What’s with the Wig?


A friend once asked me about whether or not a certain activity was permitted on Shabbos. She’d heard it wasn’t allowed because we could possibly enjoy it. How did Torah observance become synonymous with self-affliction? Like it’s somehow a mitzvah to be miserable, when in fact, G-d commands the opposite. We should be happy just knowing we’re Jews, knowing we can delight our Creator by keeping His Torah. Of course, only the few and the righteous exist on this spiritual plane; for the rest of us, it’s an ideal. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it. Certain mitzvos deliver secondary benefits–like not getting trichinosis by keeping kosher–but the desire to do G-d’s will is the best reason to observe the Commandments.

So when the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, says that a married woman should cover her hair, I cover my hair. I do it for G-d. Finished. But what do I do about the fact that this mitzva I do for G-d brings me so many secondary benefits?

When my husband and I entered the world of Chabad, I couldn’t wait to wear a sheitel. I wanted to join the club, to look like my new friends. Each one was a Jewish Wonder Woman, beautiful in her holy power. Once the two of us had committed to the essential mitzvos– keeping kosher, observing Shabbos, and following the laws of family purity (mikva)–I was in.

I knew wearing a sheitel would mean having to return my grocery cart, use my turn signal, and monitor my children’s behavior in public, but those were things I should have been doing anyway. Whether I liked it or not, I already represented my people. Wearing a sheitel just made it obvious; besides, it would propel me more quickly to become the person I knew I wanted to be.

My sheitel would be a reminder, not a prize. So what was I waiting for? I bought my first sheitel knowing it was a question when, not if. She even had a name–Spikey. By the time I picked “her” up after the adjustments were made, I had already started covering my hair with a kerchief. (I hope to save this kerchief forever; Spikey is long gone.)

The transition from kerchief to sheitel was easy. Too easy. That’s why the little voice inside me sneered: You can barely read aleph-beis. You forget to use your turn signal. Fortunately, I had also learned that little voice had a name, the yetzer hara, (the evil inclination) and that G-d wanted me to ignore its every attempt to curb my mitzva enthusiasm.

Friends and family had trouble with my sheitel, too. People who didn’t care what the Torah says about anything had taken a sudden interest in “where it was written” that Jewish women cover their hair. I had asked the same question myself, so I knew the story of the wife of Ohn ben Peles during Korach’s rebellion (she saved her husband’s life by sitting outside her tent with her head uncovered so the rebels stayed away).

But the wig still bothered them.

What was the point of covering my hair with..hair? Especially hair that looks as good or better than what grows on your head. It didn’t add up.

Meanwhile, all I wanted to do was be in my new club and not have my old friends resent me for it.

When I read an article about the mystical reason why married women cover their hair, I tried familiarizing myself with the spiritual explanation: After a woman’s initiation into married life, her own, living hair is a vulnerable “host” to the spiritual world’s free flowing sparks of impurity. She needs spiritual protection.

I’m not sure they understood. I’m not sure I understood. But once we were talking about protection, I didn’t care if anyone understood.

That a wig looks as good or better than hair attached to the scalp is, well, a benefit. A kosher, well-deserved benefit of being an observant Jewish woman. And the fact that so many of these women wear sheitels today is largely due to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who promoted wig-wearing among Jewish women in the 1950’s when it was not so fashionable to “stand out” as Jews. The Rebbe’s foresight has enabled many a Jewish woman to go out into the world both beautiful and protected.

There are times when it is hard wearing a sheitel, but I’m used to them by now. In the beginning, when it was 95 degrees in the summer, those same friends weren’t as curious “where it was written.” When they told me I looked “hot,” they weren’t being inappropriate. I always minimized the discomfort (which is worsened by knowing that the sun is also rapidly ruining the wig), and reminded them of the flip side: my sheitel keeps me that much warmer in the winter.

You can be sure that buying a sheitel is sometimes stressful, too. It’s an important purchase and sometimes, no matter what, it just doesn’t work. The good news for Jewish women today is that increased sheitel demand has resulted in several new, attractive lines coming on the market, many at lower prices. There are even online outlets for selling the ones that just don’t work.

This can only be good for the world, when Jewish women have more ways than ever to look beautiful and do a mitzvah. And not just any mitzvah. The Zohar, Judaism’s ancient mystical text, states that covering one’s hair causes Jewish women to be “blessed with all blessings, blessings of above and blessings of below, with wealth, with children and grandchildren.”

I don’t know exactly what that means, but I know I need all the blessings I can get. Covering my hair sounds like the best way to make sure G-d has me covered.

About the Author
Lieba Rudolph, her husband, Zev, and their young family returned to observant Jewish life when they were both over thirty. Now, after spending equal time in both worlds, she shares the joys and challenges of her journey, answering everyone's unasked question: why would anyone normal want to become religious?