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To Cover or Not to Cover: That is the Question
Jewish Hair Laws Through the Ages


By Leila Leah Bronner

What does Jewish law say about women and hair covering? The topic deserves attention, particularly in light of the renewed observance of this practice among resurgent Orthodoxy and the BaaleiTeshuva ("reborn" Jews). My interest in studying the historical and religious sources of the practice was evoked both by stimulating halakhic exchanges I came across in various Jewish publications, and by my own experiences within the Jewish community. Modern halakhic studies tend to concentrate on the dynamics of legal issues, but what are some of the social and historical aspects of this particular religious observance?

My endeavor focuses on discovering how the hair covering custom grew, developed, and eventually became institutionalized in Jewish life. In my study of the subject I hope to further elucidate the practice, since hair covering is not necessarily a matter of only halakhic interest, but, as I illustrate, is also subject to strong societal influences. I evaluate relevant biblical and Talmudic sources and their medieval and modern rabbinic interpreters from a historical and social point of view. Finally, I offer some suggestions for reinterpreting this practice in light of societal changes.

Historians and anthropologists show that hair has diverse socio-religious and symbolic value in many civilizations. My interest, however, will be to isolate the meanings hair has held specifically in Jewish civilization at different times in history. Nowhere does the Bible present an explicit command for women to cover their hair. Yet because women in the ancient Near East, as in later Greece and Rome, veiled themselves when they went outside, one can assume that the custom probably also existed in ancient Israel. However, the function and symbolic value of hair in the Bible had little to do with the way Jewish customs developed in later centuries. Early classical rabbinic literature, namely Talmud and Midrash, presents an entirely different approach to the problem of hair covering. At the time of the Talmud hair covering for women became a regular ritual matter. In the Talmud hair covering was not only a fashion or a custom, but was objectified as a rule and regulation for women to follow as a religious obligation. Later rabbinic literature of the Middle Ages further reinforced women's hair covering as an integral part of Jewish religious observance. Only in the modern period was the practice seriously challenged as it faded from general societal convention. In the western world, particularly in America where age-old traditions were frequently bucked, Jewish women questioned the validity of the practice and attempted to influence rabbis to rethink the onerous religious observance.

Woman's Hair in the Bible

The Bible presents hair as an ornament, enhancing the appearance of a woman. The attraction of a woman's hair is poetically expressed in the Song of Songs: 'Your hair is like a flock of goats from Gilead' (Song 6:5). However, hair may have been covered in biblical times, since there is some evidence that the unmarried girl, like her married counterpart, may have covered her hair. The Song of Songs reads: 'Your eyes are like doves behind your veil' (Song 4:1). The verse indicates that the maiden kept a veil over her hair, even though she appears to be unmarried. Similarly, the betrothed Rebecca demurely covers herself upon first sight of her intended husband (Gen 24:65). Because the evidence is sparse, we do not know precisely if, or how this custom of hair covering was observed.

With regards to hair, the Bible seems to indicate that cutting a woman's hair was a way to make a woman unattractive. The sole place in the Bible depicting a woman's hair being cut is in the laws of the captive woman (Deut 21:12). After a period of one month, during which time she was permitted to mourn her family, the captor might then claim her for his wife. The fact that her hair was shaved at the beginning of her captivity, whether as a sign of her subjugation or as a part of her mourning, may also indicate to what extent hair was considered an adornment to women. Some scholars have suggested that cutting her hair made the captive less attractive to her captor, perhaps even with the intent that over the course of the month his ardor would cool and he would eventually let her go.

