Crowning Glory, Halachos of Covering Hair

Crowning Glory

The Halachos of Covering Hair

Rabbi Nachum Sauer

There is a story about a rav from Israel who, some years ago, went to Russia to teach Torah. He gave a shiur, class, in Gemora to a group of Jewish men and women. The Gemora he taught was on Kesuvos, daf eyin bais, the source for a woman covering her hair. After the shiur, a Russian woman asked, “Is it really true, Rabbi, that a married woman is obligated by the Torah to cover her hair?” When he replied in the affirmative, she then asked him, “Does that mean that I must still cover my hair even if it means losing my job?” He thought for a few moments and remembered a responsum from Rav Moshe Feinstein. He told her, “Yes, you would still have to cover your hair . . .”

Two years later, the rabbi returned to Russia and again met this woman. She told him that when she had heard the shiur two years earlier, she had been the head of Obstetrics at Moscow General Hospital. She said she knew that if she started covering her hair, she would lose her position – and that is exactly what happened. They gave her a job as a janitor, sweeping and mopping the floors. But, she said, they still knew that she had the greatest expertise of any obstetrician in the hospital. Therefore, whenever there was a difficult delivery, the other doctors would call her in to consult, but they wouldn’t allow her to actually deliver. She was willing to be moser nefesh, to sacrifice her position, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of covering her hair.

A Torah Obligation

As mentioned above, a married woman must cover her hair min haTorah; it is a biblical obligation. But more than being a mitzvah, it is the hallmark of the Jewish woman. It emphasizes her role in klal Yisroel in terms of tznius, modesty. In a sense, what the yarmulke is to a man, a symbol of yiras shomayim – fear of heaven – the shaitel (wig) or the tichel (scarf) is to the Jewish woman. As the yarmulke symbolizes humility, so a married woman’s hair covering symbolizes tznius-modesty, an essential aspect of the role of the Jewish woman.

Of course, it is very difficult – and sometimes even dangerous – for us to give reasons for mitzvos. Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that we don’t know the reasons why G-d commanded a particular mitzvah. When we try to provide a reason, we may only fathom some, but not all of them. And, sometimes the many details of the halochoh don’t necessarily conform to the general reason that we have proposed. Nevertheless, it is still appropriate to attempt to gain insight into mitzvos, and in this particular instance, into the obligation for a woman to cover her hair.

Why Women May Wear A Shaitel (wig)

Many women have raised the question of why it is permissible to wear a shaitel (wig) since it may be more attractive than her own natural hair. We can safely say that the Torah does not require a woman to cover her hair to make her less attractive. A woman is encouraged to look beautiful for her husband. However, in the spirit of tznius, she cannot dress in a manner which would cause her to attract the attention of other men. Therefore, the purpose of the head covering, whether it be a shaitel, a tichel or a hat, is not to make the woman less attractive. One of the proofs of this is that according to some poskim, as we shall see, a woman is obligated to cover her hair even in the privacy of her home. So if the purpose of hair covering is not to make a married woman less attractive to other men, there must be a different reason for it.

Why A Married Woman Covers Her Hair

What, then, is the reason? And what is the purpose of a married woman’s obligation to cover her hair if she can wear a beautiful shaitel? It would seem that the obligation of covering her hair is for the woman herself. It is to make her realize that her role in Jewish life must focus especially on tznius, on modesty. This is the essence of a Jewish woman. This is her glory. As the posuk (Tehillim 25) says, “Kol kevodo bas melech penima” – The glory of the Jewish woman is penima, is internal. Her main focus should not be on external beauty. The Torah wants the Jewish woman to de-emphasize the focus on the physical. It does not want her to be less attractive, but rather to concentrate on developing her internal beauty – the spiritual beauty of mitzvos, of Torah and of midos tovos – good character traits.

There is a verse that we say in “Aishes Hayil” every Friday night: “Sheker hachain v’hevel hayofi, isha yiras Hashem, he tishalel” – “False is grace and vain is beauty, a woman who fears Hashem, she is the woman to be praised”. The Vilna Ga’on has a very interesting explanation of this. He says, “Sheker hachain v’hevel hayofi” – were beauty and grace our goals in and of themselves, then it is vain, then it is false. However, a woman who fears Hashem, “he tishalel,” is to be praised, not only for her fear of Hashem, but for her beauty as well. That is, when it is in combination with the proper midos, with yiras shomayim, external beauty is also to be praised. But when it becomes the focus and concentration of a woman’s life, then it is “sheker (false) hachain v’hevel hayofi.” There is a danger, though, that the chain and the yofi will become the focus. Therefore the Torah says that the hair covering of a married woman is a constant reminder to her of this lesson. That is, although a shaitel might be beautiful, women might still prefer to display their own hair.

