Kippah (pronounced kee-pah) is the Hebrew word for the skullcap traditionally worn by Jewish men. It is also called a yarmulke or koppel in Yiddish. Kippot (plural of kippah) are worn at the apex of a person's head. After the Star of David, they are probably one of the most recognizable symbols of Jewish identity.
Who Wears Kippot and When?
Traditionally only Jewish men wore kippot. However, in modern times some women also choose to wear kippot as an expression of their Jewish identity or as a form of religious expression.
When a kippah is worn varies from person to person. In Orthodox circles Jewish men usually wear kippot all the time, whether they are attending a religious service or going about their daily lives outside of the synagogue. In Conservative communities men almost always wear kippot during religious services or during formal occasions, such as during a High Holiday dinner or when attending a Bar Mitzvah. In Reform circles, it is equally common for men to wear kippot as it is for them not to wear kippot.
Ultimately the decision about whether or not to wear a kippah comes down to personal choice and the customs of the community an individual belongs to. Religiously speaking, wearing kippot is not obligatory and there are many Jewish men who do not wear them at all.
What Does a Kippah Look Like?
Originally all kippot looked the same. They were small, black skullcaps worn at the apex of a man's head. However, nowadays kippot come in all sorts of colors and sizes. Visit your local Judaica shop or a market in Jerusalem and you will see everything from knitted kippot in all the colors of the rainbow to kippot sporting baseball team logos. Some kippot will be small skullcaps, others will cover the entire head, and yet others will resemble caps. When women wear kippot sometimes they select ones made of lace or that are adorned with feminine decorations. Both men and women usually attach kippot to their hair with bobby pins.
Among those who wear kippot, it is not uncommon to have a collection of different styles, colors and sizes. This variety allows the wearer to select whichever kippah suits their mood or their reason for wearing it. For instance, a black kippah might be worn to a funeral, while a colorful kippah might be worn to a holiday gathering. When a Jewish boy has a Bar Mitzvah or a Jewish girl has a Bat Mitzvah, oftentimes special kippot will be made for the occasion.
Why Do Jews Wear Kippot?
Wearing a kippah is not a religious commandment. Rather it is a Jewish custom that over time has come to be associated with Jewish identity and showing respect for God. In Orthodox and Conservative circles covering one’s head is seen as a sign of yirat Shamayim, which means "reverence for God" in Hebrew. This concept comes from the Talmud, where wearing a head covering is associated with showing respect for God and for men of higher social status. Some scholars also cite the Middle Age custom of covering one's head in the presence of royalty. Since God is the "King of Kings" it made sense to also cover one's head during prayer or religious services, when one hopes to approach the Divine through worship.
According to author Alfred Koltach, the earliest reference to a Jewish head covering comes from Exodus 28:4, where it is called mitzneft and refers to a part of the High Priest's wardrobe. Another biblical reference is II Samuel 15:30, where covering the head and face is a sign of mourning.
Sources: "The Jewish Book of Why" by Alfred J. Koltach. Jonathan David Publishers, Inc. New York, 1981.