This practice of cutting a woman's hair, which only pertained to captives during biblical times, later developed into a cultural distinctive for some Jewish women. The practice of shaving a woman's hair upon marriage, while not directly influenced by this biblical account, became prevalent in central Europe and especially Hungary in the early modern period. Under the influence no doubt of the dominant rabbinical scholar and traditionalist, Hatam Sofer (1762-1839), Jewish law required a woman to cut her hair after she wed. This shows that a fringe biblical practice that only pertained to foreign women was eventually converted into a normative religious ritual that pertained to observant Jewish women. What the Bible imposed as a sign of both subjugation and mourning was transformed by history thousands of years later into an expression of female immodesty Although many rabbis inveighed against the practice of cutting one's hair after marriage, this ritual nevertheless took hold in a number of communities.

In post-biblical Judaism, covering of the hair signaled a transition in the female life cycle, symbolizing the departure from maidenhood into womanhood.

Hair Covering: Law or Custom?

The approach taken by post-biblical interpreters has been influenced by how they have categorized the practice, whether as law (halakhah) or custom (minhag). Was hair covering a custom in the Talmudic period, or a halakhically-binding rule? What was the force and authority of custom in Judaism? Religious authorities have disputed the matter through the centuries. The categories have not always been clearly distinguishable, particularly since custom in Judaism often receives the force of law anyway. Jewish law could even be based upon custom. For example, legal rulings sometimes cited custom as a historical, authoritative precedent.

Custom is formulated by the practice of the people, not decreed from on high by authorities. Yet custom in Judaism, unlike law, functions without preconceived intent and anonymously. This means that there is a certain anarchist, populist tendency in the process. Discomfort with the undefined lines of authority inherent in custom led some rabbis to formulate the principle that all custom actually comes from earlier, forgotten law (i.e., rather than just from the people). This represents an effort to lend greater legitimacy to what already constituted usual practice.

Custom has a force and dynamic of its own. It is one of the ways in which religious practice develops and is reinterpreted over time. However, the development of custom is not entirely allowed a free reign. Sometimes a custom was deemed inappropriate, and religious authorities stepped in to fight against it. This seems to be what has happened both in the case of modern women choosing to wear wigs or choosing to uncover their hair, as will be discussed below.

Hair Covering in Classical Rabbinic Sources

In addition to law and custom, Jewish religious practice is subdivided into other categories. In our case, the obscure concept of dat Yehudit plays an important role. Literally, dat Yehudit means 'Jewish Law;' but this explanation does not tell the whole story. The Mishna appears to say that the duty to cover hair is a dat Yehudit rather than a Law of Moses, clearly implying that there is a distinction between a 'Mosaic Law' and a 'Jewish Law' (dat Yehudit). 'Mosaic Law' is apparently considered by the Mishna to be Torah-derived, whereas 'Jewish Law' seems to be Jewish practice stemming from the people, i.e., what we have described as custom. Thus, the Mishna apparently considered hair covering to be a matter of Jewish custom. Nevertheless, the Talmud (or, Gemara) gives biblical foundation for the practice of hair covering and, contrary to the Mishna, declares it to be a Torah-derived law. Furthermore, it is interesting that the term dat Yehudit is used only in connection with women's behavior, leading some scholars to conclude that the term specifically relates to women's modesty.

Modesty laws in rabbinic literature functionally acted to render the woman inaccessible and unavailable to all but her husband. Rousselle, a cultural historian, writes in regard to ancient Rome that the veil or hood worn by an honorable woman 'constituted a warning: it signified that the wearer was a respectable woman and that no man dare approach without risking grave penalties. Although the veil was a symbol of subjection, it was also a badge of honor, of sexual reserve, and hence of mastery of the self' (A History of Women in the West, p.315). Similarly, hair covering was a sign not only of rabbinic modesty but of her belonging to a particular man, and the veil had to be worn whenever she was in mixed company or went out in public (M.Ketubot 7:6). According to the Mishna, a woman going about with uncovered hair represented unacceptable conduct. In fact such behavior is so improper, that it is considered sufficient grounds for a husband to divorce his wife without benefit of compensatory financial support (ketubah). The Mishna states:

These are they that are put away without their ketubah: a wife that transgresses the Law of Moses [dat Moshe] and Jewish custom [dat Yehudit]. What [conduct is such that transgresses] the Law of Moses? If she gives her husband untithed food, or has connection with him in her uncleanness, or does not set apart dough-offering, or utters a vow and does not fulfill it. And what [conduct is such that transgresses] Jewish custom? If she goes out with her hair unbound, or spins in the street, or speaks with any man (B.Ketubot 72a-b).

