Here's a brief history of the Jewish skullcap (yarmulke, kippah) – a history that begins long after the death Moses and, for that matter, long after the deaths of Ezra, Nechemia, and even the Maccabees.
Above: A Chabad-Lubavitch messianist yarmulke
Last updated 4:28 pm CDT
This yarmulke-kippah information posted below adapted from a blog written by a rabbi who is, sad to say, a big fan of the Kotzker Rebbe, a hasidic rebbe whose dynasty gave birth to Gur, one of the largest and most powerful hasidic sects in the world. Gur is thuggish and has bizarre sexual restrictions found nowhere in accepted Jewish law before it, so much so that many hasidic sects refuse to allow women from their sects to marry Gur hasidim.
The Rebbe of Kotz was mentally ill, very morose and bizarre, and the last 20 years of his life were spent in seclusion. He died in 1859.
At any rate, the yarmulke. The information about the Karaites, hasidim and kabbalists has been added by FailedMessiah.com and does not appear in the original blog post:
• Babylonian Talmud (published in about 800 CE): Rav Huna is cited for his exceptionally pious behavior of never walking more than four cubits without a head covering – something that, from the way the Talmud presents it (and from all available archaeological evidence) was unusual behavior not followed by the vast majority of the Sages of Talmud, let alone by non-scholars.
• Maimonides (the Rambam; circa 1170 CE) wrote that the “great sages” were careful to make sure their heads were covered – meaning non-scholars did not always do this.
From these two sources, one might think people did regularly cover their heads as a religious act, but were not careful about doing so when they were sleeping or when they were just walking a few feet in the house, but that isn’t what the history, the archeology – or the halakha – shows.
Also note that the Rambam broadens the use of head coverings to “the great Sages” from a few of the exceptionally pious great Sages, not because there was any evidence for this, but because he was either engaging in anachronistic thought or broadened the application in response to the Karaites, who were a major schismatic group that separated from Rabbinic Judaism but yet lived among Rabbinic Jews. In some areas, half the population of Jews were Karaites, and the Rambam spent a lot of time and effort trying to distinguish Rabbinic Judaism from them and separate the two communities. Since Karaites followed a sort of Biblical literalism, and since head coverings for men are not mentioned in the Torah or the rest of Tanakh (other than the hat worn by Temple priests as part of their uniform), it’s likely many did not cover their heads and ridiculed the rabbis of that era who did. This might have been the Ramabam’s attempt to kosher that rabbinic practice by linking it to an older rabbinic that, in his mind, predated the rise of the Karaites.
• Rabbi Shlomo Luria (the Maharshal; c. 1510–1573), the dean of the famous Lublin yeshiva and an extremely prominent rabbi in Poland-Lithuania, wrote about the yarmulke in avery interesting way in his She’elot u-Teshuvot Maharshal (Jerusalem, 1993 no. 92). In it, Luria points out that many people now give the yarmulke too much importance.
“I will now reveal the hypocrisy of the Ashkenazim. A person can drink yayin nesekh [non-Jewish wine] in a non-Jewish tavern, eat fish cooked in their [non-kosher] pots…and if he is a wealthy, powerful man, no one questions his religiosity and people will show him respect. But if someone eats and drinks only kosher foods but does so bareheaded – people consider him as though he has left Judaism!” Luria wrote.
• Rabbi Yosef Karo (Shulchan Aruch; circa 1575) wrote that a person should not walk four cubits without a head covering - in other words, he wrote “should not” but not not ‘must not,’ meaning it was strong recommendation, not an actual halakha. Karo had essentially taken the Rambam’s ruling and expanded it even further by telling all Jews to preferably act as only big rabbis once acted.
• The Taz (commentary on the Shulchan Aruch; mid-1600s) wrote that wearing a head covering may actually be part of the Torah commandment of “do not follow after their ways,” i.e., the ways of idol worshipers and, by then, the ways of all non-Jews. Why? Because idolators (i.e., Christians) remove their hats when they eat as a matter of politeness. Therefore, the Taz wrote, Jews must to cover their heads to show we are not like them. This was a biblical commandment Jews must follow, the Taz – the man who later would rule that the most spectacularly false of all false messiahs Jews have ever had, Shabbatai Tsvi, was the messiah promised to Jews by God – insisted. (Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the descendants of the Taz would join the hasidic movement.)
. Italian rabbis Jews contemporaneous to the Taz did not cover their heads – although later printers and rabbis tried to censor their books to hide this fact.
• The Vilna Gaon (d. 1797), the greatest Talmudist of all time, wrote there is never a halakhic requirement to wear a head covering – even when saying blessings or eating or praying. According to the Vilna Gaon, wearing a headcovering is only a custom of the very pious, not a law, and it need not be followed.
• The Gaon’s life, however, coincided with the birth of the hasidic movement he quickly came to despise as being heretical and made up of foolish, ignorant people masquerading as scholars and pious people. It is probably the spread of the hasidic movement combined with the spread of Sefardi ‘kabbalists’ in places like Morocco (many of whom have descendants today who are criminals and frauds and who use bizarre pietistic trappings like multiple headcoverings, veils and hoods to make themselves appear holy to what are usually the ignorant masses who follow them) that made today’s Jews wrongly think wearing a yarmulke, kippah and/or a distinctly Jewish hat is a necessary act for all Jewish males. Chabad, for example, trains boys to wear a yarmulke even when sleeping in bed – even though there is no actual halakhic basis to support this.
Update 4:28 pm CDT – The blogger I cited above appears to have taken much of his post from Dan Rabinowitz's Hakirah article on the yarmulke published several years ago.