In the Western world, it is customary to take off your hat when meeting an important person. On the other hand, in Judaism, covering the head is a sign of respect.
The uniqueness of the Jewish head covering is hinted at in the blessing we say each morning, thanking God for “crowning Israel with splendor” (Talmud – Brachot 60b).
The Talmud says that the purpose of wearing the yarmulke is to remind us of God, who is the Supreme Authority “above us” (Kiddushin 31a). External actions create our internal consciousness; By using a symbolic and tangible “something above us” we reinforce that idea that God is always watching. The yarmulke is a means to externalize our internal feeling of respect for God.
It is easy to remember God in the synagogue or around the Shabbat table. But the Jewish consciousness is destined to permeate every aspect of our lives: how we treat others, how we conduct business, and the way we see the world.
Fittingly, the Yiddish word for head covering, ‘yarmulke’, comes from the Aramaic, yira malka, meaning ‘fear of the King’.
In Hebrew, the head covering is called a “kippah” – literally “dome”.
To make a declaration
To wear a yarmulke is to proclaim “I am proud to be a Jew.” A fascinating phenomenon is that many non-observant Jews visiting Israel wear a yarmulke during their stay. This may be due to the fact that the entire land of Israel is holy as a synagogue or it may be the removal of any kind of shame that can often accompany the public expression of Judaism in the diaspora.
In fact, wearing a yarmulke is quite a statement, and it obligates the wearer to live up to a certain standard of conduct. A person has to think twice before cutting into line at the bank, or reprimanding an incompetent waiter. Wearing a yarmulke makes one an ambassador of the Torah and all Jews are reflected in it. The actions of someone wearing a yarmulke can lead to Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) or conversely Chillul Hashem (profanation of His name).
Of course, wearing a yarmulke does not automatically confer “model” status. Sometimes, sadly, we hear of a religious person caught up in some indiscretion. I remember once in Los Angeles, I saw a drunk and disheveled man walking down the street wearing a yarmulke! He wasn’t Jewish, but he found an old yarmulke and thought it would help him fit in with the neighborhood. In me, the idea remains that it is not fair to “judge Judaism” based on someone who only shows the external face of observance.
When to wear a Kippah?
From a biblical point of view, only Kohanim serving in the temple had to cover their heads (see Exodus 28:4). However for many centuries, the custom of wearing a yarmulke at all times has been mandatory for all Jewish men, as the code of Jewish law says, “it is forbidden to walk four cubits bareheaded.”
Do we have to wear yarmulke while doing sports? This issue came to the fore recently with the publicity surrounding Tamir Goodman, a great basketball player who is an observant Jew.
The answer is that it is preferable to wear even a small yarmulke, attached to the hair (Velcro works great!). If it is impossible, due to the conditions or rules of the game, it is possible to play without a yarmulke.
When we bathe or swim, we don’t wear a yarmulke.
Certainly, a covering is mandatory when we pray or engage in Torah study.
What type of coverage qualifies? Basically anything – including a baseball cap or a bandana tied around the head. Of course, in the synagogue, it is more respectful to wear a regular yarmulke.
How big should a yarmulke be? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein states that it must at a minimum be recognizable as a “head covering.” Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef says that the yarmulke must be large enough to be seen from all angles.
The style of kippah worn can reflect an interesting sociological phenomenon, often indicating the person’s group affiliation. For example, yeshiva-style Jews wear a black velvet yarmulke. Modern Orthodox Jews often wear a colored woven yarmulke. Many Hasidic Jews wear a fur hat (shtreimel) on Shabbat and holidays.
Additionally, many also wear a hat when praying to increase awareness of the Almighty as if standing before Him. (Mishnah Brurah 183:11)
What happens in cases where the use of the yarmulke creates a conflict in business and professional interests?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes that in certain cases, there is room for flexibility. For example, a lawyer may not properly serve his client if the jury is going to be distracted by his yarmulke. US Senator Joe Liberman can use a similar line of reasoning.
Of course this can cut both ways. A prominent businessman once told me that for every customer “lost” because of his yarmulke, there were two customers gained who respected his display of integrity and bravery in wearing a yarmulke.
For many seeking to express their Jewish identity the dilemma is “kippah or no yarmulke?” – That is the question
Taken from Aish Latin