General Topics

Women’s Hair


Times change. My late father was Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in the United Kingdom (more kosher than the United Synagogue) from 1945 to 1948. He would meet up with the former Chief Rabbi, Israel Brody at Covent Garden, where they would both sit without head covering, listening to female singing voices. It is probably fair to say that the same applied to the majority of Central and Western European and American Orthodox rabbis fifty years ago.

I was “educated” not to wear a kapel (kippah) in public–but of course my youth in England was a time when all “decent” people wore hats. I didn’t at university. We were still in those days under the “Anglo/Germanic” influence of “Be an Englishman in the street and a Jew in your home.” But after the Six Day War and spending time in yeshiva, I felt confident enough to say, “What the hell, why not flaunt my pride in my heritage,” and I have worn one in public ever since. It’s as much a social issue as a religious one. These are obvious examples of how circumstances, even fashions, change outward aspects of religious life.

Some fifty years ago it was unusual, in the west, to find an Orthodox rabbi’s wife who covered her hair outside of a synagogue. The same could be said for some great Lithuanian rabbis’ wives, and indeed for some wives of Hassidic rebbes. There was still a degree of variety and flexibility that stemmed from a clearer distinction between the anti-rationalists, the anti-Enlightenment rabbis of the Pale of Settlement, and those to the west who had been exposed to other attitudes.

Nowadays, hair covering for women is almost the definition of Orthodoxy. The question is whether this is an absolute requirement or a social one and whether the current trend bears any relationship to universal trends as with Muslim fashion. Once it was rare to wear a hijab, or even hair covering, in the West. As in Judaism, it was confined to the more closed eastern societies. Holidaying Sheiks from Saudi in the South of France looked no different from other wealthy French jetsetters. In Turkey it was unheard of, except amongst the backward Kurds, for a woman to cover her hair. Now it has become a statement, as it has with us.

Was head covering a social phenomenon in Torah times? Or was it a religious obligation? There is no actual requirement laid down in the Torah, but the origins lie in the Biblical narrative (Numbers 5:18) of the woman suspected of adultery (who gave adequate grounds for suspicion but there was no proof). She was brought before the priest for a sort of psychological test. No Inquisition trial by torture I am pleased to say. The priest made her swear her innocence and “loosened” her hair. The Hebrew for “loosened” (PaRaH) is also used of loose men, as in the song of Deborah (Judges 5.2). There it certainly didn’t mean “uncovered”. Rashi, the great commentator, says it (PaRaH) in the Torah means “removing the pins that keep her hair in place” and then he goes on to say, “This is the origin of the daughters of Israel not going out in public with uncovered hair.” Of course, in Rashi’s day in northern Europe, no good Christian woman would be seen in public with her hair uncovered either.

The Talmud (Ketubot 72a) asks if hair covering is a Torah obligation or just “tradition” and if tying hair up under a basket to keep it in place is good enough. It is clear that head covering of some sort is an ancient tradition. The only issue is whether it is merely a matter of modesty, as with modest dress, or whether hair covering is a requirement in itself. Clearly the Western rabbis thought modesty was the issue. But, interestingly enough, as important as modesty is, it is not really defined. The Shulchan Aruch says that one should not pray in front of a tefach (a hand’s breadth) of hair or skin that is normally covered. But “normally covered” is left vague. The actual definition varies with times and traditions. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking; now, heaven knows, anything goes,” wrote Cole Porter.

It would be true to say that at one period, a major chunk of Orthodoxy regarded neat and tidy hair a good enough mark of modesty and perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, it is equally true to say that in both many Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities all married women were expected to cover their hair. And as I have said above, now, in most Orthodox circles it is de rigueur in one form or another. The issues are simply what one covers with and how much.

What has swung the pendulum in recent years? Generally there has been reaction to scientific modernity. Specifically the Holocaust so traumatized so many that Orthodoxy decided that the values that could tolerate Nazism, or at best stand by and ignore what was happening, reflected so negatively on Western culture that there was a conscious decision to reject it in favor of survival. The post-1960s tolerance of difference cultures, religions, and immigrant societies, meant that one no longer needed to accommodate to prevailing norms. There weren’t any, any more. So head covering, for men and women, has become a statement, both an assertion of one’s own values and a rejection of others.

