The Meaning of Jewish Yarmulkes
The traditional Jewish yarmulke -- the beanie-like headdress worn by men of Jewish faith -- goes by many names, including kippah or skullcap. Although this cap serves to instantly identify those of Jewish faith, wearing a yarmulke is actually more custom than it is requirement. Throughout its thousands of years of history, the kippah has borne many meanings, but its basic spiritual message is clear today.
1 What's in a Word?
Scholars disagree on the linguistic meaning of the word yarmulke, but they offer plenty of speculation. In an article for the Jewish scholarly journal “Hakirah,” Dan Rabinowitz notes that the word may derive from the Turkish “yagmurlkuk” or a combination of the Turkish “yarim” and “gap,” which translate to “rain wear” or “small hat,” respectively. The Hebrew word “kippah” similarly translates to “dome.” The Aramaic phrase “yira malkah,” meaning “fear of the king” or “awe of the king” offers a decidedly more spiritual precursor to the word, but again, this is only scholarly speculation.
2 Spiritual Significance
Despite its possible “rain wear” roots, the significance of the yarmulke is spiritual rather than practical. Essentially, the yarmulke -- typically worn while praying, eating or studying, though many Orthodox Jews wear it more often -- represents respect toward God. In a symbolic sense, those wearing a yarmulke are sometimes viewed as taking on the responsibility of representing Jews. Some Jews believe that the actions taken by those in a kippah can cause sanctification or desecration of God's name, known respectively as “Kiddush Hashem” or “Chillul Hashem.”
3 Textual Traditions
Sacred Jewish texts help explain the meaning of wearing a yarmulke. The Talmud's Kiddushin says that donning the hat serves to remind its wearer of God as a higher power; as head wear, the yarmulke literally serves as “something above.” This derives from the Talmud's story of a woman giving her troublesome son a head covering so he would constantly be reminded of God's presence. Although Exodus 28:4 prescribed the responsibility of wearing a yarmulke only to those who served at the Temple, the hat was soon associated with all men of Jewish faith. In fact, the 16th century Code of Jewish Law states: “It is forbidden to walk four cubits without a head covering.”
4 Modern Meanings
The Jewish yarmulke retains its significance in today's spiritual landscape. When a modern man wears the headdress, it symbolizes his dedication to a strict observance of the Jewish faith. Non-Jewish visitors to sacred sites such as synagogues may also don yarmulkes as a sign of respect. In modern Israel, the act of not wearing a kippah essentially identifies a person as non-religious. When worn by a man of faith, the yarmulke sends a clear message. Writing for Aish.com, Rabbi Shraga Simmons puts it succinctly: “To wear a kippah is to proclaim, 'I am a proud Jew.'”