Yarmulka

By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried

Rabbi Fried:

If the yarmulka is for the purpose of spirituality, each person must decide whether or not it makes them feel more connected to God. However, it seems for me and most people today it’s about representing yourself to the secular world as a Jew. What is the purpose in making a physical distinction between us and the rest of the world? Why? Isn’t there enough divisiveness?

Joe

Dear Joe,

The Yiddish word “yarmulka” is a conjugation of two Aramaic words, “yarei” and “malka,” meaning “awe” and “king.” The connotation of this is that by one covering his head, it serves as a constant reminder that there is a King watching over one’s actions; this provides a level of awe/fear to not do the wrong thing. This is borne out by the statement of the Code of Jewish Law that one should not walk four cubits without a head covering, out of honor for the Shechinah, or Divine Presence, which we believe is constantly with us (Orach Chaim 2:6).

A statement by the Talmud teaches a second lesson, that a head covering helps one attain the characteristic of humility.

Based on this, the Yiddish word yarmulka is saturated with far more meaning than the Modern Hebrew equivalent, kippah, which simply means “covering.”

Some have pointed out the challenge of attaining any spiritual benefit from a kippah we often forget about after putting it on in the morning. When one begins wearing one, there is a certain excitement — which often fades. 

The challenge of fusing the wearing of a yarmulka with feeling and meaning despite its lack of spontaneity is a challenge not only with the yarmulka but with all the observances of daily mitzvos, which can become “regular” and by rote.

The two ideas cited above, the “fear of the King” and humility, are the true reason we wear a kippah, not to show we are different than others. I would agree with you, however, that there may be Jews who have lost the original, spiritual intent and wear it only to stand out and be different. That would not, however, be the motivation of most.

I would say in defense of those Jews who might be wearing a yarmulka to stand out that they, too, are doing a positive thing. The Jewish people, in our role as a “light unto the nations,” are to serve as an example for all of mankind that we are living under the banner of the Al-mighty. We are “G-d’s army,” charged to carry out His will and sanctify the Name of G-d. Every army in the world is distinguished by its uniform. No one ever challenged a man in uniform for wearing something different than all the civilians, claiming that he is causing diversity and increasing divisiveness in their country. It’s understood that the soldiers in army need to dress in a unique way to carry out their purpose. The yarmulka, although technically it is not an “obligation,” has become the uniform of the “Jewish army” that teaches the world the message of G-d.

This is a uniform we wear with great pride!

Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA-Dallas Area Torah Association.

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