THE FRUIT OF PRIESTHOOD The Skull Cap of the Syrian Priesthood

On many occasions I was asked about the significance of the skull cap worn by the priests of the Syrian Church, both in the Middle East and in India. Recently there were some inquiries about it by our readers. Hence we are trying to educate our readers about the relevance of skull caps worn by our clergy.

In the Syrian Church this skull cap is called Elbishto d’Kurobo, the cap for offering the sacrifice, and it is also called Phiro d’Kohnutho, the Fruit of Priesthood (one may find different spellings for these terms in other publications).

Clergy of other churches also wear the same or similar caps or skull caps during their liturgical functions. But all these practices share the same traditions.

Jewish Practice

It was the ancient Jewish practice that men should cover their heads during prayers and ceremonial occasions. It was customary for women to cover their heads always. But men were required to wear head-covering during prayers. This custom is still observed by Jewish men on Saturdays and on feast days. However, the priests and rabbis during the period of the Old Testament covered their heads not only during prayers and religious services, but also at other times when they appeared in public.

There was a good reason for doing so. As we know the Jews were even scared of pronouncing the name of God. Even now the Orthodox Jews do write the word ‘God’, without the vowel in it (G-d). They were afraid of the presence of God. Moreover, they also wanted to minimize the importance of their presence before God. So they covered their heads during religious services. The practice indicated one’s insignificance and nothingness before the Sovereign of the universe. During the time of Jesus, this custom was already in place, and in icons and pictures representing Christ and His apostles, we see head-coverings on them. Men and women usually covered their heads all the time because of the almost desert-like weather in the Middle East. We can also observe this practice among people of other religions. The large head-veil was later reduced to a manageable skull cap for the sake of convenience. In Hebrew this skull cap was called Kippah. Before and during the time Christ this skull cap was called Yerai Malka, which is an ancient Aramaic phrase, meaning the Fear of or Honor for the King. As everyone knows, during the few centuries before Christ, and during His period, the culture and the language of the Jewish people were Aramaic.

When Jews were scattered after the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman army around AD 70, they took this practice to their Diasporas, including the Aramaic culture. Their men continued to wear Kippah. Among the Jewish people in Diaspora, there also developed an eclectic language called Yiddish, which takes its content and form from Hebrew, Aramaic, and the European language(s), mainly German. The Jews who spoke Yiddish coined a new term from Yerai Malka, and we thus have the word Yarmulke, pronounced Yah-mi-kuh.

Jews had been living in various parts of the Roman Empire long before the time of Christ for commercial reasons and they were the best businessmen like they are still now. When Jews were taken as captives after the siege of Jerusalem, their presence was more significantly notified. But the tragedy was that, after the collapse of the Jewish Jerusalem and the enslavement of Jews by the Romans across the Empire, they were just considered slaves within society. They lost the civil status as freemen after they lost Jerusalem. In the Roman Empire slaves were required to cover their heads, but freemen did not cover their heads. This situation forced the Jewish men to retain the habit of covering their heads even after they were in diaspora. Early Christians of Jewish origin maintained the same traditions and customs.

The Christian Origin of the Skull Cap

We have already explained that the Jewish priests and rabbis had been covering their heads during prayers and religious services. Christian priests and bishops also followed the same custom, because they considered themselves to be the ministers of a perfected Judaism, not as a separate religion. It was the same tradition of Jewish priests that the early Christian priests and bishops accepted when they celebrated the Eucharist, which is the mystical Paschal sacrifice of the New Covenant. Thus the black skull cap became a common headwear for Christian clergy as a continuation of the Jewish priestly practice. The Christian clergy continued this practice even after the separation of the Church from Judaism.

This practice was not restricted to the Syrian Church alone. Priests of the Roman Church also used the skull cap. In some Roman Catholic Church Supply stores, black skull caps for priests were sold until recent times. In the Roman Church the bishops wore a red skull cap to show authority, and regular parish clergy wore black ones. Over the thin skull caps bishops wore a miter or a red biretta, and priests wore a black biretta. Now one can see only the Roman bishops wearing a skull cap. Similarly, it is the same practice that was handed down from pope to pope. The Pope (bishop) of Rome wears a white skull cap, because all his habits are white to show his high rank above the bishops whose habits are red in color, both the cassock and sash and the skull cap.

The Greeks who are culturally more European continued this custom for their bishops and priests with variations resulting from their cultural background. The Copts on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea continued this practice. When I visited Egypt a few years ago, I saw their priests always wearing skull caps. The Armenians had their own forms of skull caps. In addition, we observe that the monastic hood of the West and the monastic schema of the Greeks, Syrians, Copts, and Armenians are also the continuation of this Jewish custom. Monks spend most of their time in prayer and meditation and they do it with their heads covered, a practice continued from our common Jewish religious heritage. The profession of a monk culminates with the vesting of the new monk with a hood or schema. This is not a recent practice. Our readers may have seen the icon/ picture of St. Ephraim the Syrian, a great ascetic and deacon, with a schema on his head. In the Byzantine tradition, monks wear a hood with a long veil hanging behind them. You could see this hood and veil on all eastern bishops, because they are generally monks.

