Nearly every Jewish community has some kind of head covering tradition, but there are many different ideas about who should wear them and when. There are also a remarkable array of styles. In this article, we’ll explain the tradition of Jewish head covering and review some of the most common styles you’ll see around the world.
A Brief History of Jewish Head Covering
Traditionally, Jewish men have covered their heads for centuries as a sign of reverence and respect for God’s presence above. Some Jewish women cover their hair when they are married in order to be modest in appearance. This article focuses on hats worn for the purpose of reverence; modesty hair coverings — scarves, wigs and hats worn mostly by Orthodox women — are discussed here.
The origins of Jewish head covering practices are not entirely clear. The Torah says that Aaron, the first high priest, wore a head covering as part of his ceremonial garb (Exodus 28:36–38). In the Talmud, Rav Huna is quoted as saying that he did not walk a distance of four cubits (about six feet) with his head uncovered to acknowledge the divine presence above his head (Shabbat 118b). The mother of Rav Nahman bar Yizhak learns that her son is destined to be a thief and so she makes him cover his head and pray for divine mercy. He manages to behave well until that covering accidentally slips off and he succumbs to the temptation to steal some dates (Shabbat 156b).
Though these ancient texts seem to imply that head covering was specifically the province of Jewish religious leaders, by the medieval period it was widespread. Maimonides wrote that head covering was required for prayer (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah 5:5) and the most influential medieval Jewish law code, the Shulchan Aruch, states that men are to cover their heads when walking more than four cubits (like Rav Huna did). By this time, head covering was de rigeur for Ashkenazi Jews.
In the 20th century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and American Orthodox legal authority, issued a special dispensation for men to not wear a kippah at work if necessary — implying that the practice is generally obligatory.
Today, most Jewish men who identify as Orthodox cover their heads at all times (except when sleeping or bathing). Jews from non-Orthodox movements also cover their heads — men and, in some cases, women. Some wear a head covering all the time, others wear one just inside a synagogue, while studying Torah and/or when eating. Many choose a kippah for this purpose (also called a yarmulke or skull cap), but others fulfill the obligation with any kind of secular head covering (baseball caps are popular).
In the Reform movement, many do not cover their head even in synagogue as this was actively discouraged at one time, though in recent years the movement has moved back toward head covering during prayer.
Below is a sampling of different kinds of Jewish head coverings worn in various communities around the world.
The Kippah: Knit, Felt, Satin, Bukharian and more
A kippah, or yarmulke, is a kind of minimal cap that covers the crown of the head. It is worn for religious purposes, not for sun protection or keeping off rain. Some Jews will wear a kippah under a different kind of hat.
There are several styles of kippot (the plural of kippah) that are common around the world. Often, the style of kippah worn signals the religious (and even political) affiliation of the wearer.
The name aside, this kind of kippah is actually crocheted and is favored by Modern Orthodox Jews and Dati Leumi in Israel. They come in a variety of colors and patterns, with styles constantly changing, and sometimes playful variations. Some Jews who lean in a slightly more Orthodox direction will favor an all-black version of the same kind of kippah.
This style is popular in a variety of contexts. It is common among more liberal Jewish streams, and is frequently produced in a rainbow of hues and embossed specially for bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings. This style is also worn by some haredi Jews, usually in black and usually under another hat when outdoors.
A black velvet kippah, which is made with a cloth lining, is favored by haredi Jews, but can be found in other Jewish contexts as well. Some haredi Jews regard the velvet kippah as fulfilling a more stringent obligation to have two layers on one’s head, though not all agree with this view.
These hand-embroidered, colorful kippot are usually larger than other kinds, covering most of the top of the head and secured by a wide band. They are worn by Bukharian Jews (of course) but also many other Jewish children because they are less likely to slip off the head than other styles. Lots of other Jews also enjoy these beautiful head coverings.
These soft, looser lined kippot are especially popular among older generations of Reform and Conservative Jews.
Yemenite Jews traditionally wear a stiff black kippah shaped like a dome. They are usually made of velvet and have decorative borders.
These large kippot knitted from white yarn often have a pom on top and a slogan of the Breslover community around the edge. A similar white style, without the slogan, is worn by some non-Breslover Hasidic children.
Large Hats: Shtreimel, Fedora and more
Haredi Jews often recognized by their distinctive dress, including large black hats. But while black hats that are worn during the week and fancier (sometimes fur) hats are favored on Shabbat and other special occasions. These are generally worn over top of a kippah because two head coverings are considered more meritorious than one.
Shtreimel, Spodik, Kolpik
These are all large, cylindrical fur hats usually worn on Shabbat or festivals and to weddings. The streimel is a very wide brown hat made from animal tails (usual fox, marten or minx) while the spodik tends to be taller and dyed black. Because a spodik is dyed, it is a less expensive hat, though neither style is cheap. Which one you wear is usually determined by the Hasidic sect of which you are a member.
The kolpik is brown like a streimel but tall like a spodik, and usually worn by Hasidic leaders on special occasions, and sometimes by their sons and grandsons as well.
There is a great deal of lore around the origins of these hats. Some believe that, like other elements of traditional Hasidic garb, shtreimels were simply fashionable in Eastern Europe in the early modern period. When Poland was conquered by Napoleon in the early 19th century, many Poles started to wear more western styles, but Hasidic Jews retained more traditional Polish styles, including the shtreimel.
There is also a legend that the Polish authorities demanded Jews wear tails on their heads, as a way to mark and humiliate them. The Jews constructed shtreimels out of tales to look like crowns, inverting the proclamation.
Fedoras, Hoiche Hats and Platchige Biber Hats
Not all Hasidic Jews wear fur hats. Members of Chabad, for example, favor fedoras. During the week especially, other sects wear hoiche hats: black, high-crowned hats with brims. The platiche biber hat is similar but has a lower profile. Sometimes, a rosh yeshiva, the head of a Jewish house of study, will wear a variation of one of these hats with the brim turned up.
Some Hasidic children wear a hat called a kashket as an alternative to a kippah. This is shaped something like a Bukharian kippah — having a wide band and no brim — but it is usually entirely black and made of felt.
Fez or Tarboush
This cylindrical red cap, sometimes with a tassel, was traditionally worn by Jews from the former Ottoman empire, especially Morocco. Jews tend to call it by its Arabic name, Tarboush.
Jews have been proudly sporting hats for centuries — and sometimes have worn them under duress. In the medieval period, some Jews were required by the authorities to wear distinctive hats that would mark them as Jews. Today, thankfully, that is no longer the case — they are worn for religious and cultural reasons. This list of styles is not exhaustive, and the fashions continue to evolve.