Thus, even a shaitel can accomplish this purpose of shifting the focus from physical beauty to that internal, spiritual quality which is the essence of tznius. Why then is there a difference between a married woman and a single woman? The obligation min haTorah is only for a married woman, not for a single woman (and I’ll discuss this later in greater detail). But why the difference? A married woman has a greater obligation of tznius. This does not denigrate the obligation of tznius on every woman, including single women. But the greater obligation is for a married woman because she has to reserve her physical self for her husband. She therefore needs that constant reminder of the hair covering.

In America in the 1920s and the 1930s hair covering for women became a neglected mitzvah. There were even certain areas in Europe where it was neglected. Then after World War II, the Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust came to America and they, along with certain other segments of the Jewish population in Europe, revived the mitzvah of hair covering in the American Orthodox community. They also revived certain other mitzvos that had been neglected as a result of the tremendous nisyonos – the trials and tribulations – of Jews who lived in America 50-70 years ago. The whole climate in America was one of assimilation. As a result of that there were certain mitzvos that were neglected and hair covering was one of them. But today, shaitel machers, beret boutiques, and tichel sellers are alive and well all over America and are busy selling their wares. This is one of the many indications of the vitality of Orthodox life in America today.

The Laws Of Covering Hair

What are some of the halochos – laws – of hair covering? As mentioned above, a married woman is obligated to cover her hair mi d’oraisa, from the Torah. The source for this is a Gemora in Kesuvos, on daf eyin bais, 72a, where the Gemora says, that “rosha pruah d’oraisa he.”A married woman who uncovers her hair is violating a mitzvah d’oraisa, which we learn from the parshah in the Torah of a sotah.

A sotah is a woman who is suspected by her husband of infidelity, of having committed adultery. She has to be brought to the Bais Hamikdosh, the Temple, and there she goes through a procedure to test whether she is guilty of adultery. One of the things that happens is, as the Torah says “u’poro es rosh haisha”, her hair is uncovered publicly by the cohen, priest. And from there we learn, “Azharah l’bnos Yisroel shelo yaitzu b’pruah rosh” – there is a prohibition for a married woman to uncover her hair in public. Rashi, the great Biblical commentator, explains that since this woman is suspected of infidelity, she may have acted in a manner which violated the code of tznius. Therefore, she is to be disgraced by having her hair uncovered in public as part of her punishment and as part of the test to determine whether she actually committed adultery. So we see from here that hair covering is a mark of tznius, of modesty.

The Gemora says there that there are two halochos, laws, of hair covering. There is the “das Moshe” – the biblical commandment for a married woman to cover her hair in public. The second halocho is “das Yehudis.” Das Yehudis means either the halocho is of rabbinic level or it’s a custom that Jewish women have accepted. Therefore, the Gemora says that if a woman covers her hair with a basket – not a tichel or a shaitel, which is normally the hair covering – and goes out in public, she has still violated that das Yehudis, even though her hair is covered. This is because there might be some holes in the basket and a basket is not the normal type of head covering.

But for a married woman to cover her hair in public is a da’as Moshe. That is a clear cut statement of the Gemora. It’s a biblical commandment. As the Mishna Brurah points out, this halocho never changes. It is an eternal halocho that does not change based on trends or fashions of society. It is not a chumra, an act of piety, nor just a midas chassidus. Therefore, even if one lives in a society where many Jewish women do not cover their hair, that does not in any way negate the obligation of a Jewish woman to cover her hair.

