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Undercover

A Woman's Journey of Understanding Modesty

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To cover or not to cover? That was my question for some time. When I was in high school, the thought of covering my hair after marriage was something I never thought I would do. My mother didn’t cover her hair and my sister-in-laws didn’t cover their hair. Then as I began college, this observance was something that no longer seemed foreign, something I actually contemplated doing one day.

By the time I got engaged to a rabbinical student in my senior year of college, to cover or not to cover my hair was no longer an issue. My circle of friends were definitely hair coverers, or future hair coverers, and I knew I would certainly cover my hair – though my reasons for doing so at the time were probably just as socially inspired as my reasons had been years before to leave my hair uncovered.

Covering my hair creates for me a new self-image

Before getting married, I bought two wigs from a lady in Woodmere, N.Y., a stack of berets on 13th Avenue in Boro Park, and despite the fact that I was so much more comfortable without something on my head than with, I proceeded to adjust to an unfamiliar appearance that stubbornly stared back at me each day as I looked in the mirror.

I recently celebrated my twelfth anniversary of covering my hair. It is second nature by now, part of my morning routine of getting dressed and ready for the day. My children think that I look funny when I don’t have my head covered, so accustomed are they to seeing me that way. As habitual as this observance has become, though, I find that I don’t take it for granted.

Time and maturity have given me more profound reasons for observing this observance than “just because my friends do” or “how will people judge me, my husband or my children if I don’t?” Covering my hair, like so many other observances that I observe, creates for me a new self-image. It reflects not an unfamiliar or uncomfortable appearance, but rather another step toward the ideal of the perfected personality.

Perhaps most importantly, covering my hair infuses me with a continuous message of modesty. At a basic level, the obvious definition of modesty certainly applies. Watch any advertisement for shampoo or other hair care products and it becomes dramatically clear how attractive and seductive a woman’s hair can, should, and is meant to be. And that which is attractive and seductive about a woman is, by the Torah’s definition, the private domain of the woman and her husband.

The goal of a woman covering her hair, or adhering to standards of modesty in dress, is not for her to make herself ugly; rather, the goal is for her to portray herself in a way that is not provocative. Who we really are, our inner essence, that which makes us truly unique and not just another pretty face, should be the image that we want to convey, and that image is best cast without highlighting the distractions – and trappings – of external appearance.

Modesty is such a fundamental concept in Judaism, and modesty in dress is only one small area of this dominant theme. A broader definition of modesty, and the charge to incorporate modesty as an underlying character trait, is found in the book of Micha, chapter 6, verse 8: “…what is good, and what does the Lord demand of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and hatzneah lechet im Elokecha, walk humbly, modestly, discreetly with your G‑d.”

The Hebrew word for modesty, tzniut, is derived from this verse. According to the Redak (Rabbi David Kimchi, a preeminent commentator on the Prophets), the latter part of this verse, hatzneah lechet im Elokecha, is a description of man’s inner relationship with G‑d, belief in G‑d’s Oneness, and love of G‑d with both heart and soul. This conviction and these powerful emotions are exclusive to the individual and to G‑d. No one else can really know how a person feels about G‑d in his or her heart, no matter how religious or irreligious the appearance may be on the outside.

Tzniut, the prophet is teaching us, is all about what is inside. What our values are, what we care about, what motivates us – this is what G‑d wants us to offer to Him and to humanity, purely, unadulterated by ulterior motives.

We make many choices in life. We choose professions, causes to champion, where to live, how to educate our children, what synagogue to join, how to dress. We should not make lifestyle choices based on how they will make us look in the eyes of everyone else. We should make these choices because they are good and proper in G‑d’s eyes and because they are simply the right choices to make. Walking modestly with G‑d means that we try to make the whole of our existence reflect a personal connection with the Divine.

There will always be others who can achieve bigger and better things than we can

Consider for a moment how liberating it would be to care only about what G‑d thinks of us. How much energy would we have to pursue really important goals if we stopped, materially, trying to keep up with the Jones’! How much more could we learn and understand if we stopped trying to keep up with the Schwartzes! How much happier our children would be if we didn’t shlep them from one extracurricular activity to the next, expecting them not only to win the trophies, but to get the best grades and win admission to the best schools.

