Aug 30, 2010

Covering Your Hair: Leprous Plague?

Now that we've established that covering your hair is considered Dat Moshe, or law directly from Torah, which makes it binding for the Torah-observant, married Jewish woman, and that head covering doesn't come directly out of the call for modesty per se, we can now discuss how we cover. This, I think, is a more gray area that has led to a lot of conversations over the years and a lot of animosity among a lot of women in a lot of Jewish communities. So let's dig in.

hair (n) a slender threadlike outgrowth of the epidermis of an animal; especially: one of the usually pigmented filaments that form the characteristic coat of a mammal (from
Most of us know the act of covering our hair as kisui rosh, which actually means covering the head. By this account, even if a woman shaves her head, she's still required to cover her hair. Similarly, many women take this to mean that you merely need to cover the whole of your head and that anything that falls away from the head is unnecessary to cover (it's hair after all, not your rosh). But have you ever noticed that in some very religious communities all of the little girls -- no matter their age -- have their hair tucked up high in pony tails? That, folks, is an extension of the idea of keeping the hair bound, not loose. Let's explore. 

In the Rambam's codification of law, he discerns between two types of uncovering: full and partial, with the former being a violation of Dat Moshe (clear enough, right? we already figured this one out). In Rambam's discussion in Hilchot Ishut 24:12, he essentially says that it is a "direct Torah command (Dat Moshe) for women to keep their hair from becoming exposed in public, and a custom of Jewish women to increase that standard in the interest of modesty and maintain an intact covering on their heads at all times" ("Hide and Seek," 201). Rambam says, then, that full covering is law and partial covering is custom. Ultimately, his point is that your hair should neither be let down [paruah] nor exposed [galui]. So that thoughtful and tightly formed braid hanging out of your clearly covered head is not kosher in the eyes of Maimonides.

In the Babylonian Talmud, a more lenient pattern is established, maintaining that although a "minimal head covering is not acceptable in public, in the case of a woman going from her courtyard to another by way of an alley, it is sufficient and does not transgress Dat Yehudit" (20). So, I suppose, I could walk out of my apartment in whatever would constitute a "minimal" head covering and go through the alley to a neighbor's without fault. The Jerusalem Talmud, on the other hand, insists on a minimal head covering in the courtyard and a complete one in an alley. On that note, who has courtyards anymore? Luckily, the actual sources (BT and YT) explain what constitutes each of these public places. For us, it's not significant at the moment, but rest assured: they matter to modern understandings of how we cover where we cover.

The Rashba says that "hair which normally extends outside the kerchief and her husband is used to it" is not considered" sensual. But does that mean she halachically can leave that hair out? In talmudic times, the Maharam Alshakar said that it was permissible to allow some strands to dangle out the front (between the ear and forehead), despite the custom being to cover every last strand of a woman's hair. This, then, births the idea of the tefach, or hand's breadth, of hair that allows some (including me) to keep bangs showing or some hair out the back of a hat exposed.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled (in the vein of Rambam) that all married women must cover their hair in public and that they are obligated to cover every strand. However, he was a proponent of the tefach, saying that "a woman's hair can be regarded in the same way as any other part of her body that is typically concealed from view -- if a handsbreadth is revealed, so be it" (22). Rest assured, the slippery slope was not something Rabbi Feinstein was concerned with, as he advocated complete covering as "proper," but that the revealing of a tefach was not in violation of Dat Yehudit. This revealing of a tefach, to many, is considered "lenient."

The funny thing is -- I wouldn't consider myself lenient in hair covering. I'm just infinitely attached to my bangs, as my forehead is abnormally small. But if others consider me lenient for embracing the tefach, so be it.

Did you know that in Hungarian, Galician, and Ukrainian Chassidic communities, the women customarily shave their heads before covering and shave each month before going to mikvah? I know what you're thinking: crazy! However, the logic makes sense to me (am I crazy?). When you go to the mikvah, if you have long or longish hair, when you dip, if all of your hair doesn't go down with you and is left floating on top, your dip isn't kosher. So these communities resolved this by shaving their heads. I'm not as brave as Demi or Natalie Portman or these Chassidishe women. I also keep my hair short enough I don't think we'll have this problem.

