Jewish headgear -- first and foremost a mark of religious affiliation -- can also communicate membership in a smaller subgroup with a well-defined political or social agenda. Head-covering is most widely observed among Orthodox Jewish men, many of whom will typically wear both a skullcap and a hat in prayer and formal situations.
According to Jewish law, men must wear a head covering when eating, praying, studying Torah or walking four cubits (approximately six feet). The wearing of a skullcap is common in all Jewish movements. It's also known as a "yarmulke," an Aramaic acronym of the term, "fear of the King," or "yara d'malka." The Hebrew term "kippah," or "dome," is also used.
The size, colour and material of the yarmulke often indicates membership in an ideological subgroup. Jews affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox movement, for example, favour larger black yarmulkes made out of cloth or velvet, whereas Jews who identify with Zionism, a political movement focused on the rights of the Jewish state, typically wear a colourful yarmulke made out of crocheted yarn, known as a "kipah serugah." American Jewish boys wear more lighthearted skullcaps with the emblems of sports teams, for example.
The Black Hat
The black hat worn by many Orthodox men also identifies group status. The original purpose for the hat is the notion that it's considered "clothing of honour," or "beged shel kavod" in Hebrew, that should be worn while engaged in an audience with God, during prayer. The specifics of the hat, such as the size of its brim, its bowl, the degree to which the front is pinched, and other details all deliver subtle clues to the initiated regarding the affiliation of its wearer. In some cases, specific hats are reserved for individuals of high status, such as the head of a rabbinical seminary, or the Rosh Yeshiva.
Traditional Judaism requires married women to cover their hair; Orthodox women usually observe this rule with a hat, turban or wig. Other Jewish women may employ a token hair covering worn during prayer only, and in non-Orthodox congregations women may also be seen wearing male-style yarmulkes.