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The customary Jewish head covering (for simplicity, we'll call it a kipa (singular of kipot), although all the terms refer to approximately the same thing) is a sign of humility for men, acknowledging what's "above" us (G-d). An additional explanation is that in ancient Rome, servants were required to cover their heads while free men did not; thus, Jews covered their heads to show that they were servants of G-d. It's necessary for men to cover their heads during certain prayers (whether it be by a kipa or another headcovering), and for one making blessings all day, it's inconvenient to keep donning and removing a kipa. In some places, the type of kipa and way of wearing it expresses affiliation with a particular yeshiva or political viewpoint. In other places, it doesn't really matter.
Many Ashkenazi rabbis acknowledge that wearing a head covering at all times was once considered an optional "midat chasidut" [pious act] but that nowadays, full-time head covering is the norm except under extenuating circumstances.
Sephardic communities generally did not have the custom of wearing a kipa all the time.
Some diaspora Jews leave off the kipa at school, work, or when testifying in court, because of real danger or uneasiness in appearing in the secular world with an obvious symbol of Jewishness.
Many non-Orthodox Jews (and some modern Orthodox Jews) do not always wear a kipa. This is because some sources make covering the head by a Jewish male a special practice of the pious (midat chasidut). However, these movements do recognize that it is a Jewish way of showing reference and respect, as well as a positive means of identification (which can serve as a barrier against assimilation). Some movements have specific recommendations as to the time that a kipa is worn; for example, Conservative practice is to cover the head in the following situations:
Whenever in the sanctuary of a synagogue.
When praying and when studying or reading from sacred literature.
Whenever performing any ritual.
When eating, since eating is always followed by a benediction. Some follow the minhag of certain Jewish communities in Germany where they cover their heads during the blessing before the meal and during the benedictions after the meal, but not during the meal itself.
In Israel wearing a kipa also has a social significance. While wearing a kipa shows that you are somewhat religious, not-wearing one is like stating "I'm not religious". The style of kipa in Israel can also indicate political and religious affiliations.
The wearing of the kipah at school and work has increased in recent years. These are also affectionately called "beanies," "holy headgear," "Yamahas," "Yid-lids," and "Kapeles." (Similarly, some hair coverings for married women are affectionately called "shmattehs.")
On Usenet, some related, but not necessarily common, "Jewish" smilies might be:
Clean-shaven smiley wearing a kipa
Modest married smiley wearing snood/beret
Modest married smiley wearing sheitel (wig)
Smiley wearing black fedora and short beard
Smiley wearing glasses, streimel (fur hat), and long beard
Smiling bearded guy with (most of) his own hair and a kipa
Antisemitic long-nosed smiley
From whence does the term originate? The word yarmulke is Yiddish. According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, it comes from a Tartar word meaning skullcap. Some rabbis claim it comes from the Aramaic words "yerai malka" (fear of or respect for The King). The Hebrew word for this head covering is kippah or kipa (pronounced key-pah).
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>