah, messianic wedding, the mezuzah, prayer shawl, Kippot etc.)
The modern day Church has suffered a great loss by forsaking their Hebraic roots and their heritage. In times past this change came very suddenly. For example in the 4th. century, the Church of Constantinople mandated acceptance of the following profession:
“I renounce all customs, rites, legalisms, unleavened breads and feasts of lambs of the Hebrews, sacrifices, prayers, aspirations, purifications, sanctifications and propitiations and fasts and new moons, and Sabbaths and superstitions, and hymns and chants and observances and synagogues, and the food and drink of the Hebrews, in one word, I renounce absolutely everything Jewish, every law, every rite and every custom…”
Throughout the centuries there has been a steady decline and separation from the Hebraic roots of our faith. To its great ruin, the Church has lost sight of many biblical customs and events of Jewish history which are linked to the message and meaning of the Bible.
One such custom that is often challenged in a messianic community is why do men and some women wear kippots and or prayer shawls? We actually had a certain individual who once attended our congregation believe it was his mission to eliminate the Kippot from our congregation and he used 1 Corinthians 11 as a basis to support his mission.
Being part of a messianic congregation where many of our men wear a Kippot it is not uncommon for people to question whether Shaul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 justifies men wearing a Kippot or a yarmulke (a Yiddish equivalent of the word). The whole issue of women and head coverings is also addressed in this chapter. This whole issue of head coverings for men and women taught by Shaul has often been misunderstood in the body of Messiah. In this chapter does Shaul actually prohibit a man from wearing anything on his head while praying or prophesying? And what about women are they required to have a head covering when praying or prophesying? Is Shaul referring to an actual head covering for women or did he mean a women’s hair is her covering? The fact that Shaul devoted half a chapter in discussing this issue indicates that it was an important point of controversy in that day. How then should we respond to and understand what Shaul said?
A number of questions need to be addressed:
1. Was the Corinthian congregation exclusively Gentile or was there a Jewish presence in this believing community? If there was a strong Jewish presence in this congregation, was it a first century practice for men to cover their heads in the place of worship or was this only a later custom? What about the tallit (prayer shawl)? Was it customary in the first century for men to put the tallit over their head while praying?
2. If Shaul is prohibiting a man from wearing anything on his head while worshipping in prayer or prophecy, what about the priests who wore hats when they ministered in the Temple? If it was the custom and practice for a priest to wear a head covering as instructed by Adonai Himself, how could an argument from the creative order of male and female be used to forbid a head covering for men?
3. What is the terminology for “veil” or “covering”? Why is Paul concerned about a woman’s hair if he expects it to be covered? Why does he conclude his argument by stating that a woman’s hair is given to her as a covering if all along he has commanded the woman to wear a covering?
4. Was the whole issue of women and head coverings only a cultural practice that has no relevance for modern women of today. Even in some cultures today it is customary for women to cover their heads and in some cases their faces. This has created some questions and even issues in our own country with some men and women being forbidden to compete in a sports event because of their head covering. Today we live in an anything goes type of culture and in our North American culture it is not a common practice or custom for women to wear any type of head covering. How then are women to relate to what Shaul said in 1 Corinthians 11?
Was the Corinthian congregation primarily made up of Gentile believers or was there a significant Messianic Jewish presence within their congregation?
The question of whether or not there was a Jewish representation in the Corinth congregation is an important question for a number of reasons. A Jewish presence in the assembly would automatically mean that Jewish questions would be raised in any halakhah discussion. Remember the word halakhah means. “The name Halakha is derived from the Hebrew word halach הלך, meaning “to walk”, “going” or “a way of walking”; thus a literal translation does not yield “law”, but “the way to go”. Halakhah constitutes the practical application of the 613 mitzvoth “commandments” found in the Torah. It seeks to define the compass and scope of individual laws, asking under what circumstances of practical life a given rule was to be applied and what would be its consequences.”
The subject of 1 Corinthians 11 would certainly fall into this category because Jewish believers would need to understand how the torah relates to this custom or practice. One would assume that there would be Messianic Jews from their community who would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feasts and other important days, continuing to strengthen their ties with their brethren and the functioning priesthood there. Shaul’s view of the Torah was that it is Gods eternal instruction for His people ( Acts 21:24; Romans 2:13; 7:12; 1 Cor. 7:19 . If the Torah itself commanded the priests to wear a head covering, it could hardly be reasoned that men wearing something on their heads was wrong.
