What to Wear Over Hair

One of the aspects of Jewish religious observance that is not often a part of public discourse is women’s headcovering.  Sure, it’s a very personal thing.  That is why I hesitated to write about this.

My concern is that the rabbis feel the same way.

I don’t take this issue lightly and when I hear married women tell me how grateful they are for this “mitzvah” because they don’t have to spend time doing their hair in the morning I laugh.  That’s not the way I like to make decisions about my Jewish observance.  And see that photo on the right?  Hashem gave me a rosh paruah that looks like that in less than 2 minutes.

When I meet someone for the first time, I say “I’m tall with dark curly hair”.  Online, the thought that by wearing a hat or banadana I’ll look significantly different than my avatar photo is a lot more threatening to me than the thought that my legal name will no longer match @ilenerosenblum.

At various points over the last three years I’ve examined the sources in Jewish text used to substantiate the requirement that married women cover their hair.  The arguments, as I understand them, are as follows:

  1. A woman’s hair is ervah and so it should be covered.  There is a secular, rational basis for this – women’s hair is sexual, and if a woman is saving her sexual energy exclusively for her husband, it makes sense to keep it hidden from everyone else.
  2. In Berakhot 24a:
    R. Yitshak said: “An [uncovered] tefah(handbreadth) in a woman is
    erva.” Regarding what [did R. Yitshak say this]? If in regard to looking [at women], did not R. Sheshet say: “. . . Anyone who gazes even at a woman’s little finger, is as if he gazes at her private parts”? Rather, regarding his wife and reading the Shema.

  3. It shows that a woman is married and ergo unavailable to other men (having sex with a married woman carries a harsher punishment than if she is unmarried).
  4. The sotah, a woman who is accused of adultery, is brought before the Kohen and her head is uncovered as a source of embarassment and from this we learn that married women covered their hair and that removing it is embarassing.
  5. And the Kohen shall set the woman before God, and loosen the hair of the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal offering of jealousy; and the Kohen shall have in his hand the bitter water that causes the curse. (Bamidbar/Numbers 5:18)

  6. Kabbalistic teachings that I have not studied explain that there is a certain powerful energy exuded by a woman’s hair, and that energy can become destructive it if it is not contained.  Therefore, it therefore must be covered. This energy is activated when a woman consummates marriage, so it doesn’t apply to unmarried women and it continues to apply to divorced or widowed women.
  7. Dat Yehudit – It’s how Jewish women dress.

My thoughts on these matters, respectively:

  1. If a woman’s hair is really ervah, then why shouldn’t unmarried women cover their hair?  If gazing at women at all is inappropriate, even a woman’s little finger, then why don’t we wear burkas?
  2. This argument really only works in Israel and in observant Jewish communities of the Diaspora.  Otherwise, if a woman is covering all of her hair with a bandana, to the public, including most Jews, it would signify one or more of the following.  That she is: a) hiking b) undergoing chemotherapy c) a hippie d) having a really bad hair day.  It would likely NOT indicate that she is married. Rather, a wedding ring seems to serve this purpose in modern Western culture.  Additionally, I don’t feel that wardrobe choices must be made by what will or will not suggest to a man the degree of punishment that illicit sexual relations would incur. Many women choose to cover their hair with a sheitel, a wig.  Some of them are pretty convincingly natural looking.  They are sometimes made with the wearer’s own hair and often look nicer than the original hair style.  The only difference is that it’s not actually attached to her head.  The justifications for this I’ve heard follow these 3 lines of argument:  a) What man wants to run his fingers through a wig?  b) A wig covers all of a woman’s hair and is therefore superior to a hat or wrap and a woman is less likely to remove it in public because of how odd that would look. c) The point is not to look unattractive and so it doesn’t matter if the woman looks more attractive wearing the sheitel.  The point is that it’s not actually attached to her head.   In some communities the sheitel is covered by a hat so that no one is mistaken.  That sounds delightfully sweltering in the Israeli summer, but the point is neither comfort nor fashion.

    I feel that a) I’m not sure this is a valid line of halachic reasoning and again, not something I’m going to base my wardrobe choices on. b) Most sources and contemporary practice indicate that it is not critical to cover all the hair. c) Um, I thought the point if anything was to send a message to guys to get the message that a woman is off limits? 

