by R. Gil Student
Long-standing custom dictates that Jewish men cover their heads. Authorities debate whether it is an actual law or just a strong custom, with the consensus concluding it is a custom. But when we recite God’s name, in either a blessing or prayer, the matter becomes more severe. Even people who do not wear a yarmulke at work put one on to pray or recite a blessing. But what do you do if the yarmulke accidentally falls off and you only notice after you are done praying?
In a recent book on the halakhic force of customs, Imrei Barukh: Tokef Ha-Minhag Ba-Halakhah, Rav Baruch Simon addresses this question. One reason for various customs is the biblical prohibition against following the practices of other religions (chukos ha-goyim). Following the Jews’ emancipation, this prohibition became a dominant theme in the complex integration of Jews into Christian society–what are we allowed to do and what is off limits?
Prior to that, Rav Shlomo Luria (Responsa Maharshal, no. 72) concluded that wearing a yarmulke is only a custom, not a law. The Vilna Gaon (Bi’ur Ha-Gra, Orach Chaim 8:6) ruled that you are not even obligated to wear a yarmulke while you pray. However, the Taz (Orach Chaim 8:3) added the consideration of chukos ha-goyim. Since Christians would regularly remove their head coverings, particularly before praying, Jews may not follow this practice. According to the Taz, sitting without a yarmulke–and certainly praying bareheaded–is biblically prohibited.
Rav Simon quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:40:14) who distinguishes between sitting and praying bareheaded. Christians do the former merely out of convenience. However, they pray bareheaded as a religious conviction. Therefore, Rav Feinstein rules, praying without any head covering–even by accident–is forbidden and the prayer is invalid. If your yarmulke accidentally falls off during prayer, you have to pray again after you cover your head.
Rav Simon then quotes Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halikhos Shlomo, Hilkhos Tefillah 2:16) that you do not have to pray again if your yarmulke accidentally falls off during prayer. A footnote explains that Rav Auerbach held that Christians today do not remove their head coverings before prayer as a matter of religious principle. They may have once done so out of conviction but not they do so as a matter of social convention. Therefore, praying bareheaded is not a practice of another religion and, while it should be avoided, does not require repeating the prayer.
Rav Simon’s overview is interesting but incidental to his overall purpose of surveying the literature about customs. Another recent book delves deeply into the subject of head coverings. Rav Ari Wasserman’s Otzar Ha-Kipah: Kipos, Kovim Ve-Atifas Ha-Rosh is an exhaustive, comprehensive two-volume study of head coverings in Jewish law. He leaves no stone unturned, no responsum unquoted. Section 4, chapter 9 discusses the case of prayer while accidentally bareheaded.
Rav Wasserman points out that Rav Feinstein ends his responsum with wording that might imply uncertainty about his conclusion. However, that specific question was asked by Rav Ephraim Greenblatt who reported that Rav Feinstein ruled strictly on the matter (Rivevos Ve-Yovelos vol. 2 no. 483).
In addition to quoting Rav Auerbach, Rav Wasserman cites the Yeshu’os Moshe (3:15), Rav Moshe Stern (in the journal Or Yahel, issue 4 p. 109), Lev Yehudah (Yoreh De’ah no. 64), Az Nidberu (3:5), Shemesh U-Magen (Orach Chaim no. 16) and Or Le-Tziyon (vol. 2, 7:13) as ruling leniently. Rav Ovadiah Yosef, in an approbation to Netzach Yosef (by Rav Yosef Bar Shalom), explicitly disagrees with Rav Feinstein. Rav Yosef says that since following a practice of another religion is only forbidden if you do it with the intent to imitate gentiles, if your yarmulke falls off by accident you lack that intent and therefore do not violate the prohibition.
In conclusion, authorities clearly differ whether to repeat a prayer of you accidentally prayed without a yarmulke. While the consensus seems to be lenient, it isn’t clear to me whether the practice follows Rav Feinstein. In such a situation, ask your rabbi what to do. But remember to put your yarmulke on before asking.