Trying to keep up with, or outdo, others only begets unhealthy doses of stress and dooms us to fail because there will always be others who can achieve bigger and better things than we can.

On the other hand, being motivated solely by our relationship with G‑d and a desire to act in accordance with His will fills an individual with a sense of peace and contentment. True self-confidence can only be attained by a truly modest person, the one who does not need the fame, honor, recognition, or approval of others because inside, he or she ultimately cares about the only opinion that really counts.

Although both men and women are equally obligated to uphold the charge of hatzneah lechet im Elokecha, I believe that women in particular can relate to this concept of modesty. No matter how modern or how traditional a household is, the brunt of responsibility of running a home often falls on the woman. Even if she has a career and her husband shares the chores, she is still wife and mother, and for reasons that may be societal, genetic, or just plain unfair, that is the reality in most cases.

Ultimately, we must admit that the menial tasks involved in homemaking are worthy endeavors. Bringing to life and cultivating what will become our future and the future of the Jewish people is in no way insignificant. On a daily basis, however, cooking, cleaning, diaper-changing, carpooling, and all the other tasks we take on and carry out, can become less than glamorous, to say the least.

The difference between women who derive satisfaction from these tasks, and those who are miserable because of them, is based on a need for approval from a society that pays only lip service to the difficult, impactful and necessary work that women carry out vis-à-vis their homes and families.

Those women who care for their families because they see it as a significant and worthy endeavor won’t feel sorry for themselves when Western civilization doesn’t idolize what they do or value them in the way it would value a female lawyer or physics professor or CEO. If we are oblivious to what anyone else thinks, then we can be at peace with ourselves, knowing that all of the tedious tasks we do don’t go unnoticed by G‑d. This is a perfect example of what tzniut is all about.

True self-confidence can only be attained by a truly modest person

The Matriarchs of our nation – Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah – the paradigms of motherhood, are referred to as nashim ba’ohel, women of the tent. This description is meant as the highest level of praise for the modesty that was their trademark and crowning feature. Certainly, they were modest in the way that they dressed and conducted themselves in the presence of others. But perhaps the title – women of the tent – is not merely a description of where they spent most of their time.

I do not believe that staying indoors is what made our Foremothers such wonderful individuals. What made them so outstanding was the fact that their lifestyles and their decisions reflected their desire to do the right thing, to do what G‑d wanted them to do, not to please or gain approval from anyone “outside of the tent.” Sarah sent away Ishmael, and Rebecca encouraged Jacob to secure the blessing intended for his brother. Rachel refused to embarrass her sister, although it meant that they would have to share a husband, and Leah prayed that the son G‑d was giving her be given to Rachel instead.

G‑d testifies, with story after story, that the motives of our Matriarchs were always pure, that no matter how it looked from the outside, they were always seeking truth and justice. They led private lives and walked modestly with G‑d, yet they steered the destiny of the Jewish people. Being “women of the tent” did not prevent them from leaving their mark on the world.

In our generation, women do not stay at home in our “tents.” We have jobs, do volunteer work, teach, learn, socialize; in short, we are out there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t walk modestly with G‑d. When I put a covering on my head, it makes me aware that G‑d is above me and that whatever I set out to accomplish, I can do only with His trust and assistance.

Covering my hair helps me remember that I am not only about what everyone else can see. It is a daily reminder that the intensely private relationship between me and my Maker is so much more important than anything external. And it sends a very subtle, yet powerful, message that my connection with the Divine must be the basis of all of the choices I will make.

Yael Weil is the wife of Rabbi Steven Weil, leader of Congregation Beth Jacob in Los Angeles, California. They have seven children.
Reprinted with permission from Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering, edited by Lynn Schreiber, Urim Press.
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Anonymous March 29, 2015

Beautiful Reply

Anonymous August 21, 2014

I am not jewish but a real Christian and I started covering this year. I was lead by God to become modest. I love it and feel more beautiful than when I wore skimpy clothes. God is the only one I care what is thought of me. I am praying for headcovering to come back. Reply

Anonymous pittsburg , PA January 11, 2011

covering your hair it takes a little getting used to when you are young. it"not your beautiful hair swinging around. but wait till you get to be 79, you look 15 years younger with a sheitel.
young women should stop exagerating the LOOK. shorter can be more modest.
if it is tznius youre emphasizing. Reply

F New York, NY November 11, 2010

Well, I am having a great time in my cheap wigs Yes, a head-covering is like taking your "tent" with you, even when you are outside your "tent". It is like armor, it protects you.

