Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Does the Pope Wear a White Jewish Yarmulke on His Head?

source: Canterbury Tales by Taylor Marshall
There were many great news stories covering Pope Benedict's recent visit to the Great Roman Synagogue of Rome. Many of the photo journalists subtly drew attention to the pope's white zucchetto in contrast to the traditional Jewish "yarmulkes" worn by Jewish men and rabbis. Check out the photo above to see what I mean.

Which leads into the question, "Does the Pope wear a Jewish 'yarmulke,' and why does he wear this small white 'beanie'?"

Here's the answer, in the form of an excerpt from Taylor's recent book: The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of Catholic Christianity (available at, Aquinas and More Catholic Goods, and local Catholic bookstores):

Does the Pope Wear a Yarmulke?
In doing research for this book, I found that one of the most common questions that Jews have concerning the Catholic Church is: “Why does your Pope wear a yarmulke?” They are referring, of course, to the small, white “beanie” that the Pope wears in public and in the liturgy. To be accurate, the Pope does not actually wear a yarmulke, but a zucchetto, which is Italian for “little gourd,” as in the vegetable we call the zucchini. The zucchetto is a round cap of eight triangular panels that have been sewn together. The cap somewhat resembles half of a small pumpkin, hence the name “little gourd” or zucchetto.

The official Latin name for this little skullcap worn by Catholic clergy is pileolus. It is also called the soli deo (Latin for “to God alone”) because it is a sign that a man is wholly dedicated to the Lord. Zucchettos are color-coded to denote rank in the Catholic Church: the Pope wears a white zucchetto, cardinals wear red zucchettos, bishops wear purple zucchettos, and priests wear black zucchettos, though priests nowadays rarely wear them.

We know that the Israelite priests of the Temple wore special turbans when they ministered in the presence of the Lord. Covering the head in the presence of God was a sign of humility. This act of humility was also observed in ancient Rome—slaves were required to cover their heads while freemen remained bareheaded.

Although, Moses never commanded Jewish laymen to cover their heads with yarmulkes, it seems that Jewish men began to observe the custom for two reasons. The first was to imitate the Jewish priests who covered their heads when they served in the Temple. After all, even laymen should live as though they were in the presence of Almighty God. Secondly, the act of covering the head symbolized that a man was not a freeman, but a spiritual servant of God. Rabbi Honah ben Joshua once said that he never walked more than four steps with his head uncovered, “because the Divine Presence is always over my head.”

It was obviously very difficult to take a turban on and off throughout the day. As a result, the small round skullcap became the simplest and most convenient way of covering the head. While Jews may wear any kind of hat, the most common hat is the skullcap known as the kippah meaning “dome” in Hebrew. It is commonly designated by the Yiddish word for the skullcap—yarmulke. The word “yarmulke” seems to derive from the Polish word for cap—jarmulke. However, there is another Jewish tradition that the name comes from the Aramaic phrase Yari Mulka, meaning, “Fear the King” since God is the King of Israel.

Whether one calls this religious skullcap a zucchetto, pileolus, soli Deo, kippah, or yarmulke, the idea is the same. It designates that a man is a servant of the Most High, ever standing in the presence of God. Every Catholic bishop dons the zucchetto whenever he exercises his apostolic ministry in communion with the Catholic Church. There is one important exception. All Catholic bishops, including the cardinals and the Pope, must remove the zucchetto when they stand at the altar and recite the Eucharistic Prayer. When the bishop consecrates the Body and Blood of Christ, he acts in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). The bishop therefore removes the zucchetto during this time since he “loans” his voice and body to Christ so that the true High Priest might transform the bread and wine into His very own Body and Blood.


GrandmaK said...

Excellent! Will have to add this to my reading's VERY long! Wishing you a grand day! Cathy

Abbey said...

I ALWAYS learn so much from your blog! Being a convert, I think of little things like this and wonder "why" and "what", but forget to look them up. You are one of my greatest spiritual teachers, Soutenous!

Blessings and Peace,

Soutenus said...

Thank you, Cathy and Abbey for your comments. Blessings to you and your families!

Cathy, my reading list is longer than I am tall! I know what you mean. But I do so love the books.

Abbey, I always pray that what I share will help others like it does me. Your comment warms my heart. God is so good, isn't He? :-)

Bernie said...

A lovely post, I love how you explain so clearly the reason and the difference of head coverings. I am an avid book reader and I too have books that stand byond my height........:-) Hugs

Jonah Edwin said...

Thanks for your posting.

Wedding Kippahs

John Doherty said...

He is indeed :-) every day the Lord does little miracles in my life that lets me know he is looking after me.

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