The yarmulke designates its wearer as an observant Jew. Although American society has become increasingly open to the wearing of religious garments and symbols in the workplace, there have been (and probably still are) numerous employers who are uncomfortable with their employees wearing yarmulkes. This post will address the question of whether one may remove his yarmulke for an interview or during the hours of his employment, if he would otherwise not be able to get a job.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim, vol. 4, § 2) discusses this issue in a letter (dated 1974) responding to the following question: A man is in need of employment in a place where it is hard to find an employer who does not mind if he wears a yarmulke. An acquaintance arranges an interview for him at an office, but tells the prospective employee that he must not where a yarmulke to the interview. If he does, not only will he probably not get the job, but the acquaintance might suffer as well. If he is offered employment, he will be allowed to wear his yarmulke while he works in the office. Can he go bareheaded to the interview?
Rabbi Feinstein ruled that the prospective employee was allowed to remove his yarmulke for the interview. Most halachic authorities maintain that there is no inherent obligation for a Jewish man to cover his head. Furthermore, having one’s head uncovered is not prohibited as a chok ha’akum. To cover one’s head is only a middas chassidus (pious practice) and a universally accepted custom. Thus, it can be no more stringent than a mitzvas asei (a Torah-based, affirmative obligation), for which one need not incur a loss greater than one-fifth of his wealth (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim § 656). Since the inability to attain employment is tantamount to such a loss (if not greater), the prospective employee is excused from the custom for the interview.
Nevertheless, there are two important things to note. First, as Rabbi Feinstein points out in another letter, this leniency is very limited. Such an employee is only excused from wearing a yarmulke in the location where his employer requires him to work without one. However, when he goes to another room, and certainly when he goes out in the street, he must cover his head, even if he will be mocked for doing so. Second, Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling was issued over 35 years ago; it is not clear how this ruling would apply today. Consequently, one who wishes to know whether such a ruling applies to himself should ask a competent Orthodox rabbi, after informing him of all of the circumstances.
This post leads very nicely into a discussion of American law concerning the wearing of religious garments–such as the yarmulke–in the workplace and in other contexts, which will be addressed in upcoming posts.