The fact is that within Orthodoxy there is now a whole range of different standards. Chasidic sects wear different hats of different shapes and sizes, coats buttoned up different ways, and socks and shoes of varying styles that all betray, or reveal, the identity and affiliation of the wearer. The same goes for hair covering. Some shave their hair and wear only scarves. Some wear wigs that are covered with hats. Some wear wigs, sheitels, that are supervised religiously, others are bought at the local shops. Some cover their wigs in public; others do not. Some wear scarves, snoods, hair bands, or combinations of the lot, each group allowing different amounts of hair to peek out.

So what’s one to do? The fact is that it really depends on what sect or society you want to fit in with and what their conventions and customs are. There is no single standard. There are choices. Rav Ovadya Yosef declares wigs are an abomination and must be covered like normal hair. But virtually all the Ashkenazi Charedi world ignores him. Is anyone right or wrong? It seems to me that the bottom line is modesty. Then there is custom that has taken on the status of law. Thus, what you wear on your head, male or female, is rather like what style of clothes you buy. It is a useful tool to remind yourself where you affiliate religiously and to tell the world outside that you don’t give a fig either for their values or their politics! Which is all fair and fine, so long as your own standards pass muster.

12 thoughts on “Women’s Hair

  1. Jeremy,

    Very thoughtful and well written. You say that the bottom line is modesty,the definition of which is subjective to time and place (you actually say “varies with time and traditions”). Is it fair to say that since today modern western women do not cover their hair, one of the choices an orthodox woman has is to not cover her hair?

  2. Yes, I do believe a woman can be Orthodox, loyal to halacha, without covering her hair, and yet, if she wants to fit in to the majority of genuinely Orthodox communities she will have no choice!!

  3. Rabbi Rosen,

    Can you please elaborate how a woman can be loyal to halacha w/o covering her hair? Isn’t the normative halachic position that a (married) woman’s obligation to cover her hair is a torah precept?

  4. Halacha is a very complex structure and process. Even its core, the Torah, is not static. That is why we do not blow the shofar when Rosh Hahana falls on Shabbat and the arba minim if the first day of Succot falls on Shabbat, why we say in brachot that “God commanded us” over the rabbinic festivals of Purim and Chanukah. Even history and circumstances play a part, no sacrifices, no slavery, no underage betrothal. New dimensions are being added. Old ones, like mayim megulim, fall into abeyance, or like “zugim/zugot” pairs we no longer worry too much about. It is happening all the time.

    Similarly, new customs come in, some obviously from pagan sources–untying shoelaces against evil spirits, covering mirrors, even lighting candles over the dead. There has always been interaction between halacha and society.

    Then there are the degrees of strictness. Is kosher kosher? Can you be a halachically committed Jew and NOT demand glatt? Of course you can! Otherwise all those great rabbis who lived before “glatt” were sinners? Did all those rabbis who lived more than a hundred years ago and did not drink a Chazon Ish measure of wine rank with the wicked?

    Prof. Haym Soloveitchik in his famous “Tradition” article, argued that we now have discarded oral tradition, handed down from father to son, mother to daughter and only go by text. It was not always thus. I need to write about this at greater length too. But just think of all the different customs that different sects, Hassidim, Sephardim have that others do not.

    One of the recurring themes of meta-halacha is, “Go and see what people are doing” (e.g. Eiruvin 14b). So if at a certain period rabbinic custom interprets head covering in different ways then clearly within halacha there are varieties of choices. Modesty is clearly a major halachic issue but what constitutes modesty keeps on changing in both directions. There are differences between public and private, between religious occasions and other ones. So you have to look as well as read.

    From the Mishna & Gemara in Ketubot (72) it is clear that there are different opinions on head covering even though everyone agrees that as a rule, historically, Jewish women have had the custom of covering their hair. You then see that subsequently there have been different opinions within halacha under different circumstances and at different times.

    This leads you to see that the matter is not a simple one of black and white. Was Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch who often uncovered his head in public, and allowed women to go out with neat hair but not necessarily covered, a sinner? Therefore you or your rabbi or rebbe make decisions. It is not always a matter of right or wrong. Custom is very important. That’s why I say you may have to follow the local custom. But not everyone does.

    Just because many Hassidim such as Lubavitch all wear two pairs of tefillin, does this mean that I, who only wear one, am as sinner or beyond halacha? As you say in the USA, I don’t THINK so!!

  5. Rabbi Rosen,

    You said:

    “From the Mishna & Gemara in Ketubot (72) it is clear that there are different opinions on head covering even though everyone agrees that as a rule, historically, Jewish women have had the custom of covering their hair.”

