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Parshas Vayeitzei (5773)

Yarmulka: The Best Coverage

There is an old joke my grandfather used to tell us ... How do we know that our forefather Jacob wore a kippah? [Kippah, the Hebrew word for “dome”, is a small, round, fabric head-covering, also known as a yarmulka, worn by observant Jewish men.] Because it says in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayeitzei: “And Jacob went out” ... and would our forefather Jacob go out without a kippah?!?

Some suggest that the word yarmulka is actually a contraction of two Aramaic words yarei and malka, which mean “fear of the king”. This name expresses one of the main purposes of wearing a yarmulka – to remind us that G-d is always above us and watching us at all times. This awareness of G-d’s presence, brought about by the yarmulke, humbles a person and protects him from sin.

It is for this reason that many Jews have the custom of educating their children to wear yarmulkas from a very young age – most commonly from the age of three – for this way the children will develop a fear and awe of G-d in their early, formative years.

The kippah on top of a Jew’s head also marks him as a representative of G-d and the Jewish religion, thus reminding him at all times of his responsibility to act properly and to be a faithful representative of Judaism.

Rabbi Mordechai Becher, in his book Gateway to Judaism: The What, How, and Why of Jewish Life (Shaar Press), offers yet another reason for covering one’s head, which ties in with the upcoming holiday of Chanukah:

The Greeks believed that their minds were the ultimate judges of reality and morality, that there is no cap or limitation on the human brain. The Jewish view accepts that our perception is limited, that human beings are not the ultimate arbiters of moral standards – that these must come from an absolute source – G-d. We cover our heads to demonstrate our understanding that the human mind is limited, that an Authority exists above and beyond us.

Jewish law requires a man to wear a yarmulka (or any other head-covering, such as a baseball cap) when entering a synagogue to pray or when reciting G-d’s name. If one wants to make a blessing but does not have a kippah nearby, he can always pull his shirt sleeve up over his hand and then place his hand on his head to recite the blessing (since the hand and the head are part of one body, the hand by itself can’t “cover” the body), or he can ask his friend to place his hand on his head.

Abe asked his eldest son to say the ‘hamotzi’ (blessing over bread). His son realized that he didn't have his head covered, so he asked his little brother to put a hand on his head until he finished the blessing. But after a few minutes, the younger son grew impatient and took off his hand. Abe said, "What are you doing? Put your hand back on your brother's head." The younger son replied, "Am I my brother's kippah?"

It has been a widespread custom for many centuries and millennia for Jewish men to cover their heads at all times, and many Jews are careful not to walk even “four cubits” (around 7 feet) without a yarmulka on their head. This way, they’ve got good “coverage” wherever they go. [As to why women traditionally don’t wear yarmulkas, some have suggested that women are naturally more intuitive into spiritual concepts and have a greater awareness of G-d’s presence and thus don't need as tangible and physical a reminder as the men need. Now you may consider this explanation to be mere apologetics and patronizing to women, but I will tell you one thing ... My wife certainly does not need a yarmulke!]

Since wearing a kippah at all times is not a legal requirement, Jewish law allows a person to go with his head uncovered in cases where wearing one might jeopardize his livelihood. [I know some men who wear toupees to work to get around that problem.] A halachic authority should be consulted in specific cases.

One of the biggest issues that people who didn’t grow up wearing a kippah have when considering whether or not they should start wearing one is that once they put on the kippah they automatically “stick out” in a crowd and everybody knows that they are Jewish. This reminds me of a joke ...

Two bumblebees were whizzing in the air and conversing. One of them complained of not being able to find anything to eat and being so hungry. "Go to the synagogue," suggested his friend. "It's a bar mitzvah today. There'll be plenty of food." A few hours later he spotted his formerly ravished buddy, now looking sleekly satisfied. "What's that round thing on your head?" he inquired. "It's called a kippah." "What's it for?" "I didn't want them to think I was a wasp!"

Just like the bumble bee in the joke who didn’t want to stick out as the only “wasp” at a Jewish event, many Jews are self-conscious about their Jewishness and want very much to “fit in” to the non-Jewish society in which they live – and to them a yarmulka achieves the opposite effect in that it separates the Jew wearing it from those around him.

Michael Graubart Levin, in his fascinating book Journey to Tradition: The Odyssey of a Born-Again Jew (Ktav Publishing House) describes what happened when he put on a yarmulka for the first time:

Sometimes it felt like an umbrella and sometimes it felt like a dime, but I always knew it was there. I was comfortable with every aspect of my experiment with Orthodoxy save one – the yarmulke. It attracted attention in the street, and it confused and frightened my family. I wore it nonetheless in New York that August and during the following school year. It was a lightning rod for conversation and consternation among my family and friends. For the first time in my life I heard people on the street say derogatory things about Jews. In Manhattan, a hot dog vendor said something like “Get out of my way, you f---ing Jew.” In Holyoke, Massachusetts, twenty minutes from my college town of Amherst, at a minor league ballgame I attended just before the school year began, some local kids told me to “Come here with that little hat, Jewboy.” I was fascinated and repelled. It was as though I had put on not a yarmulke but earphones and a radio antenna and now I was attuned to all the anti-Semitic signals in the air that I had never heard before. That anti-Semitism I encountered only strengthened my resolve to wear the yarmulke. Interestingly, the Jewish law does not obligate a person to cover his or her head. Most observant men do so because it is a very strong custom. I suppose the message here for any potential baalei teshuva (returnees to Torah and mitzvah observance) is make the yarmulke your last step and not your first. It may be best to wait until family and friends have adjusted to other things – your observing the Sabbath or the laws of kashrut – before you wear the yarmulke in public.

I have the privilege of teaching every Sunday morning in a local Hebrew School where I serve as the Rabbi, and I go around to all the classes and play “Stump the Rabbi” where the kids ask me questions and try to stump me. [They never do.] I am almost invariably asked the same question every week: “Rabbi, why do we have to wear a yarmulka?” To which I always respond, “Have to? I want to! You see, wearing this round thing on my head lets everyone know that I am Jewish, and, guess what, I want them to know that I am Jewish because I love being Jewish and I am extremely proud of it!”

Now I know that I haven’t “covered” the yarmulka topic in its entirety, but I do hope that I have given you, my dear readers, some food for thought. And who knows, maybe one day you will try one on for size (if you don’t already wear one) and your wife might like it on you and say “It’s a keeper!”

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