The synthetic-hair wigs of today can be beautiful, natural-looking, lightweight on the head and cheap. They are wash and wear, need no re-styling. It is easy to do this mitzvah. Google knows where to order them. Get a medium or long bob style, at least eleven inches long at the back. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY August 12, 2009

To the med student in PA It is not an easy road you're traversing. However, the rewards are tremendous. Your husband might resist the steps you are taking to get closer to Hashem. Once he has joy from his children he will appreciate the sacrifices you have made. Please be careful not to pressure him in joining you. That will only send him running in the opposite direction. With the blessing that you are bringing into your home he will eventually come around on his own. I know it's hard and you want your husband to join you yesterday. By keeping the peace in your home you will only double your blessings. Know that Hashem is with you every step of the way. He is very proud of your efforts. Reply

Anonymous Otis, OR July 5, 2009

Today is Day 5 of covering my hair. I still feel a little nervous about it, but already have been blessed. A friend sent this Chabad article to encourage me. I appreciate very much what Yael Weil has to say. Here are some other thoughts which have inspired me: Blessings over mitzvot all begin, "Blessed you You HaShem our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments..." "You shall keep My decrees and perform them - I am HaShem Who sanctifies you." (Vayikra ch. 20, v. 8) "To sanctify" is to set apart, to differentiate, to distinguish between. People who live by the V'Ahavta, "You shall love HaShem ... with all your heart, soul, and strength..." are different both inside and out, including their words, actions, and appearance. "You will make known to me the path of life, the fullness of joys in Your Presence, the delights that are in Your right hand for eternity." (Tehillim 16, v. 11) "And your ears will listen [even] to a word spoken from behind you, saying, 'This is the path; walk in it...'" Reply

Anonymous oak park, IL June 9, 2009

to med student in PA As an ad once ran: you wont know if you don't go. As a physician, when I started covering my hair, my patients and colleges asked questions, but were surprizingly supportive. I talked to the docs I take call with, and again, amazing flexiblity and support. So I work all those christian holidays, and am off for mine. If I have to go to the hospital for an emergency on shabbos, I walk, and only write whats crucial. Go for it, Hashem will help make sure it all works out. Reply

Anonymous Philadelphia, PA January 26, 2009

con't if I cover, then residency programs will not hire me because they don't want someone who can't work on Shabbat. I want all these things, but somehow I dont know how to make them all fit into my life now. Being a doctor is so important to me, yet so is being a good Jewish woman. I always thought I would be able to do everything, yet now I come to find out that 1 or the other has to be lax, yet I dont know how to pick. If anyone has any suggestions, they would be greatly appreciated (both about the husband and the med school)... Reply

Anonymous Philadelphia, PA January 26, 2009

covering dilemma I was raised in a traditional Israeli family - Shabbat dinners, strict kosher, a deep love of Israel and Zionism. However, my mom did not cover or wear skirts and my dad did not wear a kippah all the time (but tefillin were a must every morning). I recently got married to a wonderful man who was raised very differently than I was - Reform. We have come together and decided how we would like to start our own family and have our own house. However, very recently I have started thinking that I would like to be more religious. I have started wearing skirts only (which my husband noticed but has not said anything) and I am contemplating covering my hair. The thing is, I dont think he would be very supportive at first. I know he is not ready to wear a kippah everyday, and would it look weird if I cover my hair but he does not wear one? I really don't know how to approach this subject with him. Also, I am almost done with medical school and am afraid that if I cover, (to be cont. I ran out) Reply

Malka Stern via chabadisraeli.net January 7, 2009

To the woman who complained Feeling sorry for people who don't cover, isn't the same as judging. The author probably has compassion on them because they are missing out on a deep experience like the one (or better) than she has. It's like if someone is missing a relationship, you still respect them. But you are sorry they don't have it.
Even if the person has a relationship, there are many aspects to that relationship. Reply

