Wearing of a head covering Kippot, yarmulka, skullcaps, kippah for men was only instituted in Talmudic times The first mention of it is in Tractate Shabbat, which discusses respect and fear of God. Some sources likened it to the High Priest who wore a hat (Mitznefet) to remind him something was always between him and God. Thus, wearing a kippot makes us all like the high priest and turns us into a "holy nation." The head covering is also a sign of humility for men, acknowledging what's "above" us (Gd).
Many Ashkenazi rabbis acknowledge that wearing Kippot covering at all times was once considered an optional midat chasidut (pious act), but, today, fulltime head covering is the norm except under extenuating circumstances. Sephardic communities generally did not have the custom of wearing a kippah all the time.
Some diaspora Jews leave off the yarmulkas at school, work, or when testifying in court, because of real danger or uneasiness in appearing in the secular world with an obvious symbol of Jewishness.
In Israel wearing Kippot also has a social significance. While wearing a kippah shows that you are somewhat religious, notwearing one is like stating, "I'm not religious." The style of kippot in Israel can also indicate political and religious affiliations. Classical orthodoxy uses a large, smooth, black one shaped like a bowl. Many Hasidim use large black felt or satin, and a "rebellious son" may wear a slightly smaller black SkullCaps to show his independence while remaining in the Classicist camp. Another play on this rebellion is to wear knitted black kippot. This is also usually used to confuse people as to where you stand.
In Bukhara and the Caucasian Mountains the use of large brightly woven yarmulkas is common. It is similar in shape to a cantor's yarmulka without the peak. This custom can also be found in other Sephardic communities.
Knitted kippot typically signify that you are part of the Nationalist Zionist camp. A larger full headed knitted kippah would signify the Mercaz Harav branch of the movement that produces many of the leading rabbis within the Religious Zionist section, although many rabbis who teach at these institutions wear the traditional large black kippot.
By David Druce
Irving Kovner was truly the king of kippot, the sultan of skullcaps, the yeoman of yarmulkot and the benefactor of beanies. As the fading sign in front of his factory boasted, his business, the 'A-1 Skull Cap Company,' possessed or produced the largest stock of skullcaps in North America, if not the Western Hemisphere. Fashions, rituals, religions and cultures jostled for attention in the brick walls of his factory shadowed by the Brooklyn Bridge. Records showed that Irv could have given a free kippah to every Jewish male in the United States, if he had the inclination to such philanthropy. But the A-1 Skullcap Company was a business, not a charity, and was powered by a crack squad of El Salvadorian tailors, who could stitch, sew the logos of any professional sports team, or any personalized gear. All Juan or Carlos needed was twenty-four hours and a picture, and they could replicate any image in painstaking detail. As for those who wanted their caps without design, Irv had leather kippot in every color and size. He had knit srugot, hearty and rich in color as an Israeli salad bar, kippot from Buchara, Yemen, Uganda, in faux fur, and camouflage. For the amateur, he palmed off unwieldy felt ones that accumulated lint and could not fit on the head at any angle, and for the pampered elementary school students dressed by their mothers, he had a set to match any of their outfits...
Irv took a breath, and fiddled with his baseball hat. The Yankees were two games away from clinching the pennant, and he hated when potential costumers would ask him which kippah he recommend as the best one, then asking which one he wore. Outside, a fire hydrant had been smashed in, so that the local children could cool off from the August heat. Kovner thought about visiting synagogue this week. While all of his business methods may not have been in the spirit of the Shulchan Aruch, it can't be denied that he was a good marketer, waiting until after services to hand out candy. "Tell me, what would make a good kippah?" he said, and the children answered, "The Army! Hot Dogs! Sponge Bob!" Irv genially gave each child a fruit chew, and the children soon ran away. If only there had been a fad for 'thinking caps,' Irv mused. If New Yorkers were willing to buy burnt knishes sold by Pakistanis, why wouldn't they buy kippot as souvenirs? Jews are smart, right? He mused, and people also wear crosses for decoration, he thought. At least a kippah can keep you warm.
If there had been a kosher deli in San Salvador, Irv would have moved there long ago. There people would thank him for a job, instead of trying to con him out of his property, or dropping by for their protection money. Once that unpleasant necessity consisted of a donation to the local synagogue in memory of a gangster's mother, or a wad of twenties given to Officer McNamara at Christmas time. Today, the Triads and Russians had little use for, and no sensitivity for religious goods. They didn't even pretend to win his confidence, instead sending glowering henchmen to collect their due. As property values began to rise again, real estate agents dropped by with ideas of turning the factory into a Gothic nightclub or studio apartments. A realtor, who had suggesting turning the building into a kosher-style deli called 'Sammy Skullcaps,' was laughed out of the building. Once, his friends had laughed at him when he chose to work in the family business, rather than becoming a furrier like his brother. But who had the last laugh as kippot could be seen on Wall Street, the Little League World Series, on TV? Who would have guessed that instead of accepting a mink as an heirloom, little granddaughter Aviva would have said 'fur is murder,' and spurned the family collection?
It is perhaps the most instantly identifiable mark of a Jew.
In 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 yarmulke 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 Jew.
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 regular kippah.
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 reasoning.
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 rabbi asked.
"I have to get to my job," the man said.
The rabbi retorted: "Perhaps your livelihood is in the other direction -- and you're running away from it!"
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 issue: