What Are The Jewish Covenant Signs?


I have a few Jewish friends who wear kippahs and sometimes when I’m hanging out with them I feel out of place. Even though I am not Jewish, would there be any problem with me wearing a kippah, too?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Well, on one hand, the Pope wears a kippah.

But on the other hand, a non-Jew should not wear a kippah, since that might deceive others into thinking that he is Jewish.

In practice, non-Jews will sometimes wear a kippah while attending a Jewish religious function (many world leaders have been photographed at the Western Wall wearing a kippah), but in general a non-Jew should not wear one, due to the confusion it may cause.

However, since the idea of a kippah is to have the head covered as a reminder of God, you could certainly use some other head covering, like a cap, to serve that purpose.

from Ask the Rabbi
“Kippah for a Non-Jew”

At last spring’s First Fruits of Zion Shavuot Conference during a question and answer session, a gentlemen in the audience said that he sometimes will visit churches wearing a kippah and tallit gadol as a “witness” to the Christians of the permanency of the Torah mitzvot. The person in question isn’t Jewish and when asked at church, will admit he is not Jewish but that, in his opinion, the mitzvot pertaining to wearing tzitzit and many others, apply equally to the Christian as to the Jew based on our discipleship under the Jewish Messiah King.

The reaction from the speaker at the event (I can’t recall who was speaking at that particular moment) was that this behavior introduces a great deal of identity confusion if Christians start dressing like Jews just to make a point. Reading the “Ask the Rabbi” topic I quoted above reminded me of that interaction and confirmed that Messianic Judaism and more traditional Judaism share the same perspective on Gentiles wearing Jewish “sign” markers.

I’ve often heard various Jews in the Messianic movement object to Gentiles wearing tzitzit, keeping Shabbat, and (apparently) observing the kashrut laws, as violating the “sign markers” that specifically identify Jewish people and their covenant relationship with God. The “pushback” I’ve read from One Law proponents and some others in the Hebrew Roots movement is that there’s a great deal of confusion about what Torah mitzvot is and isn’t permitted Gentile Christians, so how can anyone be held accountable to what may or may not be permitted?

From a more traditional Jewish perspective, I suppose the matter is more clear-cut, but in terms of the Messianic Jewish view on the matter, things seem a tad more indistinct. Some more “hard-line” folks in Messianic Judaism seem to believe that Gentile Christians should stay in their (our) churches and behave in no way whatsoever that resembles a Jew. Others, such as the fine folks at First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), state that many and even perhaps most of the mitzvot are permitted a Gentile, but the vast majority of them are not actual covenant obligations for us.

Opinions seem to vary widely and that’s where the confusion comes in. If you are a Gentile Christian but are attracted to the beauty and wonder of the Torah mitzvot, and you want to express a high level of respect toward Jews and Judaism, what is allowed and what is not permitted?

My personal response, and out of respect for my Jewish wife, was to put away just about everything, my kippah, my tallit, my tefillin, and to abstain from reciting virtually all of the Hebrew prayers (I still keep a siddur on my nightstand, however).

But if I wanted to explore what a Gentile might be allowed that normally is considered “Jewish,” then where are the boundaries and limits, or are they clearly defined at all?

In my search, (which has been rather brief so far) I actually didn’t find much.

In general, a brit refers to a covenant–a pledge of obligation between two parties which is sometimes accompanied by a token signifying the brit. Historically, there have been three signs that point out the three major covenants between God and people.

The first is Shabbat, which was given to serve as a sign of creation: “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel” (Exodus 31:16-17).

The second is the rainbow, which was given to symbolize the renewal of mankind after the Noah flood: “God further said, `This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh’ ” (Genesis 9:12-15).

And the last is [circumcision], which was established as the sign signifying the beginning of the Hebrew nation: “Such shall be the cove­nant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Genesis 17:10-11).

Circumcision came to be regarded as the unique sign of our covenant and gradually emerged as a physical symbol of a child’s joining the com­munity of Israel.

-by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld & Sharon M. Strassfeld
“Three Biblical Signs of Covenant”

Really? Just three? Surely that can’t be it.

