Fundamentally Freund: Does the yarmulke make the man?

If looking for sure sign that Jewish people are as divided as ever, you need look no further than top of men’s heads.

Kipot (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If you are looking for a sure sign that the Jewish people are as divided as ever, you need look no further than the top of men’s heads.
Walking down a street in Jerusalem, it is hard not to notice the multiplicity of shapes, colors and sizes of skullcaps, or kippot, that adorn the domes of religious Jewish men.
Popularly known by the Yiddish term “yarmulke,” which is said to be a contraction of “yerei malka,” two Aramaic words that mean “fear of the King,” this article of faith and clothing has rapidly taken on levels of meaning more dizzying than the variety in which it comes.
To the astute observer, a quick glance at the type and location of a person’s yarmulke can provide a wealth of general information about the wearer.
A small, knitted yarmulke perched precariously at the top of the head is usually indicative of a more modern Orthodox Jew, while the large, soup-bowl type is generally preferred by right-wing religious Zionists associated with yeshivas such as Mercaz HaRav.
Black velvet is the choice of many haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, though where it is placed and whether it has a rim or not can speak volumes about its owner.
Suede is said to be the most neutral, as long as it is black or navy blue. Any other color will immediately stand out, suggesting a more liberal adherence to Jewish law.
And the decision to use clips or pins to hold the yarmulke in place is rife with symbolism, as many in the yeshiva world view it as a sign that a person is more “modern” in their outlook.
Indeed, what ornithology is to birds and cosmology is to the universe, the study of yarmulkes – which I refer to as “yarmuthology” – is to the Jewish world.
And that is precisely the problem.
For as tempting as it is to revel in the assortment of yarmulkes as a sign of the diversity of Jewish life, the sad fact is that a person’s choice of head-gear often turns into a label, leading others to jump to conclusions about them which may have little or no connection to reality.
The yarmulke a person selects says nothing about their awe of heaven, intellectual prowess or business integrity, let alone their meticulousness in the observance of the mitzvot. To judge other Jews based on the size or shape of their kippa is not only wrong but foolish.
It might indicate how they wish others to view them or to which faction or group they want to belong. But anything beyond that is pure speculation and nothing more.
According to the Talmud, a head-covering is supposed to instill a person with an awareness that G-d is above them. In tractate Kiddushin (31a), the Talmud states that Rabbi Huna the son of Rabbi Yehoshua “would not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. He said: ‘the Divine Presence is above my head.’” Similarly, in tractate Shabbat (156b), the mother of Rabbi Nahman the son of Yitzchak warned him to “cover your head so that the fear of Heaven may be upon you.”
In both cases it is clear that the head-covering is intended to uplift its wearer and not to serve as a form of party identification.
Nonetheless, we have taken the yarmulke and transformed it from a spiritual tool into a religious yardstick, demeaning and cheapening it and our fellow Jews in the process.
Somehow, I don’t think that is what our sages had in mind.
I have always worn my yarmulke as a badge of Jewish pride and as a reminder of my obligations to my Creator.
And yes, it also helps to cover my growing bald spot.
But all that is between me and G-d. Why must others look at the knitted fabric and color patterns and draw all kinds of inferences? In today’s world, the fact that a Jew chooses to self-identify as such by donning a yarmulke is an act of valor and even daring. There are plenty of places, from the streets of Paris to the thoroughfares of Vienna, where the sight of a proud Jew with a kippa still elicits icy stares.
So let’s give our fellow Jews the benefit of the doubt, rather than tearing them apart and trying to stuff them in one category or another.
Does the yarmulke make the man? The answer, of course, should be obvious. In G-d’s eyes it is not what is on your head that counts, but what is inside that matters.
It is time we started learning from His example.
The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel ( which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.