Yarmulkas, Kippot and Borsalinos

I was recently in China and visited the old Jewish community in Kaifeng.  I bought as a souvenir a bright-blue, handmade,silk yarmulke with Chinese characters on it (which I don’t plan on wearing, its way to garish.)  Walking around in a place where almost no one at all wears a yarmulke makes one more aware of this head-covering worn by Jewish men.  So here are a few thoughts about the yarmulkah, from my book Gateway to Judaism (Artscroll Publishers).  The head covering worn by Jewish men is known as a kippah (literally, dome) or yarmulka.  According to some the word yarmulke, is made up of two Aramaic words, “yarei” and “malka,” which mean “fear of the King.” This name expresses one purpose of the head covering, which is to remind us that we are always in G-d’s presence.  It is worn constantly to encourage a feeling of awe that this awareness should bring.  As early as Talmudic times, the Sages advised a mother to cover her son’s head so that he would know that the power of G-d is above him at all times.  Today, it is customary to educate boys to wear yarmulkes even when they are very young, most commonly from age three.

The Sages also associated covering the head with the characteristic of humility, possibly related perhaps to the fact that in ancient times, slaves would wear a head covering. The practice of men covering their heads became so widespread that by the 17th century it was recorded in the Code of Jewish Law. Later in history, it became customary for Gentiles to uncover their heads when praying or entering a church.  Since the Torah prohibits imitating the customs of other religions, Jews became obligated to cover their heads during prayer.  No particular requirements regulate the color, material or size of the head-covering.  Multi-colored crocheted kippot, black felt yarmulkes, baseball caps and black fedoras are all acceptable. It is interesting to note, however, that today the different types of head-coverings usually identify a wearer’s affiliation within Judaism.  Some people always wear a hat anytime they go outside, as well as for prayer. Others have specific head-coverings that are used for special occasions.  Members of many Chassidic groups, for example, wear shtreimlach or spodeks – fur hats similar to those that were once worn by nobility in Eastern Europe.  They wear these on Shabbat and festivals, to show that at these times, every Jew becomes like royalty.  The standard kippah of religious Zionists is white or colored and intricately crocheted, while a typical American yeshivah student might wear a black velvet or leather yarmulka.  Certainly, the style of yarmulka that someone wears should never determine how we evaluate that person; it is merely one way in which individuals identify themselves with a particular group or ideology to which they feel an affinity.

A further insight into the significance of covering one’s head or hair emerges when one examines the contrast between statues of the Greek philosophers who were almost always portrayed bareheaded,  and the attitude of the Talmudic Sages, who were “repelled by an uncovered head.” This distinction reflects two profoundly divergent philosophies.  The Greeks believed that their minds were the ultimate judges of reality and morality, that there is no cap or limitation on the human brain. The Jewish view accepts that our perception is limited, that human beings are not the ultimate arbiters of moral standards — that these must come from an absolute source, God.  We cover our heads to demonstrate our understanding that the human mind is limited, that an Authority exists above and beyond us.

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