The sheitel is the real thing that brought us here: How is the sheitel kosher? If the point is to cover your head and hair, how can it be okay to cover it with hair? And if it is okay, why not just cover it with your own hair? One argument in favor of wigs is based on the premise that head covering is all about modesty, which doesn't really fly -- it isn't based on modesty, at least not exactly. This idea revolves around the idea that by wearing a sheitel, you more easily blend into the population and don't bring unnecessary attention to yourself. A brightly colored tichel with some gnarly pattern on it (ahem, like mine), will make you stand out in a crowd, especially in South Carolina (believe me, I know).

The funny thing is that wig-wearing became popular among non-Jews before it did among observant Jews. In Europe, especially. In France in the 16th century, wigs became popular as a fashion accessory for men and women. Rabbis rejected wigs as doable for Jews because it was inappropriate to emulate the "ways of the nations (chukkot ha'goyim)." Women, too, were uncomfortable as it fell like a loophole out of hair covering. Wigs were embraced, begrudgingly, but women typically would cover their wigs (which didn't look natural to begin with) with another type of head covering, as is the case in many very religious communities today (I think of Monsey -- lots of hats on wigs).

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, believed that a wig was the best possible hair covering for a woman. Why? It wasn't as easily removed as a scarf or hat. This makes sense, believe me. He even helped needy brides purchase their wigs! On the other end, then, we have the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel who called wigs a "leprous plague," even stating that "she who goes out with a wig, the law is as if she goes out with her head [uncovered]." Yikes. Big yikes. For those of you curious about cutting your own hair and having it formed into a wig, it's kosher according to Darkei Moshe, Orach Chaim 303, which says, "A married woman is allowed to expose her wig and there is no difference if its made from her own hair or her friends hair." Of course, there's a lot more to it than this, but this discussion is more helpful than me trying to explain it all. In truth, even if you use your own hair to make a sheitel, it will never look or feel the same as your natural hair, period.

And then there are those who descend from Lithuania, Morocco, and Romania, where women did not cover their hair at all. From the Lithuanian community we have the great posek and father of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who, interestingly, never wrote down his opinions on hair covering! This, some conjecture, is because he was incredibly frum but his wife did not cover her hair. Even those he entrusted his opinions to never shared his views on covering. As a result of this, however, many former students of the Rav teach their congregants that it is no longer necessary to cover their hair -- yet, how can they know? The great Rav Soloveitchik never spoke on this!

In conclusion: The majority opinion is that hair/head covering is Dat Moshe, a binding, from-the-Torah law. How we approach it, however, depends on time and place. The Rambam (Maimonides) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein dictated that all hair should be both covered and unexposed, with Rabbi Feinstein leaving room for a tefach or hands' breadth of hair to be exposed. Wear a hat, wear a tichel, just keep it covered and unexposed. However, some communities never covered, and others shave their heads to cover. The important thing to note in all of this, then, is that all of these individuals who choose to cover and not to cover have basis in texts and the opinions of the great rabbis. Ultimately, you should seek out a reliable rabbi in your community to explain to you your community's standards. It is not -- ever -- advisable to "shop around" for a rabbi who will tell you it's okay to go out uncovered as a Torah-observant, married, Jewish woman. It isn't in the spirit of Judaism! As one rabbi has said, "It is not God-fearing to hunt for new leniences where there is no pressing need" (33).

Modesty, indeed, plays a role in hair covering, but that's a "scratch-the-surface" answer that results in more questions than answers. Yes, by covering my hair I carry myself in a manner that I view as modest. It keeps reminds me that I am a Jewish woman, it reminds me that I am married, it allows me to walk about without running wildly (my scarf would fall off!), and all of these things allow me to speak appropriately, think appropriately, and keep Judaism before me at all times. But knowing that this simple mitzvah is an act of Torah law? That's powerful. That's the crux of everything: Torah, HaShem. 

(Note: The Shulchan Aruch commentary does say that hair covering clearly is only a custom that may be subject to change based on societal standards and community practice. This goes back to the previous post, and even in the Mishnah Brurah and Aruch haShulchan there are discussions about what to do if a married woman does have her hair uncovered. As progressive and forward-thinking as some women today might think they are, someone's already attempted to push that boundary of uncovering.)

Action: Write your own story about why you are embracing it or aren't. If you're not married, write something to. Why would or wouldn't you embrace it? Post it to your blog. Link it here on this blog post. We'll start our OWN narrative on what gives us the heebie-jeebies about hair covering, what we don't buy into, and what makes our hearts sing when we cover our hair.


