By Frimet Goldberger – The Jewish Daily Forward
If you see my husband and son walking on the street, you will instantly know that they’re Orthodox Jews — because they are wearing small, round cloth caps, more widely known as yarmulkes. Much like the sheitel, or wig, that many Orthodox women wear, you can tell a lot about a Jewish male by the type of yarmulke (also referred to as a kippah, or in Hasidic Yiddish, kapl) that he wears. Like the jacket and shirt on his back, the absence or presence of peyes, or sidelocks, the headgear announces to the world his family’s tradition and his Jewish denomination.
Pious Jewish men have been covering their heads for hundreds of years, yet there isn’t necessarily a clear and definitive Jewish law, or Halacha, requiring it. Rather, it was one of many of the Jewish customs and traditions, known as minhagim, that evolved over the centuries to become de-facto Halacha, eventually becoming the most universal identifier of observant Jewish boys and men.
Moses and the Israelites proudly left Egypt bareheaded, according to one Exodus explanation. Later, according to the Babylonian Talmud, head covering was a pious practice exclusively for learned married men, possibly because it connoted humility. After the talmudic period, one can find a dizzying variety of evidence as to what the local practices were. By the 18th and 19th century, attitudes toward head covering hardened: As Ashkenazi Jews ubiquitously covered their heads in yarmulkes, not covering became something modern Jews would do.
By the early 20th century, wearing a yarmulke became associated with Orthodox Judaism, although many men wore hats in place of yarmulkes in public. The halachic debate of whether one is required to wear a yarmulke thus shifted to the size one should wear: The bigger the yarmulke, according to popular convention, the more pious the wearer. All yarmulkes come in many sizes to fit the heads of children and adults.
Hasidic men, who belong to the ultra-Orthodox movement founded by the mystic Baal Shem Tov in 18th-century Ukraine, customarily wear black velvet yarmulkes that cover three-quarters of their heads. Subtle yet significant distinctions in the cut and rim are typically dictated by communal or familial traditions. In many Hasidic families, boys also wear a shlof-kapl — or sleeping yarmulke — a round-knit skullcap, usually white, that fits securely on one’s head.
Most Orthodox men wear yarmulkes all day, starting from the age of 3 when a boy customarily gets his first haircut. Among the Modern Orthodox, small yarmulkes the size of a baseball, secured with hair clips, are more common. Conservative Jews also wear yarmulkes, generally in synagogue, and also often when sitting down to a meal and reciting the blessings.
The yarmulke market has grown exponentially in the 21st century. In recent years, more and more women, mostly from Conservative and some Reform communities, have been wearing yarmulkes as well, typically during prayer services in synagogue.
In an effort to demystify the yarmulke, what follows is a basic guideline to the current yarmulke trends, with a focus on Orthodox Jewish men in America. But a caveat, many wearers buck convention and choose what they personally prefer.
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