Who Should Cover Her Hair

Who is obligated in this mitzvah of hair covering? A married woman has that das Moshe, the biblical commandment. What about a widow or a divorcee? They are also obligated to cover their hair; however it is a lower level of obligation. It’s not min haTorah, it’s not biblical; it’s only of rabbinic authority, the das Yehudis. Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked about this situation: a widow, who had to get a job to support her family, asked whether she could uncover her hair if she could not get a job due to her hair covering. Rav Moshe answered that under these circumstances, since the obligation is only of rabbinic nature, if the widow or divorcee would suffer great financial loss, and therefore has a tremendous need for this job, she would not be obligated to keep her hair covered. This would be so in the case of a grusha or an almuna – a divorcee or a widow, because the obligation is only rabbinic. However, in the case of a married woman, since it is a biblical commandment, she would have to cover her hair even under those circumstances.

The Obligation Of A Kallah (Bride)

The question is often raised about a kallah – a bride: at what point is she obligated to cover her hair? There are three different opinions among the poskim, the halachic authorities. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in the name of the Mahari HaLevi, says that a bride is obligated to cover her hair from the time the choson gives her the ring under the chuppah, and he says the words “you are married to me.” Therefore, according to Rabbi Akiva Eiger, since no kallah is interested in stopping in the middle of the chuppah to go out and put on a shaitel or a tichel, she would have to cover her hair before she goes to the chuppah.

A second opinion holds that a woman is obligated to cover her hair after yichud. After the chuppah is over and the choson and kallah go into yichud, into seclusion in a private room, from that point in time she’s considered to be a nisua and is obligated to cover her hair. Thus, according to this opinion, she would have to put on some kind of a head covering in the yichud room before she leaves.

The third opinion is that a married woman is not obligated to cover her hair until after the consummation of her marriage. Practically, that would mean not until the next morning.

These are the three different opinions in halocho. Each individual should consult a rabbi as to which opinion to follow.

Single Women And Hair Covering

A single woman, as mentioned above, is not obligated to cover her hair. However, there is one opinion of the Mogen Avrohom that although a single woman does not have to cover her hair, she cannot let her hair hang loosely; she has to braid it or cut it short. This is a minority opinion and is not generally accepted except in certain circles of chassidim.

How Much Hair Must Be Covered

How much hair does a married woman have to cover or how much hair is she allowed to expose? This is a major question and once again, there are three different opinions. I present the opinions here, but each woman must ask her rav to know by which opinion she should hold.

The Remah in Shulchan Orech quotes a Rashba that a woman has to cover all of her hair, except for the hair that shows near her temples which can’t be covered because it falls out naturally. However, it would be a problem if a woman allows her hair to show in the back and wears a hat that only covers the top of her head. Furthermore, where the minhag, the custom, is to cover the hair at the temples, a woman would be obligated to cover even that hair, based on the minhag hamakom, the custom of the place. This is the first opinion.

In the second opinion, the Mogen Avrohom quotes a Zohar, which is is extremely strict about hair covering. The Zohar says that a woman is not allowed to expose even one hair, and the Mogen Avrohom says that one should follow the custom based on the Zohar. The Chasam Sofer, who was a rav in Hungary 200 years ago, says that the custom in his country was to follow the Zohar. Therefore all of the hair was covered, even the hair at the temples. That was the custom in many areas of eastern Europe, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and, I think, to a great extent that explains why Hungarian Jews were so scrupulous about this mitzvah of hair covering.

 Editor’s Note: Third opinion is based on a false assumption of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling.  It has been redacted from this post.

To read the clarified heter from Rav Feinstein, a”h, please see this post.

Part Two

Covering Hair In Private And In Public

A married woman must cover her hair in public. But a key question which arises is, what about in the privacy of her home, or in her backyard when there are no strangers around? Is the woman obligated to cover her hair under those circumstances?

Rashi and Tosfos in Kesuvos both hold that mi ikar hadin-according to the strict letter of the law-a woman is not obligated to cover her hair in private, in her own home or even in her backyard, where there are no other men around. If, however, other men are visiting, she would be obligated.

However, the Gemoro in Yoma tells us that there is a higher level of tznius-modesty. Kimchis was a woman, the Gemoro says, who never exposed her hair to the walls, the rafters or beams of her house. She always covered her hair. And as a result of that, she merited to have seven sons who were all kohanim gedolim, high priests in klal Yisroel. It’s not obligatory for a woman to always keep her hair covered, according to this opinion, but it is a higher level of tznius, that extra measure of modesty that she takes upon herself. The Chazon Ish was one of the greatest Torah scholars and halachic authorities of the past generation. Someone once asked his mother, “Why is it that you merited to have a son like the Chazon Ish?” Her response was that whenever she washed her hair, she would have two women standing by her, holding a towel above her head so that her hair would not be exposed to the beams of the ceiling. This is an extremely high level of spirituality and of tznius. It is not expected of the vast majority of women, however.

