Monday, August 30, 2010

Covering Your Hair: Why?

This is part one of a multi-part series exploring the why, how, and when for hair covering for Torah-observant, married Jewish women. Enjoy, and please post any questions or additional thoughts you have in the comments section.

My sheitel post is my all-time, most-viewed blog post here at Just Call Me Chaviva. I'm proud that it got as many hits as it did, and I'm also really proud that people kept it civil without hat or sheitel slinging, so thank you for that.

Hair covering in Judaism is, as you guessed and may very well know from personal experience, a very tenuous and barely understood topic. If you ask a woman on the street why she chooses, as a Jew, to cover her hair, she'll probably answer immediately with "modesty." If she gets into explaining the depth of this simple answer, you'll probably hear things about the rabbis, respect for the husband, HaShem, and the marriage. Very few people ever really get to the core, the basis of why we cover, and many women begin covering with sheitels superficially -- it's what everyone else does, it's the community standard, it makes me blend in, I feel pretty. These same reasons could be said to apply to tichels in Israel, where sheitels are less normative than beautiful scarves are. Of course, in certain communities (such as Chabad Lubavitch), the sheitel is the commanded or preferred hair covering, no matter where you live. Just as you would find a Satmar woman shaving her head the day after she's wed, so, too, would you find a Lubavitcher in her sheitel whether running to the store or lighting Shabbos candles.

But why? WHY is the big question. Few people ask why, because, as we all can recognize, Judaism is a religion that requires a leap of action; Judaism is a very thing and action based religion, which is something that I adore about it.

Good ole'
The entire story begins with the sotah narrative in Numbers 5:11-20. Yes, the reason women cover their hair is based on the incident of the suspected adulteress. What a colorful beginning, no? It is in this narrative that the suspected adulteress's hair is parah. The meaning of this word is, itself, contentious, as it means a few different things, which lead to a few different understandings of the law today. One meaning: unbraid or untie. Another meaning: let down, uncover, or dishevel. Either way, one thing is clear: the suspected adulteress typically has her hair in a certain fashion in public and in the eyes of HaShem, and by altering the way that it is held up or covered, she is shamed in the eyes of the public (only her husband would see her hair parah). Her private image is let go to the public. 

The rabbis, then, understood this as a direct-from-the-Torah law for the daughters of Israel (Sifrei Bamidbar 11). One would think, then, that this would apply to all married and unmarried Jewish women and girls (such as in Islam), but it has generally been accepted to refer only to married women (hence the intensity of the scene of the sotah). From here, however, we run into a few problems. Various sages throughout the years debated whether it truly was Dat Moshe or Dat Yehudi -- basically, a law from the Torah/Moses or a custom of the Jewish people (subject to region, familial customs, etc.). 

The overwhelming and accepted opinion regarding head covering, however, comes from Gemara Ketubot 72a-b, which states that the obligation to cover one's hair is immutable and not subject to change. It is, in fact, law. So there's that. The Torah-observant Jewish woman is required to cover her hair upon marriage, as dictated by Dat Moshe

The biggest question arising from this, then, is the one that concerns us today and results in the variety of looks we have ranging from a hat with natural hair pouring out to kerchiefs half-exposing hair to full-on sheitels and scarves that pull any thread of hair out of site. This question of HOW one covers their hair. What's okay, what's not, and what exactly is meant by the words "head" and "hair" in the law. The image of the sotah in my head is of a woman with long, thick hair, twisted up under a scarf, that is then parah -- both untwisted and let down. Or was it not really like that? Perhaps it was a long braid coming out of a scarf, or just a long braid period, or maybe it wasn't a braid at all and she had short hair shoved under some type of scarf. This, you see, is the complication. The Torah doesn't detail what her headgear was like, it merely explains the action that took place, which is why the rabbis had to sit down and figure out exactly what this meant. Of course, this now leads to us figuring out what the rabbis meant. 

I wanted to lay out where the idea (read: law) of head covering comes from in this segment, and my next segment will lay out the various opinions on the how of head covering, including what the great sages Rashi and Rambam (Maimonides) had to say as the final word on how a woman is to cover her hair. Yes, they had sheitels way back when, and yes head covering was a normative activity for most of the cultures of the world up until the last 100 years. 

Stay tuned!