Why do Jewish women cover their hair?

According to Jewish tradition, women must cover their hair at all. Why do devout Jewish women wear wigs? The reason for this action is modesty. They wear scarves, veils, hats or wigs (Sheitel) to hide their hair. Especially, a woman has to cover her hair in public when she gets married. Her hair must be completely hidden so that no one can see her hair. Some women take this step further, and they keep their hair covered at all times, in their home and maybe even within their bedroom.

Dr. Menachem M. Brayer once quoted some famous rabbis words: “Israel women go out without scarves is not right”, “Cursing a man to let others see his wife’s hair” or “Women who expose their hair will live in poverty.” It can be seen that the old Jewish conception of women was very strict.

The Orthodox Jewish take gender matter seriously. Genders are separated clearly at schools, synagogues, in the street or even on public transports.  

As I said, old Jewish women wear wigs is a symbol of married women. The sole purpose of wearing scarves is protecting women, all women. Not only hair, but women also hide their whole bodies at all times. The purpose of these traditions is so that other men will not be attracted by the sight of a woman’s body. 

However, in the 19th century, the external change of life forced many women to go out without covering their hair. And some Jewish women find it more convenient to replace their traditional veil with a wig. It’s a reason why Jewish women wear wigs instead of scarves? Today, most Jewish women only cover their hair when they are in a synagogue. Wearing wigs also means they don’t expose their hair. And it’s difficult to aware someone is wearing a wig. 

The Effects of Wearing a Sheitel

The hair-covering has a profound effect on the wearer. It creates a psychological barrier, a cognitive distance between her and strangers. Her beauty becomes visible but inconspicuous; she is attractive but unavailable.

Other Orthodox rabbinic figures have suggested that hair is no longer defined as erotic in our day and age because most women in society do not cover their hair in public. Based on this logic, the Arukh HaShulhan concludes that men are no longer prohibited from praying in the presence of a woman’s hair, and Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that women may show a hand’ s-breadth of hair.

A few Orthodox rabbis in the early 20th century justified women’s decisions not to cover their hair at all, including the Moroccan chief rabbi in the 1960s, HaRav Mashash, and the lesser known American Modern Orthodox rabbi, Isaac Hurwitz — though they drew criticism for this opinion. In their writings, they systematically review the sources surveyed above and demonstrate that those sources describe a social norm of modest dress, but not a legal requirement.

“Now that all women agree,” Rabbi Mashash wrote, “that covering one’s hair is not an issue of modesty and going bare-headed is not a form of disrespect the opposite is true: Uncovered hair is the woman’s splendour, glory, beauty, and magnificence, and with uncovered hair, she is proud before her husband, her lover — the prohibition is uprooted on principle and is made permissible.”

The wig achieves the desired effect exactly because a wig allows a woman to cover all her hair while maintaining her attractive appearance. She can be proud of the way she looks without compromising her privacy. And even if her wig looks so real as to be mistaken for natural hair, she knows that no one is looking at the real her. She has created a private space, and only she decides who to let into that space.

Perhaps in other religions, modesty and beauty don’t mix. This is not the Jewish view. True beauty, inner beauty, needs modesty to protect it and allow it to thrive.

Where This Practice Comes From

The origin of the tradition lies in the Sotah ritual, a ceremony described in the Bible that tests the fidelity of a woman accused of adultery. According to the Torah, the priest uncovers or unbraids the accused woman’s hair as part of the humiliation that precedes the ceremony (Numbers 5:18). From this, the Talmud (Ketuboth 72) concludes that under normal circumstances, hair covering is a biblical requirement for women.

The Mishnah in Ketuboth (7:6), however, implies that hair covering is not an obligation of biblical origin. It discusses behaviours that are grounds for divorce such as, “appearing in public with loose hair, weaving in the marketplace, and talking to any man” and calls these violations of Dat Yehudit, which means Jewish rule, as opposed to Dat Moshe, Mosaic rule. This categorization suggests that hair covering is not an absolute obligation originating from Moses at Sinai, but rather is a standard of modesty that was defined by the Jewish community.

The most common ways that women will cover their hair is with a wig or scarf, and sometimes a hat. The wig they use is called a “sheitel” in Yiddish. It can be made of synthetic material or made from real human hair. These wigs are quite expensive, costing as much as $500-1500. It is common that Hasidic women will own two or more wigs: one for everyday use, and another for holidays and special occasions. The scarf that some Orthodox women will wear is called a “tichel.” It will be tied in place over the hair. A hat may also be worn, although it typically will not fully cover all the woman’s hair alone so that it will be in conjunction with a wig or scarf.

That anthropologist has not only mistaken a wig for real hair but has also confused true modesty for his own version. He equates modesty with unattractiveness, but that is his definition, not Judaism’s. From the Jewish perspective, modesty has nothing to do with being unattractive. Rather, modesty is a means to create privacy. And that is what a wig achieves.

