The Jewish ‘keffiyeh’ goes back to pre-Islamic times

The keffiyeh is associated with Bedouin Arabs and has even come to symbolise the Palestinian ‘resistance’. But Jews have a millennial  history of wearing a similar head-covering, called a sudra. The HaRimon blog explains: 

Yemenite Jew wearing a sudra wrapped around a comtah (1898 – 1914) (Photo: Library of Congress)

For millennia, Jewish men, particularly Torah scholars, have covered their heads and/or necks with a woven cloth called a סודרא (sudra, sudara) or סודר (sudar). Jews in late antiquity routinely wore sudarin, and the garment is consequently mentioned frequently in the Mishnah — a written record of Jewish common law, and daily life in the Land of Israel, compiled in the first two centuries of the Common EraThe Jewish Encyclopedia, published in twelve volumes between 1901 and 1906, explains that ‘[t]he Israelites most probably had a head-dress similar to that worn by the Bedouins … a keffieh folded into a triangle, and placed on the head with the middle ends hanging over the neck to protect it.’

The encyclopedia also says that, in later times, Jews wrapped their headcloths around a small cap ‘to shield the other parts of the head-covering from perspiration.’ Even today, some Yemeni Jewish men still wear sudarin, usually wrapped around a central felt cap called a כומתא (komtah), to form a headdress similar to a turban.

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow’s scholarly Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, written in the late 19th century, defines sudra as a ‘scarf wound around the head and hanging down over the neck, turban’. Rabbi Ernest Klein’s 1987 Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language defines it as a ‘scarf’ or ‘shawl’. The word itself is Aramaic, but its etymology is disputed. Klein asserts that it is related to the Latin sudarium (handkerchief, napkin), while Jastrow regards the similarity as a coincidence. The Babylonian Talmud, in tractate Shabbat, offers an acronymic etymology, claiming that sudra is an acronym, derived from a biblical verse which states that ‘the counsel of the Lord is with those who fear Him’. While this may seem fanciful, it is certainly in keeping with the known origins of many Jewish words, both classical and modern, as well as the ancient minhag (Jewish custom) of covering one’s head to demonstrate reverence to God.

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