The Talmud (Gemara) attempts to minimize the distinction made by the earlier rabbis of the Mishna. They question the categorizing of the practice as being merely custom, and argue that it should instead be understood as pentateuchal. The rabbis, in doing this, made the practice of hair covering for women even more stringent, by viewing it as not only rabbinic, but pentateuchal. The Talmud selects the unhappy subject of the suspected adulteress (sotah) to demonstrate its case:

'And what [is deemed to be a wife's transgression against] Jewish practice? Going out with uncovered head.' [Is not the prohibition against going out with] an uncovered head pentateuchal; for it is written, ëAnd he shall parah [?] the woman's [i.e., the suspected adulteress'] head [Num 5:18], and this, it was taught at the school of R. Ishmael, was a warning to the daughters of Israel that they should not go out with uncovered head.

The Talmud's claim that hair covering is a biblical injunction, is based upon the command in the book of Numbers that the priest is to parah the hair of the suspected adulteress. The word parah is variously understood. We will present four sources, two from the Talmud, one from the Tosephta, and one from Midrash, to demonstrate that opinions about the word and what exactly the priest was doing to the sotah's hair were not uniform, in contrast to the assumption held by many today that he was uncovering her hair. First, the Talmudic passage just cited explains it to mean, 'uncovered.' Some interpreters claim that this is proof that the women normally had their hair covered, or the priest would not have been able to uncover it. Even if the Talmud is correct, the biblical source cited about the sotah is only evidence that the custom was observed in biblical times; is not proof of the practice being biblically ordained for all time. The second source, an early Midrash known as Sifrei, offers two different, contradictory interpretations of this difficult word parah. The first view states that in order to fulfill the ritual of parah, the priest had to stand behind the accused. A second, anonymous opinion then adds that this biblical rule teaches that daughters of Israel must cover their heads:

"And he shall parah the head of the woman.' The priest turns to stand behind her and performs the act of parah in order to fulfill the biblical commandment of parah, the words of R. Ishmael. It teaches concerning the daughters of Israel that they should cover their heads (M.Sota 1:5).

In other words, the first view was that the word parah means unloosening the sotah's hair, while the second opinion supports the contradictory belief that it refers to uncovering her hair. The medieval commentator Rashi explicitly supports our explanation for the first statement in Sifrei, i.e., that the priest was unraveling, not uncovering, her hair. He cites Sifrei, and explains it by adding that the priest was standing behind the woman so that he could unloosen her braids. Nevertheless, he undermines the importance of this variant interpretation by concluding with the second opinion in Sifrei that from this we learn that daughters of Israel should not uncover their heads. Rashi elsewhere totally ignores the explanation of 'unloosen,' Itating that parah always means 'uncoveringhe hairhair
Our third example comes from the Tosephta. The majority of Tosephta manuscripts do not mention undoing the woman's braided hair. They say only that the priest uncovered her head (Sota 8a). A minority of the manuscripts, however, provide an explanation that encompasses both meanings of the word parah. Adopting a measure for measure sense of retribution, this view states that just as she had spread her sheets for her r, the priest takes the covering from her head and puts it under his feet; just as she had braided her hair for her r, the priest dishevels it. The Talmudic commentary on the mishnaic tractate Sota offers our fourth and final source. The rabbis question (as do we) the source of a surprising mishnaic statement that not only the sotah's hair is affected, but her bosom is to be uncovered as part of her shame. After deliberation, they come to the conclusion that the woman's hair is to be loosened, and her bosom uncovered. Hence they incorporate both meanings of parah, 'to itoover,' and 'to loosen.'