The Rainbow, circumcision, and Shabbat.

First off, the sign of the Rainbow that God presented to Noah applies to all of humanity, not just the Jewish people so that leaves only two that are specifically Jewish: circumcision, or the brit milah, and Shabbat.

This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. –Genesis 17:10-11 (ESV)

Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’”-Exodus 31:16-17 (ESV)

That would seem to leave the field wide open for Gentiles to observe Torah mitzvot that are not signs of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

But is it really that simple? Of course, not.

As the Aish Rabbi pointed out, even wearing something as simple as a kippah, which is not overtly commanded in the Torah, can create “identity confusion” as far as Jews, Christians, and everyone else are concerned.

Jewish in JerusalemA few “Messianic Gentiles” dress frum but that really isn’t such a problem. It’s more likely to see certain non-Jews wearing tzitzit, either attached to a tallit katan or far more inappropriately, on their belt loops.

I don’t know if it’s a crime, a sin, or just embarrassing to be a Gentile and to deliberately create the impression that you’re Jewish, (even if that’s not your exact intension) but it sure does mess with people’s heads as far as who a Jew is and isn’t.

However, I have to be fair and say that the Messianic Jewish movement doesn’t appear to have a very firm set of standards as far as behaviors that represent “covenant signs” telling non-Jews in the Messianic/Hebrew Roots movement what to avoid (that is, if the non-Jews choose to show respect to Jewish people).

If such standards exist and I’ve just missed them, I’d appreciate it if someone could point me in the right direction. If they don’t exist, maybe it’s time someone got around to addressing this issue. If at least some folks are going to make an issue of Gentiles and Jewish covenant signs, then we should all be able to point our fingers to a set of standards that defines what we’re all talking about.


13 thoughts on “What Are The Jewish Covenant Signs?”

  1. Hi James,

    I think you’ve confused “covenant signs” with identity markers. E.g., male circumcision is the definitive covenant sign, but loads of non-Jews are circumcised without any complaint by Jews, including Messianic Jews. That’s because it is only a covenant sign when performed on a Jew under the proper circumstances. Non-Jewish circumcision may look similar, or the same, but it has no significance as a covenant sign,

    Identity markers are really “social identity markers,” things that distinguish one as a Jew in social situations. They may be “dress” (the tallits) or behavioral (davening from the Siddur) or dietary (kashrut).

    I choose to believe that informed and reasonable people don’t intentionally adapt a manner of dress that will confuse them with another individual or a member of a family to which they do not belong. For example, Gentiles who don tefillin or wear the tallit katan or gadol are treating them as mitzvot which they may observe.

    Here is, I believe, the heart of the matter. Does the Gentile think that he is observing biblical law or Jewish law (halakhah) when donning a tallit? If biblical law, why does he don a tallit that has been made according to halakhic standards that are clearly “Jewish”? In other words, why wear a Jewish tallit? The same questions apply to other things usually termed “identity markers.”

    He clearly does not understand that many Jews are as offended by his behavior as many people would be if tried to pass them off as a family member when they are not. When he comes to understand that, he will look for a way to observe the mitzvah without causing needless offense.

    In other words, “all things are permissible but not all things are profitable.” It is not necessary for him to wear a halakhic (Jewish) garment to fulfill a biblical mitzvah. So he will consider all the Bible has to say about avoiding giving unnecessary offense. His community will devise ways to observe the mitzvot in a distinctly non-Jewish way.

    The Gentile who fulfills mitzvot in a specifically halakhic way because he believes that it is necessary is another matter and, as you know, produces nothing but conflict in the Messianic Jewish blogosphere. My only comment is that he implicitly undermines halakhah by keeping it systematically as a Gentile.

    The bottom line is that a Gentile can, if he chooses, be obedient to written Torah without bringing confusion or offense.

  2. I’ve seen a lot of commentary on “identity markers” and “covenant signs” but I guess none of it really “stuck” in my brain. It’s really helpful to see it all spelled out for once, and I appreciate your comments, Carl. I strongly believe that I’m not the only “confused” person out there who would use a good “heads up.”