Caroline said...

I have family members (not immediate) who wear sheitels and others who wear hats. In my immediate family, to cover one's hair would never be considered. I have always, always known that I would cover my hair in shul, but I figured that would be it. However, I've become more observant over the years; now i'm active in a Modern Orthodox congregation--and just became engaged a few months ago--so this has moved to the forefront of my mind. My fiance doesn't have a preference regarding whether I cover my hair, and I am going to take some time to study the sources before I decide what to do, but I'm pretty open to the idea of wearing hats, and I like the idea of a symbol that says I'm married. A hat is a lot larger than a wedding band! Sorry if this is rambling too's just a major topic on my mind.

Daniel Saunders said...

I vaguely recall hearing somewhere that sheitels were permitted because women, for reasons of poverty, were covering their hair with what were basically rags and the rabbis were worried this would make them unattractive to their husbands. I don't have a source for that, though.

Also, I have to query Rav Soloveitchik, the "father of modern Orthodoxy". That accolade usually goes to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. However, if you were to argue Rav Soloveitchik was the father of American modern Orthodoxy, I would agree.

Leah Sarah said...

I am engaged and not yet married, but I plan on covering my hair. I personally do see the value in modesty regarding hair covering. My old Rabbi gave me the original source on hair covering that hair, when a woman becomes married, is ervah, reserved for only her husband. In that case, hair covering IS modesty.

I personally don't like sheitels. I am the opposite of a vain person(not to say all sheitel wearers are vain, though!). I brush my hair usually and then that's it. I don't do anything to it. I don't ever fuss with it, and my only thought about my hair is ocassionally that I wish I were married so I could just put a hat on. I don't want to add hair that I MUST fuss with to make sure it doesn't get frizzy or lose its shape. My own hair is so low maintenance that I don't want to pay someone a whole lot of money to give myself high maintenance hair. I'd rather throw on a hat or a tichel and call it a day.

Thankfully, my spouse is much more for hats as hair coverings than sheitels.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Leah Sarah -- believe it or not, I'm the same way, exactly, re: hair. My pre-wedding hair was incredibly low-maintenance, and I dreamed of being able to throw a tichel on with ease (my Saturday morning hair was always a mess because of the pomade). But I would dry my hair in 2 seconds, zip pomade through, and I was done. I prided myself on getting up, showered, hair done, dressed, in about 10 minutes.

The sheitel, however, is good for Shabbos, when I feel like getting dressed up for the Shabbos Queen. It's like, that one night a week where getting all primped is meaningful, as it shows honor to the day (it's why we have special clothes and shoes for the day, too). So, in that way, it makes sense. Not to mention my whole "when in Rome" thing. Sometimes, a sheitel just makes one feel more put together. Over the past few months, on more than one ocassion, I felt awkward in my tichel or hat, not put together. It was uncomfortable. Would I feel better in a sheitel? I don't know. I'll let you know :)

PS: My spouse also is a hat/tichel kind of person. He's very anti-sheitel, but he gets my reasons.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Chaviva, I hope you'll forgive me for taking issue with some of what you state here. Concerning the paragraph mentioning Rav Soloveitchik, this seems to be partly paraphrased from Lynne Schreiber's book on page 27. I would like to suggest a few *possible* counterarguments.

Ms. Schreiber writes that women didn't cover their hair at all in Lithuania, Morocco, and Rumania. This is simply untrue only because it is such a broad, sweeping statement. Photographic evidence shows they did, and they didn't. I have been told by people who lived in Morocco before coming to Israel that in fact many women did cover their hair. And many did not. So this overly broad assertion can't prove anything. The same, apparently, is true for Lithuanian Jewish women. I have never spoken to anyone who lived in the Rumanian Jewish community.

As for Rav Soloveitchik not writing about his halachic position on women's hair covering, it isn't really 'interesting' at all. He didn't write much at all about any of his halachic positions on any topic. I would rather suggest that anyone who thinks it significant that he didn't write on this particular halacha, isn't very familiar with his style or his written works.

Ms. Schreiber writes that "some former students of the Rav...teach...that it is no longer necessary..." You write that "many former students" teach this position. I think that, if anything, "some" is the more likely correct modifier in this case. What's more, I'm not aware of anyone directly tying such a position to anything they were explicitly taught by Rav Soloveitchik, so it is not very relevant in relation to his position and rationale. You point that out yourself; as does Ms. Schreiber later on.

