Sadly, the image is not so difficult to conjure up: An old Jew, stripped to his ill-fitting pajama bottoms, his ribs pronounced in his emaciated frame, is being mocked as he is kicked and prodded through a double line of soldiers. The soldiers spit ugly epithets at the man. Though clearly frightened, the Jew endures the physical and verbal abuse with a conscious dignity. But then, one of the soldiers strikes the old Jew so hard that the cloth yarmulke perched atop his bald head comes flying off, landing on the gravel. At first, the old Jew is unaware that he has lost the yarmulke but then, after a moment, his hand goes reflexively to his head. Realizing it is gone, he quickly searches the ground. He spots it by the boot of one of the soldiers. Despite the taunts of the soldiers, he reaches down to retrieve it. He is rewarded for his efforts with a sharp kick to the ribs from the point of the soldier’s boot. But that is of less concern to him than the fact that he had retrieved his yarmulke.
With the dignity that has marked his progression from the first; he continues forward until finally the whips and beatings knock him to his knees. A final blow by the butt of a soldier’s gun is the last indignity that the old Jew suffers in this, the land of the living.
And what of the old Jew’s yarmulke?
As the soldiers kick the old man’s body out of the way, they do bother to note the yarmulke left behind in the mud. Already, they have moved on to their next “amusement.”
The yarmulke, ignored and forgotten by the soldiers. A dirtied piece of cloth, nothing more…
* * *
Somewhere, many centuries before, a different Jew died.
After his burial and Kaddish, the man’s soul rose to Heaven to receive the Divine judgment. When it arrived, it presented the good and bad deeds performed during the man’s life and then awaited judgment. But no judgment came. In the majestic hush of Heaven, something unimaginable had occurred. Never before had the heavenly tribunal been presented with such a case; the good and bad deeds of this soul were exactly equal!
The soul could neither enter the Gates of Paradise nor could it be cast to Hell. The mighty tribunal determined that it was destined to hover aimlessly between Heaven and Earth until God Himself should take pity and beckon the soul unto Him.
How the soul howled in agony at the verdict! It pled for mercy. “Do not doom me to wander indefinitely, without the comfort of an eternal rest.”
The Heavenly shammos wept for the poor soul. Taking pity on it, the shammos offered the soul a glimmer of hope. “Fly down, little soul, and hover close to the world of the living … and when you’ve brought three appropriate gifts, rest assured – the Gates of Paradise will open to you, the gifts will do their work.”
The soul hovered close to earth for century upon century until finally it collected its first two gifts: a bit of earth from the Holy Land mixed with the blood of a Jewish martyr, and a pin soaked with the blood of a modest and pious Jewess, also martyred.
“Only one more gift!”
But what could that gift be? How many years must the poor soul search for the gift that would ensure its acceptance into Paradise?
After centuries more of searching, the soul landed in an unknown prison yard. There, two long rows of soldiers faced each other, creating a narrow passage between them, a narrow passage through which an old, emaciated Jew was pushed, prodded and beaten.
The soul viewed the torture of this poor man with horror and sadness. The dignity that the old Jew managed to preserve was remarkable, but his calm seemed only to incite these soldiers to greater brutality. And then the Jew fell to his knees.
A moment later, he was dead.
The hovering soul came closer. There, in the mud, it saw the murdered man’s forgotten yarmulke. It collected the unobserved yarmulke, the “dirtied piece of cloth” which had earned the man so many wicked blows and carried it up to the little window of Heaven. There, this third gift was accepted as, “Truly beautiful. Unusually beautiful.”
The soul then entered Paradise and eternal rest.
* * *
The yarmulke, or skullcap, like so much in Judaism, serves two different and, seemingly, opposing functions. It is at once both a crown of Jewish religiosity and a sign of piety and humility; crowning glory and humble servitude.
It is a mark upon the Jew, one that identifies him as an adherent of his faith. Even more significantly, this simple head covering reminds him of his place in the universe.