    “So he will consider all the Bible has to say about avoiding giving unnecessary offense. His community will devise ways to observe the mitzvot in a distinctly non-Jewish way.”

    You bring up a good point here, and I am aware of efforts in certain corners of the blogosphere to try and develop a sort of “Messianic Gentile halachah,” specifically in the “One Law” arena. It still seems confusing to me because a lot of these groups continue to borrow heavily from accepted Jewish religious practice in order to create a Gentile “Messianic” halachah.

    My own answer, as I stated previously, was simply to stop anything that could be considered a “Jewish” practice (this is limited by the fact that I’m married to a Jew, so I still put a sukkah up in my backyard, conduct a Pesach seder in my home, and so forth) and thus avoid offering offense, particularly within my own family. However, my “solution” isn’t necessarily going to satisfy everyone.

  3. That’s just a little off topic, Dan. I can see where you’re going with that, but I think there’s a difference between a Sefard trying to look Ashkenazi and a Gentile trying to look like a Jew.

  4. Because I created the topic, Dan; the discussion of what is and isn’t a “sign covenant” for the Jewish people and related to that, what are the identity markers that are specific to religious Jewish people (in general) that distinguishes them from Gentiles/Christians. As you can see from Carl’s comment above, I’m not such an authority, but since there seems to be a great deal of confusion as to why Jews (not just Messianic Jews) object to Gentiles adopting Jewish sign covenants and identity markers, I thought I’d try to bring a little clarification into the subject.

    As I mentioned in the body of my blog post, it’s not just Jews in the Messianic Jewish movement who have raised some of these concerns. There’s at least one Rabbi in more traditional religious Judaism. My guess is, the Aish Rabbi represents the viewpoint of normative Judaism on Gentiles wearing clothing items that might make them appear Jewish.

  5. Forgive me in advance if I misunderstand and for the long post, but it would seem to me from this post, that you feel the Jewish Idenity is about being identified as (especially visual and auditory) in dress and liturgical practice. Many (and maybe even most) may in fact agree with that statement since it can also be argued for example, regarding making tzitzit thoughtout their generations, that this command to Moshe from Adonai to make tzitziyot on the corner of their garments is about visual identification as a covenant people.

    However, it could also be argued, and maybe from a minority position, that the reason for the command of tzitzit was in regard to a much deeper command and reasoning:

    so that you will look at it, and as a result of looking, remember all of Adonai’s mitzvot and obey them.

    I would argue that the ROOT Jewish Idenity is not about visual and auditory practices or traditions (even if they are in adhearence to His very word) and even if modern Rabbincal Judaism sees it that way – I would argue that the ROOT idenity is the G-d of Avraham, Yitz’chak and Ya‘akov.

    Why do I think this is important to distinguish? I watched a Rabbi berate a Messianic Goy Believer and bring her to tears because she bought a shofar and mehorah in Jerusalem. “You are trying to steal the Jewish Idenity” he claimed. A lot of assumptions have to be made in a statement like that, but it neglects to address the most important aspect of the Jewish Idenity: Adonai.

    Considering his accusation and implied line of reasoning, would’t the very fact that a Goy believer in Adonai, that tried their best to trust, love and obey the word of Adonai, also be guilty of stealing the Jewish Idenity by their very worship of Adonai? Wouldn’t buying a Tanakh to study also be stealing the Jewish Idenity under that line of reasoning?

    True, many Goy may buy tefillin, or tallit, or shofars, or mezuzah. Some may do it to help them connect with the people they are commanded to show the same mercy that was shown to them BY them. Some may do it as a reminder that Jew and Goy worshipped together in the beginnings of Messianic Judiasm in an entirely Jewish way. Maybe their hearts are kindled to wear tallit so that they may also remember what it is to look at the tzitzit and remember Adonai’s mitzvot and not turn to follow other gods. Some may also indeed do it for entirely deceptive reasons.

