The Talmud -- a 63-volume text that records centuries of discussion about Judaism's oral law -- relates a story about a young boy who was prone to stealing. Covering his head helped him control his kleptomania by reminding him of God's presence. One day, when the boy's head covering blew off in the wind, his awareness of God waned; he succumbed to his nature and stole. The dome-shaped yarmulke worn by Jews today serves the same purpose as that boy's head covering.
The word yarmulke is derived from the Aramaic phrase "yira malka," which means "awe of the King." The name implies a great deal about the yarmulke's purpose. As Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains, the yarmulke is a tangible reminder that God exists and monitors our behavior. The external act of wearing a yarmulke, writes Simmons, creates internal awareness of God's presence. Ideally, it encourages the person who wears it to watch his behavior and make improvements when necessary. Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar likens the yarmulke to a uniform. Hopefully, writes Cotlar, wearing it helps a Jew take himself and his service to God more seriously.
From Custom to Law
Pointing to Exodus 28:4, Simmons explains the biblical obligation to cover one's head applied only to the priests serving in the Holy Temple. During the Talmudic period, writes Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson, only men of high stature covered their heads. Over time, however, it became customary for all Jewish men to wear a yarmulke. Now, that custom has the status of law, and observant Jewish men consider themselves obligated to wear a yarmulke at all times. There are exceptions to the rule, as Simmons and Cotler point out. For example, an Orthodox Jewish lawyer might remove his yarmulke if wearing it would not be in his client's best interest. Jews of non-Orthodox denominations -- including Reform and Conservative -- consider wearing a yarmulke optional and a matter of personal choice. Some members of the Reform and Conservative movements wear one at select times, including when they enter a synagogue, sit down at a Passover seder or attend a wedding or funeral.