Shiur 18: Head Covering

  • Rav Chaim Navon

I. The Source of the Law


            The mishna (Ketubot 72a) distinguishes between two grounds for divorce, both connected to inappropriate behavior on the part of the woman: violation of dat Moshe (the law of Moshe) and violation of dat Yehudit (Jewish practice).


A woman who treats the Torah's commandments lightly and thus causes her husband to sin violates dat Moshe. Examples would include a woman who feeds her husband food that has not been properly tithed or a woman who does not undergo ritual immersion after her monthly period. In contrast, a woman who acts in an immodest manner, even if she does not formally transgress a Torah prohibition, violates dat Yehudit. In both cases, the husband can divorce his wife without incurring the liability to pay the woman her ketuba.


            Among the examples of dat Yehudit, the mishna lists going out with an uncovered head. A woman who goes out on the street without covering her head violates dat Yehudit. The gemara questions this (72a-72b): Going out with an uncovered head should not be classified as a violation of dat Yehudit, as it involves a violation of a Torah law, placing it in the category of dat Moshe!


The gemara learns that this involves the violation of a Torah law from the law of a sota, a woman suspected by her husband of adultery. When there is a well-founded suspicion that a woman committed adultery, she must undergo a special process in the Temple. Describing part of that process, the Torah states: "And he shall loosen the hair of the woman's head" (Bamidbar 5:18). Chazal understood that this “loosening” means uncovering, and from here they learned that a woman's hair is normally covered: "This is a warning to the daughters of Israel that they should not go out with uncovered head."


If so, why does the mishna count this as part of dat Yehudit, among the customary practices of modesty that are not part of Torah law? The gemara answers that according to Torah law, it suffices if the woman covers her hair with her work-basket – that is, only partially. The woman referred to in our mishna is careful to do that, but she is neglectful of the rabbinic enactment that demands full hair covering. A woman who goes out on the street with her hair only partially covered does not violate dat Moshe, but she does violate dat Yehudit.


It should be noted that nowhere is it stated in this gemara that the law of head covering is limited specifically to a married woman. The context of the discussion is indeed divorce and payment of the ketuba (and a sota is, by definition, a married woman). However, there is room to say that just as an unmarried woman is prohibited to conduct herself in a vulgar and immodest manner (prohibitions included in dat Yehudit), she is similarly forbidden to go out with her hair uncovered.


There is, however, a different mishna that seems to indicate that unmarried women did not customarily cover their hair. The mishna in Ketubot 15b discusses the case of a widow who remarries. In such a case, the principal ketuba – the money that the husband obligates himself to pay his wife in the event of widowhood or divorce – is reduced. It is possible to imagine a case in which a couple divorce and the man and the woman then dispute whether this was the woman's first marriage or her second marriage, and, as a result, what sum the woman is now entitled to receive in payment of her ketuba. How is such a dispute decided?


Mishna: If a woman became a widow or was divorced [and] says: You married me as a virgin, and he says: Not so, but I married you as a widow – if there are witnesses that she went out on a couch and with her head uncovered [before her wedding], her ketuba is two hundred [zuz]. (Ketubot 15b)


            The mishna mentions two clear signs that it is a virgin who is getting married (as opposed to a widow): She is carried out on a couch and her head is uncovered. From here we see that it was customary for unmarried virgins to go out without a head covering, so much so that a bride who went out with her head uncovered is presumed not to have been previously married.


            The issue becomes more complicated when we consider another passage from Berakhot (24a), which opens with the assertion: "A handbreadth of a woman constitutes sexual incitement." "A handbreadth" refers to an exposed handbreadth of a part of a woman's body that is ordinarily covered. The gemara explains that this means that one is forbidden to recite "passages of holiness," such as the Shema, in sight of an exposed handbreadth of a woman's body, even if the woman is one’s wife (whose body one is permitted to gaze upon at other times).


            The passage continues and makes three additional assertions: "A woman's leg is a sexual incitement," "a woman's voice is a sexual incitement," and "a woman's hair is a sexual incitement." The Rishonim disagree regarding whether these statements also relate exclusively to the context of Shema or if they are part of the general laws of modesty but do not impose limitations on the possibility of reciting Shema. The simple understanding is that we are dealing here exclusively with Shema. This is for two reasons: First, regarding the previous law, that a handbreadth in a woman is a sexual incitement, the gemara reaches the explicit conclusion that the statement refers to reciting Shema. Second, from a substantive perspective as well, it is difficult to say that the law that a woman's thigh or a woman's hair is sexual incitement is connected to the general laws of modesty, for a man is forbidden to gaze upon a woman in order to take pleasure in her beauty no matter what part of the woman's body he is looking at. As the gemara states: "One who gazes at the little finger of a woman, it is as if he gazed at her genitalia." If so, what difference is there between a woman's leg or hair and any other part of her body?


