Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Jewish Tall Hats and Turbans
Today we are going to talk about hats. The hats we wear and the roles that hats play in society. We will be looking at the function that hats play in Jewish culture and ritual as well.
Even if you aren’t a hat wearer, we all take notice of hats. Some of us more than others. However hats and head dresses are something that are not just pervasive in our society, they are actually part of the uniform of many important people. From the earliest years most of us have looked to people’s hats as a symbol of who they are and the role they play in our world. We begin to identify the different notable people by their hats; police, firefighters, nurses, chefs, etc.
Hats can tell us a lot about a person. Be it a baseball cap, a sun hat, cowboy hat or a helmet. Sometimes we can begin to discern and judge a lot about a person based on hats. The hats we wear, and how we wear them.
We are also going to give a detailed look at the way that scholars have tended to color the text surrounding this, according to their own cultural norms and class structures.
As we all know, hats play a very special role in Jewish tradition. But when we talk about hats, we can be talking about any type of head covering. As we are not all accustomed in every country to wear a traditional cap, Jewish men have taken it upon themselves to cover their heads with a kippa or a yarmulke. We all know the reasons for the kippah today, to symbolize the presence of G-d above us and show reverence.
However, we know that historically this only came about after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome (in 70 CE), the then dispersed Jews were shipped across the empire as slaves. The cap in the Roman empire designated their role as slaves. In the face of this, even the free Jews of Rome joined in solidarity with their captive brothers and also took-up the symbolic head coverings. The reason we are told, is because all Jews are servants and slaves to Hashem. We are one across all classes, that is the lesson brought down to us by almost every pulpit rabbi of our age.
And they also point out that we must keep in mind that the yarmulke is a post-biblical symbol, and a rabbinic ordinance upon the congregation of Israel.
I ask us to remove ourselves from this frame of mind for a while, as we look into the ages of the Torah when head coverings are common, but not universally symbolic in the same fashion we think of today.
Though we are mostly going to be focusing on the text of our fourth aliya, we can see that this mentioning of caps and hats is something that begins early on in the parsha:
“And these are the garments that they shall make: a choshen [breastplate], an ephod, a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron and for his sons to serve Me as priests.”
וְאֵלֶּה הַבְּגָדִים אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּ חשֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד וּמְעִיל וּכְתֹנֶת תַּשְׁבֵּץ מִצְנֶפֶת וְאַבְנֵט וְעָשׂוּ בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וּלְבָנָיו לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי:
As we see, the use of terms like “cap” are used for head coverings here. Now first we should take notice that the word which is used here, it is a seemingly generic word of sorts, as it means a hat or simply cap. The word for a cap is mitznafet, but it’s not exactly clear if this is a specific style of hat or a general term for a hat.
However, the archaic bibles of Europe most often use the word mitre. A strange and not so appropriate word. Though we will get back to that in a moment.
As we see from later on in the parsha, in our key verses for this week, more than one type of headdress is described and ordered. There is one for the kohen gadol – the high priest. And also a different style for his sons, the kohanim – the priests.
Let use take a look at the head-dress of the kohen gadol first. As the way they dress his mitznafet is different from the others:
“And you shall place the cap
on his [Aaron's] head,
and you shall place the holy crown
upon the cap.”
| venatata et-nezer hakodesh
This mitznafet is unique because it is an integrated part of the garb of the kohen gadol. With ribbons and sashes which bound it around the neck and attached through the breastplate, all meeting around the nap of the neck. But its the crown of gold the with Havayah – with the holy Four-Letter name of G-d written upon it, that is literally the crowing piece.
What we apparently see is a conned or pointed sort of headdress, with a crown of gold that was placed and tied upon it. Together they were the official headdress of the highest priestly office, only worn by the person uniquely appointed to serve before Hashem.
Now regarding the assisting kohanim we read something different. Let me provide you the Hebrew text as well, and not merely a transliteration, so you can see what I mean here for yourself. Also, take notice of the odd Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation (a public domain text that is commonly used by Open Source communities):
וְחָגַרְתָּ אֹתָם אַבְנֵט אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, וְחָבַשְׁתָּ לָהֶם מִגְבָּעֹת,
JPS (1917): “And thou shalt gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them”
Naturally, people wonder what this means. Many others find themselves amused and entertained by the thought of what this could mean. Who has ever heard of a head-tire? I certainly haven’t seen this before this mention here. So what are we talking about here?
