The Yarmulke – A Crown of Honor. A Sign of Humility. A Target

Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything; how to sleep, how to eat…how to work…how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, “How did this tradition get started?” I’ll tell you!

– Tevye, “A Fiddler on the Roof”

Tradition. It is the unbroken chain which has kept the Jewish people from – with apologies to the Fiddler – losing our balance and losing ourselves in the world. Unlike evangelical religions that find their fundamental meaning in winning our converts, our traditions and rituals are designed to draw our thoughts and our actions to God; they are very heartfelt and, in a manner of speaking, private. They are ours and they have no reason or intent to trouble the world. Yet, some of our traditions, even the most benign of them, seem to trouble the world greatly, and to inflame it to violence against us.

Take for example, the simple yarmulke. A piece of fabric resting upon one’s head. How could such a thing possibly cause consternation? Yes, yes, I know. Some yarmulkes do carve out positions that do sometimes demand a response. While the yarmulkes that display characters from children’s books or television shows are certainly not a reason to become incensed, the yarmulkes that are festooned with team symbols from football and baseball or basketball teams can enliven passionate debate, like any other emblem of team loyalty. But I am not concerned with these yarmulkes. Nor am I concerned with yarmulkes which, in addition to showing devotion to God, proclaim political positions or nationalistic identifications, which by the images on them have the potential to arouse debate about decidedly non-spiritual issues.

I am asking just that we consider the simple, black yarmulke.

What harm does it do anyone? Really, what challenge does it present? It is ours to wear for the simple reason that by wearing it we show our devotion to God.. To go without a yarmulke, to have one’s head uncovered, is a k’chukos ha’goyim –the “Gentile way.” We cover our heads not because it identifies us as Jews – although it does do that – but because wearing it makes concrete to ourselves our devotion to God.

If our concern was primarily identification as Jews, we could find hundreds of ways to accomplish that aim. Yet, if the purpose of wearing a yarmulke, to cover one’s head, was only devotion, why not simply wear a hat and be done with it? Indeed, some Jews do wear hats, often to actually minimize self-identification while “out in the world”. However, any number of modern thinkers and teachers have suggested that wearing a yarmulke is worthy of greater merit and brings about a greater sanctification of God’s name. Perhaps because a yarmulke, unlike a hat, can have no other purpose than an act of devotion. A yarmulke will certainly not keep a head warm on a chilly day or keep the glare of the sun out of one’s eyes!

What’s more, everyone wears hats, Jew and non-Jew alike.

Only Jews wear yarmulkes. So yes, a skullcap is an article of identification but it is so much more. It is a statement of our abiding piety.  Wearing a yarmulke is a conscious acknowledgement that we stand beneath something much greater than ourselves; much greater than our intelligence or our creativity; much greater than our egos. We stand beneath the gaze of our God. As such, the yarmulke is a statement of our humility.

This modest bit of fabric certainly accomplishes a great deal! Is it any wonder that Jews actively, consciously and devotedly place it upon our heads? To do otherwise would be to declare ourselves as “hidden Jews”, modern day Marranos who would degrade our devotion to God for no other reason than we fear the eyes of the world.

Our devotion to God should be of no concern to the world. Yet, as we have seen and experienced over the centuries, the world seems to concern itself with us whether we want it to or not – and usually in ways that seek to do us harm. The world seems to have determined that our yarmulkes are little more than targets upon our heads, providing focus for its hatred and ill will toward us.

Would that the ugliness of anti-Semitism were a thing of the past, a relic of time that saw its most horrific expression less than a century ago. Unfortunately, it isn’t. we see growing evidence of anti-Semitism in our own time. On January 18th, the Jerusalem Post reported that France is the “most dangerous country for Jews today.” The article quoted Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry and Minister Naftali Bennett’s presentation to the cabinet of a report on anti-Semitic trends over the past year.

The report, which was compiled in collaboration with the Coordination Forum for Countering anti-Semitism and presented in anticipation of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, made clear that it is Muslim extremists who are the “main instigators of global anti-Semitsm.”

