Why do Chasidic women shave their heads? (Shabbos 95)

Eve was wandering through the Garden of Eden, a little envious of all the animals.  Each species had a partner, but she was all alone. She turned her eyes heavenward and beseeched the Almighty to send her a spouse.

A voice boomed down from heaven and announced, “Eve, I have heard your prayers.  It is not good for Eve to be alone.  I shall make her a helpmate.  But only on one condition.”

A little surprised, Eve responded, “Of course, I would do anything.  But what, praytell, is the condition?”

“Adam will be strong and ambitious,” continued the voice.  “He will be a provider and a protector.  To this end, he will have an ego.  Indeed, he will have an ego.  Under any and all circumstances, you must promise that you will allow him to believe that he was created first. . .”

אָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ: לְדִידִי מִפָּרְשָׁא לִי מִינֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי יוֹסֵי בְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא כּוֹחֶלֶת — מִשּׁוּם צוֹבַעַת, גּוֹדֶלֶת וּפוֹקֶסֶת — מִשּׁוּם בּוֹנָה. וְכִי דֶרֶךְ בִּנְיָן בְּכָךְ? אִין, כִּדְדָרֵשׁ רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן מְנַסְיָא: ״וַיִּבֶן ה׳ אֱלֹהִים אֶת הַצֵּלָע״, מְלַמֵּד שֶׁקִּילְּעָהּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְחַוָּה וֶהֱבִיאָהּ אֵצֶל אָדָם — שֶׁכֵּן בִּכְרַכֵּי הַיָּם קוֹרִין לְקַלָּעִיתָא ״בַּנָּיְתָא״.

Rabbi Abbahu said: This matter was explained to me by Rabbi Yossi, son of Rabbi Chanina: A woman who applies eye shadow on Shabbat is liable for dyeing; one who braids her hair and applies blush is liable for building.  And is that the typical manner of building? Yes, as Rabbi Shimon ben Menassia taught: “And the Lord God built the side (that He took from Adam into a woman).” This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, braided Eve’s hair and brought her to Adam. Indeed, in the islands of the sea they call braiding building.

According to kabbalistic thought, hair represents ‘mosros,’ meaning ‘leftovers.’  We all think countless thoughts throughout the day.  Some of these are useful and immediately applicable.  Others need filtering until we arrive at an idea of value to engage with.  What happens to the matter that is filtered out?  It leaves the head, symbolically represented by the hair.  In contrast with injury to other body parts, haircutting delivers no pain.  This is because hair is merely leftovers produced by the thinking mind.

Hair is to the mind as bodily waste is to the other limbs.  Once the food has been processed and delivered to the necessary parts of the body in the form of sustenance, the leftovers are discarded when one relieves oneself. Likewise, once all the thoughts are processed, the waste material leaves the brain via the hair follicles.

Many of our thoughts begin with a yearning, desire, or passion for something.  Once we have fine-tuned our thoughts, we are able to focus on the way to satisfy our yearnings.  To use an overly simplistic example, let’s say you’ve just graduated from high school and you get it into your head that you want to own a yacht.  Your first thought must now be filtered down to focus on the practical steps it will take to satisfy your yearning.  For most, it means succeeding at university, getting a good job, and saving up enough to purchase the yacht.  All the unbridled passion that was caught up in the initial thought is then, so to speak, released from the mind via the hair follicles.

Prior to introducing Eve to Adam for their first shidduch date, the Gemara teaches that God braided her hair.  While an initial read might imply that God wanted to make her as beautiful as possible, the Gemara’s emphasis on braiding as a form of building suggests an alternative understanding.  Rabbi Yonasan Eybeschutz (TY Naso) explains the Gemara based on the kabbalistic concept of mosros.

Hashem’s message to Adam and Eve was that, in order to ‘build’ a good marriage and home, they needed to be in control of their yearnings and passions.  Everything must be thought through and passions must be ‘tied up’ and not left to escape unchecked.  The practice of hair braiding continues amongst chasidic girls and young women.  Passion is vital to life, but it must be controlled and focused.

The concept of mosros is also the reason why the Levites in ancient times, as well as modern chasidic men (and some married women) shave their heads.  Once the mind has filtered out the unfocused thoughts, there is no need for the leftovers to be maintained.  And so they are symbolically shaved off.  Similarly, when the nazir is instructed to let his hair grow wild, it represents his previous inability to control his passions.  At the conclusion of his nazirite purification period, he shaves his head and places his hair as an offering before God.

Yearning and passion are essential elements to success in life.  Passion fuels creativity, drive, and enthusiasm.  But passions cannot go unbridled, longings unchecked.  You need to strike the right balance between thinking outside of the box and acting sensibly.

Prior to introducing Adam and Eve to one another, God declared, “It is not good for man to be alone.  I shall make him an ezer k’negdo (helper opposite him).”  The meaning of this enigmatic expression is that He gave each of them the gift of a spouse to help filter out good ideas from the chaff and strike the right balance in life between unchecked, unbridled passions, and successful creative thinking.  Bouncing ideas off one another would allow them to build a world together in the most creative, but constructive, manner.

Sometimes you have an idea that you believe to be ‘the best thing since sliced bread.’  Excitedly, you tell your spouse about your brilliant idea, only to have them pour cold water over it and tell you it won’t work.  You then have three choices.  Either you begin arguing with them and telling them why you’re right and they’re wrong.  Or you slink away, dejected that they so easily kyboshed your amazing idea.

The correct response is neither of these.  It is to ask them why they think it won’t work.  You then engage in a serious conversation about fine-tuning the concept to make it successful.  Your spouse is there as a helper-opposite.  By presenting an opposing view, they’re able to help you and bring out the best in you.  Of course, the corollary of this idea is that as a spouse, each of us has the duty to hear our other halves out and talk them through their ideas – as crazy as they might first sound – to help arrive at a sensible place together.

Your spouse brings out the best in you.  Your job is to bring out the best in your spouse by listening intently to their innermost, rawest thoughts and assist in the filtering process.  May you build an extraordinary, creative world together that will endure for all generations!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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