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The Power and Responsibility of the Kippah

This past week, I received the following voice message, “Hello. My name is ________. I live in Oceanside. I was driving on Long Beach Road yesterday when I saw one of your parishioners crossing Long Beach Road with a yarmulka and a tallis and I was mortified because of what’s going on in the world today. I felt as if this man is flaunting that he’s Jewish. I’m Jewish and I felt very embarrassed that he was marching through the streets like that to get home and I think that maybe people needed to be reminded why the police has to be around temples these days to protect us as Jews and I don’t think that it’s right that this person was marching through the streets like that.”

This local Jewish woman was embarrassed that one of my parishioners had the audacity to wear a yarmulka/kippah and tallit in the streets of Oceanside with the rise an antisemitism in this country. First of all, I would imagine that the parishioner was simply being halachically stringent by not even carrying in a community with an eruv on Shabbat. As such, I don’t think that he was flaunting that he was Jewish. But to be honest, I wouldn’t have a problem if he was walking through the streets of Oceanside as a proud Jew proudly publicly identifying as an Orthodox Jew. Yes, we have a responsibility to protect our synagogues from those who wish to do us harm. Should we be embarrassed, though, to publicly promote our commitment to Orthodox Judaism? Absolutely not. On the contrary, we are making a kiddush Hashem when we wear our Shabbat clothing and our identifiably Orthodox Jewish clothing on Shabbat. We sanctify God’s Name by refusing to be intimidated into hiding our Judaism and we sanctify God’s Name by publicly displaying our commitment to Shabbat, both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

This voicemail reminded me of someone else who was critical about an Orthodox Jew wearing a kippah in public. Rav Hershel Schachter recently wrote an article about the recent increase in Orthodox Jews striving to become professional sports players who will play on Shabbat. Even if they rent a hotel room close to the stadium where the game will be played to avoid taking transportation to the games, Rav Schachter argued that they would still violate the obligation of kibbud and oneg Shabbat, literally “honoring” and “enjoying” Shabbat. He wrote:

Kibbud v’oneg requires of us that we dress, speak, and act in a Shabbos-dik manner, in a way indicating that Shabbos is a very holy day. Wearing bigdei Shabbos (Shabbos clothes) is extremely important in this regard. Dressing in sports clothing to play a professional sport for which a person is salaried is clearly a violation of kibbud and oneg. The violation of Shabbos is on several levels that are independent of each other: a) bigdei Shabbos; b) he’s being salaried; c) the activity itself is not Shabbos-dik. We were given the gift of Shabbos to recharge our spiritual batteries!

An Orthodox young man who says that he will be wearing his yarmulka and will be playing professional sports on Shabbos will not be making a kiddush Hashem at all. If anything, this will constitute a chillul Hashem b’rabim; it probably would be better if he would not wear the yarmulka.”

Let me be clear. The pressure for someone striving to be a professional athlete to not observe Shabbat at all must be tremendous. The fact that there are individuals who are passionate, committed self-defined Orthodox Jews who observe Shabbat according to a particular standard is something that is worthy of praise. After all, who knows if we would follow that standard if we were in their situation? Additionally, once the professional athlete decides to wear a kippah in public, it is an opportunity to act as an ethical and upstanding self-defined Orthodox Jew in public. However, we cannot ignore the fact that observance of grey areas of halacha, such as Shabbat, is very challenging for the Modern Orthodox community. Kibbud and oneg Shabbat, however they are defined, are not customs, but they are firm halachic obligations.

As such, I can be inspired by someone’s religious journey even if I disagree with his halachic conclusions. Additionally, I can understand why Rav Schachter believes that a professional sports player who plays on Shabbat should not wear a kippah because doing so may confuse the message of the importance of observing kibbud and oneg Shabbat, not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law on Shabbat, as well.

The kippah is a fascinating Jewish garment. It seems to have come into practice originally as a custom for especially pious individuals (see Masechet Kiddushin 31a and Masechet Shabbat 156b). The implication of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 2:6) is that even though men should wear a kippah, wearing one is only a midat chassidut (an act of piety). Nevertheless, the kippah carries with it tremendous religious significance. It signifies to the public that the wearer is halachically observant regarding both interpersonal and ritual mitzvot. If someone wears a kippah and acts unethically, then it is an act of chillul Hashem, because people will associate orthodox Judaism with this behavior. The same thing is true when it comes to Shabbat observance.

I do agree with the person who left me a voicemail this past week that wearing a kippah in public carries with it much responsibility. I just disagree with her conclusion. Publicly wearing a kippah and a tallit demonstrates to our society that we proudly promote halachic observance as Orthodox Jews. We must not allow the Kanye West’s and Nick Fuentes’s of the world to intimidate us into hiding our commitment to halachic practice. But publicly wearing a kippah also demands commitment and clarity of our halachic values. We can be inspired by someone’s religious journey even if his values do not align with our own, but we must consider the implications of our behavior, including publicly wearing a kippah, on normalizing questionable halachic practice.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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