    I will take the time also here to mention that it is a practice in some ultra-Orthodox hasidic circles for women to shave off their real hair.  This stemmed from a fear that when she would immerse in the mikvah that some hair, if it was long, might accidentally float to the top or fall out and land on her body and thereby invalidate the dunk.  To this I will point out that halacha states that a woman should not make herself unattractive to her husband.  She shouldn’t even make herself deliberately unattractive to everyone else.  The line I hear about tzniut in general is “attractive, but not attracting”.  To this I will refer to point a – what man wants to run his fingers over his wife’s bald head?

  3. The sotah procedure isn’t in place anymore and I don’t feel so great about basing how I look on an observance stemming from the practice of handling women suspected of adultery.
  4. I don’t know.  I haven’t gotten into Kabbalah.  I have noticed however that Jewish law seems to completely omit the possibility that a woman might not be a virgin when she gets married for the first time.
  5. Rambam explains that Dat Yehudit varies from place to place.

    Hilkhot Ishut 24:12: What is Dat Yehudit? It is the modest behavior practiced by daughters of Israel. These are the things, that if she does [any] one of them, she has violated Dat Yehudit: She goes out to the market place or in an open passageway and her head is uncovered and she is not wearing a redid[shawl or chador] like all the women, even though her hair is covered with a kerchief.

    I see plenty of observant women who don’t cover their hair, particularly outside of Israel. I think there is a much stronger case to be made along this line of reasoning if one lives in a community in which this is the norm.

I’ve searched and searched, for textual sources, books, and blog entries.  And I’ve not come across anything that satisfies me completely in determining why a married woman should cover her hair.  And don’t even get me started on the debate over how much!

The best textual sources that I’ve found are books by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community and Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues. Several people have recommended Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Headcovering by Lynne Schreiber. I enjoyed reading the stories, but ultimately I closed the book with no answers and the introduction provided nothing new to me.

Most rabbis, it seems, want to stay far, far away from this topic.  That indicates something to me.  It’s not merely that it’s a personal issue.  By most standards, I believe, hilchot niddah are far more personal, and rabbis are more willing to make rulings in this area.  But kisui rosh, headcovering,  appears to have a lot more wiggle room and I’m led to believe less halachic substantiation.

Here is what Willow Smith has to say about the issue:

Where does this all leave me?  I don’t want to do it just because everyone else is doing it, but yet… it seems that group think is part of being a member of the tribe, or any tribe.

When making a decision about my Jewish observance, I usually go to one or more of the following places:

  1. The sources.  I find no clear answer here.
  2. My ancestors.  What would bubbe do?  My parents have a photo of my late great-great-grandparents back in the shtetl.  In it, my great-great-grandmother is wearing a shawl that exposes the front part of her head.  Was that the norm before married women started shucking the headcovering in droves?
  3. Community.  What do others do in my community today?  This is dicey because sometimes people are misled and don’t actually do the right thing.  Group think takes over.  I don’t believe in just following the group and also, the observant Jewish community in Jerusalem is so large that I don’t feel like I’m particularly a member of any group.  I haven’t found my niche.
  4. Ask a rabbi.  I haven’t asked a rabbi directly for a psak on what to do, but I don’t think I’d get one.  Previous conversations with rabbis on the subject have led me to believe that it’s one of the last things that they’d want to do.

I’ve taken the chance that some of what I’ve written above may be inaccurate or misunderstood.  I did my best to report accurately.  In the even that I’ve been mistaken, please leave a comment.

If you disagree, leave a comment.  If you agree, leave a comment.

I hope that this can be the start of an ongoing process and exploration and conversation.  If I offended anyone with my opinions, I would like to apologize.  I took that possibility into consideration but on the whole I thought that it was more important to lay thoughts and feelings out there than to be diplomatic and not dive into the heart of the matter or to shirk away from something difficult.  Sometimes it’s only when you remove diplomacy that the true discussion can begin.

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12 Responses to “What to Wear Over Hair”


  1. 1 SAP February 19, 2011 at 3:43 am

    Ilene,

    This is such a thoughtful analysis. My cousins, one in Israel, one here in the U.S. both follow the hair tradition. With one much more than the other, I actually feel like her covering her hair and other parts of what she has done since marrying are masking her just as the wig masks her hair. It’s as though she lost herself.

