Why Do Religious Male Jews Cover Their Heads?

Religious male Jews cover their heads with platter-shaped cap (yarmulkah), usually made of cloth to distinguish between them and their Creator.

The custom of wearing such “yarmulkah” (also known as “kippah”) is itself not rooted in the Hebrew Bible as is the case with tzitzit – tassels, hanging from the corners of male clothes (Num. 15:38).

The covering of the head in Biblical times was something mandatory only for the high priest. The idea of all males covering their heads was an invention of emerging rabbinical Judaism (around 3rd century CE) that sought to reconstitute Israel under their leadership after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, symbolically projecting priestly duties on every male Jew.

But what does “yarmulkah” mean in Hebrew? The answer is nothing. The word is in Judeo-German language called Yiddish. It is compound word made up of two Aramaic words – Yar (fear) – Malkah (the King).

Disclaimer: Unlike Hebrew, Aramaic has a different grammar system and so all of you Hebrew experts out there keep that in mind before you think I made a mistake confusing “Queen” in Hebrew with “the King” in Aramaic :-).

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  1. Maria

    As Ildiko already mentioned, according to 1 Corinthians 11:3-15, it is a custom for Reformational women to wear a headcovering during the services. So upon leaving our home to go to the church I’m wearing a hat or other headcovering. Upon returning home from the service I put my hat off after entering our door.
    About approximately 50 years ago, women who couldn’t afford to buy a hat, wore a shawl covering their head, and little girls often wear some knitted kind of headcovering.
    Men, if they wear a headcovering, take their headcoverings off before entering the church and keep them off until they step outside the church after the service.
    Furthermore, it isn’t that long ago, when people didn’t leave home without a headcovering, men as well as women.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      These are all matters of culture. Many cultural customs have deep meaning and some people look at them as commandments and signs of piety. Culture changes from one country to another.

  2. Samson Titus

    Every religion has its own beliefs and practices and their own reasons for such practices. But man deeply needs to think on the origination of religions and why so many religions and its denominations.Every person who has his beliefs on any particular religion thinks, his is the best. On this conflict of whose belief is the best the world suffers for peace.It is surely a impossible situation that needs introspection in a broader sense for ” World Peace”. Which is the need of the hour. God bless you!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      In order to have a chance at peace we as a people have to learn how to respect each other and that means seeking to understand each other, why we do what we do and why it is important. If we understand each other a little better maybe we will become more courteous to each others preferences and priorities. Just a thought…

  3. Daphne Brown

    Dear Dr. Eli

    Thanks for this enlightenment. But if this is so (and I do trust your expertise), then why do all the other males (non-priests) feel obligated to wear “kippah” every day?

    Also, how do you explain 1Cor. 11: 5-7?

    Thank you.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Have you read the verse about Israel being a Kingdom of Priests? The theological idea is that just as a priests serve the entire Israel as priests, so all of Israel serve as priests to the whole world. Most educated Jews will tell you kippah is not an obligation, but a tradition, a meaningful one to many that allows to reinforce identity, which is easy to lose in a pluralistic world. The calling to be different is rarely heeded by people these days…

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        The Corinthians verse, by the way, has nothing to do with Jews. It was a local Corinthian issue tied to general gender confusion they had in the community.

  4. Jerry Christensen

    What I find interesting is that somehow during the cultural transition from Judaism to Christianity the custom of headcovering changed from men to women.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      The custom actually did not change in my opinion but remained entranced in the populations that practice it. In the middle east men cover their head and it is not about Judaism, its the eastern way, the symbolic sign of respect even among non-Jews. Western culture, Greco-Roman variety it is the opposite. It is not Christianity vs Judaism, it is broader, East vs. West.

  5. Elizebeth Baker

    Find these discussions very helpful. Would like to keep seeing them.

  6. ruth hirt

    It is not simply interesting but, over the fact, Christianity stemmed from Judaism, Christians have more reasons to delve into the facts and history of Judaism and all that is related to it. Amen.
    Thank you for these studies you make available to everyone.

  7. Kat

    This has made me think too. In some larger non-denominational churches the “attractiveness” is achieved by eliminating religious “rules”. Why is this seemingly type of Judaism taboo? I don’t like cultural authority, but we must conform to it at work, within government, etc. Why is it right everywhere but church?

  8. Ildiko

    So, in the Lord’s perspective is correct or not for a men to cover his head?

  9. Ildiko

    There is something what I can’t understand… In New Testament, in I Corinthians Ap. Paul say :” 3. But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head.”

  10. Kat

    Cathy, thank you. I had no religious authority growing up so I understand “doing good” perhaps a little differently. I see submitting to authority as positive (Romans 13). This now changes my question to: Did the rabbinical leadership of the 3rd century contradict the Ten Commandments?