Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 31a
Compilation of teachings of 3rd–6th century scholars in Babylonia (amora’im); final redaction in the 6th–7th centuries.
Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk more than four cubits with an uncovered head. He said, “God’s Presence is above me.”
תַּלְמוּד בַּבְלִי, מַסֶּכֶת קִידוּשִׁין דַּף לא עַמּוּד א
רַב הוּנָא בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַב יְהוֹשֻׁעַ לָא מַסְגֵי אַרְבַּע אַמּותֹ בְּגִילוּי הָרֹאשׁ אָמַר שְׁכִינָה לְמַעְלָה מֵרֹאשִׁי.
Foundations for Planning
- Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?
- How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
- How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
- Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
- How can Jewish practices that function as “symbols” impact the way I am a Jew?
- How can wearing a kippa help me develop a relationship with God and Judaism?
- What Jewish ideas/values are contained in the symbolism of the ritual object kippa?
- How can clothes express identity?
- How can material objects encourage spirituality?
- What is my own personal connection to the custom to wear a kippa?
- How do I feel about female Jews wearing a kippah?
- As a woman, if I choose not to wear a kippah, what other ways do I have of physically manifesting my Jewish pride?
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 31a Etymology of the Word Kipa: One of the most recognized Jewish reminders is the kippah (a word that literally means “dome”), referred to in Yiddish as a yarmulke (perhaps from two words that might be Hebrew or Hebrew and...
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 31a
Etymology of the Word Kipa: One of the most recognized Jewish reminders is the kippah (a word that literally means “dome”), referred to in Yiddish as a yarmulke (perhaps from two words that might be Hebrew or Hebrew and Aramaic, yare malka, which would mean “fears the king”; or perhaps being a derivation of a Polish word, jahrmulka, meaning “cap”).
There are no obvious biblical origins for this custom. It is agreed by most that whatever its origins, it has taken on great significance.
Purpose of head covering given in the Talmud: According to Rav Huna, keeping his head covered at all times was his way to maintain an awareness of God’s presence at all times.
In rabbinic literature, four cubits is representative of one’s personal space. Anything within those four cubits is considered to be part and parcel of the individual. Only when a person ventures outside those four cubits does the individual cross into new territory. Perhaps Rav Huna is indicating that he will not cross beyond his own personal space, his own four cubits, without bearing a reminder of God’s intimate role in his life, no matter where he goes. Within his own personal space, perhaps there he can find God most readily; however, when he moves out into the world, it is then that he will most easily forget God’s role in his life, so there he must carry with him at all times a reminder of God’s role in his life, and covering his head became the way to maintain this sense of God’s presence at all times.
What constitutes a head covering?: One point that should be clear in this discussion is that to be in fulfillment of the talmudic and halakhic principle to cover one’s head, there is no obligation to do so with a kippah specifically; any head covering: hat, cap, beret, etc. will do.
Rabbi David haLevi Segal, Turei Zahav, Orach Chayyim 8:3
Law vs. Custom: Traditional Jewish practice is made up of a combination of what is called minhagim (customs) and halakhot or mitzvot (laws or commandments). A custom will evolve for many different reasons. While halakhah is considered binding by many Jews, minhagim, often the result of local customs and prohibitions, were in some cases adopted universally or almost universally, while in other cases they became prevailing practice in only some segments of Jewry but not with others. Sources in rabbinic literature stress the importance of long-held customs, culminating in the rabbinic statement, “the minhag of our fathers is [equivalent to] Torah” (Tosafot, Tractate Menachot 20b).
Purpose of covering one’s head: This 17th century rabbinic scholar, David haLevi, was aware of the traditional custom of the kippah as a reminder to the Jew, a custom meant to preserve a sense of awe and respect for God at all times, as seen in Text 13. However, he indicates that by his time, the custom not to go bareheaded had evolved into a full and proper prohibition. This was because in his day the gentiles considered it to be an unwritten law that at all times, when a gentleman comes in and sits down, he must remove his hat. Therefore, since this was a pervasive custom among the gentiles, a Jew was obligated to keep his head covered so as not to follow in “their” ways, a behavior generally admonished by the Torah itself (Vayikra 18:3). In other words, for haLevi, the wearing of a kippah had become symbolic of not following in the customs of the nations, and so for this reason it became more than only customary.