Most clear and modern translations of the Torah (such as the latest Judaica Press, Kol Menachem, Kaplan, etc.) instead translate the phrase, “vechavashta lahem migba’ot” as, “and dress them with high-hats.”
Now I know I like to roll with the chassidish hat-lovers, but even I get amused as people perk up their ears and take pride in their fedora or shtreimel at this point. I have met some really cool kohanim and plenty of leviim with some pretty tall hats in my day, but that’s not exactly what it’s talking about.
Well, it might be to them, but that’s not exactly the way I see it. To me, when I hear of mitznafet, in my mind’s eye and according to my cultural mindset, for some reason I first think of the word “turban” instead. But maybe that is because I’m simply used to seeing pictures of tzaddikim (righteous men) in turbans as much as I am in dress-hats. In turbans and head wraps according to the custom of Sephardic Jews and the near-eastern classical age. This is the manner of the Rambam, the Ben Ish Chai, Baba Sali, the chief Sephardic rabbis, etc.
And there are differences still if we draw comparisons and make assumptions based on our own cultural application. It is certainly true that for Sephardim today, the symbol of a turban is a sign of honor and respect. Not just everyone wears a turban in this day and age. So when it is applied, it says something about the dignity of the person.
Now how can I suggest that this is a turban spoken of here? What sources do I and other modern translators have to use this term? As the Torah and our sages seem to display, a mitznafet is a hollow piece of fabric, like most hats. However, they were also twisted and rolled around ones head, forming a hollow interior. (see Exodus 39, and relating commentary) Each layer upon the other appearing like tires, just as the JPS describes without using the then “oriental” word turban.
One can certainly ask, what’s the difference anyhow? It’s just a hat! You see it your way, I see it my way. And one can also ask, why should we care that rabbis have obsessed over this point? They obsess over every detail anyhow!
However, it isn’t just rabbis and their talmidim that have obsessed over this point. Even the non-Jewish scholars and thinkers of Europe deeply struggled to understand what the form and meaning of all this was.
If you noticed, back in Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 28:4 he states that in old French this type of hat – the mitznafet, it is “kemin kiphat / it’s called a cipha.” He also gives the Aramaic word according to the Onkelos, kovain.
However, this old term cipha in Rashi’s 11th century French dialect is very close to the late-Latin word for this style hat, called a cofia. From this we get the middle-English coif and the Germanic kupfe. But often times when it gets time to translate into formal English, Europeans most often use the word mitre here.
Interestingly, this topic also has pretty detailed references in some fine classic works. As in the premier book of wisdom and knowledge of the early-1700s, the “Cyclopaedia: or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” of Epharim Chambers. Except we will not get anywhere looking under the Latin cofia. We will find our reference under the Greek term “cidaris (kedaris),” the Greek work for crown that is akin to the Hebrew word “keter” (crown).
Chambers, as a scholarly Englishmen of his day, was not unread and unlearned when it came to the classics of the rabbis. His understanding of the text and the rabbis seems to agree with that of the average Hebrew reader. He says:
“The rabbis say the same thing is meant by both these terms [mitznafet and mitgbaot], and that the bonnet used by priests in general was made of a piece of a linen cloth fifteen yards long, which covered their heads like an helmet or a turban: and they allow no other difference to be between the high priest’s bonnet, and that of other priests, than this, that one is flatter, and more in the form of a turban, whereas the other worn by ordinary priests wore something more in a point.”
However, interestingly. The first thing that one notices about Chamber’s contrast between the turbans of the kohen gadol and the kohanim, is a description that is purely based in status. In the opening lines to his entry we read:
“The mitre used by the Jewish high priests. When- ever there is mention of the high priest’s mitre, the Hebrew word made use of to express it is always miznepheth; and myg-baoth is used to signify the bonnet belonging to common priests.”
As an Englishmen in a society of roles, status and nobles the idea of social status and level of influence is always at the forefront of his mind. He touches on that first.
