Kippah: Understanding and Appreciation of the Yarmulke

Why a Kippah?

Definition of Kippah. A Jewish person who is wearing the little round beanie called a kippah, or a yarmulke--יאַרמלקע (Yiddish word, derived from the Polish for cap, jarmulka), or scull cap is doing so as an expression of his/her deep desire to live a mitzvah-centered life. This person is willing to be seen in public as a Jew and to have her/his actions reflect on the Jewish people's values and practices.

Wearing a kippah is a reminder to yourself that your actions in the world matter; that you can personally bring a sense of God, of holiness and all the possible goodness into the world by how you live.

Rabbi Honah ben Joshua never walked four cubits [about six feet] with an uncovered head, for he used to say 'The Shekhinah, [God's] presence, resides above my head'" [Talmud Kiddushin 31a]

Some of the History of the Kippah

If you are wearing your kippah and get attracted to do something that wouldn't be good for you or others, you might remember you have your kippah on, and just that Godly "tug" of what you really believe in may stop you from getting into trouble. [This idea is found in the Talmud Shabbat 165b] That's why Reb Goldfish keeps her head covered, with one of her many colorful kippot or a cool hat, depending on her mood that day.

Here's a surprise for some readers, regular Jewish people in Biblical times and even as recently as medieval times did not wear a kippah. It is a practice that has evolved to be normal over time, in fact for women it has only been an accepted custom in most Jewish circles for about twenty or thirty years and is widely evident among liberal Jews, especially during religious services, holiday and life cycle rituals across the spectrum of gender today. 

Covering the head is spoken about in connection with the official garments of the High priest in Exodus 28:4, 37 and 40. He wore a type head ornament called a mitznefet, while the ordinary priests had a kind of hat, migba'at. That those in mourning would cover their heads and veil their faces is revealed in the books of Samuel, Jeremiah and Esther.

The spiritual / cultural custom of wearing a headcovering continues during Greek and Roman times. For example, the Talmud reports that some who felt great awe for the experience of a Divine Presence in the world would also veil their faces and cover their heads, especially while praying or studying. [Hag. 14b; RH 17b; Ta'an. 20a].

It gradually became the custom for Torah scholars to cover their heads, but this is clearly stated to be optional and reserved for established authorities and may have been a status symbol. [Nedarim 30b, Kid 29b]. For those who would lead services and give the priestly blessing a head covering became normal among the Jews of Babylonia, though not so much so in other regions.

The great medieval commentator known as the Maharshal ruled a head covering during prayer to be optional, although Maimonides equates an uncovered head with a person who does not take living seriously enough [Yad, De'ot 5:6]. It is not until R. David Halevy of Ostrog in the17th century that we read about one of the differences between Christians and Jews is that Jewish men would cover their heads during prayer.

It takes courage to wear a kippah in some parts of the world; in a few neighborhoods in Israel it even makes some Jews angry and aggressive to see a woman wearing a kippah. Remember, Judaism does not want you to follow a practice that could put your life at risk. It's fine to put your kippah in your pocket if it could result in any danger to you--and a hat as a head covering is a perfectly viable alternative. The Torah says we are to live by our traditions, not die by them.

Does Everyone Have to Wear a Kippah in Synagogue?

There are a lot of regional customs about this and people have very strong opinions that their customs must surely be laws. If you're a visitor, I suggest asking the person handing out the prayer books what the local custom is. You'll even seen non-Jews given kippot in certain synagogues. Notice that politicians pop them on when they come through the door of a synagogue. In other places when someone who isn't Jewish pops one on [unless they're famous] the gabbai [care taker] will ask for it back.

Quick story: In Europe, at one synagogue, Rabbi Goldie Milgram was allowed to keep her tallit (prayer shawl) on but required to take her kippah off - "We don't allow kippot in here!" Why? In the old days the Reform movement "modernized" by dropping customs like tallit and kippah, keeping kosher, and such. That particular temple had gotten as far as restoring tallit as a practice, kippah for them was going was too far!

What Color is Your Kippah? Orange you glad you have a choice?

For most contemporary Jews the decision to wear a kippah every day is a religious choice. It means we really care about being Jewish, that we are studying, observing many of the practices and getting a lot of joy and meaning from living a Jewish life. Some people only wear their kippot (pl) to make blessings at home, or at a service. There are many ways to express being Jewish - if it's not your usual practice, wearing a kippah for a while is a nice religious experiment to try during your bar/bat mitzvah preparation year(s) - see how it changes how you experience the world and how the world experiences you.

Kippot are available in endless shapes, sizes, designs and colors. There's lots of information in a person's choice of kippah - a big plain black one usually means the person lives a very observant, traditional life - a tiny colorful handmade one often signifies an active, spiritual, liberal Jew. Or maybe someone just was attracted to a kippah, and chose it, or made it. What color would you like your next/first kippah to be?

Oh, a really nice thing to do at your a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is to have enough kippot for everyone to be able to take one home, many put the Jewish and secular date stamped inside with the name of the person who has completed the ritual. Be sure to put a bowl of bobbie-pins out to help hold them on, contrary to what some people think, humans don't have velcro on the tops of our heads!