Image: Rabbi wearing a red knitted kippah. Photo by Linda Burnett.
I wear a little hat when I’m praying or studying. It’s called a kippah, in Hebrew, or a yarmulke, if you prefer Yiddish.
I wear the little hat to cultivate a Jewish virtue, tzniut (tznee-OOT). Tzniut means modesty. The hat is a reminder that I am not a big shot (what big shot would wear a ridiculous hat that looks like a coaster, and that sometimes slides over her left ear?) When I pray and when I study, I am standing before the Holy One. I am not a celebrity. I’m just a fallible little rabbi, wearing a silly little hat.
There is nothing magic about the little hat. It isn’t a mitzvah, a commandment, to wear it, just a custom. Some Jewish men wear them all day, every day. Some Jewish women cover their heads with kippot, some with other kinds of head coverings. But all the head-covering is basically about tzniut, about modesty, and about the custom of the community.
There was a famous Hasidic rabbi, Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827) who used to teach:
Every person should have two pockets. Each pocket should have a note in it for a time of need. When he feels miserable that person should reach into one pocket to find the words: “The world was created for my sake!” But on a day when he feels high and mighty, he should reach into the other pocket to find the message: “Remember, I am nothing but dust.”
True modesty is balanced somewhere between those two notes.