Summary of Views on Parah -- To "Uncover" or "Loosen?"

The evidence presented indicates that there was considerable difference of opinion concerning the translation of the pivotal word parah. Did it mean to uncover or to loosen? We have seen that while the majority of texts support the interpretation of 'uncover,' there is a significant minority view that accepts the meaning of 'loosen.' Mishna Sota, Sifrei and a minority of Tosephta manuscripts all include the idea of 'loosening.' The Talmud on Sota also lends itself to the interpretation of 'to loosen;' whereas the Talmud on Ketubot embraces the opposing view, 'to uncover.'

Although there is uncertainty about the meaning of the word, parah, whether 'uncover,' or 'loosen,' it is Ketubot, with its emphasis that hair covering is pentateuchal and dat Moshe and based on the biblical verse dealing with the sotah, that eventually became widely accepted. This is in spite of the fact that it contradicts the Mishna upon which it is based.

Despite the prevailing view that hair covering is biblically based, the practice is surprisingly not listed among the fundamental biblical commandments, according to the taryag mitzvot (rabbinic enumerations of the 613 commandments of Judaism). In light of the religious emphasis upon hair covering in halakhic Judaism and the claim that it is biblically based, it is rather disheartening that women who do cover their hair apparently do not reap the benefit of performing a biblically ordained mitzvah.

The Seductiveness of Eve as a Cause for Hair Covering

We have just surveyed hair covering in the Mishna and Gemara; now we turn to the Midrash to see what light may be shed on the subject. Instead of the sotah imagery employed so heavily in halakhic sources, aggadic traditions rely on an equivalent typology by employing the figure of Eve. They interpret the custom of hair covering as a sign of woman's shame and feeling of guilt for Eve's sin. The Midrash implicitly understands Eve's attractiveness as having contributed to her temptation and seduction of the man. Consequently, it became her responsibility to modestly cover her hair, considered a sexually alluring feature that men would be powerless to resist.

Blaming women for seducing men finds fuller expression in The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (ARN): 'Why does woman cover her head and man not cover his head? A parable. To what may this be compared? To a woman who disgraced herself and because she disgraced herself, she is ashamed in the presence of people. In the same way Eve disgraced herself and caused her daughters to cover their heads' (B.Ber.51a). The Midrash continues in this vein, explaining that women walk before the bier at funeral processions, heads covered, to atone for Eve's having brought death into the world (ARN). Talmudic passages dealing with hair covering do not mention the Eve story, although the notion remains that women's hair is sexually enticing. It is for this reason that one must not recite the Shema prayer in front of a woman with uncovered hair. Women, then, must cover their heads so as to not distract men from their prayers.

Hair covering From the Middle Ages to Modern Times

By the time of the Middle Ages, covering of hair as a religious obligation was firmly entrenched. This is not surprising, since it was still the general societal practice for married womenóboth in the Christian and Muslim worldóto cover their hair (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ishut 24:12). In the Jewish world, contemporary religious teachers added impetus to its observance. Rashi repeatedly emphasizes that the law of the sotah teaches that Jewish women were not to uncover their heads, and his teaching certainly held great weight and reinforced the practice. Maimonides, and later the authoritative code of Jewish law known as the Shulhan Arukh, speak of hair covering as the accepted traditional practice for all married Jewish women.

From Veil to Wig

The first serious challenge to traditional hair covering came from the wearing of wigs, which came into vogue among the French in the 16th century. Both French men and women wore wigs, and the fashion eventually took hold among Jewish women. The practice of wearing wigs was at first denounced by rabbinic authorities but was eventually accepted by most rabbis. Still, many pious Jewish women, accustomed to more traditional headgear, found it difficult to accept the new custom. It led to controversy in the Jewish community. Some felt that the wig itself was satisfactory head cover, while others wore a wig and put a covering over it.

