Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hair Covering

Q: Hi,

I came across your blog while browsing online. What is the halacha regarding married women covering their hair, with respect to fully or partially? Also is that Deorisa (Biblical) or Medarabanan (Rabbinical)?

Thank You,

A: Dear David,

Your question touches upon a complex area of Jewish law. I will attempt to survey and summarize the basic issues in this area very briefly. As you will see, this topic is subject to a great deal of analysis and discussion in Jewish literature.

The Talmud in Tractate Ketubot states that married Jewish women may not appear in public with their hair uncovered. This prohibition is described as a Biblical law and a verse from the Torah is cited to substantiate it.

Two levels of obligatory hair covering are then delineated: complete and partial covering, respectively. Partial coverage of the hair fulfills the more basic standard of "Dat Moshe", or the "Law of Moses". This level is the one that the Rabbis say is alluded to in the Bible.

Complete coverage of the hair, though not mentioned in the Torah, is still necessary in order to satisfy the requirements of "Dat Yehudit", or "conduct deemed proper for a Jewish woman."

(I am leaving the definitions of "complete" and "partial" deliberately vague because they are a subject of scholarly debate, as we will see below.)

The vast majority of halachic decisors take the Talmud in Ketubot literally and maintain that a married woman who goes out with her hair totally exposed is violating a Biblical prohibition (Dat Moshe). On the other hand, the requirement to cover hair completely is only Rabbinical (Dat Yehudit).

By contrast, there is a small minority of scholars who interpret the Talmud differently. They argue that, while there is a Biblical allusion to the practice of married women covering their hair, the prohibition itself actually has the status of Rabbinic Law. According to this view, the term "Dat Moshe" means a law promulgated by Moses, but not necessarily a law he received on Sinai. These scholars maintain that the higher standard of "Dat Yehudit" is a matter of authoritative and binding Jewish custom rather than some kind of formal Rabbinic legislation.

To summarize, then, we have two levels of haircovering: "Dat Moshe" and "Dat Yehudit". Both are obligatory, although the statuses of the respective obligations differ. In order to observe this halacha, however, we must clarify two parameters: what constitutes full coverage of hair, and what is considered "public"?

With regard to the question of complete coverage, there are two basic approaches. One interprets the term literally and concludes that a married woman cannot have more than a tefah (handsbreadth, approximately 3-4 inches) of her hair exposed in public at any time.

The other approach posits that "completeness" with reference to hair covering should be no different than "completeness" in other areas of Jewish law. Generally speaking, we have a principle in halacha that rubo k'chulo, the majority of something is legally equivalent to its entirety. Based upon this concept, some hold that as long as a woman has the majority of her hair covered, we treat it as if she had all of her hair covered.

What constitutes "public" is also a matter of scholarly debate. Some suggest that anytime a woman is in the presence of three men who are not her immediate relatives, this is legally regarded as being "in public".
Others, basing themselves on the simple reading of the Talmud, interpret "public" and "private" in terms of the political or social status of a particular location. According to this viewpoint, a place of residence is always considered private, no matter how many people are currently visiting it. And a mall or shopping center is always regarded as public, even if, at this moment, it is empty.

Many contemporary authorities go so far as to rule that a married woman may never have her hair uncovered in front of a man who is not her husband or a member of her immediate family. This, however, is a matter of middat hasidut, admirable or especially pious conduct, and is not legally mandated.

Now that we have reviewed the basic issues involved in this area of Jewish law, we can consider its practical implications. All agree that some form of complete coverage of hair is required whenever a married woman is in public.
With regard to the definition of complete coverage, the majority of scholars maintain that no more than a tefah (3-4 inches) should be exposed. This is the view that should be followed in practice.

However, when it comes to the precise definition of "public", the rabbinic consensus is far from clear. Based on the sources, it seems most reasonable to conclude that the distinction between "public" and "private" is determined by the nature of the location in question. Therefore, in a private residence, a married woman is not required to have her hair covered, even if she has several guests visiting.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof


Anonymous said...

