Vayetzei : the lessons of Jacob’s hat

Many years ago an older colleague explained to me the origin of religious Jews covering their heads with this remark – “It comes from parashat Vayetzei, where we are told ‘Vayetzei Yaakov – Jacob went out’ – you don’t think he went out without a hat do you?

It isn’t exactly a joke, nor of course is it a real proof-text for a religious behaviour. But it does shine a light onto a process that we often disregard – the bridge between biblical text and religious expression.

First let me get out of the way the reality that the practise of covering the head – either at all times, or during prayer, or during prayer and study of torah – does not come from parashat vayetzei, though its history and origin is somewhat mysterious and there is no actual mitzvah to do this – it is custom and practise rather than commandment

Mishnah Sanhedrin, chapter ten, includes the teaching “These have no share in the World to Come: (Olam haBa): One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah.”

Now this is interesting. Nowhere in fact does Torah teach of the physical resurrection of the dead. The closest texts are Isaiah 26:19 (Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, You who dwell in the dust!— For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the shades come to life.) and Daniel 12:2 “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence”

Yet from these poetic and figurative expressions comes, by the early Talmudic period, the rabbinic idea not only that physical resurrection is possible, but that anyone who does not believe in it forfeits their place in the world to come. The idea is also embedded in the Amidah prayer,in the gevurot blessing, which references the power of God to give life to the dead six times in a fairly short blessing, and which was probably written early in the 1st century BCE.

Another maxim from the same colleague – the more answers rabbinic tradition gives to a question, the more we know that there is no single answer to the question and each response is an attempt to make sense of a problem. So when we see the idea of God giving life to the dead six times in one blessing we can see the determination that this must become authoritative belief, leading us to see that at the point the amidah was written, it clearly was not yet a stable principle of faith.

So when we look at the mishna Sanhedrin 10:1 again, we see that it is an interpolation into an otherwise strictly legal text. It is demanding that three principles are mandatory, the red lines of the argument. Phrased in a way that says “all Jews achieve olam haba except Jews doing these three things” reads to me rather like the apocryphal note in the margin of a sermon – “argument weak, shout louder”.

The principle of belief in the dead living once more is ambiguous – is this something that will only happen at the end of days? Is it physical resurrection? Is it the continuation of the self, the soul? Is it something we can nuance – that the dead live on in our memories, in our actions, that the actions they did while living are impactful after their death?

It is the later part of the statement that has caused many more problems for us – What do we mean when we say that Torah is from heaven (min hashamayim)? What did the rabbis of the mishnah mean by it?

This idea has proved to be one of the most difficult and controversial ones of rabbinic Judaism.  While Maimonides coded the idea into his thirteen principles of faith, which have become de rigeur for a section of the Jewish world  – the eighth principle is “ I believe by complete faith that the whole Torah now found in our hands was the exact same one given to Moses, may peace rest upon him.”

But what does this mean? What did Maimonides mean by “Torah” or by “given to Moses”  It is unlikely that he meant that God literally dictated the entire text of the five books of Moses to Moses at Sinai.

Maimonides was a product of his time.  The time in which he lived was a time when Christians, Muslims and Karaite Jews were all challenging the Jewish world, his thirteen principles were a formulation to argue against people saying that the Jews had altered torah to exclude references to their religions, and against the idea that Torah could be added to and rewritten.

Each of us are products of our time. Each of us swim in a sea of habit and shared assumptions we barely notice, and a sea of change and challenge we notice all too easily and which either cause us to retreat behind the assumptions we cannot see to challenge, or to venture out and have to deal with the dissonance.

Most Jews think that covering the head with kippah or streimel, cap or bowler hat – is a religious act mandated from Torah. It is not. It does not appear in Talmud either except in one comment in tractate Kiddushin which also suggests that one should not walk fully upright – both of them referring to an awareness of the glory of God in the world of which we should be in awe at all times, and another in tractate Shabbat that suggests that covering the head /being aware of the presence of God – might have a tangible effect on behaviour.

Head covering seems to have come about as a response to the world around us, where covering or uncovering the head showed respect to a greater power. Indeed when I was young I often saw people doffing their cap in the presence of those they perceived to be their social superiors, or removing hats as a funeral cortege passed by. Why do Jews put a hat on when the rest of the world takes it off? Davka. Why do we think the custom has the force of law – because we are used to it, we no longer notice its origin in social constructs.  The same is true when we try to distort the concept of torah min hashamayim. Torah from God – mediated through human beings – this was the standard understanding until Maimonides forced the issue into one of orthodox belief, putting people inside or outside Judaism.

Jacob went out – and of course he put on his hat. But the question today is – would any of the many different streams of the orthodox world recognise him as being part of the community of Klal Yisrael?  Would they see a Jew under that hat?



