Let’s Tip Our (Plastic) Caps

This Shabbat, in Jerusalem, we will be celebrating the second day of what is called “Purim Mishulash – “Three Day Purim” in Jerusalem. Purim for practically everywhere is celebrated on the 14th of Adar which this year falls on Thursday night and Friday. Purim in Jerusalem, like in the Iranian town of Shushan, is normally celebrated on the 15th of Adar, which this year falls on Shabbat. When this happens, Purim in Jerusalem becomes a three-day extravaganza.

Without going into more details, the least we can do to relish this liturgical oddity is to inject a little bit of humor into the study of the parashah. Fortunately, recent Jewish events have proven to be perfect fodder for Purim Torah. Many of us witnessed, the rather odd behavior of one of the president’s lawyers in the recent impeachment trials. The lawyer, an observant Jew, who normally wears a kipah – a head covering, had decided that perhaps it wasn’t appropriate to be overly “Jewy” while defending the president before Congress. And so, while delivering his opening speech, whenever he wanted to take a swig from his water bottle (can anyone mark the date when it became de jure to lug down water during major speeches?), covered his head with his hand (plastic cap in hand) so that his head would not go uncovered while he took a gulp or two. This act was perfect fodder for the late-night comedians as well as for the Jewish press which sometimes doubles as comedy.

The question which arises from this historic (or is it hysteric, I often get the two words confused) event is obvious – Can a plastic cap from a water bottle serve as a secret kipah, when the normal Jewish head-covering might seem too ostentatious? You might be asking yourselves how this relates to the Parshat Titzaveh. Well, if I might wax serious for a moment, in fact, this week’s parasha lays out for us a description of the special garments worn by the kohanim – the priests while serving in the Sanctuary and so, we read the following: “And for Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics, and you shall make sashes for them, and headgear (migbaot) you shall make for them for glory and for splendor (l’khavod ul’tiferet).” (Exodus 28:40) Now, Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam) notes on this verse that the “glory and the splendor” were all in the hat: “for the headgear needed to be especially beautiful.”

It is well-known that the Jewish practice of male head-covering is an established custom (which is obviously sufficient) but was not a normative practice for the average Jew through rabbinic times (See Shaiye Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness, pp. 30-1) In rabbinic times, sages may have covered their heads but only later did this become normative practice. In part, this practice may have come to pass in order to maintain Jewish distinctiveness, but a deeper reason may also have influenced the practice. One modern Israeli posek (Halakhic decisor), Rabbi Hayim David Halevi, until his passing the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, links the practice, in his mind, to the above verse: “The emphasis of the Torah is on glory and splendor, and from here according to the Torah, head-covering is an expression of honor.” (Aseh Lekha Rav 1:27)

On a deeper level, there is something significant to this idea. From the time of the destruction of the Temple, there is a major rabbinic trend to “democratize” Jewish service to God. (See Gerson Cohen, “The Rabbinic Heritage”) And so, if it was an “elite” practice to cover one’s head, in Temple times for priests and in early rabbinic times, for sages, it is not surprising that head-covering eventually became a nearly universal practice, at the very least, for when doing Jewish ritual things as a sign of piety and reverence for God.

And so, whether the reason for covering one’s head is a matter “glory and splendor”, a sense of piety and reverence for God, or even Jewish distinctiveness, the only time a plastic bottle top might do, is on Purim. But then again, in the particular context of where our lawyer friend was wearing it, maybe the bottle top was just right.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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