It is perhaps the most instantly
identifiable mark of a Jew.
the Western world, it is customary to remove one's head covering when
meeting an important person. In Judaism, putting on a head covering is a
sign of respect.
The uniqueness of a Jewish head
covering is hinted at in the blessing we say every morning, thanking God
for "crowning Israel with splendor" (Talmud - Brachot 60b)
The Talmud says that the purpose of
wearing a kippah is to remind us of God, who is the Higher Authority
"above us" (Kiddushin 31a). External actions create internal awareness;
wearing a symbolic, tangible "something above us" reinforces that idea
that God is always watching. The kippah is a means to draw out one's
inner sense of respect for God.
It's easy to remember God while at the
synagogue or around the Shabbat table. But Jewish consciousness is meant
to pervade all aspects of our lives -- how we treat others, how we
conduct business, and how we look at the world.
Appropriately, the Yiddish word for
head covering, "yarmulke," comes from the Aramaic, yira malka, which
means "awe of the King."
In Hebrew, the head covering is called
"kippah" -- literally "dome."
MAKING A STATEMENT
To wear a kippah is to proclaim "I am a
proud Jew." There is a fascinating phenomenon whereby non-observant Jews
visiting Israel will wear a kippah for the duration of their stay. It
may be out of a sense that the entire Land of Israel is holy like a
synagogue. Or it may be the removal of any self-consciousness that can
often accompany public expression of Jewishness in the diaspora.
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, or berating an incompetent waiter. 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) or conversely a Chillul Hashem (desecration of His name).
Of course, putting on a kippah does not
automatically confer "role model" status. Sometimes we unfortunately
hear of a religious person caught in some indiscretion. I recall one
time in Los Angeles, noticing that a drunken, disheveled man was walking
down the street -- wearing a kippah! He wasn't Jewish, but he'd found an
old kippah and thought it helped him fit in with the neighborhood
atmosphere. For me, it drove home the idea that it's not fair to "judge
Judaism" based on someone displaying the outer trappings of observance.
WHEN TO WEAR A KIPPAH?
From a biblical standpoint, only the
Kohanim serving in the Temple were required to cover their heads (see
Exodus 28:4). Yet for many centuries, the obligatory custom has been for
Jewish men to wear a kippah all the time, as the Code of Jewish Law
says, "It is forbidden to walk four cubits without a head covering."
Does a kippah have to be worn while
playing sports? This issue came to the fore recently with the publicity
surrounding Tamir Goodman, the basketball sensation who is an observant
The answer is that it is preferable to
wear even a small kippah, pinned to the hair. (Velcro works great!) If
it is impossible because of the game conditions or rules, it is okay to
play without a kippah.
When bathing or swimming, one does not
wear a kippah.
Certainly, a head covering is
obligatory while engaged in prayer and Torah study.
What kind of head covering qualifies?
Basically anything -- including a baseball cap or a scarf tied around
one's head. Of course, in the synagogue, it is more respectful to use a
How large must a kippah be? Rabbi Moshe
Feinstein states that the minimum measure is that "which would be called
a head covering." Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef says the kippah should be large
enough to be seen from all sides.
The style of kippah worn can reflect an
interesting sociological phenomena, often denoting a person's group
affiliation. For example, yeshivah-style Jews wear a black velvet kippah.
Modern Orthodox Jews often wear a knitted, colored kippah. Many
Chassidic Jews wear a fur hat (shtreimel) on Shabbat and holidays.
Additionally, many also wear a hat when
they pray to increase awareness of the Almighty as they stand before
Him. (Mishne Brura 183:11)
What about instances where wearing a
kippah conflicts with business and career interests?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes that in
certain cases, there is room to be lenient. For example, a trial lawyer
might not be properly serving his client if the jury will be distracted
by the kippah. U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman may use a similar line of
Of course this can cut both ways. A
prominent businssman once told me that for every client "lost" because
of his kippah, there were two clients gained, who respected his display
of integrity and courage in wearing a kippah.
The story goes that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak
of Berditchev once saw a man running. "Where are you running to?" the
"I have to get to my job," the man
The rabbi retorted: "Perhaps your
livelihood is in the other direction -- and you're running away from
For many seeking to express their
Jewish identity, "to kippah or not to kippah?" -- that is the question.
Here are two fascinating first-person accounts of how to deal with this