The headdress (migbatt) of the kohanim is to be “for glory and beauty.” In fact, the headgear itself bore the name pe’er (beauty). Such a headdress raises a man. Likewise, a man with an uncovered head is like one in rags and half-dressed, and is accordingly forbidden to recite the Shema, to officiate as reader, to read aloud from the Torah, or to recite the name of God with due dignity. The Midrash contrasts the attitude of Moshe in hiding his face before the Shekinah at the burning bush with that of Nadab and Abihu, who looked on with uncovered heads; the one showing reverence and awe, the others, insolence.
Halacha has therefore consistently equated bareheadness with light-mindedness and frivolity, and hence forbids it. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught that “a man ought not to walk four cubits in an erect position, which suggests overbearing pride, ignoring God’s omnipresence.” Rav Huna, the son of Joshua, refused to take so much as a single step without having his head covered, for he said that, “The Shekinah is above my head.”
In our own day, there is a firm prohibition to sit bareheaded in one’s own house. Indeed, even to sleep at night. Small children should be brought up to cover their heads. The Maharshal goes so far as to say that transgressing this law is a violation of Jewish decency (das y’hudis). Particularly, he adds, in “our day, when we dwell among non-Jews who go bareheaded.”
Going with one’s head uncovered is considered k’chukos ha-goyim, in the “Gentile way”. By covering our heads, we are distinctly identified as Jews. One modern Jewish thinker views the wearing of a yarmulke, in contradistinction to a hat, as more meritorious, and a greater sanctification of God’s name. Why? Wearing a hat does not identify one as a Jew, for non-Jews wear hats as well.
The yarmulke is not merely an article of identification, it is a statement of Jewish piety, demonstrating the awareness that we stand beneath something so much greater than ourselves, greater than our intellect, our creativity and even our desire. The yarmulke symbolizes our humility in the presence of God. The yarmulke reminds us of our ongoing and ever-present duties and responsibilities, and of the significance of individual actions and words.
By wearing the yarmulke we are humbled as we accept the reign of Heaven, “Cover your head, so that the reverence of Heaven be upon you.”
Humility and glory.
Each morning we recite, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who crowns Israel with Glory” in recognition of the glory and pride associated with being a Jew.
A sign of humility. A mark of identification. A crown of honor.
An examination of the many brachot recited by the Jew each morning reveals that in only two of the blessings is Israel mentioned specifically by name, Ozer Yisrael b’gvurah (Who girds Israel with strength) and Oter Yisrael b’tifarah (Who crowns Israel with glory.)
Belt and headgear.
Both have significance for the Jewish people. To the non-Jew, the belt is worn for both comfort and power. To the Jew, it has a deeper significance that speaks to our attachment to God and our deep moral strength. Similarly, non-Jews cover their heads to protect them from the elements. Jews cover their heads because of yirat Shamayim.
The belt divides the upper half of the body – the source of the spiritual and intellectual faculties – from the lower – the regions for performing physical and sensual functions. We wear a belt, “that the heart should not see the nakedness of the organs of sensuality.” A belt prevents impure thoughts from the mind. The precept to wear a belt serves to strengthen our control over our sensual desires. So we thank God for the strength with which He guides Israel. Such strength, gevurah, is strength that comes from self-control.
This notion of subordinating our sensual nature to our intellectual or spiritual nature finds its greatest expression in the covering of the head. “To crown” expresses the honor that comes with such head covering. “Thou shalt be a crown of honor in the hand of God” (Isaiah 3:3)
The yarmulke, in one simple piece of cloth, reminds us constantly of the essential beauty and duality of our lives; to wear our glory humbly before God.
The ideas conveyed in this essay were originally penned by Rabbi Safran during the late 1970’s, when he served as rabbi of Congregation Poale Zedeck in Pittsburgh, PA. The essay was then shared with NCSY chapters at the request of Rabbi Baruch Taub who served as NCSY National Director.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran, serves as OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing. The second edition of his Sometimes You Are What You Wear, Xlibris Corp. has appeared in 2010.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.