Married women in Judaism must cover their hair in public - Talmud

There is an undisputed halachic, societal expectation that married women cover their heads. This next installment examines Judaism's laws on married women's hair covering.

 WIG SALON in Jerusalem. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
WIG SALON in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

In my last two columns, an analysis of primary sources around women and hair covering was presented.

The biblical text of sotah was examined with a special focus on the word “para,” used to describe the uncovering of the woman’s head during the ritual.

In addition, the Mishna in Ketubot 72a was cited. In the Mishna, a married woman who goes out to the marketplace with a bared head is described as violating dat yehudit, in contrast to practices brought in the same Mishna that are defined as dat Moshe, suggesting a non-biblical violation.

Nonetheless, the Babylonian Talmud states unequivocally that having an uncovered head is forbidden by biblical law.

 STYLES ON offer at a Jerusalem salon for women’s wigs.  (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90) STYLES ON offer at a Jerusalem salon for women’s wigs. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Ketubot 72a

“And what is dat yehudit? One who goes out with her head uncovered....

“Going out with her head uncovered is forbidden by biblical law! as it is written: ‘And he shall uncover the head of the woman’ (Numbers 5:18). And the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: It is a warning to the daughters of Israel not to go out with their heads uncovered.”

“Going out with her head uncovered is forbidden by biblical law! as it is written: ‘And he shall uncover the head of the woman’ (Numbers 5:18). And the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: It is a warning to the daughters of Israel not to go out with their heads uncovered.”

Ketubot 72a

In his commentary, Rashi brings two explanations for the Talmud’s position that head covering is based on a biblical verse and is defined as d’orayta.

Rashi Ketubot 72a

“‘A warning [to the daughters of Israel]’ – From the fact that we disgrace her measure for measure, commensurate to her act of making herself attractive to her lover [by uncovering/loosening her hair], we can infer that it is forbidden.

“Alternatively, since Scripture states, ‘And he shall uncover/loosen,’ we can infer from this that at that time her head was not uncovered/loosened. We thus deduce that it is not the practice of the daughters of Israel to go out with their heads uncovered/loosened. That is the main explanation.”

In the first explanation, Rashi infers the prohibition from the punishment. Since her punishment involves the disgrace of having her hair exposed or disheveled in public, it can be inferred that her sin was of a similar nature, i.e., the act of exposing and/or letting down her hair for her lover. This explanation reflects a Tosefta passage cited in an earlier column.

In Rashi’s second explanation, the practice of head covering, classified as dat yehudit in the Mishna, is anchored in a biblical verse and therefore upgraded to a biblical obligation. In this reading, there is a synergy between the practice described in the halachic midrash Sifre, in which daughters of Israel did not go out with bared heads, and the act of uncovering (or loosening) that serves to humiliate the accused sotah. The biblical text is descriptive rather than proscriptive in this explanation, yet because the midrash halacha understands it to reflect the practice of the daughters of Israel, it ultimately becomes defined as d’orayta.

THE TALMUD continues:

“According to biblical law, a basket [kalata] is sufficient. However, according to dat yehudit, covering her head with just a basket is also prohibited.

“Rabbi Asi said that Rabbi Yohanan said: With a basket, there is no uncovered head!

“Rabbi Zeira discussed it: Where?

“If we say in the marketplace, this is a violation of dat yehudit. And if you say, rather, that he means she appears this way in her own courtyard, if so, you have not allowed any daughter of our father Abraham to remain with her husband.

“Abaye said, and some say that Rav Kahana said: From one courtyard to another courtyard or via an alleyway.”

The Talmudic statement that a married woman’s uncovered hair violates a biblical prohibition and the Mishna’s classification of the practice as dat yehudit seem to be in contradiction. The Talmud resolves this conflict by proposing that the Mishna assumed that women who went out were at least wearing a kalata, meaning a basket, on their heads, thereby fulfilling the mandatory minimum requirement for head covering according to biblical law. Thus, according to Talmudic reasoning, the Mishna had no need to raise the issue of the biblical requirement because it was obvious that all women would be wearing at least a basket. Following this logic, the Mishna refers only to the practice of Jewish women, defined as dat yehudit, to wear a secondary head covering.

Is the basket enough?

In later halachic discourse, the question of how much hair a woman is required to cover becomes a focal point among rabbinic authorities. The earlier Talmudic texts are far from conclusive with regard to defining a specific amount of the head or hair that must be covered. This is particularly apparent in the Talmudic discussion cited above where an argument about kalata ensues.

In his commentary, Rashi explains that the kalata was literally a basket with a receptacle on the bottom that was attached to her head and a receptacle on top to hold small accessories such as needles. It certainly could not have covered all of her hair! Nowhere in the Talmudic discourse around married women and head covering is erva mentioned as the reason for covering hair. The primary discussion in Ketubot relates to where a woman must cover her head and which type of head covering is sufficient.

The Talmud initially states that a kalata alone is perceived as a bared head according to the standards of dat yehudit, even though it fulfills the biblical requirement. In contrast, Rabbi Yohanan states that a woman who goes out with a kalata does not have a bared head. Presumably, Rabbi Yohanan’s position is that the kalata is sufficient to fulfill the requirements of dat yehudit.

The Talmudic resolution to this debate results in the following conclusion: The biblical requirement can be fulfilled with a single head covering like a kalata. This also fulfills the dat yehudit requirement in less populated areas like alleyways and between courtyards. However, in the marketplace, dat yehudit requires an additional head covering beyond the basket.

Most interesting is the brief conversation around a woman’s private courtyard. As cited, the Talmud concludes, “If so, you have not allowed any daughter of our father Abraham to remain with her husband!” In other words, it acknowledges that there is a “common practice” component to women’s head covering that must be considered when establishing Halacha. It seems that women did not cover their heads in their own courtyards, and it could not, at this point in the early halachic conversation, be required. Certainly, such behavior could not be grounds for divorce without a ketuba.

In short, public space requires greater modesty on the part of married women than semiprivate or private space. Regardless of the provenance of the obligation, there was an undisputed halachic and societal expectation that married women cover their heads when they left their courtyards.

In the next column, an analysis of hair and erva will begin. ■

The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.