This is indeed how many Rishonim understood the gemara. We will bring as an example the words of the Ravya:


A woman's leg is a sexual incitement, and similarly a woman's hair is a sexual incitement, [and similarly a woman's voice is a sexual incitement] – regarding all these, one is forbidden to recite Shema in their presence…

And all the things [mentioned above] as sexual incitements, they apply only to things that are not normally revealed. But as for a virgin who is accustomed to go out with uncovered hair, there is no concern, because there are no impure thoughts. (Ravya, Berakhot, no. 76)


The Ravya implies that the passage relates exclusively to the laws of reciting Shema, and not to the laws of modesty.


The Ravya also adds that the law applies only to a woman who regularly covers her hair – namely, a married woman. His position may be understood as follows: A married woman is obligated by Torah law and by Jewish practice to cover her hair. This being the case, her head is considered "a covered place," across from which one may not recite Shema when it is uncovered. This is not the case regarding a woman who is not accustomed to cover her head – that is, a single woman. Her uncovered head is not a place that is ordinarily covered, and there is thus nothing preventing a person from reciting the Shema opposite it.


The Rambam, however, does not accept the interpretation that explains the entire passage in light of the laws of reciting Shema. He codifies the law that a woman's exposed hair is a sexual incitement only in the laws of modesty, but not in the laws of Shema:


A person who looks at even a small finger of a woman with the intent of deriving pleasure is considered as if he looked at her genitalia. It is even forbidden to hear the voice of a woman forbidden as anervaor to look at her hair. (Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Bi'ah 21:2)


II. Head Covering for an Unmarried Woman


            Later in the chapter, the Rambam adds a novel ruling in this context:


Jewish women should not walk in the marketplace with uncovered hair. [This applies to] both unmarried and married women. (Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Bi'ah 21:17)


The Rambam rules that even an unmarried woman is obligated to cover her hair, against the plain sense of the mishna in Ketubot 15a that we saw above.


The Shulchan Arukh follows the Rambam's rulings regarding both matters – that the law that a woman's hair is a sexual incitement belongs to the laws of modesty and that the law regarding head covering applies even to an unmarried woman (Even Ha-Ezer 21:1-2).


The Beit Yosef (Orach Chayyim 75) writes that the basic law is in accordance with the Rambam; the gemara in Berakhot is not dealing with the recitation of Shema. This has a lenient implication, in that one is permitted to recite the Shema even if he sees a woman with uncovered hair. It is desirable, however, to be stringent regarding a woman's voice and her hair even at the time of Shema, in accordance with the other understanding of the gemara. Indeed, the Shulchan Arukh mentions the law of head covering not only in the laws governing modesty, as we have noted, but also in the laws of Shema, and even in further detail:


As for a woman's hair that is ordinarily covered, one is forbidden to recite the Shema opposite it. [The Rema adds: Even if she is his wife.] But as for virgins who ordinarily walk about with uncovered hair, it is permitted. [The Rema adds: And the same applies to those hairs of a woman that ordinarily stick out from their covering… And all the more so a wig, even if she ordinarily covers it.] (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 75:2) 


There is a clear contradiction between the two rulings of the Shulchan Arukh. In Even Ha-Ezer, he rules that even virgins must cover their heads when they are on the street, following the Rambam. In Orach Chayyim, however, he mentions that virgins customarily go out without covering their hair.


The Beit Shemuel (Even Ha-Ezer 21, no. 5) and the Chelkhat Mekokek (there, no. 2) distinguish between "unmarried women" and "virgins." In other words, when the Shulchan Arukh says in Even ha-Ezer that even unmarried women are obligated to cover their hair, he is referring to unmarried women who had once been married – that is, divorcees and widows.[1] However, single women who have never been married are exempt from covering their hair.


The Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 75, no. 3) resolves the contradiction differently: The law of head covering applies only to a married woman, whereas the prohibition to walk about with "wild hair," which the Shulchan Arukh codifies in Even Ha-Ezer, relates to wild hair in its plain sense. In his view, the Sages decreed that a single woman must gather her hair together and not let it fall wild.


