The kippah (Hebrew; plural, kippot), or yarmulke (Yiddish), is a head covering worn by observant Jews to demonstrate their humility before and fear of God, whose name is usually spelled "G-d." Whereas in some faith traditions—notably Christianity—one uncovers one's head to show respect (usually in a house of worship), the reverse is the case in Judaism, where an uncovered head is seen as a sign of arrogance.
The kippah does not have its origins in Jewish law, but its use has been a nearly universal practice since gaining popularity in the thirteenth century. Among American Jews, wearing the kippah varies according to one's level of observance and one's denominational affiliation. Orthodox and other traditional Jews wear the kippah at all times, except in bed, whereas Conservative Jews usually wear a kippah only during prayer services. Among Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, wearing a kippah is always optional, even during prayer services.
Among Orthodox Jews, the kippah is worn only by men, although women are under similar religious obligations to cover their heads. Since the late 1960s, however, some non-Orthodox women, seeking to overcome gender-based differences and inequities in Jewish traditions, have chosen to wear a kippah, though generally only while praying. They often also wear a tallit, or prayer shawl. This trend has contributed to a general increase in ritual practice during Reform congregational services.
Disputes over the right to wear a kippah have been at the core of a number of church-state controversies, the most famous of which was resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in Goldman v. Weinberger (1986). S. Simcha Goldman, an Orthodox rabbi and captain in the U.S. Air Force, appealed lower court rulings that confirmed the Air Force's right to prohibit him from wearing a kippah when he was in his military uniform and on duty indoors. Goldman claimed that this prohibition was an unconstitutional infringement of his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. In a five-to-four decision written by William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not prohibit the military from establishing its own regulations regarding uniforms; therefore the Air Force had the authority to restrict Goldman's wearing of his kippah. Dissatisfaction with this decision, as well as with other decisions that seemed to give the government greater authority to regulate or restrict religious practices, led to the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993.
Chabad-Lubavitch. "The Significance of the Skull Cap (Yarmulke): Some Aspects of the Jewish Practice of Covering the Head." 1991.
Jacob, Walter, ed. New American Reform Responsa. 1992.
Lauterbach, Jacob Zallel. Studies in Jewish Law, Custom, and Folklore. 1970.
J. Shawn Landres