But the skull cap of the Syrian Church is to be worn by both bishops and priests during liturgical functions. If one is a monk (Rabban) or a bishop, he still has to wear this skull cap under the monastic schema; because the skull cap is more significant than the schema; the former is the symbol of the Holy Priesthood, which is a sacrament, and on the other hand monastic life is only one of the ways of Christian living.

According to the Syrian Church, another very significant symbol is attached to the skull cap. It symbolizes the crown of thorns that our Lord wore when He offered Himself as the ultimate sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. The priest is sacramentally Christ Himself, and he has to wear this symbol of the crown of thorns when he actualizes the same sacrifice of Christ in our midst and in our time. Hence it is mandatory that prelates and hieromonks (Rabbans), who are also priests, wear the skull cap under their schema during liturgical services, particularly during the celebration of Eucharistic liturgies and the administration of sacraments and other offices.

Although the freemen in the Roman Empire did not cover their heads like the slaves, they had hats to signify their governmental or social positions, which they wore during public functions. When the slaves covered their heads to show their respect for the masters, the noble freemen took their hats off in deference to the Emperor during public functions. This was a common practice within the Roman Empire. This is the reason why men take off their hats when entering inside a church. The same practice influenced the clergy in the Roman Empire. This considerably affected their use of the skull cap during liturgical services. The Roman bishops and priests therefore began to take off their skull caps right before the consecration of the elements during the Eucharistic celebration, and place them back on their heads after the consecration. The Greek Church was a church within the Roman Empire, and their clergy also have a similar practice. Right before the consecration, the Greek bishops and priests take off their head-cover. Other Churches in the East also may have borrowed this practice. However, one should realize the fact that, for the Syrian Church, the skull cap is in the place of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus when He immolated Himself as a sacrifice for the universe. Hence it is mandatory that the Syrian clergy, under the Catholicate of the East or under the Patriarchate of Antioch, wear skull caps during their priestly functions.

In the Syrian Church the bishops and chorepiscopi take off their linen/velvet crown (bathrashil) or black biretta (miter) when they sing the prayers of Eucharistic consecration, when they read the Gospels, and when the Eucharistic elements are exposed. The skull cap for the Syrians is a symbol and the fruit of priesthood and it symbolizes the crown of Jesus while He was offering the eternal sacrifice; and hence it will remain on the head of the priest even during the most important moments of the liturgical services. On the other hand, crowns and birettas are objects signifying authority, and therefore are to be taken of when the Sovereign of the universe is present sacramentally or through the Word of God in the Gospels. Moreover, it is logical to think that priests are slaves before the King of kings, and have to cover their heads before their Master like the Roman slaves did.

Who Wears A Skull Cap?

In the Church of Malankara deacons and minor clergy are also given skull caps to wear, and this practice is WRONG. Canons of the Church require only the priests to wear them; and with skull caps on their heads should priests enter the sanctuary at any time. On the other hand, deacons and minor clergy (subdeacons, lectors and cantors) enter the sanctuary without skull caps on them. During the ordination of a priest his skull cap is blessed with the rest of his priestly vestments, and after he is vested the ordaining bishop ceremoniously places the skull cap over his head as the external sign of his holy priesthood. Hence it is called the fruit of priesthood (Phiro d’Kohnutho). The deacons and the minor clergy are vested only with an alb and a stole which they wear according to the design specified for their offices; no skull cap is blessed or given to them.

Strictly speaking the minor clergy do not have to wear clerical habits either outside the church. They could wear lay cloths, but use the alb and stole while serving in the sanctuary. It is because they appear in public with clerical habits and skull caps that they and the public feel they should become priests. Like in the Middle East, the Church of Malankara should separate the major clergy from the minor clergy. Minor clergy seeking priesthood later, however, may use clerical habits in the seminary while they are pursuing priestly studies, but should never be permitted to wear them outside the seminary. But even in the seminary they should not use skull caps.

All clergy in the priestly orders, such as hierarchs (including catholicoi, patriarchs, metropolitans and bishops) chorepiscopi (chorbishops), abbots, priests, and hieromonks are to wear skull caps during religious services. Hierarchs in the Orthodox churches are generally monks and they have to wear the skull cap under their monastic veils (schema). Chorbishops and abbots wear a large black cap, which is somewhat equivalent to a biretta of the western Church. They cannot wear the biretta and offer divine services without the skull cap under it. These birettas are in place of the Maznaptho worn over the heads by priests of the episcopal orders. If they use a biretta, they should take it off when they consecrate Eucharistic elements, read the Gospels, and when the Eucharistic elements are exposed.