Main instigators. But their fire they carry too easily finds welcoming tinder. This hatred is ancient, yet it continues to metastasize in new ways. “We continue to see deterioration around the world. The old anti-Semitism, spouting the familiar stereotype of a global Jewish conspiracy, is being increasingly coupled with the campaign to delegitimize Israel,” the statement went on to say.

“It is radical Islam which is acting as the bridge for these two racist beliefs. They’ll use any perverted excuse to further their goal, which is the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.”

As this hatred smolders and grows, we find that the yarmulke is playing a significant and unwanted role in its resurgence. The Forward, filed the following report on January 25th.

A Swedish reporter who walked around the southern city of Malmo while wearing a kippah to test attitudes toward Jews was hit once and cursed at by passerby before he fled for fear of serious violence. 

Sverieges Television aired secretly recorded footage from Petter Ljunggren’s walk through Malmo, which documented some of the incidents that occured within the space of few hours.

In one scene, Ljunggren – who, in addition to wearing a kippah was also wearing a Star of David pendant – was filmed sitting at a cafe in central Malmo reading a newspaper, as several passerby hurled anti-Semitic insults at him.

A man sits in a cafe. He does nothing to incite a response or reaction from anyone other than to wear a yarmulke (and a Star of David pendant, although it is unclear how prominent that might have been). Yet, for his “aggressive” posture, he is insulted and threatened.

The situation has become so dangerous, that people have begun to consider great lengths to conceal this modest display of piety!

Voz iz Neias: What’s News reported in a January 23rd edition that an Israeli barber in Rehovot, has gone so ar as to fashion what he described as “magic” yarmulkes made out of hair! These yarmulkes would allow religious Jews to cover their heads without attracting unwanted attention from anti-Semites.

The barber, Shalom Koresh, said he had seen particular interest from buyers in France and Belgium.

A simple bit of fabric. Is it really so important? Could we not find another way to demonstrate to God our devotion?

It is told that many centuries ago, a Jew died and after his burial and Kaddish, his sould rose to Heaven to receive the Divine judgment. When it arrived, it presented the good and bad deeds performed during the man’s life and then awaited judgment. But no judgment came. In the majestic hush of Heaven, something unimaginable occured; the good and bad deeds of this soul were exactly equal.

The soul could neither enter the Gates of Paradise nor could it be cast to  Hell. The mighty tribunal determined that it was destined to hover aimlessly between Heaven and Earth until God Himself should take pity and beckon the soul unto Him.

How the soul howled in agony at the verdict! It pled for mercy.

The Heavenly shammos wept for the poor soul. Taking pity on it, the shammos offered the soul a glimmer of hope. “Fly down and hover close to the world of the living…and when you’ve brought three appropriate gifts, rest assured – the Gates of Paradise will open to you, the gifts will do their work.”

The soul hovered close to earth for century after century until finally it collected its first two gifts: a bit of earth from the Holy Land mixed with the blood of a Jewish martyr, and a pin soaked with the blood of a modest and pious Jewess, also martyred.

“Only one more gift!”

But what could that gift be?

After centuries more of searching, the soul landed in a camp prison yard. There, two long rows of soldiers faced each other, creating a narrow passage between them through which an old, emaciated Jew was pushed, prodded and beaten.

The soul viewed the torture of this poor man with horror and sadness. The dignity that the old Jew managed to preserve was remarkable, but his calm seemed only to incite these soldiers to greater brutality. And then the Jew fell to his knees.

A moment later, he was dead.

The hovering soul came closer. There in the mud, it saw the murdered man’s forgotten yarmulke. It collected the unobserved yarmulke, the “dirtied piece of cloth” which had earned the man so many wicked blows and carried it up to the little window of Heaven. there this third gift was accepted as, “truly beautiful. Unusually beautiful.”

The soul then entered Paradise and eternal rest.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, lecturer and author. He has devoted many years in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and as vice president of marketing and communications at OU Kosher. He resides in New York, while enjoying his long stays in Jerusalem. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has been published by KTAV, July 2018.
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