Image: A table covered with kippot for sale.
You’ll never hear a knowledgeable Jew calling any of these hats “skullcaps.” That’s an English word with a European background: according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it’s “c. 1200, probably from Old Norse skalli ‘a bald head, skull,’ a general Scandinavian word.” Someone thought the little round caps look like the tops of skulls, I guess.
There is a long tradition in Judaism for covering one’s head. For men, it’s about respect: an acknowledgement that we are creatures made by God, not deities ourselves. Some Ashkenazi men cover their heads at all times, others just for prayer or study.
For women, it used to be about covering our hair, which was seen as a highly sexualized part of the body. That intent changed over time: now it is the Ashkenazi practice of using women’s hair covering as a sign that they are married, signaling a woman’s unavailability. Sephardic women may cover for prayer or studying Torah. There has been an effort by some rabbis in Israel to persuade Sephardic women to cover their hair all the time.
For me, as a modern Reform Jew, it’s about modesty, or tzniut (tznee-OOT.) I cover my head for teaching, learning, and prayer because it is a reminder that I am only one little person, not the universal spokesperson for the Holy One. If I become puffed up and impressed with myself, I am useless as a teacher of Torah. In some settings, as in a hospital, it is a signal that I’m a religious Jew and/or a rabbi, but not Orthodox.
These little hats and coverings have many names. The ones that look like a little bowl are called kippot (singular kipah) in Hebrew and yarmulke (YAHM-a-kah) in Yiddish. The ones that look like a pillbox hat may be Bucharian kipot, or they may be pillbox hats. I collect vintage pillbox hats to wear when I’m in the mood.
Women’s head coverings have other names. There are wigs called sheitels (SHAYtulls) which you may notice among observant Orthodox women. There are wigs called sheitels (SHAYtulls) which you may notice among observant Orthodox women. There are also head scarves called tichels (TIKH- els) in Yiddish and mitpachat (mit-PAH-khat) in Hebrew. Remember, for observant Ashkenazi women, it’s a privacy thing: if they are married, their hair is only visible to their husband and in public, they wear a covering of some kind. I have also met Jewish women who have adopted the sheitel because it is an expression of their Jewishness, married or not.
Some Haredi men wear a variety of hats, often over a kippah. That’s a whole article by itself, as is the “kippah code” of Israeli men. For more about that, read What different styles of head coverings say about Israeli Jewish men from Pew Research.
So what can you assume from seeing a Jew with a head or hair covering in public ? It’s an expression of their Jewish identity, and they may or may not see it as compulsory. Generally it’s a good idea not to assume much more – every Jew observes in their own way.