Anonymous August 26, 2008

When to cover? In response to the lady who feels not religious to cover her hair; We are taught to do each Mitzvah that we can as soon as we get the opportunity. This worls is like a wedding party. Grab what you can b/c it doesn't last forever. Don't let the voices in your head steer you from the path which you know to ultimatly be the true one. Certainly, keeping this Mitzvah will encourage you & give you strength to do many more. Good luck! Reply

Anonymous July 31, 2008

hair covering I've been toying with the idea of covering my hair, but I'm always saying to myself, "how can i cover my hair if I don't daven (pray)every day?", or how can I cover my hair if my sleeves are too short?". Shouldn't other things come before covering your hair? It makes a public statement about how frum (observant) you are. Shouldn't other things be done first before making such a statement? Reply

Anonymous hwd, fl July 1, 2008

I am a christian woman and I have yet to hear the topic of modesty in a woman so well put as you have. Whether jewish, muslim or christian, inner modesty in a woman is so important in keeping true what is important before G-d. It is very misunderstood by the world but yet so essential to our lives that we not live by what the others think or believe, but what G-d thinks and knows to be true in our hearts. I celebrate this act and hope that this would be the way we should all be. Reply

Anonymous March 10, 2008

please dont feel sorry for and thus look down upon those who choose not to cover their head. thank you Reply

Chaya Rivka CA March 12, 2007

I myself am still struggling with the "to cover or not to cover" question. As soon as I think I will, someone else's opinion or what society may think shoots me down. Thank you for your inspiring article- I am tired of concerning myself with what others think, especially when they are far from religious or even tznius. Reply

Anonymous December 18, 2006

Your artical is so amazing its so true I am muslim
and I agree with what you are saying as the concept of modesty its so true we are confused and ecouraged to be followers of those who want to keep us away from G-d however when we think about it If our foremothers could seek justice and truth and convey inner modesty in every aspect of their lives then we must rid ourselves of doubts and worry's and know that G-d is with us, I will most certainly take your words with me through life that ANYTHING which is attractive or seen as seductive is for the husband thankyou May G-d fill all our lives with peace Reply

Tina Texas November 26, 2006

Freedom I recently started covering my hair, and in that I have found a freedom beyond belief. I hold my head up high, and there are times that I even find myself feeling sorry for the women who aren't covering their hair. I feel tremendous blessings are given. It is a deep spiritual meaning that I feel is more than just being modest. It means so many things to so many people. It may take some time to come to the decision to do so, but once you do it is a release from the "ties that bind" sort of speak. I feel beautiful inside when I cover my hair. I find more respect when I am out of my home and in the public. And I live in an area where this is not a common practice. So what if I or Mrs. Jones covers our hair? So what if a man does not cover as modest? If you feel compelled to cover, then do it. You will be the one to reap the blessings. It is not for you to worry about what others are thinking or doing or not doing. That is not our job, it is to be what G-d wants us to be as a woman. Shalom Reply

Anonymous Bedford, NY via chabadbedford.com July 21, 2006

undercover we are what we were made to be - and "modesty" of one's self is how one portrays themself to be - not by design, but by soul. if one has to rely on props to better send a message, then the message need not be sent at all. If we do not have the courage to be what we were made then forever shall we hide behind the masks that man has made us believe we need to "be" ourselves. Why cannot men and women have the courage to represent their true selves and have the strength to show restraint and humility without having to have a physical intervention.
If I canot hold my own with what G-d gave me, then I do not deserve to be myself and I should live a life of conformity and give up on the very thing that made me, me. to cover or not to cover... that is the question. I choose mysel, and I have fatih in what G-d gave me to be myself, and I choose not to hide or compensate for that. Humilty is my nature - not my dress code. confidence is in who I am, not who I want you to think I am. Reply

Anonymous July 21, 2006

happy. Thank you. Reply

Sharla Grossman Louisville, KY July 20, 2006

Article Living in an area of the country where being an Orthodox Jew makes one somewhat an oddity, it is articles like this one that helps me keep my perspective as a head-covering, tznius-dressing, observant Jewish woman. This article helped put my true value back into perspective. Thank You. Reply

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