There are many poskim who say that in a yard or even in the privacy of one’s home, a woman is obligated to cover her hair in front of her family members, including her children. These are the poskim who hold this way: the Bach, based on the Tur and the Rambam, the Bais Shmuel, the Smag and the Chasam Sofer, based on the Zohar. Just as the Zohar holds that one is not allowed to expose any hairs, it holds that one has to cover hair even in the privacy of one’s home. It seems that way from the Mishna Brurah as well. This is not just a midos chassidus, a special act of piety. According to these opinions, it would be an obligation.

The Bach, on Shulchan Aruch says that this was always the custom in klal Yisroel for thousands of years. Married women covered their hair in the presence of family members, in the presence of their children and certainly in the presence of other relatives, like brothers and even their fathers. Of course a woman is not obligated to cover her hair in the presence of her husband, even according to this opinion, unless the husband is davening, saying brochos, or learning Torah.

Hence, there is a major argument among poskim about whether a womanis obligated to cover her hair in her own home, the way she is obligated to cover her hair in public. However, there is a difference. In public, it’s a das Moshe, it’s a biblical commandment. If a woman would be obligated to cover her hair in private, it would only be a das Yehudis, of rabbinic authority, a lower level of authority. Each woman has to know the spiritual level she is on, and consult with a rav as to how she should act.

There is another halocho concerning hair covering that we learn from a sota, which is distinct from the mitzvah of a married woman covering her hair. That is the halocho of “sa’ar b’isha erva,” that the hair of a woman has the status of an erva. An erva literally means “nakedness.” The hair of a woman has a halachic status, just like other areas of a woman’s body which are normally covered. The halocho is that a man is not allowed to daven, say brochos, say krias shema, or learn Torah opposite a woman whose hair is exposed. That is because a woman’s hair is considered to be an object of beauty, just like certain other parts of her body which are normally covered. The fear is that when the man is involved in learning Torah or davening, he might have certain inappropriate thoughts. His total concentration must be on the sanctity of the Torah and the tefilla that he’s involved in. Therefore, this applies not only for another woman, but even for a man’s wife. Again, however, this is separate from the other issue of a married woman covering her hair.

There is an opinion of the Aruch HaShulchan which has been misquoted and misinterpreted in many circles and used as a heter (dispensation) for a married woman, to not cover her hair today. A grave error has been made based on this Aruch HaShulchan. The Aruch HaShulchan was a rav in eastern Europe who said that as a result of the secular enlightenment, a plague has spread that married women go out in public with their hair uncovered. “Oy lono sh’oso b’yomainu kach.” He bemoans that fact that it is a violation of the biblical commandment for a married woman to cover her hair. However, he says, that because this is the society we are living in today, a man may daven, say brochos and learn Torah in the presence of a married woman whose hair is uncovered because we are not afraid that he will come to hirhur. We are not afraid that he will come to inappropriate thoughts because uncovered hair is so common. That is the leniency of the Aruch HaShulchan.

However, the Aruch HaSchulchan himself bemoans this situation as a violation of the biblical commandment which obligates a married woman to cover her hair. Therefore, those elements in Jewish society that use this Aruch HaShulchan as a justification for not covering hair today are in error. It is a misunderstanding of the Aruch HaShulchan.

But there are many poskim who disagree with this Aruch HaShulchan-the Mishnah Brurah and the Chazon Ish, for example. They say that the halocho of “sa’ar b’isha erva,” that a man is not allowed to daven even in the presence of his wife when her hair is exposed-still applies b’zman hazeh. They hold that a man should close his eyes in order not to violate the halocho of “sa’ar b’isha erva.” However, this only applies to the hair of a married woman, not to a single woman who is not obligated to cover her hair.

What kind of head covering should a married woman wear? There are basically three types for a woman: the shaitel, tichel and hat. Here is a halachic review of each:


The hat is a good head covering if it covers all of the hair. The problem with many hats, though, is that they don’t. The hair slips out from the back, the sides and the front. Then there is the problem, based on many of the opinions that we discussed earlier, of how much hair a woman must cover. A woman certainly cannot let her hair fall down her back. Most of the poskim say that a woman has to cover as much as of her hair as is possible except the hair which a woman can’t cover, that falls out by her temples. This, then, would be permitted, except by the Zohar, which requires a married woman to cover all of her hair.

