Throughout history, mankind has had a belief in something greater than itself, and found ways to extend that belief into daily life.
For Jews, there are many symbols to express their beliefs and identity. The Star of David and the menorah are two of the most easily identifiable. The kippah and the mezuzah are two items that are more personal, daily expressions of Judaism.
So where do the kippah and mezuzah come from and why do many Jewish people have them in their lives?
The word kippah is from the Aramaic “Fear of the King.” The Yiddish work for kippah is yarmulke. It is that small round disk of cloth many Jewish men wear on the crown of their heads. It is probably one of the most instantly recognizable symbols of Judaism. It is a sign of respect and reverence for the Divine. A type of kippah was mentioned in Exodus.
They come in various sizes, textures and colors. Some baseball teams sell kippahs with team colors. There are even “Star Trek” kippahs. While there is no commandment in the Torah to wear a kippah, there are strong traditions in many Jewish communities. For followers of Orthodox Judaism, wearing a kippah is mandatory. For others, while a kippah is commonly worn in synagogue, it’s a matter of choice and not a requirement. However, many Jews choose to wear their kippah daily, as a constant, external reminder of their faith.
As with so many things, the wearing of a kippah has evolved during the years. Originally, only men wore a kippah. However in modern times, women wear a kippah as an expression of faith and identity. As one rabbi stated in the 1980s, “We place the kippah on the very highest point of our being, on our head, the vessel of our intellect – to tell ourselves and the world that there is something which is above man’s intellect: the infinite wisdom of God.”
Another external expression of Jewish faith is found on the doorposts of our homes. The mezuzah is a small scroll of parchment, hand-inscribed with the Shema prayer. That prayer is found in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, The Lord is one.” That scroll with that inscription is placed into a case. The slender case is then fixed to the wall, near a door. Its presence comes directly from God’s commandment in Deuteronomy (11:13-21) to “inscribe these words of mine in your hearts… and write them on the doorposts of your house and gates…”
The word mezuzah translates as doorpost. That section of Deuteronomy is recited every Friday night in synagogues around the world as the V’Ahavta prayer. And again, the number and placement of the mezuzah is a personal choice in a Jewish home; some Jews will have a mezuzah on every doorway, others only on the doors leaving the home. Even glimpsing the mezuzah when entering or exiting a home serves as a reminder of our beliefs and the commandments handed to us so long ago.
All faiths have many expressions and traditions. There are both the larger group expressions of faith, and smaller, more personal expressions. All have their own traditions, and meanings, which evolve even during the lifetime of the believer. There are internal expressions of faith in how prayers are raised to the Eternal. These are personal and intense even as they are private. External expressions of faith are just as personal and intense. Even if they appear simple, they can be lightning rods for controversy.
For Christians, the cross is an external expression of faith. For Muslim women, the hijab is both that and a form of modesty. In Judaism, the kippah and mezuzah serve as outwardly recognizable expressions of faith, with a rich and ongoing history of faith lived daily.
Edie Yakutis works with Ritual Life at Temple Solel in Fort Mill. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org.