Likewise, he also flavors the status symbols after the model which he knows. That of the pope and the arch bishops; he sees the priestly high hats, their turbans as mitres. Pointed hats with a flat face. The guy with the tallest and firmest hat was higher in the caste, and the priest with the crown was the final authority; kind of like the Pope (or archbishop) in his mitre.
Chambers explains to us that this term is derived from the Hebrew translation of migbaot by the catholic St. Jerome, who chose to use the Latin term mitra to express this, which hints at the shape of a helmet.
Interesting to see how different people and cultures look the same concepts differently, but at the same time they also subtly or sometimes exaggeratedly apply the mindset and structure of their society into that interpretation as well. In a time when the Bible was still considered a book of civic law and understanding, it was interpreted in a way that few of us would relate to today.
Of course, Chambers as an honest scholar admits the limitations of his understanding here. He states early on that their function and descriptions of these headdresses are “so various and different” that they are not well understood. Maybe today, we have a much clearer understanding, or at least a healthier understanding of this than in his day.
However, even then we should keep in mind that progress can also be lost over time as well. In a scholarly view of the past, one can’t help but notice that by the early 20th century the simple use of the word turban was no longer palatable anymore. Not in an age when the British Empire suppressed, instead of honored, people with turbans in places like India and the near-east. The scholars of that day rather refer to tires on peoples heads, before elevating the symbol of the turban.
Now before we give up on Chambers, I would also like to note that he did give us one other insightful and maybe practical application of hats in Jewish culture. At the end of the entry, in the second paragraph:
“It is to be observed, that the Hebrew priests never appeared in the temple without covering their heads. And still at this day it is reckoned an incivility in the East, and a mark of con- tempt, for any man to pull off his hat or turban to another, or to hew his naked head before any one.”
He brings it back to the idea of head coverings as signs of reverence. And to be without a head covering, and to flash ones head by choice or by force is considered a sign of contempt.
Modern Use of Hats as Keys to Layered Consciousness
To bring this to a head, let us take our own practical look at hats and what they tell us. It is obvious that kippot and hats are a sign of religious devotion among Jews. Yes, it is a sign of reverence. Ask a religious Jew why they wear one, they will reply like Rav Huna, “Because the Divine Presence is always over my head.” (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 32a) Today all holy minded Jews cover their heads in prayer, as this is common among all Jews of every “class” and background. And for traditional people a kippah is often worn all day long.
As each Jews covers their head, they designate for themselves that the One G-d of all is resting above their head. Jews therefore seek to elevate their mind as they cover their head, in order that one might be inclined to act dignified and without contempt.
In our current, modern age we have no stratus levels set by how tall or firm your hat is, as seemed to be suggested regarding this text by all of the commentators stretching back to ancient times. For modern Jews, a hat will not tell you how important a person is. Any person can wear a kippa or a hat, so of course it doesn’t in any way suggest one is a priest or a rabbi. This is the symbol for all the people, common and otherwise.
That is not to say that wearing a certain style of yarmulke does not tell us a lot about a person. Though it might mean little to the outside world, a kippa will tell a person a lot about your religious affiliation.
The orthodox and chassidic often prefer the most modest colors, are you a black velvet type of guy? Or are you more kippa sruga – do you go knitted, are you more Modern Orthodox or even Religious Zionist? Maybe you’re a friend of the Nachs, the Breslovs and wear a Rebbe Nachman cap as you dance in the middle of traffic. Are you a kabbalist who wears white? Or maybe you’re more exotic and wouldn’t mind davening in a Bukharian kippa or fez.
The way one covers, and the style they prefer on their head, can say a lot to others. Does one wear it well, or just awkwardly? Maybe you are in protest, and don’t wear one at all. Either which way, in many cases the way one wears a yarmulke speaks loudly about the person. Much more than the outside world appreciates. But they mean something different according to their application in each custom or persuasion.
And hats for the religious Jew are no less telling. Take just orthodox Jews alone. They all seem the same to the outside world, but to the Jew a person’s hat can tell us a lot about them.
Whats interesting is that often times I will be with friends around town or I’ll be working a job, and as I have people come up to me and start talking I can quickly mention the community or background of this person I’ve just met. Jews tend to brighten up, that I “get it” and they don’t have to explain themselves. But my friends and coworkers often look at me strangely wondering how I “profiled” a person. Well, its nothing mental and it’s certainly not clairvoyance.
