If you’ve been following the Papal visit to the Holy Land on television, you may have wondered, “Why is he wearing a kippah?” But perhaps, the real question is whether and why Jews are wearing zucchetti.
The zucchetto is a part of the uniform of Roman Catholic clergy. Its name comes from Italian zucchetta, the diminutive of zucca - gourd or, by extension, head. Zucchetti is only a nickname for the undersized hat, which is officially called pileolus.
The exact circumstances of when and why Catholic clergy began wearing zucchetti are unclear, though it is clear that it was before 1290, since a fresco in the Church of St. Francis at Assisi from that time shows cardinals wearing them. The custom is unlikely to have seriously started before the 13th century, though headdress was a common marker at the time and it isn’t really surprising that the tradition took shape and held.
The zucchetto’s color signifies its bearer’s rank. The pope and only the pope's is white; cardinals wear scarlet ones, bishops and other church figures of similar rank wear violet zucchetti and lower ranking priests wear black ones, if they wear them at all.
So what came first, the yarmulke or the zucchetto?
Well, the Bible doesn’t say that one must wear a kippah, nor is it written in the Mishnah or the Talmud. In fact, Jewish men were first enjoined to keep their heads covered while praying or studying halakha in synagogue only in the 8th century, when the command appears in Masekhet Sofrim (14:15). But this 8th-century head covering probably looked less like a zucchetto than the head garb of Arabs, considering that the command was written in 8th century Palestine.
The tradition wended its way to Europe. Rabbenu Yerucham of Provence decreed wearing kippahs while in synagogue as halakha in the 14th century. At this time, the headdress likely took more continental forms, perhaps akin to the Medieval scholar cap (that’s that weird thing students wear for graduation), or may have been a form of the “Jew hat” forced on Jews in different times and places, which had many variations but was basically a cone.
It was Rabbi Joseph Karo of Shulchan Aruch fame who in the 16th century dictated that Jewish men must have their heads covered at all times, this based on a passage in the Talmud in which a rabbi said that he did so out of reverence to God: “Rabbi Huna son of Rabbi Joshua said: May I be rewarded for never walking four cubits bareheaded” (Shabbat 118b).
This prescript wasn’t universally adopted. Many Jews continued to only cover their heads when praying and studying the Torah, but others in greater and greater number followed Rabbi Karo’s decree.
In the centuries since, Jews wore a great number of different head coverings, which differed from place to place and from time to time. In the United States of the 19th century, for example, Chinese hats (not the canonical hats of farm workers, but rather sort of large yarmulkes) were the fashion. As the century progressed, these hats got smaller until eventually morphing into the kippahs we know today, which by chance look just like zucchetti. This fashion spread around the world and are today worn by Jewish men everywhere, and - mainly in the Reform movement - by some women as well.