Tichels (Scarves)

Once again, we have the same issue. If the tichel can cover all of the hair, it is fine. The problem with a tichel is twofold, however: Sometimes the tichel slips back on the woman’s head exposing the front hair, and sometimes hair slips out. The snood, in contrast, is a very good hair covering. Snoods really cover all of the hair and do not slip back like many tichels do.

Shaitels (Wigs)

What about a shaitel? In halocho, a shaitel is called a “peah nochris,” a foreign wig, because it is not the woman’s own hair. The Shiltei Gibborim, the Remah, and the Mogen Avrohom all approve of a shaitel as a head covering, even though it might look like a woman’s own natural hair.  They approve of it for both of the halochos previously we mentioned: the obligation for a married woman to cover her hair and the halocho of “sa’ar b’isha erva,” to allow a man to daven or to learn Torah in her presence because with a shaitel her natural hair is covered.  [Editor’s Note:  This paragraph is not clearly understood.  Please read this article on why many poskim including the Shiltei Gibborim himself, did not clearly state that a “peah nochris” is a replacement hair covering.]

However, even though a shaitel fulfills the obligation of hair covering, one must wear a shaitel with a certain measure of tznius. A long, dramatic platinum blonde shaitel which attracts attention will technically fulfill the biblical commandment for a woman to cover her hair, but it will violate the general code of tznius. A woman wearing such a shaitel has made herself conspicuous and is attracting the attention of other men. This applies not just for shaitels, but for her manner of dress, speech, the way she walks, and the way she carries herself in public.

The shaitel has become accepted in all elements of the Orthodox community. The shaitel has two advantages over other head coverings. One advantage is that a shaitel usually doesn’t slip back like a tichel. It covers almost all of the hair. Another advantage of a shaitel is that a woman doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable in the secular world when she wears one. If a married woman works in an office, she has to mingle with Jews and non-Jews who wouldn’t understand why every day of the week she wears a tichel or a hat.

From the perspective of halocho, there is no difference between a synthetic or human hair shaitel. There is an interesting disagreement, among poskim, concerning whether a woman can use her own natural hair as a shaitel. That is, whether she can cut her hair, have it made into a shaitel, and wear it. The Pri Megadim says it would be permissible, but others say it would not be permissible.

There are, among certain groups of chassidim, those who wear two head coverings: Women wear a shaitel with a hat or they’ll wear a tichel. The reason for this is that there is one opinion among halochic authorities that does require two head coverings. That opinion, however, is basically not accepted in most of the Orthodox world. There are those who say that the netting inside the shaitel serves as a second covering. When a woman is wearing a shaitel in reality, she’s wearing two head coverings.

The Talmud at the end of Sanhedrin quotes a verse from Mishlei : “chochmos noshim bonsa beisa” -“the wisdom of a woman builds up her house”. The Talmud says that this verse refers to the wife of On ben Peles. On was one of the followers of Korach, who had a major conflict with Moshe Rabbeinu. Korach and his followers denied the leadership of Moshe. Whereas all of Korach’s followers were swallowed up by the ground as a punishment for their rebellion, On ben Peles was saved by his wife. How? Realizing that there was no purpose in his joining Korach, she gave him wine so he would fall asleep. Since she knew that Korach and his men would come to get her husband to join them in their confrontation with Moshe, she sat in front of her tent and removed her head covering. As they approached and saw her hair exposed, no man would come within 50 yards of the tent. In that way, she saved her husband. Apparently from the time of the beginning of the Jewish people, a married woman’s hair covering was considered to be an important part of the code of tznius of the Jewish woman.

As we have seen, hair covering is a mark of glory and distinction for a married Jewish woman. Once again, women should always consult a ravto determine which of the many halochic opinions we have reviewed here they should follow.

Rabbi Nachum Sauer is Rosh Kollel of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and Rav of the Beis Medrash Minyan. He is a member of the Bais Din – Jewish Court – of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC). Rabbi Sauer has lectured extensively on various topics in halochoh including Jewish medical ethics and business law.


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