Hair Coverings for Married Women

A discussion of Jewish law, custom, and communal standards

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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 1600's, 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 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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Alieza Salzberg

Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.