If you see a group of Orthodox Jewish women, you may immediately notice that all the women are wearing skirts, not slacks, and instead of long, flowing hair, their head is covered or they wear a wig. In traditional Orthodox Jewish culture, women who are married or have been married are required to cover their hair. In addition to a head covering, Orthodox women typically wear skirts and modest clothing that cover their bodies from neck to knee.
According to biblical law, hair is a symbol of beauty or even eroticism that is not to be seen publicly after a woman marries. Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair in a variety of ways; they wear a hat, scarf, snood, a kerchief -- called a “tichel” -- or a wig, called a "sheitel." Wearing a sheitel proclaims to the world that she is a wife.
What’s considered modest for women is determined by three different laws, the laws of Dat Moshe, Dat Yehudit and Minhag Hamakom. Dat Moshe refers to the “law of Moses,” the guidelines that came directly from the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish bible. The biblical text, scholars say, imply that it is disgraceful for a married woman to have her hair uncovered. Dat Yehudit is the “law of the Jewish woman,” and it refers to the accepted standard for modest clothing in the Jewish community in which the woman lives. Some parts of this law vary by time and place. For example, what was acceptable in medieval Spain has changed in today’s world. Minhag Hamakom refers to the "custom of the local place" in which the woman lives. Women should dress the same as other Orthodox Jewish women in their particular neighborhood or group.
The covering of hair wasn’t meant to make a married woman unattractive. In Jewish tradition, beauty is a divine gift, so women should use it wisely. By covering her hair, a married woman makes a statement to the world that she is unavailable, that her hair is for the eyes of her husband only. A wig, while allowing a woman to cover her hair, still helps a married woman remain attractive.
Most Conservative or Reformed Jewish women don’t cover their hair, or if they do, it’s only when they are in the synagogue. And even many Orthodox rabbis say that in the modern day, hair is no longer considered erotic since in modern society it’s rare to not see a woman’s hair; thus, it’s become ordinary. While some modern Orthodox women have rejected the idea of hair covering, based upon their own reading of the ancient sages and scripture, others favor a stricter reading and cover their hair. It is often the Yeshivish and Hasidic Jewish women whom we see today wearing wigs, while stricter Orthodox women shave their heads and wear a kerchief, called a “tichel.”
- Orthodox Judaism: All About Orthodox Jewish Women
- Chabad.org: Ask the Rabbi: Who Decides What Is Modest?
- Chabad.org: The Jewish Woman: The Meaning of Hair Covering
- My Jewish Learning: Hair Coverings for Married Women
- Jewish Virtual Library: The State of Orthodox Judaism Today
- Chabad.org: Texts & Writings: Chapter 4: Wearing a Sheitel
- Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News/Getty Images