Ask the Expert: Which Kippah Should I Wear?

What's the best head covering for a newly observant Jew?

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Question: Despite having Jewish ancestry, I never really observed the religion until during the last several months. There is obviously so much I have yet to learn, but have always been taught that it is proper etiquette for any Jewish male to wear a kippah at any part of a synagogue or its grounds that he visits. However, this does give the impression that a man would be observant and know all the rituals/etiquette/customs well. In my case however, the appearance could be deceiving because I do not consider myself Orthodox (yet, at any rate) and don't want to surprise people if I am not exactly what I appear to be. So, my question is are there any types of kippah that indicate a higher level of religiosity or awareness than others? I want to represent myself as honestly as possible especially since I am basically a newbie at being an observant Jew.
--Benjamin, Singapore

Answer:
This is a great question, Benjamin. In our article about head coverings, we talk about how wearing a kippah can be a badge of membership and commitment to the Jewish people. Though the kippah itself doesn't have any inherent meaning, it does serve as a marking of a Jewish person (usually a man) who is heavily invested in Jewish life.

What you're talking about is closely related to the famous Jewish concept of maarat ayin, or the appearance of impropriety. Basically, Jews are discouraged from doing anything that could appear inappropriate or wrong, even if it's actually not problematic. For example, a traditionally observant Jewish person who needs to use the bathroom while walking around a city on Shabbat would be discouraged from walking into a bank or a restaurant to use their facilities.

It may be technically permissible to use a bank bathroom on Shabbat, but a passerby might see the person in the bank and think the person is going to withdraw or deposit money, which is prohibited on Shabbat. Maarat ayin is aimed at preventing behavior that could be misleading to others, and that's exactly what you're trying to avoid by wearing a kippah.

It seems to me that you have a few options. The first is to cover your head with something other than a traditional kippah. Many religious men wear hats instead of, or over their kippot. This allows them to cover their heads as tradition dictates, but to do so without marking themselves as Jews wherever they go. So if you can find a regular hat that you feel comfortable wearing in synagogue that is one way to avoid misrepresenting yourself to others.

But if you'd like to stay within the genre of traditional kippot, there is quite a variety to choose from. Ultra-Orthodox Jews tends to wear black velvet kippot, about the size of a salad plate. Men who don the black velvet kippah often wear a black fedora on top of the kippah, as well. If you don't want to be mistaken for a very observant and knowledgeable member of the Jewish community, you should definitely avoid the black velvet kippah.

In general, dark colored kippot, whether they're leather, crocheted, or velvet, often are worn by members of more traditional communities. A kippah that's white, or colorful, can imply a more modern outlook. A kippah with an obvious crease in it probably indicates that the kippah spends more time folded in the wearer's pocket than on his head. This usually means that the person is observant enough to want to cover his head while attending synagogue or saying brakhot, but not all the time.

The kippah that tends to indicate the lowest level of observance within the Jewish community is almost certainly the black (or white) silk variety that is often given out at funeral homes. These basically function as single-use kippot for people who don't already own a kippah, and thus is a reliable sign that the person is not an authority on Jewish practice. If you want to wear a kippah but avoid being seen as an example of an observant Jew, the black silk kippah is the way to go.

I also want to mention that within the Reform movement, there are many people who do not wear a kippah at all. For decades, no kippot was the norm within the Reform community. This has shifted in the last 20 years, and you're very likely to find men and women wearing kippot at any given Reform temple, but there are still many people, including Reform rabbis, who do not cover their heads, even while standing on the bimah at Temple.

There are a lot of options here, and I hope one of them fits for you. But if they don't, try not to worry too much about what other people might be thinking. Wear whatever kippah you're comfortable with, and if someone asks you a question that you don't know the answer to, just be honest. It's okay--even encouraged--to say, "I'm just learning this stuff, myself. Let's go ask someone who knows a bit more about this." Good luck!