As our new friend walks away, I can then begin to explain what everyone else missed, but that speaks subtly to me. This man is saying something, be it with a Brooklyn-style hat or even an old world shtreimel. And if one wears a hat, what type and how do they wear it? Maybe you’re a Spanish-Portuguese Jew in top hat. The style and brand, the shape or the bend in the bill, a pinch or no pinch, dimpled or not dimpled, black or gray? Little touches and accents to your hat can most often tell a person a lot about who you are and your temperament.
You know right away what sect or school of mind a person is from by this. Different schools have a different “uniform” and “cap.”
And for each person it fits differently as well, not every person is identical even if they are similarly styled. Each shows his own character in the way he fashion and handles himself.
These days I’m not really into looking very religious, not that I’m against it. It’s just not where I’m at in my life right now. I’m more interested in doing religious, than looking like it. I’ll admit, aside from prayer and learning I don’t wear kippot often enough. I do when I engage in soulful stuff, as I feel the need like any other Jew does. Much more often at home than when out of the house, oddly enough.
But when shabbat comes, I find myself more intensely getting back into the old mindset of my younger days. Sometimes I just slip back to that mood for no reason, just because that is where my head is today. I take out my hat, clean it and get ready to slip into the comfort of the sabbath.
One may also wear a hat during prayer, to increase this sense of awareness of G-d’s presence. I take it out for that purpose more often these days as well.
Even more so, like many people of the chassidic philosophy, I especially make special note to wear a hat on the sabbath. As we are mystically taught in the Talmud, on the day of Shabbat we are given a second soul. (Bavli Beitzah 16a) We are given an additional soul, in order to have a double helping of Shabbat joy. To symbolize this many wear a second hat; meaning a kippah and a dress-hat, both. Since each living soul should wear a hat, we deck ourselves with two; one for each soul that we are dressing for the occasion.
Even then as I don my hat, I also keep in mind that I’m not taking on a costume. Nor am I conforming or being nostalgic. But only people who have lived that experience would know what I mean. Recently a friend saw a picture on Facebook of me going out in my hat. Being that we both came out of the same chassidic sect and schools of though, he takes notices of things that only another travelers would notice and also take comfort at the sight.
As I’m walking out the door one day I get a message. Taking notice of the make and color of the hat he texts back excited. And in response I begin to reminisce of the old days, when we were younger and supposedly more level-headed. I talk about the years before this hat was rained on, rusted on, moth bitten, stomped on, and then restored to be worn proudly with scars. But I love my roughed-up hat, because it’s a lot like me. And it says a lot about me. And it also says a lot about what has been put into my head as well. The examples and mindset I follow. He gets excited at the special appearance of the old gray hat as much as I do:
CHAIM: “Same color as the Lubavitche Rebbe before he was the Rebbe! Nice!”
SHMU: “I loved it, being so young and already well hatted. you know, the hat is the sign your serious. but it was cute. the old guys would be all, “look at this hat, how much did it cost? only a Yid would buy such a fine hat, im telling you… feel it… right, like i said…” hahaha and then someone’s father comes in from Kfar Chabad with a shtreimel that puts us all to shame. heheheh but something as simple as a hat sometimes says a lot about a persons temperament and influences that few outsides appreciate.”
And in that way, a friend who knows me as close as a brother can point out to others how I’m of a certain philosophy, while also appreciating my less than dogmatic approach regarding my chassidut. He sees the uniqueness and personal styling lost on the untrained observer who just sees another one of “them.”
Ever since then my head has been wrapped around this topic (no pun intended). The topic of hats and turbans. The elegance and gracefulness of them. The poised way a fine and fitted hat makes one feel. Not just how warm its keeping me this winter. But also the gentle and refined spirit that they can bring over a person who understands and values the symbolism. The person who wants to not just look his best, but also think and feel his best.
This shabbat, maybe you want to give it a try. Do you feel a second soul welling up? Is there double the joy inside that you just want to dress up and celebrate? Maybe you should try wearing a hat. It just might be something that simple that can help set your head into shabbat mode.