The hair-covering was never intended to make a married woman look ugly. Beauty is a divine gift, and Jewish tradition encourages both men and women to care for their appearance and always look presentable. Jewish tradition also encourages modesty; not in order to detract from our beauty, but rather to channel our beauty and attractiveness, so it is saved for where it belongs — within marriage.

Historically speaking, women in the Talmudic period likely did cover their hair, as is attested in several anecdotes in rabbinic literature. For example, Bava Kama (90a) relates an anecdote of a woman who brings a civil suit against a man who caused her to uncover her hair in public. The judge appears to side with the woman because the man violated a social norm. Another vignette in the Talmud describes a woman whose seven sons all served as High Priest. When asked how she merited such sons, she explained that even the walls of her home never saw her hair (Yoma 47a). The latter story is a story of extreme loyalty, surpassing any law or communal consensus; the former case may also relay a historical fact of practice and similarly does not necessarily reflect religious obligation.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish authorities reinforced the practise of covering women’s hair, based on the obligation derived from the Sotah story. Maimonides does not include hair covering in his list of the 613 commandments. Still, he does rule that leaving the house without a chador, the communal standard of modesty in Arabic countries is grounds for divorce (Laws of Marriage 24:12). The Shulchan Aruch records that both married and unmarried women should cover their hair in public (Even Haezer 21:2). Yet, the Ashkenazic rulings emphasize that this obligation relates only to married women. The Zohar further entrenches the tradition by describing the mystical importance of women making sure that not a single hair is exposed.

Do Hasidic women shave their heads?

Some Hasidic women shave their heads, while others do not. For those who shave, they are extra-observant of the rule. They are making it to be impossible that their hair can ever be seen because they don’t have any. Not all Orthodox Jewish women do this. Many of them do not. For the ones who do not shave, they don’t consider it necessary to go to such an extent. They are satisfied with just carefully keeping their head covered. Either way, most women will maintain the hair coverage within their home and maybe even within their bedroom.

Jewish people have pretty strict dress codes. As I said, the Jewish value women’s modesty. But not only cover hair, but some Jewish women also take this step further. They shave their heads and wear wigs. 

In the Hasidic tradition, a bare head without a wig or hat is similar to nudity, and an excellent way to ensure modesty for women is to shave their hair. Some women say that they are cool with it, and it’s easy to wear a wig without worrying the hair system can damage their own hair. While others report, they feel violated by the custom. Bear in mind that the women in Jewish tradition wear wigs but not all of them shave their hair heads.

More about female Hasidic Jewish lifestyle

Gender roles are kept traditional: men are the breadwinners who go out from home each day to work. Women are mainly homemakers – they remain in the house and cook, clean, care for the children etc. Hasidic Jews are famous for the large family sizes! The average family can have six or more kids. So there is a lot of potential work for the wife! Typically older children (especially female teenagers) will be enlisted to help with their younger siblings. Also, Orthodox women may have a large job at cooking, as each Sabbath (Saturday – known as “Shabbos”) there are two large feasts to prepare, and all cooking must be finished by Friday afternoon. Once Shabbos begins, no cooking is allowed.

While only a few traditional rabbis have reinterpreted the law of hair covering, throughout the generations, women have acted on their own initiative. The first sparks of rebellion occurred in the 1600s when French women began wearing wigs to cover their hair. Rabbis rejected this practice, both because it resembled the contemporary non-Jewish style and because it was immodest, in their eyes, for a woman to sport a beautiful head of hair, even if it was a wig. However, the wig practice took hold and, perhaps ironically, it is common today in many Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities. In some of these communities, the custom is for women to wear an additional covering over their wig, to ensure that no one mistakes it for natural hair.

As the general practice of covering one’s head in public faded in Western culture in the past century, many Orthodox women also began to go bare-headed. Despite rabbinic opinions to the contrary, these women thought of hair covering as a matter of custom and culture.

Many women who continue to cover their hair do not do so for the traditional reason of modesty. For example, some women view head covering as a sign of their marital status and therefore, do not cover their hair in their own home. Others wear only a small symbolic head covering while showing much of their hair. Also, in many communities, women have persisted in covering their hair only in the synagogue.

In recent decades, there is an interesting trend among women who have learned the Jewish legal sources for themselves, due to advances in women’s education and have decided to adopt a stringent stance toward hair covering, rather than following the more permissive norms of their parents’ communities. An entire book, Hide and Seek (2005), tells these women’s stories.

Modesty, as a Jewish value, is continually being refined and redefined by Jewish women and their communities. Just as some women have chosen to deemphasize hair covering as a marker of modesty, in other communities, women may choose to embrace it, developing and reinforcing a more traditional communal norm. As modesty is subjectively defined, the community to which one wishes to belong may play a large role in determining practice. The decision to cover one’s hair rests at the crossroads between law and custom, personal choice and community identification.

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