Harry Maryles

The Hair Covering Conundrum

I was sent an article this morning authored by Rivkah Slonim. It is about women covering their hair and it appears on a Chabad Website.

Virtually all Orthodox Jews and many non Orthodox Jews know that most Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair after they are married.  I have discussed this issue many times in the past. Briefly the Halacha is as follows. There are 2 parts to hair covering: Das Moshe and Das Yehudis.

Das Moshe is the term used in Halacha to connote that which is the immutable Halacha transmitted to us via Moshe Rabbeinu. That is inviolable.  The requirement of Das Moshe is for a married woman to cover most of it.

Das Yehudis is the term that refers to a custom of modesty for women that is accepted by a predominance of them in a given society. If a woman transgresses one of these customs, she is liable for the transgression of Das Yehudis, a Halacha that is relative to community standards.

There has been much written about this practice in Halacha. Suffice it to say that, the vast majority of Poskim believe that a married woman must cover at least most of her hair.

How to do that is another question. That’s where this article by Rivkah Slonim comes in. She promotes the view of the late Rebbe of Lubavitch that women must cover all of their hair but may do so by using a wig. To the best of my knowledge he did not limit what kind of wigs a woman may use. More about that later. (There are Poskim that forbid the use of a wig, but that is beyond the scope of this post.)

I have always had trouble understanding this entire concept. Please understand that I am not God forbid promoting the idea that it is permitted for married woman not cover their hair. As I said the Halacha is pretty clear, despite attempts by some to be Dan L’Kav Zechus  (judge favorably) those Modern Orthodox women that do not cover it.

But that does not make my understanding of it any less difficult – for the following reasons.

First – It is a derived Halacha and not explicitly stated in the Torah. It is taken from the procedure of the Sotah (a woman suspected of adultery after being secluded with another man) where the Torah requires Beis Din to reveal her hair. By dint of the requirement it was derived that women are supposed to cover their hair or else why would they be asked to uncover it. Many Torah level laws are derived in similar ways and are not explicitly written in the Torah.

But it is the contradictory nature of the concept of Sair B’Isha Erva (the hair of a woman is considered her nakedness) that perplexes me. That concept only applies to married women. Single women do not have to cover their hair at all, no matter what their age. The same woman who 5 minutes before she gets married may walk around with all of her hair exposed, is forbidden from doing so the minute she gets married… and forever after that.

I think this conundrum and the fact that general societal attitudes about hair covering changed are in part the reasons so many religious women in the great Jewish community of Lithuania in Europe chose to abandon covering their hair. Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein makes note of that abandonment of hair covering in his magnum opus, the Aruch HaShulchan.

If a woman’s hair hair equals nakedness, then there can be no other concusion but to say that the nakedness of hair is not the same as the nakedness of skin.  Because if it did, why must only married woman cover their hair? So the words Sair B’Isha Erva remain a complete mystery as to what they actually mean.

What moved me to write about this issue again (aside from the referenced article) is the way hair covering is treated today in the more right wing segments of the Charedi world. Especially in Israel. I can’t help but notice that young single girls in that world go out of their way to avoid styling their hair. Most Charedi elementary and high school girls tend toward tying their hair up in pony tails or cutting it very short. I assume this is done as some sort of nod the the Sair B’Isha Erva concept even in singlehood – and avoiding any attention from men

But what happens is that once these young women get married, they go through a metamorphosis. The high end custom Shaitels (wigs) of today are so real looking and so attractive, that in many cases you cannot tell they are wigs. I have heard more than once a young married woman say that her real hair never looked that good… and she couldn’t get it to look that way no matter how much she tried.

Which to me seems like the opposite of the intent of what young woman are supposed to look like before and after they are married. Because here is the net result of this phenomenon in the Charedi world. When women are supposed to look good for a potential mate, they are told to pretty much hide their hair and not style it too attractively. But as soon as they get married, and they cover their hair, they start to look stunningly beautiful… never having looked anything like that before they were married.

So in essence they end up being more attractive after they are married than before when they were dating.  Does’t this turn the intent of hair covering on its head?

I believe that there are some Poskim that have forbidden these kinds of wigs for married women based on the very concerns I have just mentioned. So I understand where they are coming from. But I do not believe that there is any kind of enforcement of it. Besides – I am in favor or people looking their best in public. Since hair covering as Erva has always been such a conundrum, in my view all anyone should be concerned with is the letter of the law in this matter. As long as that is honored, I am in favor of any kind of hair covering one chooses.

What about the inconsistency of how Charedim practice this custom? I suggest that they allow – and perhaps even encourage single women to look their best and style their hair any way they choose. This way when they do get married there won’t be such a shocking change in how they look.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.