    Is it disrespectful to keep your own hair visible as part of yourself? Personally, I think it’s just as much of a slight to NOT keep your own hair visible at all times. It’s a gift from Hashem and why should it be considered any less? But then, I also believe that many of the traditions of the past are often taken out of context and massaged in ways that I seriously doubt was ever the intent.

  2. 2 Lynne February 19, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Hi there – Wonderful and thorough blog post. And you’re right, my book Hide and Seek, does not present anything new on the subject, just a variety of experiences and opinions, which was the intent. I approached that project in 2001-2002 as a journalist looking to find sources and understand the breadth of opinions on it. I was also mired in the Orthodox world and took the everyone’s-doing-it tack, which I would not take today. Through all my research and personal experiences, I have come to believe that hair covering is yet another piece of the “uniform” that you wear if you want to fit in. And there are harsh social penalties if you don’t – in many Orthodox communities, women are ostracized if they don’t cover, let alone the “right” way for that community. It was discouraging for me to learn that so much of the way Orthodoxy plays out has to do with peer pressure and following the crowds. Ultimately, since I am not a follower, I stopped covering and have never regretted that decision for a minute. Anyway, kudos to you for presenting such a thoughtful blog post.

  3. 3 Devorah Kigel February 21, 2011 at 3:29 am

    Ilene, I’m a friend of your cousin Etti. Since I teach in the NYC area on this subject, I would like to add a few points that were not mentioned.

    1) Hair covering is considered to be a chok, a Torah commandment that is beyond human understanding (like kashrut or shatnez), in contrast to mishpatim, which are mitzvot that are mainly civil laws that are logically understood by us, like don’t steal. Yes, I too, give “hints” in my classes about hair covering, but all under the umbrella of a humble realization of the limits of human understanding. Interestingly, when one observes a commandment not because it makes sense and seems to improve my quality of life, but rather lishma–just because I want to connect and come closer to my Creator–it is the highest level of mitzvah observance. When one realizes that there is a limit to what one can understand about this mitzvah, then the arguments, discomfort and search for explicit proofs become less problematic.

    2) One hint I do mention in class is that during the 60’s (the free love era) everyone (men & women) had long, unkempt hair. This era was characterized by a rejection of authority and boundaries and a total lack of restraint. In contrast, when a man joins the military, the first thing he does is get a buzz cut, symbolizing his adherence to a set of boundaries and authority. When a Jewish woman gets married, she takes on an extra level of restraint and boundaries. No matter how nice her sheitel is, she always knows it’s there, and it’s always a reminder to her to act as a married woman should.

    3) There are plenty of rabbis who are not nervous to give p’sak on this subject, since it is part of halacha like anything else. I would advise speaking to your rav about what you should or shouldn’t be doing regarding this mitzvah.

    4) In response to SAP poster: Just because a woman’s hair is a “gift from Hashem” doesn’t mean it should be exhibited to everyone. Our bodies are gifts from G-d but I’m sure you wouldn’t advocate walking around NYC naked! One could actually argue the opposite– that the more precious something is, the more it should be protected and covered (ie., a Torah scroll).

    • 4 Ilene February 21, 2011 at 6:41 am

      Hi Devorah,

      Thanks for sharing your comments. I’d like to respond to them one by one.

      1) I’ve never before heard hair covering being put into the category of “chok” like shatnez, because it’s not listed as one of the 613 mitzvot. If we take the sotah pasuk in Bamidbar as the source for hair covering, then I have to wonder why the sotah’s hair is uncovered in public if it really should be covered, even if that is as an act of shame, because that would be highly indecent if you hold that a married woman can’t have her hair uncovered in public. And again, it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth that the source of the mitzvah is about a woman accused of adultery. As for it being lishma and getting close to Hashem, of course no one totally understands the reasons behind all of the mitzvot, and ultimately we should follow them whether or not we understand them, but I think that is is VERY important for one to clarify for oneself what is actually required by halacha and what is a chumra or society’s expectation. I might daven shacharit every day because it helps me come closer to my Creator and build a relationship and there is a clear source for this practice in halacha. Some rabbis have paskened that a women only needs to so birkot hashachar. So which is right?

      2) I see what you’re saying here about the ’60s and I never thought of it this way, but there are a few holes in the argument. Firstly, when women join the army they do not have to cut their hair. Secondly, it’s troublesome when I get explanations citing ways that modern society mirrors Torah principles, because for some other matter you can easily turn around and show how the Torah advises against what modern society advocates. We all have to pick and choose to what extent we want to live a more Jewish way or a more secular way.