Today it would seem that for many men and women alike, wearing a kippah at all times has become a universal way of proudly displaying one’s Jewish identity. While at one time not too long ago, wearing a kippah in public was a custom practiced only by Orthodox Jews, that too has changed and evolved in recent years.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Standing Our Ground On Wearing Kipot In Public
Historical context: Rabbi Lookstein wrote this in response to a rise in antisemitism in the United States of America in 2014. This took the US Jewish community by surprise, as they had by and large felt secure living in a country where there was far less antisemitism than in other Jewish communities around the world.
Finding contemporary meaning: For Rabbi Lookstein, the kippa represented a pride in Jewish identity, one that became more pronounced in the 1960s and 1970s due to the three events he mentions. Rather than reminding the kipa wearing Jew of their relationship with God (as seen in the two previous sources), the kipa for Rabbi Lookstein was a sign to the rest of the world that the wearer was a proud Jew.
The quote (ironically made famous by his father – see the next source) “A yarmulke is an indoor garment” with which he begins, describes the sentiment of previous generations, and his point is that the new generation of Jews, growing up in a radically different world, could now be proud to openly identify as Jews in the street. Sadly, antisemitism has made a comeback in the United States in recent years, and Rabbi Lookstein suggests that wearing a kippa in the street and showing pride in Jewish identity is more important now than ever. The next source, however, takes a different approach.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Why I Am Considering Wearing a Kippah in Public
Finding contemporary meaning: Salkin wrote this article in May of 2019 as a response to the rise in violent verbal and physical incidents of anti-Semitism in Germany. In 2018 alone, according to German government statistics, there had been a 20% rise in anti-Semitic crimes, with close to 1,800 cases reported. At that time, Germany’s commissioner on anti-Semitism suggested it would be better for Jews to refrain from wearing a kippah in public. As a response, many suggested all German Jews should wear a kippah, regardless of their personal custom, as a sign of defiance, as well as pride. Salkin considered it but decided not to wear a kippah at all times because, as he wrote, “I do not wear a kippah because they hate me.”
However, Salkin points out that wearing a kippah in modern times has added new meaning to the traditional minhag. A kippah can be worn to display ethnic pride and solidarity. It can also be worn as a differentiation between ordinary acts and acts of holiness. But ultimately, says Salkin, he chooses to wear a kippah because it represents a special relationship with God.
Inside vs. Outside Spaces: As an aside, it is interesting to contemplate Rabbi Lookstein’s position on the wearing of a kippah. On the one hand, it is mindful of the slogan of the one who many consider the father of Modern Orthodoxy, Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), to be “a human being in the street, but a Jew at home.” On the other hand, one can also contrast Lookstein’s position with that of Rabbi Shlomo Luria (1510–1573) as cited by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Auerbach (1620–1689; Ateret Zekenim on Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 2), that the primary duty to cover one’s head is specifically while outdoors because there being bareheaded is most noticeable as tossing aside God’s will. Clearly, each generation has its own way of relating to this minhag.
- Video: Kippah: What You Need to Know about the Jewish Head Covering
Show this 90 second video as an introduction to the Jewish practice of wearing a kippa. This video represents a more contemporary approach to the practice of wearing a kippa, where the wearing of a kippa not only expresses pride in being a Jew, but sometimes it also expresses what “type” of Jew you are. You may wish to show it once through, and then ask students to answer the following questions while watching it a second time:
- How many names for a kippa are used in the video?
- How many reasons can you find for wearing a kippa in the video?
- How many different “types” of kippa that represent a different “type” of Jew can you find in the video?
(Check out https://edpuzzle.com/home for a great Edtech platform to incorporate videos into your lessons)
- Jew or non-Jew? Show the following ten photos (see Appedix A), and ask your students to identify the celebrities, and whether they are Jewish or not? Then discuss if this was harder because they were all wearing kippot and if so why (because a kippah is the ultimate sign of jewishness. You may also wish to discuss why a non-Jew would choose to wear a kippa).