The history of the Corinth congregation is not completely clear but history seems to indicate there was a strong Jewish presence there. Acts 18:1-11 indicated that there was a synagogue in Corinth. Aquilla and Priscilla who were husband and wife and messianic Jews came to Corinth and ministered and reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and Greeks and many came to faith. We know that there were non-Jews in the Corinthian congregation, for their idol worshipping days are referred to in 1 Co. 12:2. It would seem unlikely that Shaul would spend three chapters teaching on this subject ( 1 Co. 8-10) on a discussion of meat offered to idols if the group he was writing to were primarily Jewish. Yet there is every indication that there was a messianic Jewish representation in the congregation. Apollos a Jew from Alexandria was one of the recognized teachers. In Acts 18:2 Aquilla and Priscilla arrived in Corinth before Shaul. In addition this epistle is full of language and themes that are Jewish in teaching:
- 1:23,24- Shaul preachers the gospel to Jews and Gentiles
- 5:7 Shaul is referring to Passover and the need to remove leaven from their homes to celebrate the Messiah as their Passover lamb.
- 7:18 Paul addresses the issue of circumcision and uncircumcision
- 9:20,21- Paul addresses the importance of preaching to the Jews as Jews and the Gentiles as Gentiles
- 10:1-6 Shaul uses Old Covenant examples to teach spiritual truths
- 10:32- “Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks of to the Congregation of God”.
- 12:13 “For by one Spirit we were all immersed into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles. “
It therefore appears that there was a strong Jewish presence in the congregation and from this we can conclude that Shaul would have taken this into account as he structured the halakhah of worship for their assembly.
What was the common practice of Jewish men in the first century synagogue worship? Was it traditional to cover their head with some type of hat or with a tallit (prayer shawl)?
If we accept the reality that there was Jewish representation in the congregation it would seem logical to ask whether or not the men would have covered their heads in worship as a matter of their Jewish tradition. We are reminded that the priests in the temple were required to wear a turban of cloth on their heads, the High Priest having an additional golden plate described as an ornament or a crown attached to the band of the miter with a cord. These priestly garments were in use during the 2nd temple period. On this fact alone it seems inconceivable that Shaul would argue on the basis of creative order that men wearing something on their heads while engaged in worship was dishonoring Adonai. 1 Co, 11: 4- “Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered dishonors his head.”
A noted scholar Murphy O’Connor supports this:
“Since Paul grew up in a tradition where priests prayed with turbans on their heads, it is impossible to imagine him being disturbed to the extent indicated by the emotional tone of this passage simply because a man prayed with something on his head.”
The tallit or prayer shawl has it roots in the Torah. It was most likely a four corned garment in which a tzitzi was attached that was the common type of outer garment worn by men at that time. The commandment of Numbers 15:37-41 instructed Israel that tassels or tzitzi be worn on the four corners of the garment. It is believed that Yeshua’s garment that the woman with the issue of blood touched was a similar garment with fringes attached (Mt. 9:20/ 14:36). Such an outer garment was large enough to cover the head (1 Kings 19:13) and in some cases carried with it the symbol of office and authority as was the case with the mantle of Elijah. 1 King 19:19.
Rabbinic sources indicate that the tallit was wrapped around the worshipper while praying. The story is told of Mordecai, who when he saw Haman coming toward him, wrapped himself in his tallit and stood before the Holy one in prayer. It has been recorded that it was the custom of holy men of God to wrap themselves in a tallit when they prayed. This could certainly be inferred from Mt. 23:5 when Yeshua rebuked the Pharisees for broadening their tephillin and enlarging the borders of their garments. These objects were used when praying, the tephillin in particular. To use a tephillin when praying was a commandment in the torah and is still practiced by many observant and messianic Jews today. Part of the tephillin is actually a type of head covering.
Another noted scholar Hurley in his book, “Did Paul require veils or the silence of women?” stated it in these terms when discussing the common four-cornered garment to which was attached the fringes:
“This garment, the tallit of the Talmud and modern Judaism, was spread as a sign of reverence over the head of a Jewish man when he prayed and over a body in the grave. The purpose was that the person might “appear white before God.” A similar understanding of purity, white garments, and reverenced may be seen throughout both Testaments.”