      3) It’s true that I haven’t specifically asked for a psak on this matter. Previous experiences asking rabbis (whose wives covered their hair) questions for clarification on this matter really shocked me. It seems to me that this is much less a question to ask a rabbi than it is to follow a community standard. If you look around, women usually cover their hair in ways and amounts that mirror the communities in which they live. Am I running away from asking a direct question, at this point? Yes, yes I am.

      4) This does not explain why unmarried women do not have to cover their hair.

  4. 5 Ilene February 21, 2011 at 6:45 am

    I never revealed what I’m actually going to do.

    At this point in time, the women whose Torah I follow cover their hair, and I figure that they know something that I don’t.

    Unless I’m totally convinced that it’s unnecessary, I will cover my hair in some fashion that I feel comfortable with and meets the community standard in which I live.

  5. 6 Devorah 2 February 24, 2011 at 4:31 am

    Wow, I used to have these discussions. Back in the day when I didn’t really cover my hair, I used to give all of these reasons for my decision.

    One time, I really sat down and asked myself why I don’t want to cover my hair. So I’ll ask you: Why do you like your own hair so much?

    The truth of this answer is usually a variation of the following:

    1) I like my own hair.
    2) I feel deformed when I cover my hair. I don’t look like “myself”
    3) It’s a part of me. A part I’m used to showing. It’s part of who I am.
    4) It’s a hassle to cover my hair.

    I’m sure there are other permutations of the above, but it all boils down to the essential attachment a woman has with her hair. Women ill with cancer often relate that the hardest part of the illness is to lose their hair. It’s a vital part of themselves.

    When you understand the motivation as why you DON’T want to cover your hair, it illustrates all the reasons why you SHOULD. (Well, except for #4, but who said keeping Torah was so easy?)

    If your hair defines you, if it’s what makes a woman beautiful, then it’s the most susceptible to sexual attraction. Looking through Tanach and Talmud, the hair is ascribed to many different discussions of beauty. We braid a bride’s hair, Joseph was admired for his long, beautiful hair, and the test with Potiphar’s wife occurred because Joseph admired his own hair. Samson received his strength from his hair, Absalom’s downfall was his vanity in his own long hair.

    When you have a female captive of war, to make her “disgusting” to you so that you shouldn’t want to rape her or marry, you do what? That’s right. You cut off her hair.

    Hair is sexual. You can try to rationalize away that idea, say that the Torah is archaic and most of its laws are for a time long past (but. . then why would one be religious?), but to deny that publicly is to put deliberate blinders on.

    Look: I didn’t cover my hair for years. I understand how you feel, and why you don’t want to do it. But when people asked me why I didn’t cover my hair, I said this, “I know I should. I just can’t bring myself to do it yet.” But to devalue and dismiss Torah sources as being invalid is incorrect. And it’s apparent that you’re scared of that too, by your inability and hesitation to ask your local Rav.

    • 7 Ilene March 12, 2011 at 8:29 pm

      Hi Devorah,

      I hear what you’re saying. I believe I even mentioned that I agree that hair is sexual.

      But a woman is supposed to remain attractive to her husband. After a day of wearing a hat, my hair is all matted. And many, many women cut their hair short or shave off parts of it in order to fit into their headcoverings or to conform to their community’s standard of how the hair should be under the covering.

      At the end of the day I’m doing it, and even having fun with it, but I still find it problematic.

      • 8 Devorah Kigel March 13, 2011 at 3:00 am

        Absolutely one is supposed to be attractive to one’s spouse. I must tell you that my hair is actually in better condition now than before I started covering it. Hopefully your husband finds you attractive in your wig, out of your wig, in your hat, snood, tichel etc. 🙂

    • 9 Ilene March 14, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      I’ll be writing a followup blog post on all this soon, bli neder, but I have to respond to the tone of your comment, because it feels like you’re making a personal attack.

      I wrote this blog post out of a legitimate curiosity about the practice of haircovering not from the standpoint of being upset at having to hide one of my nice features, though of course, emotions play a role. Rather, I find legitimate problems with the sources.

