What does halakha [Jewish law] say about women being required to cover their hair? According to Haviva Krasner-Davidson (a woman with special expertise in this matter) the answer begins with the Bible, which gives us but two relevant hair passages:
First, Deuteronomy (21:10-14) tells us that when a woman is taken captive during war, it is mandatory that her captor cut off her hair. One month later, “after she has mourned her mother and father,” to quote the Bible, her captor can marry her. The hair principle extracted from this, explains Krasner-Davidson, “is that hair is sexually alluring, which is why the captor must cut his captive’s hair—so that he won’t be attracted to her during the month that she is not yet his wife.” [Most male halakhic scholars have a special gene that allows them to stay focused during discussions like this, and not get waylaid by random umbrage.]
Second, Numbers (5:11-31) discusses the infamous sotah, she who is accused of adultery, and is brought before the high priest who “parah“s her hair. Krasner-Davidson explains that the meaning of parah is murky—is it “loosen” or “uncover?” In either case, she says, later generations (of hairsplitters) use this reference as the source which conveys that “having one’s hair exposed was shameful during biblical times.”
Next the Mishna (Ketuvot 7) comes up with a surprisingly severe Q and A: Is there any instance in which a woman, divorced by her husband, does not receive compensatory financial support [ketubah dues]? Answer: Yes—the woman who goes out in public with her hair uncovered does not receive support. However, adds Krasner-Davidson, despite this harsh Mishnaic view of the hairy woman, the rabbis here understand hair covering to be more a matter of custom than law.
The Gemarrah, though (Ketuvot 72A-B), disagrees. Hair covering, it maintains, is law, not custom. Moreover, it’s a “practice of biblical origin, ‘which makes transgressing it even more serious,” ‘explains Krasner-Davidson. This quarrel—is it law or custom that prescribes hair covering—is important, because I it is the pivot upon which centuries of rotating religious hair ‘injunctions are mounted. (If you’re Mishna-prone. you interpret hair-covering more leniently; if you’re Gemarrah-prone. more stringently.)
During the Middle Ages, married Jewish women in Europe covered their hair with scarves [tikhlach]—but then again so did non-Jewish women. Halakhic headhunters, then, find it hairy teasing out whether medieval scarf-wearing had more to do with Jewish injunctions or with conformity to larger, non-Jewish standards of “female modesty.” This becomes significant to later hair arbiters whose rulings distinguish between general custom vs. Jewish law.
By the 16th century, wigs were on the scene. They were fashionable in [Christian] France, and Jewish women throughout Europe (presumably those who were more well to-do) jumped on the bandwagon. Shaytlach [wigs] were considered more toothsome than tikhlach [head scarves], so Jewish women’s embrace of them represented a kind of feminist revolt. Indeed, says Krasner-Davidson, “Most rabbinic authorities denounced shaytl-wearing as tantamount to going with one’s head uncovered, since a shaytl looked just as sexually alluring (if not more so) than a woman’s own hair.”
“Rabbi Moshe Isserles ruled in the 16th century, however,” continues Krasner-Davidson, “that a wig is admissible, and it’s his opinion that was accepted by the Ashkenazi community.” (A recent exhibit at the Jewish Museum included European shaytlach that looked like cottony Raggedy Ann mops—it’s hard to imagine them as a step up from anything.)
In one of those paradoxical reversals that define tonsorial social history, ultra-Orthodox communities today consider wigs—not scarves—to be the more stringent practice. Even though a wig can cost well over $1000 and look positively sirenic, a woman who ties up all her hair and covers it with a hat or scarf will receive, says Krasner-Davidson, “disapproving looks.” She adds: “Recently, in some ultra-Orthodox communities, rabbis have issued proclamations telling women that they must wear hats on top of their shaytlach.” [Author’s comment: Oy.]
Finally we have the question of whether hair is ervah [a part of the body that, in Orthodox practice, must always be covered in public—like breasts, thighs, shoulders], or is it something that, when covered, simply serves to state that a woman is married and thus not available to other men. Some hold that hair is not ervah (since a man is permitted to see his wife’s hair even when she’s sexually off-limits to him); others see hair as “straight ervah, so that a woman who does not cover her hair is seen as promiscuous (as if you had your breasts showing), not just immodest,” says Krasner-Davidson.
Must women halahkically keep their hair covered even in their own homes? Some say yes, explains Krasner-Davidson. “They base this on the story in the Talmud [Yoma 47A] about a woman named Kimhit who had seven sons all of whom became high priests. When the rabbis asked her how she merited this, she answered that in her whole life, even the walls of her house never saw a strand of her hair.” (Krasner-Davidson adds; “This story is also the source of the custom in some ultra-Orthodox communities for married women to keep their heads shaved.”)
The most common at-home custom for very religious women, continues Krasner-Davidson, “is to keep their hair covered in public, but not when they are alone with their families.” This practice is based on the most widely accepted current interpretation of hair; that .showing it does not constitute ervah; just “female immodesty.”
On one of the many other hands, however, some women will show their hair in their homes even in front of male non-relatives. This is because “some consider this mitzvah as connected to place and not to the woman herself,” explains Krasner- Davidson. “Therefore, if she is in her home, she does not need to wear her covering. The Talmudic source for this practice is striking; ‘If the fact that women must cover their hair even in their own courtyard is true, then no daughter would have married even Abraham our Forefather.’ The implication is that this is too much to ask of any woman.”
In our century, “covering hair has fallen out of practice in many observant communities,” concludes Krasner-Davidson. “Some wives of well-respected rabbis—even those considered ‘giants’ of their generations—did not or do not cover their hair. Those who say that hair-covering is more a matter of custom (rather than law) point to the social mores of our times, arguing that since it is not considered immodest for women in general society to keep their heads uncovered, then head-covering no longer applies.”
Though this author’s head was giving off steam through a good part of this halakhic discussion, Krasner-Davidson’s head stayed cool. “I agree with hats on top of shaytls” she says. “Gorgeous wigs defeat the whole purpose of ‘modesty,’ meeting the letter of the law, but not its spirit. I get upset when halakhic loopholes, become the highest standard. With wigs, you’ve defeated the idea of conveying whether you’re married, since they often look so perfect you don’t know they are wigs. I like to dress modestly, and to convey that I’m married. It makes men take me and my mind more seriously; they don’t look at me as an object. And that let’s me have an easier time talking with men.”