The accepted practice follows the Beit Shmuel and not the Magen Avraham. Thus, a single woman is not obligated to cover her hair, but a widow and a divorcee are obligated to do so.


Rav Moshe Feinstein has a famous leniency concerning this matter. He was asked about a widow who could not find work because potential employers had reservations about her head covering. Is she permitted to remove her head covering at work? Rav Feinstein ruled that the Torah law of head covering applies only to a married woman, but not to a widow or a divorcee. For them, head covering is merely a rabbinic enactment, or perhaps even only a customary practice. Therefore, in a case of extreme financial difficulty in which the woman cannot find a way to support her children without removing her head covering, she can be lenient about the matter (Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer I:57).


Rav Feinstein later added in a different responsum that a divorcee can go about without covering her hair if that will make it easier for her to find another husband. Rav Feinstein added two stipulations: First, she must not deceive the man and present herself as a woman who had never been married. After her potential spouse becomes acquainted with her and begins to grow fond of her, she must tell him that she is a divorcee. Second, she may remove her head covering only in situations that are relevant for finding a spouse; she may not cancel the law of head covering completely (Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer IV:32).


Many widows and divorcees rely on Rav Feinstein's allowance, but it must be remembered that he himself defined it as an allowance that applies only in compelling circumstances. According to the basic law, even a widow and a divorcee must cover their hair, and even according to Rav Feinstein, whenever they have no special reason to uncover their hair, they are bound by the obligation to cover it.


It is difficult to view the law of head covering as one that is based on the laws of modesty, as according to most opinions, a single woman is exempt from this obligation, and we do not find leniencies for unmarried women in the realm of modesty. The law that "exposed hair in a woman is a sexual incitement" is not the fundamental source of the law of head covering, but rather only a second stage. After the Torah commanded that women must cover their heads, hair became – for those who are obligated to cover their hair – like a covered part of the body, opposite which one is forbidden to recite the Shema. But the basic law is not connected to that.


It is commonly said that according to the basic law, covering the head is a sort of sign for the woman that she saves her beauty for her husband. But at least according to Rabbinic law, we saw that the law was extended even to divorced or widowed women, for whom such a sign is irrelevant. It is possible that at least according to Rabbinic law, this is seen as the fitting and respectable way for an adult woman to dress.


III. How Much Hair to Cover?


We saw above that the Rema writes (following the view of the Rishonim) that one is permitted to recite the Shema opposite hair that ordinarily escapes from a woman's head covering. From here it may be inferred that there is no real obligation to cover all of the hair. This is indeed how Maharam Alshakar ruled (sixteenth century; Spain, Cairo, Jerusalem). He permitted a woman to leave a small amount of hair outside her head covering (Responsa Maharam Alshakar, no. 35).


We see from his responsum that there were different customs in different countries, and the issue even provoked controversy. The Zohar is very stringent about leaving any hair uncovered, and in its wake, the Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 75, no. 4) writes that this should be prohibited. The Chatam Sofer writes similarly (Responsa Chatam Sofer I:36). He bases his ruling less on the Zohar itself and more on the common practice, which sides with the Zohar. It is well known that the Chatam Sofer attached great importance to common practice.


Rav Moshe Feinstein (Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer, I, no. 98) sides with the position of Maharam Alshakar and attempts to give a precise measure of the amount of hair that may be revealed. He argues that by Torah Law, a woman need only cover the majority of her head. However, we see from the passage in Berakhot that to the fundamental law there was added the law that "a woman's hair is a sexual incitement." Since women were commanded to cover their heads and do so in practice, hair has the law of a part of the body that is covered. In the context of parts of a woman's body that are ordinarily covered, we find the measure of a handbreadth. From this, Rav Feinstein reaches the conclusion that a woman can keep uncovered only up to a handbreadth of her hair.


This comparison, however, is not entirely convincing. There are authorities who conclude that the law that a woman's hair is a sexual incitement does not belong to the general laws of modesty, but rather to the laws of Shema. And even in the general laws of modesty, the significance of a handbreadth is not completely clear (as one is forbidden to gaze at even a smaller part of a woman's body for the purpose of enjoying her beauty). Some authorities have proposed that there is a prohibition to gaze upon a handbreadth of a part of a woman's body that is ordinarily covered, even if not for the purpose of enjoying her beauty, but this point is the subject of disagreement.


In practice, I am not sure that the prohibition regarding uncovered hair depends on a precisely measured handbreadth. However, that measurement is a good indication of significant hair covering, defining the head as being covered. It seems that this is also the reason that Rav Feinstein sought to arrive at this measurement. This is also the practice of many women, and it is desirable to be meticulous about it. Of course, there is no need to measure hair coverings to the exact centimeter.


