Signs and Symbols

What signs or symbols might identify an individual as Jewish?

One of the most common and easily visible signs of Jewishness is the small circular skullcap called the yarmulke or kippah. Worn by many Jewish men and boys as an ordinary item of clothing, the yarmulke is especially significant in ritual contexts. In some congregations, women rabbis now wear the head covering as well. Some Orthodox and most Hassidic males wear a plain black hat over the yarmulke. On Shabbat and holidays, some Hassidic men wear fur hats called shtreimels or spodiks. Orthodox men often dress all in black with long overcoats; some Sephardic groups wear white on Shabbat and holidays. Items of clothing for ritual purposes only include the larger woolen, cotton, or silk prayer shawl (tallit) with corner fringes (tzitzit) worn as an outer garment during morning prayer and all day on Yom Kippur. The tallit katan (smaller prayer garment) is a cotton undergarment, worn at all times, with fringes bearing 613 knots (the total number of commands [248] and prohibitions [365] in the Torah) that hang out at the belt line as stipulated in Numbers 15:37-38. Some Jewish men don phylacteries (tefillin) on the forehead and the non-dominant arm (that is, the left arm for right-handed people, and the right arm for left-handed people). These small leather boxes bound with leather thongs contain texts of scripture (Exodus 13:1-9, 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21) and are worn by Orthodox and some Conservative Jews for daily morning prayer both privately and in the synagogue. Another symbolic practice involving the body itself is the growth of sidelocks (pe’ot). Some Orthodox men and boys do not cut their forelocks in response to the biblical injunction of Leviticus 19:27, “You shall not trim the hair on your temples….” Smaller items often worn by both men and women, whatever their communal affiliation, include rings or necklaces with the six-pointed Star of David or the two Hebrew letters that spell out “chai” (“Living One”).


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