Of Popes And Yarmulkes


zucchetto_skullcapBy Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Last month, Pope Benedict XVI met with Nancy Pelosi, the first time someone from the Vatican met with an elected U.S. official since the Obama administration took over. The occasion was marked by a strange incident. It was an extremely windy day, and the pope had lost his yarmulke.

Well actually, it is not technically considered to be a yarmulke. Rather, it is called a “zucchetto,” which literally means “skullcap” in Italian. The reasons why the popes and cardinals wear them are actually quite different from why Jewish people wear yarmulkes. The zucchetto is worn because it has been a Christian tradition for clergymen to wear them since the dawn of the 13th century.

This custom developed because of extremely cold weather. It seems that, based on a verse in the Christian bible, it is considered unbecoming for a Christian to wear long hair. Christian clergymen would shave their heads bald to fulfill this verse (the haircut resembled typical male pattern baldness and was called a tonsure).

At the same time, the traditional cape and hood that everyone wore (called the cope) had lost its hood due to new fashion design. The zucchetto was created to warm up the clergymen, now mostly bald, in the cold and windblown cathedrals. It seems that people who entered the cathedral did not all enter at one time. The doors were quite large, and every time they were opened the clergymen would experience a blast of cold air. The cathedrals had no central heating system (nor any heating system at all). The zucchetto was clearly a direct result of bitter cold.

The yarmulke, on the other hand, brings one to fear of Heaven, according to the Talmud (see Shabbos, 156b and 118b). The Shechinah, G-d’s presence, is above us all, and the yarmulke reminds us constantly of G-d’s presence. The Sefer Chassidim writes that it also develops the trait of humility within its wearer. Although the quote of Rav Huna found in the Talmud (Shabbos 118a) seems to indicate that in Talmudic times only the very pious made sure never to walk four cubits with their head uncovered, it has since developed into a custom that all the people observe.

]]Well, firstly there is a very important debate between the Maharshal and the TaZ with which we must familiarize ourselves. The Maharshal (72) writes that wearing a yarmulke is only a midas chassidus, a pious act. The Taz, however, writes (Orech Chaim 8:3) that the reason walking four amos (seven feet, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein) without a yarmulke is forbidden is that gentiles used to do this; as a sign of honor, they would take off their hats (as in “How do you do, Madam?”). This is a violation of “U’bechukoseihem lo seileichu-do not walk in their ways.” Rav Moshe Feinstein has a responsum (O.C. 1:1 and 4:2) that this TaZ is no longer halachically applicable, since nowadays gentiles walk bareheaded all the time. Rav Moshe Stern, z’l, better known as the Debreciner Rav, writes (Be’er Moshe 8:40) that the opinion of the TaZ is still applicable nowadays.

So, according to the TaZ (at least according to the Debreciner), there would be a prohibition involved in walking seven feet without the blown-off yarmulke. According to the other opinions, there would not be.

There is another issue, however. Nowadays it has perhaps become the accepted norm in K’lal Yisrael to wear a yarmulke. This may change the ruling, in that a new minhag might have been established. Indeed, the minhag may have made things more stringent, in that it would apply even to walking less than four cubits and perhaps even to sitting or standing without a yarmulke (see Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 13, No. 12). This, however, would depend upon the custom in the particular locale under discussion. Boro Park and Williamsburg might be different than Rome.

It should be noted that Sephardim, as a general rule, follow the opinion of the Maharshal and not the TaZ in this regard. They are therefore more lenient than Ashkenazim when it comes to the wearing of the yarmulke.

There are other issues with regard to the yarmulke, as well. Even if one is standing still, if he is in a beis ha’knesses he must wear a yarmulke or other head-covering. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch in Orech Chaim (151:6).

If it was not the pope but the chief rabbi who lost his head-covering, the odds are that he is in a shul. On the other hand, since he is speaking to Nancy Pelosi, the odds are that he is not in a shul. However, even if one is not in a shul but is speaking words of Torah, then he must have his head covered. This is the ruling as seen in the Mishnah Berurah (2:12). Since our theoretical person is the chief rabbi and not the pope, the odds are that he is speaking words of Torah. On the other hand, since our theoretical person is speaking to Nancy Pelosi, the odds are that he is not speaking Torah. If he does wish to speak words of Torah and his yarmulke blew away, he may place his sleeve over his head and then speak words of Torah while he retrieves his yarmulke. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (see O.C. 91:4). But he may not use his bare hand (see Mishnah Berurah, 71:4). He may, however, use someone else’s hand (but not Nancy Pelosi’s).

The author can be contacted by e-mail at yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

[Larry Gordon’s Five Towns Jewish Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}