IV. In One's Courtyard or House


From the passage in Ketubot (72b), it would seem that a woman is only required to cover her head when she is out on the street. In her house or courtyard, she may walk about with her head uncovered. Although some have attempted to explain the gemara differently (Bach, Even Ha-Ezer 115), this is the plain understanding of the gemara and the Rishonim.


There is, however, a Talmudic source that seems to praise a woman who is meticulous about covering her hair even in the privacy of her own home:


Furthermore, it is told of R. Yishmael ben Kimchit [who was a High Priest] that he went out and talked with a certain [non-Jewish] lord in the street, and spittle from his mouth squirted on his garments [rendering him impure], whereupon Yosef his brother entered and ministered in his stead, so that their mother saw two High Priests on one day. The Sages said to her: What have you done to merit such [glory]? She said: Throughout the days of my life, the beams of my house have not seen the plaits of my hair. They said to her: There were many who did likewise and yet did not succeed. (Yoma 47a)


The closing words of the Sages imply that they questioned the explanation provided by Kimchit. Nevertheless, there are those who inferred from here that it is good for a woman to be meticulous about covering her hair even at home, and even when not in the presence of other men. To this we can add the words of the Zohar, which is very stringent about a woman covering her hair. Just as many learned from the Zohar to be stringent about covering the entire head, they learned from it to be stringent about covering the head even at home and in one's courtyard.


It should be noted that the accepted practice for generations has been to be stringent about this. So ruled the Chatam Sofer: "The rule that emerges: All hair anywhere on the head or forehead of a married woman, even in her room, is a sexual incitement" (Responsa Chatam Sofer I:36).


Although it would appear that in the time of the gemara, women were not meticulous about covering their heads in their courtyards, but only on the street, women have been stringent about this for many generations, until our very day. The reason seems to be that since a woman is meticulous about covering her hair outside, removing that cover in her house in the presence of strangers is deemed an overly intimate gesture. Of course, in the absence of strangers, the great majority of Jewish women do not conduct themselves as did Kimchit, and do not cover their heads in the privacy of their own homes.


It should further be noted that the propriety of a wig is subject to major controversy. The mishna in Shabbat 64b speaks explicitly of a woman who goes out into the public domain wearing a wig. The Shiltei Gibborim (no. 375) demonstrates that the gemara refers to a married woman who uses the wig to cover her head, and he writes that an allowance should be granted even to a wig made from the hair of that very woman. The Peri Megadim (Orach Chayyim 75, Eshel Avraham no. 5) and the Iggerot Moshe (Even Ha-Ezer II:12) rule similarly.


The grounds for allowance are mainly halakhic-formalistic, but it is possible to understand the logic behind it if we remember that according to its plain sense, the law of head covering is fundamentally not a matter of modesty. Some suggest another reason for the allowance: The evil impulse does not rule over that which is detached from the body (Responsa Yaskil Avdi VII, Even Ha-Ezer no. 16). The Lubavitcher Rebbe called upon women to wear wigs, as a wig provides full covering of the hair and a woman would never remove it from her head ("even if President Eisenhower were to enter the room"). Others, however, were stringent, including in our generation R. Ovadia Yosef, who virulently attacked the allowance to wear a wig instead of a scarf, hat or some other covering that does not look like hair (Yabia Omer V, Even Ha-Ezer, no. 5).


One last note before concluding: It would seem that by right, a bride should cover her head immediately following the chuppa (Sefardim) or the couple's seclusion (Ashkenazim). There might at most be room for leniency for Sefardim, who do not practice seclusion at the wedding; the bride should be exempt from covering her head until the couple seclude themselves in their home (Yabia Omer V, no. 62). In practice, however, leniency is followed in all communities. As a reason for leniency, one might add the factor that weddings take place inside, where by strict law, a woman is not obligated to cover her hair (although it is not clear that this allowance applies in a wedding hall, which is a public place). Some rely on the fact that the bride's veil serves as a head covering. But the main reason is that this is the old and customary practice, and since the law of covering the head is not a matter of modesty, it seems that we can follow the custom that a woman is obligated to dress in the manner of a married woman only after the wedding.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] The Acharonim disagree regarding whether this applies also to a single woman who had sexual intercourse without kiddushin (see Pitchei Teshuva, Even Ha-Ezer 21, no. 2).