    But who is qualified to judge their heart? Doesn’t Adonai alone judge a man’s inner motives – his heart? Romans 14 asks a question that addresses all of this:

    “Who are you to pass judgement on someone else’s servant?

    James, I don’t mean any of this as a critisism – they are just my observations as I go down my own path. I watch so many people stuggle with “do this” and “don’t do that” while missing the most important commands taught in Judiasm: Love Adonai with all of your being and love your neighbor as your self. The signs of the covenats are important, but only because He loves us.

    Blessings to you!

  6. Greetings, Bill (you are “Bill,” right?)

    You said, “I watched a Rabbi berate a Messianic Goy Believer and bring her to tears because she bought a shofar and mehorah in Jerusalem. “You are trying to steal the Jewish Idenity” he claimed.”

    First of all, it looks like that Rabbi went over the top in his response to the non-Jewish woman who bought a shofar and menorah in Jerusalem. It’s not illegal, immoral, or even fattening for a goy to buy a shofar and menorah in Jerusalem.

    But that’s not what I was talking about.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for Christians to take on some or even many of the mitzvot we typically associate with the 613 commandments, but we should be mindful of the impact of our behaviors on the people around us, Jewish and Gentile alike. The Jewish people have resisted nearly every attempt imaginable to delete them from the face of the earth including pogroms, inquisitions, and outright massacre. Assimilation through intermarriage (a topic I’m acutely aware of) is also extremely troubling. I’m an intermarried husband of a Jewish wife whose parents were also intermarried. My wife was not raised in a Jewish home and she’s the only one of five siblings who has chosen to actively reclaim her Jewish heritage (her mother was Jewish and both of her parents passed away many years ago).

    I used to believe that part of my worship of God and my devotion to the Jewish Messiah included praying while wearing a tallit and kippah and laying tefillin. To do so privately is between me and God but I also live with a Jewish wife and eventually (though she didn’t say a word) I came to realize that I was claiming identity markers that belonged uniquely to her and her people, but not to me, even through the Jewish Messiah.

    I made a deliberate decision to put away all of the outward markers of worship that could be identified as Jewish (I still study Torah using a Stone Edition Chumash and Tanakh and keep an Artscroll siddur on my night table). Regardless of what I called myself (“One Law,” “Messianic”), the missus thought of me as a Christian. So that’s the identity I reclaimed (albeit an unusual Christian, which you probably figured out if you have read many of my “meditations”).

    I’m not telling you or anyone else what to do as far as your worship of God but, in this particular blog post, I wanted to draw attention to how Jewish people might be affected by any public display of “Jewish identity markers” by non-Jewish people. If part of why we do what we do is because we say we love Israel and love the Jewish people, shouldn’t we, who were brought to the throne of God by the grace of the Jewish Messiah Jesus, extend some compassion and respect toward the Jewish people?

    I am not attempting to argue or rebuke you in any way, Bill. This is just the way I decided to try and respond to your query and explain why I feel the way I do. For a lot of people, the decision to adopt or refrain from Jewish religious practices as a Gentile is largely theological and conceptual, but from the vantage point within my interfaith marriage, it’s also sometimes personal.

    Thanks for reading, writing, and “listening.” I welcome any comments you care to make in this or other of my blog posts.


  7. Fair enough and yes, Bill 🙂

    As you pointed out, we should’t be a stumbling block either (which is also in Romans 14.) Neat thing about being belivers – it is not static. We can all come in our own unique way as long as it is in awe like Hevel and not rebellion like Kayin. The very word of G-d has unique voices throughout due to the unique individuals he chose to communicate His word.

    Sorry for all the typos in earlier post – I didn’t sleep well last night and I am fairly tired.

    Again blessings!

  8. No worries, Bill. I’ve battled insomnia a time or two myself.

    There’s probably a lot that could be said on this subject, but I really didn’t mean for it to take on such a “large life.” It was just something that I’d been thinking about and wrote in response to various face-to-face and online conversations I’ve been having recently. A lot of what I write about is what I’m thinking and feeling at any given point in time, so this is really a kind of religious “stream of consciousness” blog.

    Hope you sleep better tonight.

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