      It sounds like you’re accusing me of not wanting to do this because it’s hard. I don’t back down from things that are hard if I believe in them. I ran 23 miles in one go. In Peru, I lived in a community house full of non-Jews and a live-in cook and still kept kosher and Shabbat. These things were hard. I did them.

      The fact that something is a “hassle” might lead a person to question why they have to do, but a real ovedet Hashem doesn’t back down merely because something is difficult. Look, a community could take it upon itself to interpreted the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah to mean that every day a person should read the entire Sefer Torah. Upon facing this difficulty, one might check the sources, see if anyone disagrees, and why. Then they would make an educated decision, that yes, also has some emotion tied to it.

      If a particular mitzvah is easy for you to perform, it doesn’t mean that you don’t get merit, and if a practice is difficult for a person to do, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a mitzvah!

  6. 10 Miriam February 24, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Ilene —

    I too have struggled with the reasoning behind covering/not covering my hair. It is the same struggle I have had with wearing pants versus only skirts, and long sleeves versus short sleeves.

    In some ways I do things because that was the way I was brought up. I wear only skirts because of this.

    In some ways I do things that I am comfortable with. I wear short sleeves because of this.

    And in some ways I do things because of a combination of the two. I cover my hair because there is a basis for a woman covering her hair in the torah. To what degree? Beats me. But I figure if i’m doing it, I might as well do it all the way — so I cover ALL my hair and not just wear a headband and call it a day. I cover my hair because to me it symbolizes that I am married. Even though in the US this would not mean much, in Israel it is an almost automatic assumption that if a woman’s hair is covered, she is married and dati to boot. I feel naked without my hair covered in public, as well as around men who are not family members. However, I don’t cover my hair around my Step-father or my brothers.

    I will tell you, though, that the main reason I cover my hair is my husband. And while this is not the reason I started, or the reason I continue, it is the reason that it feels so right to me. My husband has often told me “I love the fact that you cover your hair, because that is mine, and mine alone.” My body is mine, my breasts seem to belong to the baby right now. My attention is mostly on my children. But my hair belongs to my husband. It’s the one thing he can keep all to himself (other women seeing my hair doesn’t bother him… just other men).

    I hope you find the answers you are looking for. I don’t think that anyone can tell you what is right or wrong, I think it’s something you have to feel within yourself.

  7. 11 Anonymous Married Girl February 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Ilene,

    I completely understand your ambivalence regarding hair covering. In a number of ways I was the same — so was my husband, for that matter. So when I got married, I wore hats, but did not stuff all of my hair into them. However, in the back of my mind (and in my husband’s, too, although he would never dictate to me what to do in this regard) I always felt as if I was not really doing what I ought. Blame this on the instruction of my teachers in high school, perhaps. So, about five years after I got married, shortly after we moved to a new community, I decided to make a fresh start and cover all of my hair. At first I wore hats, then got a hat fall because I really disliked how I looked with all of my hair stuffed into a hat. I’ve since also gotten a band fall, as finding a matching hat for a gown for a wedding was a ridiculous undertaking, and it has been an extremely useful addition. I’ve also lately become a fan of scarves, especially in the heat of the summer. But regardless, except for a few hairs at my temples, my hair has been covered in its entirety.

    This is all ancillary to the main point of my story, though. I had a very, very difficult time conceiving my first child. With the help of a few doctors, I finally had her just as we moved to our new home. Several months after I began covering my hair more thoroughly, we decided to try for child number two, assuming it would take a while, although we were ready. The very month I began praying for a child — we were covering all avenues, of course — I became pregnant. No wait, no agonizing months of wondering when. It was immediate.

    There is, of course, no scientific correlation between these two stories. But in my heart I feel there is. If anything, this has convinced me more than anything else that I made the right choice.

    My story is also, obviously, just my own story. I know it can’t apply to anyone else but me, but it does tell me to give you this advice, if you will permit. Listen to that voice in the back of your head — the one that tells you “this is what you ought to do, and if you’re not doing it, you should be” — whatever “it” is. Pay attention to the messages that life sends you. I wish you hatzlachah all your endeavors and for your wedding and your future life with your intended. And especially that you will have as many children as you want, whenever you want them.

  8. 12 Elle May 2, 2011 at 8:40 am

    This was incredibly well written! good job! I wrote a much more personal (and far less halachic) post on my own experiences in head covering a few weeks back…

    http://onbecomingdevoted.com/2011/03/the-hair-covering-post


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ilene

Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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