You can call it a kippah (in Hebrew) or a yarmulke (in Yiddish) but a Jew will seldom refer to it as a “skullcap” or a “beanie.” It signifies respect: respect for the One who is greater, or respect for the community in which it is a custom.
For some, it may also be a fashion statement or a small personal billboard on which to express one’s passions.
I’ve been looking at the Google search strings again, the words that people use to get to this blog. Yesterday one set caught my eye: “Jewish Rabbi Vestments.”
I’m going to take that to mean, “What special clothing does a rabbi wear?”
The most accurate answer to that is that a rabbi does not wear any special clothing. Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves “rabbi.” Rabbinical study involves multiple languages (Hebrew and Aramaic, at least) and it generally takes five or more years.
Rabbis wear what other people in their community wear. A rabbi from a Hasidic group will dress like other adult men in his group. I dress like a 60 year old woman from the Bay Area of California. If I lived in New York City, I’d dress up a bit more (because, New York!) but otherwise I would look very much like one of my congregants or students.
I imagine this person was thinking about worship. To lead a service at any time of day, most rabbis will wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, and they will wear a head covering, called either a kippa or a yarmulke. But any service leader will wear the same things; those are not reserved for rabbis. And in theory, any adult Jew should be able to lead a service. (In Orthodoxy, men only can lead the service, unless only women are present.)
In a morning service, adults may wear a tallit (in a Reform service, some will wear one, in a Conservative service, most adult men and women will wear them, and in an Orthodox service, you will see the tallit on adult males only.) Alternatively, some men wear the fringes you see on the prayer shawl on a sort of undershirt, so you don’t see the tallit but the essential part, the fringes, are there. In addition, in the morning service, in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues you will see people wearing tefillin, also known as phylacteries. Those are the black boxes attached to head and arm with leather straps.
Here is a photo, showing a boy and two men dressed for morning prayers. Notice that they are not all dressed alike. We cannot assume from the dress that any of them are rabbis.
In an afternoon or evening service, you will not see the tallit except on the leader (it shows who is leading) and you will not see tefillin at all. Head coverings will still be in place. For an example, look at the first photo on this page, of U.S. Air Force Rabbi Chaplain Captain Sarah Schechter leading an evening service. Notice that except for the tallit, she is wearing her uniform.
Now, there are some Reform congregations that have a custom for the rabbi to wear a pulpit robe (like a judge’s robe) with or without a tallit. They are increasingly rare, though. Also, I anticipate (and welcome) comments about the customs at local synagogues, or in various communities: there is a great variety of Jewish practice, and my statements here about what Jews wear for worship are meant only to be general.
Rabbis and cantors are primarily teachers: the rabbi teaches Torah, and the cantor or chazzan, is a specialist in the language of the service and in liturgical music. Both also officiate at lifccycle services, like baby namings, funerals, and weddings, and if they went to accredited schools, they have training in things like premarital counseling, grief support, and in navigating the gray areas and complexities of Jewish custom.
But we really don’t have special outfits. My “vestments” for prayer are exactly the same as you would see on any other observant Jew in my community. Gender can make a difference, depending on the tradition of Judaism in question.
We all stand before the Holy One as members of our community. We each bring different gifts and different skills, but our clothing is basically the same.
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.
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.