Hair Coverings for Married Women
A discussion of Jewish law, custom, and communal standards
Varying Interpretation in the Modern Era
Today, in most Conservative and Reform communities, women do not cover their hair on a daily basis, though in some synagogues women still cover their heads during prayer. A Reform responsum (1990) energetically declares: "We Reform Jews object vigorously to this requirement for women, which places them in an inferior position and sees them primarily in a sexual role."
Both the Conservative and Reform movements allow, and in some cases encourage, women to cover their heads when praying or learning Torah, because of the requirement to wear a kippah. These rulings take head covering out of the realm of female sexual modesty, and instead define it as a ritual practice--for men and women alike--that signifies respect and awareness of God above.
In the contemporary Orthodox world, most rabbis consider hair covering an obligation incumbent upon all married women, however, there is variation in the form this takes. Some maintain that women must cover all their hair, for example the Mishnah Berurah forbids a man from praying in front of his wife if any of her hair is showing.
Other Orthodox rabbinic figures have suggested that hair is no longer defined as erotic in our day and age, because most of society does 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 twentieth century justified women's decisions not to cover their hair at all, including the Moroccan Chief Rabbi in the 1960's, 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 writes, "that covering one's hair is not an issue of modesty and going bare-headed is not a form of disrespect--in fact, the opposite is true: uncovered hair is the woman's splendor, 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."
What Women Do
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.