Kipa Meaning What’s in a Head Covering
In Israel one sees religious Jewish men with little discs of all different sizes and color on their heads, made of many different materials. One of the most common questions I get from tourists is about the significance of these different kipas (yarmulkes) Jewish men wear. The yarmulke, in Hebrew kipa, is like any piece of clothing, and signals something about us to other people. It might signal how stringent you are in following Jewish law, or what sub-community of Jews you belong to. It might be a reflection of your personality in general, or how you’re feeling that day. On top of the religious requirement to cover our heads, there are layers of social and political differences, personal preferences and of course fashion. So how do you know what that yarmulke means?
To give a real answer requires an overview of Orthodox Judaism today in all its shades and varieties. But to make it simple, let’s say we have a graph. On one (up-down) axis we see how stringent a person is in following Jewish law (halacha). On the other axis (left-right) we see how Zionist a person is. That is, how supportive of the modern, secular state of Israel. The farther up a person is on the ‘stringency’ axis the bigger the kipa will be. The more ‘zionist’ a person is the more the kipa will tend to be knit (instead of black and velvet) and colorful. In the end our graph looks something like this.
The ‘Ultra Orthodox’ who fill in the top right quadrant of the chart are defined mostly by non-Zionism and stringency in Jewish law. That’s why the non-Zionist group has nothing in the ‘less stringent’ quadrant. Zionist Jews are defined more by their support for the state of Israel and less by their stringency within Jewish law.
Of course, there are many shades of grey and many types of kipa that won’t fit on this handy little chart. The easiest way to find out what group someone belongs to is to ask them. But if you’re shy following these ‘rules’ will give you an idea.