Thursday, November 20th, 2008
One of the most difficult things to teach a young child in an observant family is to keep a yarmulke on his head. For a busy kid that likes to run and jump and climb, a kippa is an unnecessary and unnatural thing, if not a nuisance.
With the exception of a swimming pool or beach, strictly Orthodox boys are never seen in public without a kippa, and it has become as rigid and non-negotiable a requirement as kashrut, daily prayer and keeping Shabbat.
Some take to it easily and some, like my 8-year-old, stridently resist it. Each morning my wife or I will clip a yarmulk to Jacob’s head with bobby pins or hair clips, and inevitably he will come home with it in his pocket. On weekends, we have better luck with a baseball cap.
I might be more dedicated to the fight if not for my own ambivalence about the practice. While there is no negotiation about wearing it in school, where he would be kept from class without one, I have lately limited my insistence on it to the dining room and kitchen tables, and given up when he is outside playing.
Is this wrong?
At a time when families need to fight for greater attachment to tradition, against the lure of secularism, I’m reluctant to go backward on any practice. But study the entire Torah backward and forward and you will not find a reference to the covering of one’s head, let alone a guide to when to do so. Even Moses and Abraham, when in God’s direct presence, did not cover their heads.
According to the online resource Jewish Virtual Library, “The first mention of [kippot] is in Tractate Shabbat, which discusses respect and fear of God. Some sources likened it to the High Priest who wore a hat (Mitznefet) to remind him something was always between him and God. Thus, wearing a kippah makes us all like the high priest and turns us into a “holy nation.”
Ask five rabbis why men wear yarmulkes, and you will most likely get at least three different reasons, and most would be some variation of the idea that it reminds us that God is above us. My theory is that the origin is more social than spiritual, and that Jews in harder times may have worn them in order to easily identify each other for minyans, trade and if needed, refuge.
While Sfardim and their rabbis are much more lenient on this practice, few Orthodox rabbis would tell you that it’s OK not to wear one. Quite simply, it has become a chumra, or an obligation that exceeds the requirements of halacha. Among practicing non-Orthodox Jews, Conservative temples insist on yarmulkes while in shul, as do most Reform congregations. Many Conservative or “Conservadox” Jews wear yarmulkes daily or during meals.
There are so many things in observant Judaism that are difficult for kids, such as waiting six hours between milk and meat, not watching TV or playing video games on Shabbat, wearing tzitzit (actually commanded in the Torah) and davening. If the operating theory is to choose your battles wisely, going lenient on the kippa seems like common sense.
Or is it simply opening a door to lesser observance? After all, one function of the kippa is to serve as an anchor, constantly grounding a child, or adult, in a spiritual and religious lifestyle. Some kabbalists argue that the human body is a conduit of energy, and that by keeping a lid on ourselves we retain our positive aura.
Surely plenty of people who do not regularly wear kippot outside can grow up to be richly spiritual people connected to the Jewish community. Conversely, there are many who grow up with a kippa on their head who discard their Judaism as easily as one discards a pointy bar mitzvah skull cap after the service. And then there are those whose commitment to kippa-wearing doesn’t match their commitment to ethical public behavior and thereby commit the sin of chilul Hashem, disgracing God’s name, through their hypocrisy.
As with everything else, kids will no doubt take their cues from their parents in determining how much, or how little, religious significance to attach to a kippa.
What are your thoughts and experiences with kippot and children? E-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.