Hair Coverings for Married Women
A discussion of Jewish law, custom, and communal standards
In many traditional Jewish communities, women wear head coverings after marriage. This practice takes many different forms: hats, scarves, and wigs all cover and reveal different lengths of hair. Many women only don the traditional covering when entering or praying in a synagogue, and still others have rejected hair covering altogether. What is the basis for this Jewish practice, and what are some of the legal and social reasons for its variations?
Woman praying at Western Wall
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 behaviors 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.
Having first suggested that hair covering is a biblical requirement--rooted in the Sotah ritual--and then proposing that it is actually a product of communal norms, the Talmud (Ketuboth 72) presents a compromise position: minimal hair covering is a biblical obligation, while further standards of how and when to cover one's hair are determined by the community.
Elsewhere in the Talmud (Berakhot 24a), the rabbis define hair as sexually erotic (ervah), and prohibit men from praying in sight of a woman's hair. The rabbis base this estimation on a biblical verse: "Your hair is like a flock of goats" (Song of Songs 4:1), suggesting that this praise reflects the sensual nature of hair. However, it is significant to note that in this biblical context the lover also praises his beloved's face, which the rabbis do not obligate women to cover. Though not all would agree, the late medieval commentator, the Mordecai, explains that these rabbinic definitions of modesty--even though they are derived from a biblical verse--are based on subjective communal norms that may change with time.
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 piety, 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 practice 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, but 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 Shulhan Arukh 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.