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The Meaning of Hair Covering

The Meaning of Hair Covering

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Question

I heard an anthropologist talking about shaitels (wigs). He said how ironic it is that observant Jewish women wear wigs. In biblical Judaism, the rule was that married women should cover their hair in order to be modest and unattractive. In more recent times, women wear wigs, which are sometimes more attractive than natural hair. So wearing a wig actually defeats the whole purpose of covering the hair! He was giving this as an example of how cultures forget the reasons behind their ancient traditions, and customs can evolve in a way that contradicts their original intent. Do you have any comments?

Answer:

That anthropologist has not only mistaken a wig for real hair, but has also confused true modesty for his own version. He equates modesty with unattractiveness, but that is his definition, not Judaism's. From the Jewish perspective, modesty has nothing to do with being unattractive. Rather, modesty is a means to create privacy. And that is what a wig achieves.

Modesty has nothing to do with being unattractive The hair-covering was never intended to make a married woman look ugly. Beauty is a divine gift, and Jewish tradition encourages both men and women to care for their appearance and always look presentable. Jewish tradition also encourages modesty; not in order to detract from our beauty, but rather to channel our beauty and attractiveness so it be saved for where it belongs -- within marriage.

By covering her hair, the married woman makes a statement: "I am not available. You can see me but I am not open to the public. Even my hair, the most obvious and visible part of me, is not for your eyes."

The hair-covering has a profound effect on the wearer. It creates a psychological barrier, a cognitive distance between her and strangers. Her beauty becomes visible but inconspicuous; she is attractive but unavailable.

The wig achieves the desired effect exactly, because a wig allows a woman to cover all her hair, while maintaining her attractive appearance. She can be proud of the way she looks without compromising her privacy. And even if her wig looks so real as to be mistaken for natural hair, she knows that no one is looking at the real her. She has created a private space, and only she decides who to let into that space.

Perhaps in other religions modesty and beauty don't mix. This is not the Jewish view. True beauty, inner beauty, needs modesty to protect it and allow it to thrive.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
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Discussion (135)
October 10, 2016
so incredibly well put, thank you so much for writing this, it really needs to reach all Jewish women, so many have such a warped idea of what hair covering is all about.
Tamar Chayempour
great neck
July 29, 2016
god gave women hair, what is so wrong with having a head of hair, its natural, i don't get it. what about the men, they show their hair, what about eyebrows.
carol
June 18, 2016
Deeply Flawed Explanation
No disrespect, but it is intellectually dishonest to equate all alternative head coverings (except gorgeous wigs, of course) as unattractive!
It is also quite hypocritical to claim that covering hair makes any statement when the observer cannot even identify the covering.
The purpose of the head covering is to promote a sense of privacy and self-respect in the Jewish woman, and it therefore follows that any attempt to "outwit" the mitzvah (by wearing natural hair on top of hair) indicates a deeply flawed understanding of its purpose.
With a true understanding of the mitzvah of covering the hair, it is difficult to justify those wigs that are as natural/beautiful or even more so than natural hair.
All that said, I do not judge those who wear them. However, I find it upsetting when it is passed off as kosher.
Anonymous
June 3, 2016
dress code in public
I think that all women should dress with modesty especially when they go in public places
Anonymous
Lakewood,Nj
March 11, 2016
The mitzvah for a married woman to cover her hair is not stated outright in the Torah. Rather, it is derived from the verses. In relating the procedures regarding a sotah - a woman suspected of adultery - the Torah states that her hair was uncovered (Numbers 5:18). From this we understand that Jewish married woman always covered their hair.
Malkie Janowski for Chabad.org
Chabad.org
March 10, 2016
I would be most grateful if Yisroel Cotlar or some other scholar would quote the passages of the Torah from which the mitzvah of a married woman's hair covering is deduced.

If we are to accept mitzvahs that seem to be beyond the grasp of human reason merely because they are "given to us by G-d" in the Torah, then, at the very minimum, we should insist that the mitzvah is unequivocally stated in the Torah.
Deborah
USA
March 8, 2016
Mitzvah?
Where in Torah is there a Mitzvah for hair covering?
Silah
Tx
March 7, 2016
Re;
Like all Mitzvos in the Torah, this is a Mitzvah given to us by G-d whose infinite wisdom is beyond our comprehension. We can give perspective and insight to make the Mitzvah more meaningful, but ultimately it is understandable that we will not be able to comprehend all dimensions of this Divine law and as such, we can not give “the reason” for the law.

From the details of the Mitzvah we deduce that 1) this law of modesty relates to a certain sanctity that only applies once a woman is married and 2) the covering need not be in a way that is unattractive, rather it is simply about one’s natural hair being covered.

Beyond that we can only suggest meaning. The author has given one particular perspective to understanding this issue. It sheds light on many dimensions of the Mitzvah, but also, as many of the comments suggest, also leaves some questions.
Yisroel Cotlar
Cary, NC
March 3, 2016
As someone who is an aylonit, a barren woman, I have chosen not to marry. However, I would like to still cover my hair, to signify myself as modest and unavailable to wed. Would this be acceptable?
Chana
March 1, 2016
First the author says that the purpose of a head-covering is to create "a psychological barrier, a cognitive distance between her and strangers." But clearly, if a woman is wearing a wig, so that strangers may not be aware that her real hair is concealed, the psychological barrier is experienced only by the woman herself. In effect then, the shaitel functions merely as a constant reminder to a woman that she is Jewish and married. Why must such a reminder take the form of a head-covering, instead of something less cumbersome?

If the true purpose of the head-covering is to promote community cohesion and marital fidelity, why is covering the hair incumbent only upon Jewish women?
Deborah
USA