Cosmetic use of wigs and hair pieces was already a feature of women's styles in the Talmudic period. However, wigs were never intended in the Talmud to be a substitute for hair covering. Many European rabbis of this period inveighed against what appeared to them a novelty and inappropriate emulation of the ways of the nations (hukat ha-goy).

The rabbis maintained that the traditional prohibition against women displaying their hair was to prevent the special feminine attraction from bringing men to unholy thoughts. The wig, they claimed, could evoke the same feelings as the women's own hair. R. Katzenellenbogen (16th century Padua) encouraged women to accept the teachings of their leaders, even when they sometimes proved unpleasant. He adjured them not to go with uncovered hair, nor to don a wig. To beautify oneself with a wig, he argued, was as if one went uncovered, since to the naked eye there appeared no difference between hair and wig. Other rabbis, as late as the 18th century, mustered an array of halakhic arguments to show that wigs should be prohibited. R. Jacob Emden (1697-1776) was among a number of others who disapproved of the wearing of wigs, even declaring that reading of the Shema in the presence of a woman wearing a wig was prohibited. On the other hand, R. Moshe Isserles (1525?-1572), in his notes to the Shulhan Arukh, declared the wig to be acceptable; and his lenient ruling was eventually accepted by Ashkenzi Jewry.

No doubt great pressure was exerted by women, whose legitimate right to make themselves attractive was recognized. Though the fashion of wigs was discontinued among non-Jews, it continued among Jews as a religious necessity. Once Jewish women experienced the relative freedom of the wig, as compared to the scarf, in giving them beauty and self-respect, they refused to resume the earlier head covering. Despite their lack of halakhic influence, the women made a statement through their continued wearing of the wig in the face of rabbinic opposition. The amount of documentation representing rabbinic discussion of the matter demonstrates the extent to which women were disobeying rabbinic objections. Between the scarf and the wig, women chose the wig and stubbornly fought for the right to wear it.

Eventually, however, there was dissatisfaction with the wig as well, which found expression in the large numbers of women who simply stopped wearing them. By the early 20th century, R. Jehiel Epstein (author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan) deplored the lack of observance of head covering among women, already claiming that the majority of women violated its observance. However, cognizant of this most unhappy reality, he makes it clear that it is permissible to pray in the presence of women whose hair is uncovered. In his Arukh ha-Shulhan he states, ìLet us now decry the tragic circumstances that have befallen us in our generationÖJewish women have become lax and now appear in public with their hair uncoveredÖaccording to the Law, it appears to me that it is now permissible for a man to recite Devarim Shebikedusha in their presence.î Epstein's ruling was societally motivated by an environment in which the practice of head covering was no longer widely observed. Societal mores led some rabbis to take a more lenient stance toward head covering. R. Yehoshua Babad (1754-1838) wrote that the matter depended upon the general local practice. Jewish women should do as other women of their locale did. If the women of a region were not accustomed to going about with head covering, then Jewish women could not be considered immodest if they also did not cover their hair. There were other rabbis who tolerated uncovered hair. R. Joseph Mashash, as well as R. Gershuni, seemed lenient toward the issue of hair covering. Both Mashash and Gershuni specifically rule that modern Jewish women need not cover their hair.

Rabbi J. B. Hurewitz (1868-1935) was particularly energetic in his support of Jewish women who chose to uncover their hair, a position for which he drew considerable criticism (Yad Halevi [Jerusalem, 1933]). Hurewitz defended both innovationsóthe wig (although he considered it ugly) and the bare headóbecause he claimed that societal changes could lead to a change in Jewish custom. Following the same line of reasoning as Babad, he argued that in a place where it is acceptable to cover the hair, a woman going against the accepted custom is regarded as immodest. Men in such a place are unaccustomed to seeing a woman's hair and will become excited at the sight of her. In this instance, there is no difference between a married and an unmarried woman. Concerning unmarried girls, Hurewitz introduces various rabbinic sources attesting that in different locations they do go out with uncovered hair even though the married women cover their hair. The practice of unmarried girls, therefore, also depends on the custom of the place.

