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Jewish Women & Hair Covering

Uncovering the Truth

 

Most current Jewish authorities would agree that there is an "obligation" for married women to cover their hair outside of their home. Whether this obligation is an obligation of the Torah itself or whether this is a rabbinic obligation is debated in the Talmud (specifically Ketubot 72a). Most agree that this obligation is considered a rabbinic law in nature and most would it agree it is also dat yehudit (Rosh, Rashi, Tosafot, Tur and Shulkhan Aruch: Even ha-Ezer 115), and not dat moshe (a violation that seemingly violates a principle of the Torah, although this definition is debatable). Nevertheless, many of our hachamim, as you will see, have considered hair covering dependant on societal norms. Let's take a look.

What exactly is daat yehudit? The Encyclopedia Talmudit explains as follows: 

 

 

 

 

 

Related to this article, Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Founder and Director of JewishIdeas.org and Orthodox Sephardic Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel conveys this message in a video

 

"the parameters of dat yehudit, writes: dat yehudit means the practice of modesty which the daughters of Israel practice, even though such is not found in the Torah nor grounded in a biblical prohibition; rather, these are practices followed among the Jewish people for the sake of modesty, so that the daughters of Israel should be more modest than other women of the world; one who violates these standards does something of a promiscuous nature, which leads one down the road toward immorality."

In regards to this situation, societal norms in general revealed the hair of a women was considered an extension of their ervah (nakedness) and the norm was to cover as part of the laws of modesty. Although this issue (hair being ervah) still was not agreed upon by all authorities.

As most communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish had women covering their hair in the past, any deliberate uncovering of hair in public was seen as promiscious behavior. So much so, it was seen by authorities as a basis for divorcing your wife without giving her her ketuba! This continued for most communities in the Talmudic period, and this custom eventually became a part of the Rambam's codified law (Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:17), and finally into the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 21: 2). Many in the modern Jewish communities have added to this law with the additional stringencies, for example, covering the hair even inside the home something that got widespread traction with the printing of the Zohar (Parashat Naso, p. 125b–126a)  in the 16th century.  While almost all authorities hold that ideas of the Zohar are non obligatory if not mentioned in earlier sources. In addition, a common misinterpreted passage from the Talmud visits "the rewards" of covering inside (see Kimchich in DovBear's post). Others, have permitted wearing wigs (sometimes even more beautiful than the original hair) with not very rational basis for doing so.

Yet still over the next few centuries, many communities especially in the Sephardic world, take the view that societal norms determine the nature of a women's hair being considered ervah (nakedness). The argument being that if all or most women go out publicly with uncovered hair, then this would *not* be considered promiscuous behavior. Indeed we see many authorities in those communities were lenient (yes for married women in public!). In fact, going back in time, we would find many Rishonim (rabbis who came after the Talmud) who would permit married women going out with uncovered hair, something that would be considered quite scandalous in today's Orthodox world! A careful analysis of the Rambam's wording in his Mishneh Torah can show that this is *not* a blanket statement for all women covering their hair after marriage. In fact, there is no specific gezera of such nature in the Talmud. One analysis of this Rambam, can be seen by studying Rav Yosef Messas's teshuba, we will provide a short excerpt below.

R. Yehoshua Babad gives us a good summary:

The basic principle is that any part of the body which is always seen, and which it is not the common practice of women to cover, and which men are used to seeing–is not considered ervah, people are not stirred by such because they are used to seeing this, and no biblical prohibition is involved at all [in uncovering them]. But when body parts that are customarily covered are partially exposed and people find this stirring, then it is considered ervah and it is biblically prohibited [to uncover them].


The rest includes a collection of some the Acharonim I have been able to find who, like the Rishonim, take the view that the parameters of the prohibition to uncover hair are dependent on the customs of modest women which vary according to time and place:

R. Yaakov Hayyim Sofer, in his Kaf ha-Hayyim, Orah Hayyim 75:(17) writes:

"It is also permissible to pray in the presence of European women whose practice is to always go with their hair uncovered, for it is the practice of all women to do so . . ."
"Those women who move from lands where the practice is to cover one’s hair to a place where the practice is not to cover are permitted to go without a head covering, provided they have no intention of returning . . . Indeed, he maintains that one who moves to a place where the practice is not to cover one’s hair is permitted to go without her hair covered, and it makes no difference whether it is partially or fully uncovered."


R. Joseph Messas (Rabbi of Morocco and later Chief Rabbi of Haifa),
Responsa Mayyim Hayyim, 2:110 rules:


"Know, my child, that the prohibition for women to uncover their hair is extremely well-founded! For the custom practiced by all women of ancient times was to cover their hair, and one who did not do so was considered to be promiscuous. To them, a woman’s exposed hair was also considered disgraceful (see Rashi, end of Ketubot 72a). Therefore the Sages were exceedingly strict based on the custom of their time, on account of promiscuity and disgracefulness. . "

". . . Thus, nowadays when women worldwide have abandoned the ancient custom and reverted to the simple practice of not covering their hair, it in no way indicates a deficiency in their modesty or promiscuity, God forbid . . .

"Know, my child, that the prohibition of married women uncovering their hair was quite strong in our community, as it was in all of the Arab lands, before the influx of French Jewry."

 

R. Moshe Malka, the late Chief Rabbi of Petah Tikva also rules in accordance with R. Messas:

"However, after close analysis of the words of our Master [R. Yosef Karo], Orah Hayyim 75:2, I saw that the great Rabbi [Messas] was indeed correct. The Shulhan Arukh states: “Only hair that is usually covered is considered to be ervah, and it is forbidden to recite the Shema facing it.” However, hair that is not usually covered is not considered ervah at all."

 

R. Moshe Feinstein, in his Iggerot Moshe, Even ha-Ezer 1:69, writes:

"the following with regard to what is considered to be a violation of dat yehudit and promiscuous behavior: There is another prohibition outlined in Ketubot 72 for women under the rubric of dat yehudit not to act in a promiscuous manner. However, in this regard it is limited to where she alone acts this way. But when all the women of her city act that way, it is not at all appropriate to consider such conduct promiscuous. It makes no difference that the conduct of these women might have originally been promiscuous behavior at one time; nonetheless, since such is now the manner of dress and walking, one ought not consider it promiscuous conduct and forbid it. [Avoiding such clothing or activity] is regarded as the conduct of the pious and exceedingly modest—may blessing come to such a person.

 

As a summary, there are many Rishonim who rule that the prohibition for married women to go with uncovered hair is a subjective rabbinic violation dependent on societal norms of modesty (and dat yehudit), not a biblical prohibition (dat moshe). Women and families who have a clear custom not to cover their hair should know that there is a firm foundation for such a practice in the Rishonim and Shulhan Arukh, even if such a view is rejected by the great Ahronim of our day. And women who live in areas with uncovered hair and do not feel that covering their hair adds to their modesty also have clear authorities to lean on.

 

For the those who are serious of this subject, please read the following article written by Rabbi Michael Broyde, in which he takes a fully look at the history and development of this particular issue. Most of this article was taken from his work. View the PDF here.