Put a Lid on It
Can an article of clothing say something profound about the universe?
Jews think so. The yarmulke (yes, it’s spelled that way, and pronounced yahm-ikah) is the Yiddish word for the Hebrew kippah (kee-pah). It’s just a little piece of fabric (cloth, woven, satin, leather, among other things) that we put on our heads. Why?
A folk etymology demonstrates a primary purpose of the kippah. The Aramaic words yarei (awe or fear) and malka (king), when put together – and said very quickly! – sound like yarmulke, and so a tradition has emerged that this distinctive Jewish garb is a symbol of our awe in the presence of God.
It emerges from a period in which it was impolite to walk around bare-headed (in American culture it is the opposite now) in the presence of another. So to dawn a kippah was to acknowledge that you were in the presence – always – of Another
There is a big debate that we don’t have to get caught up in here about whether the wearing of a kippah is a halachic (Jewish legal) requirement, or just a venerable custom that should be maintained. The short version is that even though wearing a kippah is now universal in religious settings, historically speaking some very significant and influential rabbis ruled that wearing a kippah is not required by Jewish law.
But the real point is that it symbolizes a core Jewish spiritual posture: that we should constantly have a sense of awareness that there is more to life than what we can see, that there is a greater purpose to our lives. All our acts and even our thoughts should follow from this core fact of existence.
And we put the kippah on top of our dome, the container of our mind. It is a reminder that our thoughts, our sense of self, our ego, our drives and wishes, our very consciousness that orients us in the universe – that none of these things is the final take on reality. There is something else that we cannot name, or describe; something that invests our lives with meaning. We acknowledge this without demeaning ourselves, with the subtle act of politely topping off our consciousness with the kippah.
Got that? A piece of clothing that represents a spiritual consciousness? How…Jewish. Our tradition is a tapestry of symbols, metaphors, gestures and deeds that are all intended to elevate our souls by reminding us what matters. So, it’s a little hat…but really so much more.
From the perspective of secular culture, and from the perspective of non-Jews, these peculiarities of the Jewish people are simply strange. Not eating certain kinds of foods at the same meal? Not driving or using electronics one day of the week? Eating unleavened bread for eight days in the spring?
It might seem odd that we rely on these things, and on a peculiar little piece of cloth to remind us of a fundamental truth of our lives. One could say, “Can’t you just remember to tend to your spiritual life without all that stuff?” The Jewish answer is, “Actually, no!” To be human is to be constantly caught in the cycle of remembering and forgetting. Beautiful moments of awareness punctuate our lives – as though we can see to the very core of the world, and there is the intimation of something transcendent. And the next moment we are sitting in front of the TV munching on a bag of chips.
So, the kippah – and the mitzvoth – perform a beautiful kind of trick. They are simple (sometimes not so simple) things we do in the material world to raise our awareness that life is not just about the material world.
My kippah also serves as an inspiration to good behavior. When I’m in public and wearing it, there’s part of me that is aware that I’m representing our tradition, our God, and our people. It’s a powerful reminder to myself that there’s a person I want to be, a way I want to act, in each moment. Acting in the right way is a good in and of itself, and we should all merit to be motivated by goodness for its own sake. But, truth be told, all of us forget our higher selves, and we can be impatient, rude, disrespectful, and unkind – all in a day’s work! Listen, we’re human. The kippah, this public declaration of who I am and what I stand for, can help me remember to be the person I want to be and need to be.
All Together Now
There is another reason that we wear the kippah, though. It is a way of saying, “I am a part of this People, I am part of this Story.” I wear my kippah with pride because it allows me to share my love for the Jewish people and to acknowledge that so much of who I am, and how I think, and what I care about is informed by the Jewish past and present. There was a time when to be a Jew was to be the subject of ridicule, and certainly to be a religious Jew was to endure cruel barbs, so wearing a kippah is also a way to honor the Jewish past and Jewish pride.