John Lightfoot of Home Hebraica claims that the act of covering ones head while praying had a twofold meaning ( 1) showing reverence to the Holy One and (2) to show oneself ashamed before God and unworthy to look upon Him. He basis his idea of a covering denoting shame from the Aramaic rendering in ‘Onkelos’ of the Hebrew word “with a high hand.” Onkelos has “with an uncovered head”. From this is deduced that a covered head must denote shame because you are ashamed to look towards the heavens where God resides. While the tallit was often used in prayers of repentance and sorrow, there is no indication that its primary meaning when covering the worshipper was to portray him as “ashamed.” In fact just the opposite is true. Elbogen writes in his book Jewish liturgy, a Comprehensive history writes:
“The covering of the head during prayer was related to the wearing of the tallit, which had a hood attached to it. It was understood as an expression of submissive respect for the divine majesty. It was also seen as the privilege of a free man that he could remain with covered head. It is Israel’s privilege to participate in the revelation of the King of Kings (that is the Shema) sitting comfortably with covered head, while the servants of earthly powers must hear all royal proclamations bareheaded in fear and trembling.”
To suggest that Shaul prohibits men from worshipping with heads covered because now, as the redeemed of Messiah, they no longer need to be ashamed, is to miss the point. From a Jewish perspective, prayer is an invitation to communion with the King and the tallit allows private communion if desired within the context of congregational worship. Rabbinic sources take the common view that covering ones head while praying, whether with a hat, Kippot or tallit, is a sign of respect to God in whose presence the congregation has gathered. The Talmud gives this viewpoint:
“Rav Huna did not walk four amot bareheaded, he would say, The Shechinah is above my head.” Cover your head so that reverence for God be upon you.”
In addition, as far as the Talmud is concerned, it would have been the norm for a person, reciting the Shema, to cover his head with the tallit.
Therefore there appears to be sufficient evidence to suggest that covering the head while praying was not uncommon for men in the early centuries of the Common Era. Though it was not stated as New Covenant Halacha it was considered a common practice by Jews in their places of prayer and worship to be common enough to be considered a traditional practice. As such, we should attempt to see how Paul’s instructions in 1 Co. 11:2-16 can be understood in light of the Jewish segment of the Corinth Congregation and the traditions that they practiced.
What then was the apostle Paul referring to when he spoke of head coverings in 1 Co. 11? Why did Shaul use terminology such as “veil” or covering” in 1 Co. 11:2-16?
These terms used in these passages have universally be translated by such words and phrases as “having something on the head”, “uncovered”, “covered”, “veil”, “head covering.” How are we to understand these terms?
Vs. 4 says, “Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head.” The CJB says, “Every man who prays or prophesies wearing something down over his head brings shame to his head.” And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame to her head. There is no difference between her and the woman who has had her head shaved.”
The common interpretation of this passage is that Paul is speaking of something that is actually covering the head. However, if we have already demonstrated that a man having a covering on his head was a common practice then what was Paul referring to here?
In Lev. 13:45 it describes one of the signs which publicly show a leper to be unclean was loosed or long hair. His hair was to be shaved and his head bald during his time of uncleanness. The Hebrew word used here is the same word used in 1 Co. 11:5 rendered, “uncovered” by most translations.
The Talmud actually uses the same Hebrew term to describe long hair on a priest was forbidden under penatly of death. “ (Ta’an 17b). The Mishnah clearly teaches that it was forbidden for a woman to be in a public place with her hair down. In fact, this could be used as grounds for divorce:
“And these are they that are divorced without their marriage settlement: she who transgresses the Torah of Moses and Jewish custom.. And what is here meant by Jewish custom? If she goes forth with her hair loose.”
In addition a shorn woman ( a woman whose hair has been cut short) was despised, since the cutting of the hair was considered a sign of uncleanness. In a Mishnah concerning the annulling of vows, the right of a husband for his wife, we read:
“But concerning the cutting off the hair in uncleanness he may nullify, because he may say, I have no pleasure in an untidy woman. Rabbi says, He may absolve even in the cause concerning the cutting off the hair in cleanness, since he may say, I have no delight in a shorn woman.” M. Nazir 4.5
In Numbers 5:18 For a woman accused of adultery, the Torah commands, uncover her head” meaning cut her hair off.
In the Jewish culture a woman with hair kept up on her head was a sign that she was married and under the authority of her husband who is her head. Letting her hair down in the water ritual of the sin of adultery marked her as indecent in her relationship of marriage. If she was found to be innocent, her hair would again be allowed to grow upon her head as a sign of her head being covered.
Another statement in the Mishnah supports this cultural custom. In a section dealing with marriage settlements, the dispute of whether a woman was wed as a virgin or not is settled by consideration of her hair as she was carried to the ceremony.