You conveniently Forgot to mention That no Sephardi halachic tradition believes in Wigs like the Ashkanazim
who did accept it and Rav Ovdiah is very strongly against adapting it

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I'm not sure that this is a fair characterization of all Sephardic viewpoints. There are several Sephardic Hachamim who permit the use of wigs for haircovering. In fact, throughout the Syrian communities in Brooklyn and in Deal, wigs are extremely common - they are the rule rather than the exception.

I didn't discuss this particular point because my objective was to address the general principles of the law and not all of its detailed applications.

Thank you for contributing. In the future, please try to phrase your comments in a more positive manner. There is no need for condescending remarks here.

Anonymous said...

I wold very Much appreciate if you could tell me where I could find these Sephardic Hachamim Sefarim as I was told that was Just Sephardim just being influenced by there surroundings
Which SHU"T?

Anonymous said...

So is there a source?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

If you read Hacham Ovadiah's many responsa on this subject, you will see that he quotes a number of dissenting views.

It is well known, for example, that Hacham Ben Tsion Abba Shaul z"l permitted married women to wear wigs, and that his own wife wore a wig. He writes on this topic in his Sefer Or Letsion.

For a link that discusses this from a Sephardic perspective, see:

You can also hear an audio version of the file on that website.

Anonymous said...

Thanks alot

badrabbi said...

Actually, there are 2 reasons for a married Jewish woman to cover her hair:

1. As a sign of modesty
2. As a biblical Halacha

Let me deal with the second reason first: In the story of the Sotah, in Numbers 5:12, this is written:

NUM 5:12 If any man's wife is suspected of committing adultery and being false to her husband.

5:13 A man may have Iain with her carnally, keeping it hidden from her husband, and they may have acted secretly so that there could be no witness against the woman. The woman was not raped…
5:15 The law is that the man must bring his wife to the priest. When he brings her, he must also bring a sacrifice for her consisting of 1/10 ephah of barley meal. He shall not pour oil on it, nor place frankincense on it, since it is a jealousy offering. It is a reminder offering to recall sin…

5:18 The priest shall stand the woman before God and uncover her hair. He shall place on her hands the reminder offering, the jealousy offering. In the priest's hand shall be the curse-bearing bitter water...

From this, that the priest ‘uncovered her hair’, it has been deduced that the woman’s hair must have ALWAYS been covered. Furthermore, it is inferred that ALL women’s hairs were ALWAYS covered at ALL TIMES. Furthermore, from the fact that this woman was married, it is induced that unmarried women’s hair was NOT covered.

Thus, from the passages above, these generalizations were made:

1. ALL WOMEN COVERED THEIR HAIR. I submit that simply because the priest uncovers a woman’s hair, it does not follow that women’s hair was ALWAYS covered. The woman may have covered her hair because she had entered Bet Hamighdash, a most holy place. To assume that she also covered her hair everywhere else, while possible, is simply an unjustified assumption.
2. COVERING HAIR IS A REQUIREMENT. Again, I submit that if the Torah wanted women to cover their hair, it would have simply said so. That it mentions that a woman’s hair was uncovered does not necessarily indicate that her hair MUST be covered!

It may have been the CUSTOM of women to cover their hair, as it may been a custom to wear cloaks. This should not mean that women of today must dress in the fashion of old. Do we require the women of today to dress exactly the way the women dressed then?

To summarize, to say that women are biblically required to cover their hair based on the story of Sotah is a reach of extreme proportions. If the reader can not see this than he can not see much!

Finally, to say that women cover their hair out of modesty is a fair statement. I can accept that. But then to wear Sheytels such that the wig looks more extravagant than one’s original hair totally misses this second purpose. Right?

badrabbi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The community of North Africa did not mandate hair covering for married women in a community where the majority of the culture did not cover their hair. Similarly, the community in Lithuania in the years before WW1 and 2 did not have hair covering(although this has been claimed to be more of a laxity than a studied opinion). Rav Horowitz(early 20'th century) also did not mandate public hair covering. Certainly the vast majority of poskim are in favor of hair covering, but there is a minority of those who dont agree(Rav YBS's wife for example....)


Anonymous said...

at the wedding itself, do women need to cover their hair?

Anonymous said...

I'm still at a loss as to why many married orthodox women still don't cover their hair. I have been to many shuls that women are there with their children but their hair is uncovered and sometimes not even tied up.

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