Why is covering a married woman's hair part of Jewish modesty laws?

How did the concept that a married woman’s hair is ervah become a dominant part of the halachic discourse?

 The Sages asked Kimhit how she merited this and she answered, ‘The walls of my house have never seen the hairs of my head’ (photo credit: Suhyeon Choi/Unsplash)
The Sages asked Kimhit how she merited this and she answered, ‘The walls of my house have never seen the hairs of my head’
(photo credit: Suhyeon Choi/Unsplash)

One of the most prevalent informal explanations given for the halachic mandate of head covering is that, after the wedding ceremony, a woman’s hair becomes a type of nakedness, ervah, to be seen only by her husband, and associated with their sexual intimacy. In the previous columns, rabbinic texts were cited and analyzed regarding the practice of women’s head covering, yet nowhere in those discussions was hair referenced as ervah. So, how did the concept that a married woman’s hair is ervah become a dominant part of the halachic discourse?

Berachot 24a

“Rav Sheshet said: Hair in a woman is ervah, as it is written (Song of Songs 4:1), ‘Your hair is like a flock of goats.’”

The statement by Rav Sheshet that hair is ervah appears only once in the Babylonian Talmud. It is not repeated or referenced anywhere in Tannaitic sources or in the Jerusalem Talmud, and it does not lead to any further discussion. Although many sources indicate that married women covered their heads and wore hair ornaments and accessories, it is significant that none of those sources references Rav Sheshet’s statement that hair is ervah. 

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

Introducing Kimhit and the Zohar

Head covering based on dat yehudit (Jewish practice) does not specify that all hair must be covered. It also differentiates between head covering in private space and the marketplace. The 13th century Zohar makes no such distinction and introduces an unprecedented and uniquely stringent position in requiring that no hair ever be uncovered on the head of a married woman, even in the privacy of her own home. This position did not become normative immediately, but over the course of history its impact on Halacha is impossible to ignore and it gradually became presented as the ideal in more strictly observant communities. The inspiration for the Zohar’s stringent approach seems to come from the Talmudic passage about a woman named Kimhit, which appears in the Talmud as follows:

Yoma 47a

“It was taught in a Beraita: Kimhit had seven sons and all served as high priests. The sages asked her how she merited this, and she answered: ‘The walls of my house have never seen the hairs of my head.’ They said to her, ‘Many have done so without benefiting.’”

The response of the sages to Kimhit is startling. They are not impressed with her excessive piety, nor do they validate it by suggesting that all women behave in a similar way. Nonetheless, the Zohar is clearly referencing this passage when it requires that a woman must not allow even the walls of her house to see a single hair of her head.

In some hassidic communities, it serves to this day as one of the motives for completely shaving off a woman’s hair after her wedding, to ensure that there is never a possibility of protruding hair outside of her head covering

The Responsa of Maharam Alshakar 

Rabbi Moses son of Isaac Alshakar (known as Maharam Alshakar), who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries and served communities in Tunisia, Greece and Cairo, wrote a responsum about married women who uncovered some of their hair, in which he rejected the stringent approach of the Zohar as standard practice. Maharam Alshakar explained in his lengthy responsum that the definition of ervah depends largely on the behavioral norms of a given community. 

Nonetheless, there was a move in the following centuries in some communities toward greater stringency due to the ervah consideration. Notably, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as Hatam Sofer, who lived in the 18th century, wrote that while the Zohar is not Halacha, it has uprooted Halacha in firmly defining that women should cover all of their hair all of the time. While he conceded that according to Halacha as understood in the Talmud and Rishonim, the practice of women and how much they cover determines what hair is ervah, in fact, the custom based on the Zohar supplants the straightforward Halacha. This is consistent with Hatam Sofer’s attitude in general that custom ultimately determines Halacha, even if it replaces or uproots a more straightforward or earlier understanding of Halacha.

The Age of Enlightenment

The European Enlightenment brought about many changes, among them changes to women’s fashion. It became the norm in general society for married women to be seen in public with their heads uncovered and their hair loose. In Jewish communities, women began to follow the local fashions and stopped covering their hair after marriage. This posed a challenge to rabbinic authorities. Were these women flouting Halacha or should Halacha reflect the changed reality?

The Mishna in Ketubot (as outlined in an earlier column) referred to a woman’s obligation to cover her head as dat yehudit, meaning Jewish custom and practice. A man could even divorce his wife if she did not conform, but what if she uncovered her hair in conformity with what had become acceptable Jewish practice? Nineteenth century halachic compendiums begin to acknowledge the actuality of observant women uncovering their heads in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. One position that emerged in Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein’s Aruch Hashulchan in the 19th century was that although women have an ongoing obligation to cover their hair once married, the habituation of seeing women’s hair causes it to cease being ervah even when reciting the Shema! 

Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, author of Mishnah Berurah, in contrast, remained steadfast in his position that a married woman’s hair remains eternally ervah. In another part of the world, Rabbi Yosef Haim, known as Ben Ish Hai, in Baghdad, wrote about pious, modest women who uncover their heads, and he wonders if they are transgressing. He puts forth a justification for the defense of those women by equating their hair to uncovered hands and faces which do not cause any sort of sexual stimulation. Rabbi Joseph Messas in Morocco argued halachically that if women are uncovering their heads, then they have redefined dat yehudit, and thus there is no longer a transgression associated with a woman’s bare head. 

It is interesting that across the Jewish world, from Baghdad to Belarus and Lithuania, women began uncovering their hair following contemporary styles and acceptance among non-Jewish women. As we will see, there is a shift back toward obligation and ervah in the 20th century.

In the next and final column, I will end the series on hair covering with a look at the halachic discourse in more recent years and the interesting shifts that take place within communities of women around the practice.  ■

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