“If a woman became a widow or was divorced and says, “Thou hast wed me as a virgin, and he says, not so, but I wedded the when thou was a widow. If there be witnesses that she had gone forth in the virginal bridal litter and with the hair of her head was loose, her marriage settlement is two hundred.” m.Kethubot 2.1
Hair that was loose and not tied up marked an unmarried woman. Conversely, a married woman who maintained her hair, was braided upon her head was a sign of her position as a wife in the community. The Talmud records the testimony of a pious mother of two priests who confessed that “the beams of my house have never seen my bared head.”
The thinking of the pious women of that day was: “If it is wrong to go out in the street with ones hair loosened, then the fence around the Torah would always be to always have ones hair up in braids. “
Based on many of these references there is a strong basis to suggest that what Paul was speaking of in this entire passage is hair and not head coverings. Therefore 1 Co. 11:5 that says,” every women who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same if her head was shaved.” The same word is used in Lev. 13:45 for hair that is let down, dishonors the woman. A woman with her hair upon her head, is a symbol of the authority she has a married woman. The head of the woman is her husband.
In like manner a man is not allowed to have long hair, whether hanging loose or braided. Vs. 7. A man shall not cover his head since he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man.” In pagan culture, long hair on a man was a sure mark of sexual deviancy. Samson Nazerite vow of not cutting his hair was an exception.
That Paul has hair length on his mind is evident from these passages. In vs. 6 he contrasts the woman who has her hair loose, with the woman who has her head shaved. If loose hair was in the Jewish culture of that day a public announcement of virginity and a statement of availability, while at the same time a woman whose head was shaved was one who was for some reason or another dishonorable.
Vs. 14 puts the idea of a man’s long hair in contrast with a woman whose hair is let loose, both of which are undesirable. Vs. 15 however, suggests that a woman’s long hair, when braided up on her head, functions for her in the place of a cloth for covering. It is very possible that Paul’s concern in this passage is how men and women wore their hair in public and how the hair styles described something about their culture.
Vs. 15 seems to support this argument that hair is a women’s covering. “If a woman has long hair it is a glory to her for her hair is given to her as a covering.”
This is in contrast to vs. 14 that says, “Does not nature itself teach, you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?”
In summary then, there seems to be conclusive evidence that Paul is referring to hair in this portion of scripture and not specific head coverings. There are a number of points to consider.
- Paul uses vs. 4, 14 as a contrast to the man who is forbidden to have long hair.
- He contrasts a women’s hair with being shorn or cut. There is only one opposite of having shorn hair that is to have long hair. Covering a shorn head does not negate it being shorn.
The CJB uses the term veiled but it is not found in the original translations of this passage of scripture. Nowhere in the passage is any word used for a material veil or head-dress, except in vs. 15 where the woman’s hair is said to be given in the place of an item of dress. If a piece of cloth or veil is what Paul had in mind , one would expect him to use a term that was more clear and specific.
In conclusion, Shaul is not referring to head coverings in this passage. Therefore he was not requiring the congregation at Corinth to abandon the Jewish tradition for men to cover their heads, when praying. He was however reinforcing a Jewish perspective on the husband wife relationship in which the wife is to receive a position of authority in he community by virtue of her marriage relationship. Paul was also stressing the importance of marking the distinction between male and female and the God-given roles each is to perform within the believing community. In the Jewish society of that day these distinctions were marked in some measure by how one wore his or her hair.
While it was the custom and practice in that day for men to use a prayer shawl when they prayed, there was no such custom of wearing a Kippot. This was a later tradition that was adopted in the 12th. Century. If we understand that Shaul was not referring to a specific hair covering for men, then there is no conflict with messianic believers wearing a Kippot or a prayer shawl in a worship service. It was also a custom and the culture of that day for women to wear scarf’s to cover their head but this does not seem to be what Shaul is referring to in this passage of scripture.
We live in a different culture today that does not look upon woman in these terms. There are women today with long and short hair, even some who have shaved their heads. The length of hair in our culture does not reflect any particular biblical customs. In like manner if a woman would choose to wear a scarf during prayer or at any time in the worship service there is freedom to do so but it is not commanded in the scriptures. If women are to adhere to what Shaul says in 1 Corinthians 11 then it would seem to indicate that longer hair is the preferred practice one should adopt. However, Shaul concludes his position with the following statement:
“But if anyone seems to be contentious we have no such custom nor do the Congregations of God.” vs.16
(Primary Source: Tim Hegg- First Fruits of Zion)