I have been discussing the discontinuity between the modern Jewish culture and that which existed in the time of Christ. As engrafted Gentiles, we have been fully placed into Israel. We are now as “special” a part of God’s people as are the Jewish people. As such, we are as much a part of Israelite culture as are they. Therefore we should act the part.
Yet, that analysis cannot allow us to simple accept modern Jewish practices as normative. As I have already shown, the modern use of the kippah (head-covering) for the men during prayer and the use of the tallit-prayer shawl—have little relevance to the first century. Therefore, these practices represent a break with first century Israel rather than a continuance. As such, neither the ancient or therefore the modern Gentile need imitate them.
Since I discussed the head covering for the men, it is only natural that I also discuss the Jewish practice of the prayer veil for the women. The use of the prayer veil by the women during Sabbath worship has been shown both in movies and on television. Opening the Sabbath, the women dons the veil or shawl over her head, recites the words to welcome the Sabbath, and moves the “light” from the candles to her eyes. A video of this ritual is pulled from Youtube below. It is quite moving and beautiful.
But is this biblical? Is it required of female worshippers under the Jewish Messiah today? Is this a practice that was normative on Gentile followers of Jesus? Was it practiced by the churches of Paul?
One has to say yes to all of the above questions. Paul’s reminders about the “traditions” he passed on to the Corinthians says it all:
Every man (or husband) praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman (or wife) praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonors her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven. For if a woman (or wife) is not veiled, let her also be shorn: but if it is a shame to a woman (or wife) to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled. For a man (or husband) indeed should not have his head veiled, since he is the image and public honor of God: but the woman (or wife) is the public honor of the man. (1 Cor. 11:4-7; CGV)
Now as I note in my translation of this passage, the word for woman can just as easily be translated as “wife;” just as the word for “man” can be translated “husband.” However, since most women were betrothed at a very young age in the first century—usually around the age of 12—very few women were not wives in Paul’s assemblies. Therefore, the command appears to be universal to the sexes. Women were to wear the veil or some form of head covering when they prayed or prophesied in the Messianic Assemblies. This “dress code” was required whether they were Jews or Gentiles.
Yet the curious part of this whole issue is that I can find no such requirement on women, whether married or not, in the body of the Torah or in the entire Old Testament scriptures. In fact, the use of a veil by a woman is noted in only three passages: by Rebekah just before she met Isaac (Gen 24:65); by Tamar as she disguised herself as a prostitute (Gen 38:19); and by the bride in the Song of Solomon (Song 1:7; 4:1, 3; 6:7). I may take a look at all of these passages in future posts on this topic, but for now the story of Rebekah may be the most illustrative.
The Slave of Abraham gone back to Abraham’s homeland in Nahor in Mesopotamia. His purpose was to find a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac from outside of Canaan. He was successful, bringing back the surprisingly willing Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel and sister of Laban. She traveled back to Canaan with the slave, presumably on a journey that took a number of days, since Mesopotamia was several hundred miles from Canaan.
And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she dismounted from the camel. And she said to the slave, What man is this that walks in the field to meet us? And the slave said, It is my master. And she took her veil, and covered herself. And the slave told Isaac all the things that he had done. And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife . And he gave allegiance to her. And Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. (Gen 24:64-67; CGV)
Several things should be noted in this passage. First of all, Rebekah was in the presence of the male slave for several days, if not weeks or months, during the journey from Nahor to Canaan. Yet during that time, she did not wear the veil nor feel any need to do so. Therefore, the veil is not a general prohibition made necessary when a woman is in the presence of men. Second, Rebekah put on the veil only when she was about to meet her future or promised husband and transfer from being under her father’s authority to being under his. Its purpose was limited in time and scope. Third, there is a binding element, as it appears that Rebekah only felt the need to wear this veil just before she engaged in sexual relations with her new husband (Gen 24:67). There is no indication that she ever wore the veil again thereafter.
Yet, during this simple marriage ritual, the veil appeared to be signficant; enough to have been explicitly mentioned in the text. In this, it functioned in much the same way as does the bride’s veil today. In fact, that is precisely what the veil represented: a bridal outfit.. It is a sign that the bride is about to meet her bridegroom. It is a sign of his impending transfer of authority from her old family to her new one. It is her way, at this major moment of her life, of giving public honor to her bridegroom as well has her old family.
I submit that this is at least part of the meaning of the veil for Paul in the Corinthian passage as well. The women represent the church as the bride of Christ. As the bride, when in prayer or when engaging in prophecy, they are in spiritual proximity to their bridegroom, Christ. In this way, by wearing the veil, she gives public honor both to her new bridegroom (Christ) as well as her “older” family (her present husband, or if she has none, her father or family). For this reason, she should wear the veil in this context with the same pride and glory as does a bride on her wedding day.
It is sad that this perspective has been lost. Up until the last century, it was common not only for Jews but for women in the churches as well. The Protestants gave it up first, to be followed by the Catholics. Even among Jewish women the veil is not always worn (even when the men wear their kippahs). When searching YouTube for the Shabbat ritual shown above, in most of the videos the women blessed the candles without benefit of wearing the veil.
Call me romantic, but I feel we have diminished ourselves in the process. And God is nothing if not a Romantic.