Ms. Schreiber suggests it is unthinkable that Rabbanit Soloveitchik didn't cover her hair, yet her husband would disagree. The opposite can be the case. The Rav could recognize and respect subtleties in halacha, and realize that he might have to tolerate different opinions and positions even in his own home. I didn't have the privilege of learning from him; but everything I have read and heard from various students of his suggests this could be the case in any instance. And I certainly know rabbanim who tolerate/accept their wives acting in accord with a halachic position they disagree with. This, especially in those matters that are the wife's particular responsibility; though not solely such incidences.

Ms. Schreiber (pg. 28-29) thinks "there is significance in silence." Again, Rav Soloveitchik rarely wrote actual piskei halacha. In many cases, he simply communicated his position through others. And he was not afraid to speak up. On matters where he thought he must take a stand, he did so.

Finally, Rav David Holzer reports from taped conversation with the Rav that he indeed stated simply and succinctly that married women were obligated to cover their hair before strangers, even in their own home.

In short, the whole discussion of anything having to do with Rav Soloveitchik's position on the matter is wasted conjecture that adds nothing to our understanding of the matter.

Adina Kastner said...

You did a beautiful job summing up the halachot! And you even quoted the Rashba that I personally hold by!

One thing that I'd love to see you explore more is the issue of covering hair in the home. It is a complex issue, particularly since the Gemara does differentiate between the "marketplace," the "courtyard," and the "home."

Anonymous said...

Challenge ON!

Anonymous said...

Chassidus is really into hair. Se'ar, hair, is the same spelling as the word for "pipes" in Hebrew. So chassidus (I don't know where, Rabbi Daniel Katz just mentioned this in a shiur) that hair is like a pipeline. Wherever a certain action starts/if that place is more productive, hair is there--the head is highly productive in its thinking, and hair is found most there. Our armpits are where the beginning of our hand, which is how we reach out to do a mitzvah/give tzedaka/take action, and so on.

So because hair is a pipeline, with a certain energy that it pipes through, chassidim shave the back of their heads and have their long peyos. (The specific reasons they like the front and not the back I don't know). Just so, a married woman's hair is also piping through a certain sexual energy. She covers it so that a very intimate sort of energy is not shown to the public.

That's what I learned, which I think is pretty cool, and very satisfying.

-Meira Cochava

Tevye said...

Very nice to see conversation on the topic! I wouldn't consider myself an expert on the topic, but a few months back I posted some sources concerning tichel vs. sheitle etc...

We live in a community that is mostly sheitles, but my wife chooses to cover with tichel, snood, etc. Either way, B"H... women are covering.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Re: the comment that the word for hair, שער, and 'pipeline' or 'pipe' are spelled the same - can you clarify that please? I know of no such word for 'pipe' spelled the same as שער. The few minutes I just spent looking through sources like אבן שושן and רד"ק turn up no such connection or similarity, even considering alternative spellings. Could you verify this, and maybe find out a source? You may answer me off-line if that is better for you.

Unknown said...

Great discussion! I agree, it would be interesting to hear a take on the home vs outdoor hair covering. I cannot find it now but I will look again -- I read that the leniancy of Rav Moshe Feinstien was about a specific case, and should not be applied in all cases. Also, I have heard that there is a difference based on motivation. If the reason some hair is sticking out is because some hair is sticking out, that is normal, watchagonnado? But if you are leaving it out for the purpose of beautification it is not permitted. Again, I don't have sources but I know I read this from a legit source. Will try remember to come back with the sources!

As someone who doesn't have bangs I don't have much hair to leave out -- it's much more of an all or nothing deal. However, I am thinking about wearing a fall with a headband, but perhaps not the thickest headband out there (ie some of the hair in the very front might be exposed, and it would probably look more natural...). Sigh. No idea what to do!

Thanks for the post. Love the tichle you're wearing in the pic! Where do you find yours????? Please let us know where to find cute ones.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Sara Interesting re: inside vs. outside. I am hesitant about a lot of what people say Moshe Feinstein meant or really said, because it seems to me that a lot of what he meant is being taken out of context for more machmir standards. As for this tichel, it's from Israel :) A friend brought this back from Israel for me! But I always use or look at TJ Maxx, Marshall's, Filene's and other discount stores.

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