Many people erroneously call the monastic schema, Maznaptho. Maznaptho is an embroidered linen/ velvet crown worn by the higher clergy of the episcopal rank.

Chorepiscopi wear the same Maznaptho, but they do not wear them on their heads, but on their shoulders, because their full episcopal functions were curtailed by the emerging audacity of the bishops of cities (metropolitans) who wanted to rule over a wider territory beyond their urban boundaries. Thus the chorepiscopates became weaker and weaker since the seventh century, and their functions became limited. To signify this difference, they wear the Maznaptho on their shoulders. However, in some eastern churches they wear the Maznaptho (which is also called the chorepiscopal hood) on their heads, but they do not wear a pallium, which is called himation in Greek and Bathrashil in Syriac. In the Roman Church the size of pallium was reduced into a small stole worn only by archbishops. Among the Eastern churches, Byzantine Orthodox patriarchs and metropolitans wear a long himation. Actually the himation has its origin from the Greek nobility whose men wore a large oblong mantle to designate their dignity, and this practice was adopted by the Roman and Greek Churches. It was because of the heavily Hellenic influence in the Thurabdeen and Antiochian areas that the West Syrian Church adopted the practice of wearing a himation by patriarchs and metropolitans. Strictly speaking, during the ordination of an ordinary bishop the bathrashil is not a required vestment, and an ordinary bishop does not have to wear a bathrashil. The bathrashil is given to a bishop when he becomes the bishop of a metropolitan city (Metropolitan of the big city). However, in the Syrian Church all bishops, regardless of their ranks, now wear the bathrashil. The chorbishops did not wear the bathrashil from the very beginning even during the time they enjoyed their full functions as bishops, because they were not metropolitan bishops. This discussion on the bathrashil was parenthetically necessary to complement our study of the skull cap.

The Caps Currently Worn by the Priests of the Church of Malankara?

We have seen that the skull caps worn by Christian bishops and priests are coming from our common heritage with the Jewish tradition and religious culture. Many years ago, in India these caps were made by a low caste tailor group called Panans. Their product was the combination of seven triangular black pieces of cloths stitched together in the fashion of a Jewish yarmulke. Its diameter was around six to seven inches and had a half inch border in order to keep itself in place over the head without slippage. This was more close to a yarmulke. Even when professional tailors began to make this skull cap it remained closer to a yarmulke. This was the skull cap this writer received when he was ordained a deacon, and when he was ordained a priest it was the same size of skull cap that was blessed and placed over his head.

Later our clergy in India began to adapt the fashions of the caps worn by Muslims, which are foldable. Foldable caps were larger and of different shapes. This cap covered the entire top half of the head. The skull cap covers only less than half of the top of the head. This is what our counterparts in the Middle East still use. When I went to the Old Seminary in Kottayam with a traditional skull cap, even the professors there looked at me as if I had failed to observe the traditions. We follow the Syrian Church for our liturgy and religious traditions. Unfortunately we failed in observing many things that are essentials to that tradition. Yes, this writer emphasizes that the caps worn by the priests of the Orthodox Church in India do not satisfy the traditional requirements of the skull cap used in the Syrian tradition. The caps our priests wear do imitate a Muslim design rather than the Judeo-Christian design of the skull cap. This writer urges our Syrian clergy in India and abroad to stick to the traditional skull cap of our fathers in the past. The priestly skull cap is a small cap circularly covering the top of the head with a diameter of six to eight inches, depending on the size of the head; it definitely is not the imitation of the Muslim cap. +kct @TVOO

By:
Kuriakos Tharakan Thottupuram, Ph.D., D.D- Chancellor -OBL

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

peter slipper December 27, 2009 at 10:43 am

When during the Mass does the priest take off his biretta and take off his black skull cap?

zena ezechiels January 17, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Thanks I didn’t know re G-d in Orthodoxy..

Greek Orthodox Christian Yes my Name is spelled in the Syrian way and my husband’s geneological roots are Syrian :)

George Mathew September 14, 2010 at 9:43 am

Please can you advise as to from where one can obtain an Orthodox Cap of the Syrian Christian priests?

Joe January 8, 2011 at 6:05 am

Problem with your article is that the Yarmulke only appears in Judaism even after the talmudic times, around 7 CE. In fact it wasn’t until the middle ages that the custom was widespread even within Judaism. No Jewish literature before the Talmud mentions fear of heaven as a reason for covering one’s head, and even in the Talmud it becomes clear it was not habitual either.

Where does it really come from? The cult of Mithraism in Babylon. This is why you’ll see skullcaps all over ancient Babylonian tablets. In the Bible, covering one’s head was actually a sign of shame, not fear of heaven.

You should really check your history, as not even us Jews consider the kippah custom as an ancient one.

 Skullcap July 21, 2012 at 6:34 pm

We now have observed that this head hats used through Alfredia bishops as well as priests tend to be originating from our own typical traditions using the Judaism custom as well as spiritual tradition.

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