Hide & Seek
Jewish Women and Hair Covering
By Lynne Schreiber
Urim Publications, 2003 and 2006, 224 pages
The practice of three generations ago of women covering their hair by a host of different ways has resurged in modern times. Lynne Schreiber, a journalist, collected the views of two dozen women and one man on whether they feel that hair covering is important.
The women give different, usually enthusiastic, sometimes humorous, but always interesting reasons why they do so. However, there is also one article by an Israeli woman who stopped covering her hair because she didn't want to identify with the negative attitude of many women who cover their hair about the State of Israel. There is also an article by a woman who hid her hair who is offended by the thought that she must cover up to stop males from getting sexually excited.
There is no evidence as to when this behavior began. It may have started sometime in the beginning of medieval times. It is not Jewish in origin; people can see pictures showing that Christian and Muslim wives also covered and continue to cover their heads, Muslims much more ubiquitously and Christians sometimes only in church.
There is no biblical command for head or hair wrappings, but those who seek a scriptural suggestion of it, refer to Numbers 5:18, which describes how a suspected adulterous wife is degraded. The verse states that the priest "must fara the head of the woman." The meaning of fara is uncertain. It could mean "uncover," "grow long" or "unbraid." Those who seek scriptural support say that fara means "uncover," and argue that since the priest degrades her by showing her hair, it is clear that a pious proper wife would have her hair covered.
The codes of law, including Maimonides' Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Arukh, state that wives must keep their heads covered, although Maimonides does not consider it a biblical command. Many if not most Orthodox women, including the late wife of the late famed Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, do not cover their hair.
Some of the women in this volume say that they observe the practice because they feel that it is a law, others recognize that it is a custom and give other reasons. Some women do so because their rabbi or their rabbi's wife said that they should do so. Some said that obeying this law stops them from disobeying other laws; for, they said, it is difficult, for example, to see a woman with covered hair eating non-kosher food. Others behave this way because this is how they were brought up, their friends do so, their husbands want it, or it links them to generations of past pious women. Still others prefer to conceal their hair because they do not like the looks or feel of their unruly mop, or fear the words of the mystical book Zohar that threatens women with harm to herself, husband and children if even a strand of hair is visible. One woman wrote that she feels that women are generally excluded from Jewish activities; now she has a unique practice that only women can perform. Others felt that hair covering cleanses them from sins or it is part of a pact that they make with God; I'll cover my hair and You, God, take care of me.
Some women hide their entire head and show no hair; others conceal just parts of their hair leaving bangs or a pony tail. Some insist on wearing wigs, called shaitels, that look as nice as, if not nicer, than their own hair. Some women feel that even if they wear a wig, they must overlay the wig with a hat. Others wear on a hat, don scarves, called tichels, or a snood.
A snood is a kind of net or bag placed over the hair. Interestingly, as with yarmulkes worn by men, there are many kinds of snoods and a person in the know could discern whether the snood wearer is ultra orthodox or just plain orthodox depending on how the snood is designed.
The practices differ in different communities and Ashkenazic and Sephardic and Chassidic wives behave differently, and there are also deviations within these groups.
The articles also discuss difficulties, such as the frequent, usually once monthly maintenance to have wigs reshaped, headaches and itching suffered by some wives wearing wigs, women who want to cover their hair and wear pants rather than dresses, and widows who covered their hair after their husbands' death and are unable to find a new husband because the men see the hair covering and think they are married.