Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Keeping up with Kippot

Today, let’s start at the top of our heads with that little circle that is a staple of Jewish fashion. I know that many of you are like me and have drawers full of these—a huge collection. You can find them anywhere. Men find them in the inside pocket of their High Holy Day suit, or in the car in the glove compartment.  Or maybe you have yours scrunched in a little zipper bag that also contains the tallit.

We’re talking about the kippah.

The Kippah Shop In Jerusalem
In a typical Reform or Conservative synagogue, it is common to see a mixture of many different styles of kippot, sometimes based on heritage but often based simply on taste. Almost all synagogues provide simple kippot, mostly the economical light-weight black ones so that anyone who wants to can wear a yarmulke during the service.

This brings me to a frequently asked question: Kippah or Yarmulke? Which word is correct? Actually both are. Kippah is a Hebrew word, and Yarmulke is a Yiddish word that comes from the Hebrew. 

Kippah, the Hebrew word, means, “dome.”  It comes from the evolution of the Jewish head covering that morphed into a little circular “dome” that we place on the top of heads. 

The word Yarmulke is more complex.  It comes from two Hebrew words, “Yareh Malka,” that translate to “the fear of the throne,” or “awe of the throne.”  The Yareh Malka originated from the concept that a person should wear a headcover to remind him of the awe he should have in the presence of G-d. From there the word evolved from “Yareh Malka” into the Yiddush, Yarmulke!

But whether your kippah/yarmulke is black leather and generations old, or satin from the last wedding you attended, or rainbow designed from your granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah, They have one thing in common: Minhag! Kippot are minhag or “custom.” No Jewish laws exist regarding what kind of head covering should be worn, and furthermore, there is no halakah or Jewish law that requires the wearing of a kippah. So how did they get so popular? Where does this idea come from and why is the wearing of a yarmulke one of the oldest and most obvious signs that the wearer is Jewish? 

Our sages have a variety of opinions. They refer to the Talmud, which justifies the wearing of a kippah because we read in the morning blessing the part where we thank God for "crowning Israel with splendor" (Talmud - Brachot 60b).  

Rabbi Solomon Luria’s wrote about kippah fashion in words that date back to the 1600’s. He told the story of a man who suffered from severe headaches. This man asked Rabbi Luria if he could be permitted to eat bareheaded. Rabbi Luria responded that, while there is no official requirement to wear head coverings even during prayer, the custom had become so widely accepted that anyone going about without a kippah was considered impious; therefore, he suggested that the man wear a soft kippah made of fine linen or silk.

The practice of wearing kippot did, however, make its way into the Shulhan Arukh (Jewish Code of Law, mid-16th century). In the Shulchan Aruk we read that “one should not walk more than four cubits (about six feet) with an uncovered head.” 

In the Middle Ages, French and Spanish rabbis introduced the practice of covering one's head during prayer and Torah study, and Maimonides (1135-1204) similarly ruled that a Jewish man should cover his head during prayer (Mishne Torah, Ahavah, Hilkhot Tefilah 5:5).

In the Torah, Exodus 28:4, we find that although only “The Kohanim serving in the Temple were required to cover their heads,” modern sages saw each Jew as equal to every other Jew and as such, wearing a head covering became an equal opportunity experience for Jewish men and women—Kohane, Levi or Yisraeli—anyone from any of the three Biblical classes could cover their heads if they chose.  

One rabbi puts it well when he says, “Indeed, wearing a kippah is a big statement, and obligates the wearer to live up to a certain standard of behavior. A person has to think twice before cutting in line at the bank, yelling at a waiter or making any kind of a public scene.  Wearing a kippah makes one a Torah ambassador and reflects on all Jews. The actions of someone wearing a kippah can create a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name).”
Over the years I've been asked many times why I always wear my kippah. For me, the answer isn't as simple as my professional calling. For me, wearing my kippah reminds me of the words of Torah.  It gives me the opportunity to be a “Light unto the nations.”  With God’s blessing on my head, my kippah will help me to set a good example, to make the right impression in the world…as a Jew. 


  1. A Kippah is not a common word,it is a Jewish skullcap that is also known as Yarmulke in Yiddish. This is a Hebrew word that describes a round and thin head gear mostly worn by Jewish men and boys
    Jewish kippah