Yarmulke (properly pronounced YAHR-mul-keh, but often shortened to YAH-mi-koh, YAH-mi-keh, or YAH-mi-kee) is the common Yiddish word for the head covering worn by Jewish males.

Now, there are other words that can be used to refer to this beanie-like cap. In some communities, particularly those in the UK, the Yiddish word koppl (“little cap”) is preferred. And many English-speaking Jews are most familiar with the Hebrew term, kippah (“dome”), which has been in use since Talmudic times, when it referred primarily to head coverings worn by women.1

And what does yarmulke mean? The boring answer is that it is just the generic Slavic word for “skullcap,” which Eastern-European Jews borrowed from their non-Jewish neighbors (jarmułka, for example, is how you’d say it in Polish).

The Fear Factor

But there’s a deeper meaning. According to many, yarmulke is a contraction of the Aramaic words, yarei malka, “awe of the King,” referring to G‑d, King of the Universe.

How does a yarmulke foster awe of G‑d? On a simple plane, the fact that there is something sitting on your head at all times reminds you that there is Someone above you, and that you are not the top banana.

This notion can be traced back to the Talmud,2 where we read a fascinating anecdote about Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak. Some Chaldean astrologers had told his mother that her son would grow up be a thief. Wise woman that she was, she did not allow little Nachman to uncover his head for even a moment. Rather, she would tell her son, “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and pray for Divine mercy.” Other than one unfortunate incident—his head covering slipped off, and he immediately scampered up a date tree to steal some dates—her plan worked, and her son grew up to be a great and saintly leader of the Jewish people.

The Jerusalem Yarmulke

Boys in Jerusalem wearing the traditional white knitted yarmulke (photo: Yoav Elad)
Boys in Jerusalem wearing the traditional white knitted yarmulke (photo: Yoav Elad)

If you like interesting factoids, here’s one that most English speakers don’t know: We use the word yarmulke to refer to all kinds of kippahs: velvet, satin, knitted, etc. However, in Israel the word is used pretty much exclusively to refer to the knitted white yarmulkes favored by some chassidic communities in Jerusalem (and by Breslover chassidim all over), with all other head coverings being referred to by the generic term, kippah.

Did you ever wonder why a physical reminder of Heaven is needed, or why only men wear yarmulkes? Read the answer in What’s Up with the Yarmulke?

You may have noticed that many religious Jews wear a hat in addition to their yarmulke. Learn why in Why Wear Both a Kippah and a Hat?

Or just browse our Kippah Site and see for yourself how much there is to learn about this fascinating aspect of Judaism.