Vayetzei: Jacob throws his hat into the ring and sets the scene for some mad hattery

Many years ago I heard that the mitzvah of Jewish men covering their heads came from this sidra Vayetzei. “But where in Vayetzei does the text speak of headcoverings?” I asked. The response was both humorous and instructive. I was told “It begins “Vayetzei Yaakov” “And Jacob went out”. And surely he would not go out without wearing a hat”

Now it might cause a groan, but it also shows up a few different ways of treating text in Jewish tradition. Firstly the need to find a biblical source to underpin a cherished practise – in this case head covering for which there is no such explicit source. Secondly the willingness to read back into the text in order to root an established view. Thirdly the willingness to use whatever it takes to make a point,

In bible, the only people mandated to wear a head covering were the priests when they were ministering in the Temple – the high priest wore a mitznefet, a kind of mitre, and the ordinary priests a migba’at, which is often translated as a turban. By Talmudic times it was clearly an option for men to cover their heads, though women were less free not to do so (“Men sometimes cover their heads and sometimes not; but women’s hair is always covered, and children are always bareheaded.” Nedarim 30b). Children were also not always bare headed – there is a story in Tractate Shabbat about R. Nachman b Isaac whose mother was told by astrologers, Your son will be a thief. [So] she did not let him [be] bareheaded, saying to him, ‘Cover your head so that the fear of heaven may be upon you, and pray [for mercy]’.

The story is about Israel not being governed by astrological forces; instead we make our own choices, and so R Nachman’s mother made him cover his head to remind him of the authority that is located in the heavens (ie wearing a kippah would remind him always of God and so he would not behave badly), but there is a twist in the tale. Because she had not made explicit the reason for his wearing kippah, it had no effect on his behaviour. “One day he was sitting and studying under a palm tree; temptation overcame him, he climbed up and bit off a cluster [of dates] with his teeth” (Shabbat 156b)

Head covering today has become de rigueur for religious Jews. While there is not only no biblical source, there is not even a consensus from the medieval commentators and codifiers as to when and where it is appropriate or necessary to wear kippah, and yet – Jacob went out, and he must have been wearing a hat.

The headcovering in modern times is a signal to others of Jewish status, and a badge that declares the political and denominational attachments of the wearer. The language of head coverings is almost as complex and nuanced as the old fashioned language of flowers. Do you wear a kippah nearer the front or nearer the back of the head? Is it suede or crocheted, satin or velvet or cotton? Is it large or small? Decorated or plain? Black or with colours? Do you use obvious hairpins or Velcro? Do you wear a hat over your kippah? A baseball cap? A streimel? People will know from these small differences if you are a Zionist, a yeshiva bochur, traditional religious, frum, progressive, chareidi….. They will be able to tell whether you are from old school traditions, or follow a more modern line. Your kippah will pigeon hole you in the Jewish world quicker than your accent will betray your class in the UK.

And then of course there is the modern phenomenon of people wearing their allegiances not so much in the coded way of material/size/colour/placement – we now have the rise of the kippah decorated in the colours of the football team of your choice, with their crest and logo, with the name of the team worked around the edge. This version of wearing the heart on the sleeve leads to some pretty robust conversations between young men as they scorn the team whose colours and brand is worn with pride by their friend.

The covering of the head, so unnecessary in biblical times except for the active priesthood, but taken up by some in Talmudic times as an act of piety and in order to remind the wearer of the presence of God, to inculcate a sense of ‘yirat shamayim/ awe of heaven’ has become not so much a prop for spiritual awareness as a prop to advertise to others something less than spiritual. Be it adherence to a particularly introverted and orthodox sect or to show a particularly secular passion for team sports, it now functions as a flag of identity.

There used to be an advert in the UK in the 1930’s which famously stated “if you want to get ahead, get a hat” It was written by Charles Sydney Catlin, who had apparently showed this statement mocked up as a poster in a job interview. He didn’t get the job, but somehow his slogan found its way into the world of headgear advertising, and he used the story as a reminder of the importance of safeguarding one’s work.

The story resonates with the story of headcoverings in Judaism. Just as the really important reason for wearing kippah is as a reminder to the self of context in the world, that there is a Divine presence who sees everything and notices everything – yet it has become a way of signalling one’s identity to others, and the awe of heaven is often far from the consciousness of the regular kippah wearer, so the cleverness of the slogan and its focus on appropriate head gear in order to ‘fit in’ has overlaid the history of the man whose work was taken from him without credit.

We see the surface, we forget the deeper meanings and truths that the surface is pointing to. We signal to others about our affiliations and forget to signal to ourselves the one important affiliation – to fulfil the covenantal relationship with the ever living God.

kippot serugot