In principle Hurewitz was opposed to the use of wigs. He stated that in a place where women covered their hair, a woman going out with a wig was in transgression of pentateuchal law. Nevertheless, Hurewitz continues, the custom had spread in spite of consistent rabbinic opposition to it. Women became accustomed to the wig, and gradually opposition faded. Hurewitz maintains that women eventually became dissatisfied with the wig as well; and, gradually, many stopped wearing it. They disregarded male protests, especially in America, until it became the custom even for modest and observant women to go with uncovered heads. Who, Hurewitz queries, would dare today to say that these women are immodest and sinful? He replies to his own question by stating that the daughters of Israel are respectable and decent.

Although Hurewitz does not condone the actions of the few Jewish women who first broke with convention, he ultimately accepts the societal change that was brought about after the grass-roots movement had become wide-spread and began to represent normal practice. Hurewitz is also unique in suggesting that uncovering their hair allows women to fit into the society in which they live. Blending into the larger society, however, is not usually considered a plus in traditional circles.

Opponents of uncovering the hair, on the other hand, assert even today that hair covering cannot be changed (whether or not it is pentateuchal) because it is based on an underlying Jewish principleómodestyówhich cannot be countervailed. Modesty, they would argue, is not variable, regardless of the mores of the larger society. Consequently, any change in the practice would result in a misguided custom that cannot be countenanced.

Conclusions

As has been shown in this essay, the Bible presents little information, only suggesting that some covering might have been worn, as was customary throughout the ancient Near East. In the Rabbinic Period, the practice became obligatory. Classical rabbinic sources illustrate great concern for the practice; however, there is no uniform opinion as to whether hair covering is pentateuchal or a custom. By the Middle Ages, hair covering was uniformly observed by Jewish women, while the modern age saw a grass-roots rebellion among women fomenting use of the wig as an alternative to hair covering. The rabbinic opposition was eventually overcome. Gradually, there was widespread disregard for the practice of hair covering itself. Nevertheless, for Jews who were religiously oriented, the problem of how to avoid hair covering within the realm of halakhah had to be confronted. There were a few rabbis who tolerated the lapse of the custom with the understanding that society had changed and it was no longer considered immodest to keep one's hair uncovered. Most rabbinic decisors, however, were determined to protect the halakhah from incursion and change.

With the resurgence of Orthodoxy in the 1950's, the majority view has become particularly burdensome for many religious women, who chafe against the hair-covering restriction, much as religious women did in earlier periods. It is, therefore, unfortunate that there has been no contemporary effort among Orthodox rabbis to directly confront and resolve this issue (although it is not surprising given the strong move to the right among many, if not most, Orthodox rabbis, and the continued inability of the Orthodox Rabbinate to solve other serious problems involving women).

Many religious women have internalized the value of hair covering and find meaning in it. For them it remains an essential and distinctive expression of their religious belief. And for these women, there is the freedom within our western society to live out their beliefs. Other Jewish women, however, find ritual head covering restrictive and oppressive. These other women feel they can remain true to their faith without donning a wig (shaytlach) or headscarf (tikhlach). Further, they feel that there is sufficient precedent in Jewish law that they can, as Rabbi Hurewitz and others have suggested, be modest, observant women with or without covering their hair. Further, they also might point to other reasons for wanting to go sans head covering, i.e., discomfort, unattractiveness, a wish to express feministic ideals, and a desire to conform to social conventions.

While there have been efforts by halakhists through the ages to alleviate difficult problems, sadly, hair covering has not generally been viewed as deserving of halakhic reconsideration and restructuring. Recently the publication of books dealing with this very issue has stimulated more discussion (see Lynne Schreiber's book, Hide and Seek, which provides numerous Orthodox views on the matter). Perhaps the near future will show another concentrated effort of women to bring about the reinterpretation of this practice of Jewish law that so intimately relates to them.