- David Beckhum (not Jewish)
- George W. Bush (not Jewish)
- Ben Stiller (Jewish)
- The Pope (not Jewish)
- Bob Dylan (Jewish)
- Prince Charles (not-Jewish)
- Seth Rogen (Jewish)
- Adam Sandler (Jewish)
- Conan O’Brian (not Jewish)
- Sacha Baron Cohen (Jewish)
Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.
Most striking about the first text is it is not a biblical text, because the custom to cover one’s head developed in talmudic times and has no biblical source. This talmudic statement shows us the earliest approach to covering one’s head was about reminding us of God’s continual presence in our lives. We will see in later sources that other meanings to this custom developed, but at this early stage the kippa was a reminder in a similar manner to the mitzvot of tefillin, tzitzit, and mezuzah. The following questions will help your students to unpack this idea:
- This is one of the earliest texts that discusses the Jewish custom to cover one’s head. How does it compare to the source texts for other similar mitzvot such as tzitzit and mezuzah?
- What does a head covering achieve for Rav Huna?
- How does this compare to the mitzvot of tefillin, tzitzit, and mezuzah?
- According to this source is a head covering sending a message to the wearer or to the outside world?
- How do you think this continued reminder affected the everyday life of Rav Huna?
- How would your behavior on a day to day basis be impacted if you had a continued reminder of God’s presence?
- When do/would you wear a kipa?
- Does wearing a kippa have this impact on you?
The second later source is more proscriptive and halakhic in nature (the first source only spoke of Rav Huna whereas this is a halakhic statement binding on all Jews), showing the covering one’s head developed over time from a recommended custom to a halakhic requirement. It also adds a second idea – that wearing a head covering separates Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors. These questions will help your students to consider these two ideas:
- How does the language in this source differ from the previous one (hint: one is descriptive and one is proscriptive)?
- Does this source have a similar reason for the custom to cover one’s head as Rav Huna in the previous source?
- The source introduces a second reason why Jews must cover their heads. What is it and how do you feel about it?
- According to each of these two reasons, is a head covering sending a message to the wearer or to the outside world?
- Why do you think for this authority it is important for Jews to be seperate from non-Jews? How do you feel about this?
- Do you think wearing a kippa today has either or both of these impacts on the wearer?
- What was the previous generations approach to wearing kippot in public? Why do you think this was?
- What changed and how did that impact many Jews?
- Why are these authors reconsidering this approach in recent years?
- What is their opinion to the question “should we wear kippot in the street today” and why?
- (If you have read both articles) which approach resonates with you more?
- What is your opinion about this question?
- Do you wear a kippa in the street? Why or why not?
- Role play kippa wearing in various situations: Would you wear a kippa (or another obvious identifying symbol of your Jewishness, such as a magen david necklace) in the following situations (you could ask your students to role play the situation, or provide them with multiple choice options and discuss which they would choose. Afterwards, discuss as a class why each decision was taken, if it was a hard decision to make, and what rationale went into the decision. Possible scenarios could be:
- You have been invited to a new non-Jewish friend’s house for a party, and you are desperate to make a good impression in a new crowd. No one knows you are Jewish.
- You are interviewing for a dream job/university place.
- You are going to be interviewed on television.
- First day at a new job/university.
- Kippa on trial: You could create a fictitious scenario where the government is considering prohibiting all overt expressions of religious affiliation in national and public institutions (in order to protect the separation of religion and state). This would mean wearing kippot (and the hijab and crucifixes) would become illegal in these civic spaces. Ask your students to become representatives of the Jewish community, and prepare arguments to be heard before a government commission of enquiry on this topic. This could be in the form of a speech (given live or in a video) or a written statement (or article/op-ed written in a national newspaper).
Some interesting EdTech tools you could use for this debate/presentations:
Message on a kippa: Kippot today represent different communities and approaches to Judaism (as seen in the trigger video). But today kippot are also used as an expression of other values and interests which the wearer wants to express to the world. Show your students the following photos of several kippot (See Appendix B) and ask them to suggest what we can learn about the wearer from them. You could also ask your students to design their own kippa, deciding what message they would express on it to the world. This could be a good trigger to discuss whether a kippa is as a reminder for the wearer or a means to express something to the world.