    It seems to me that even though there are different opinions on head covering, the common denominator is that the obligation to cover is a torah precept, and this is the reason why historically jewish women have the custom of covering their hair.

    In your analysis, you seem to skip over the torah precept part and you just state that it is a matter of custom, which is subject to time and place. If the root of the custom is the torah precept, then we can no longer discuss the obligation as subjective, but rather as an objective torah obligation which applies in all times and in all places.

    I understand how you can be a halachically committed jew and not demand glatt, but to be a halachically committted jew, you must demand kashrut. It seems to me to be the same with hair covering.

  6. Ron –

    >>It seems to me …the obligation to cover [hair] is a torah precept<< Well it doesn’t seem that way to all opinions. But there is a Torah precept not to oppress your fellow man. Apparently, that doesn’t apply to women, as the rabbis have developed the most oppressive divorce system, creating corrupt batei din and failing to address the issue of agunot. I wish we could generate as much passion about divorce as we can about hair and other dress code issues. Our obsession with dress is a symptom of our inability to deal with issues of substance, and instead to focus energies on superficialities. Before the late 20th century, you will not find in a single Jewish source any discussion of women’s modesty connected to their spirituality, but rather immodesty as a concern for its effect upon men.

  7. It is this issue of decorum, modesty in public, which underlies the Mishna and the discussion in the Gemara. The proof is that the same text refers also to women who reveal their bodies accidentally in the process of spinning in public. This also contravenes the very same law. Therefore one can legitimately conclude that the issue is one of modesty, decorum in public.

    The trouble is that the custom, even if of Torah origin, is not as clear as you imply. The Gemara does not use the now common expression “gilui rosh”, which means “uncovering ones hair”. The emphasis is rather on the word PeRaH, which literally means “loose”. Therefore one cannot categorically assume that the custom, or indeed law, was always understood to mean that a woman should never “uncover” her hair. It could simply mean that Jewish women never went out in public with “loose” hair and so give the impression that they were “loose” women.

  8. The halachik process may be complex, but part of it is that we do not redefine the rishonic understandings of the sources of the Talmud to fit with our own perceptions, unless we have alternate rishonic support. The understanding reached in the Talmud you quote is that the obligation to cover one’s hair, at least somewhat (ex. with a basket), is from the Torah.

    While you are right that many bowed to the pressures from external social norms, and did not cover their hair in the past, this does not change the halacha. You can say “social norms” when you talk of things like men praying with or without a hat (which is totally predicated on the social norms as evidenced by the very sources that discuss this), but you cannot claim a novel translation of ‘para”, and therefore do away with what the corpus of halachick literature has accepted as a d’oraita rule. That much, the complexity of the halachik process does not seem to allow.

  9. But where there is a significant body of opinion that offers an alternative within halacha, then of course one may point out that there always have been other interpretations, in the same way that there is a strong body that totally disapproves of Sheitels. There always have been alternate views on this issue.

    >By the way, פריעה clearly means uncovering in other halachick contexts, such as פריעה in מילה.

    And does PEREH adam mean a naked man??

  10. I would love you to provide an actual rishonic source that agrees with your take, and asserts that covering hair is not d’orayta or d’rabannan, but a social custom (like that of wearing a hat during prayers in the mishna berurah’s time).

    Also, you are confusing two words. פרע is the root for priah in milah and priat rosh by the sotah. However, in the story of Yishmael, the root is פרא, with an aleph and not an ayin. So, one has no bearing on the other. Pri’ah in mila is definitely uncovering, as it is in the sotah. In the story of Yishmael, it is a different verb.

    You can see the difference by looking at the appropriate pesukim: Gen 17:12 and Numbers 5:18 (the same use of פרע is found in Lev. 10:6).

  11. So you want to tell me that GADEL PERAH in Bamidbar 6 means uncovering his hair?

    Or that when the people went wild PARUAH in Shemot 32 they took their clothes off?

    Or that in Shirat Devorah they went naked? Shoftim 5? Hello???

    The Mishna and Gemara sources in Ketubot themselves show clearly and obviously the ambiguity of the word.
    There’s no argument from silence amongst Rishonim, because of prevailing fashions even amongst the non-Jews at the time. Think of nuns or Bedouin.

    And in the last century whether it was Hirsch, Weinberg (Sridei Eysh), Hoffman (Melamed LeHoil)–they all concede the ambiguity of the issue.

    I have no complaint that the Eastern European custom prevailed over Western, or indeed that we have chosen to be stricter, but that does not justify the claim of necessity.


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