THE PURPOSE OF THIS PAPER IS TO EXamine the practice of hair covering among Jewish women from a historical and cultural perspective. The topic deserves attention, particularly in light of the renewed observance of this practice among resurgent Orthodoxy and the Ba'alei Teshuva ("reborn" Jews) movement.(1) My interest in restudying the historical and religious sources of the practice was evoked by a stimulating halakhic exchange on the subject that appeared in Judaism.(2) Yet, modern halakhic studies tend to concentrate on the dynamics of legal issues, rather than the historical and social aspects of religious observance.
Our endeavor will focus instead on discovering how the custom grew, developed, and eventually became institutionalized in Jewish life. This approach will further elucidate the practice, since hair covering is not necessarily a matter of only halakhic interest, but, as we shall illustrate, is also subject to strong societal influences. The relevant Biblical and Talmudic sources, and their medieval and modern rabbinic interpreters, will be discussed from the historical and social point of view. Finally, some suggestions for reinterpreting this practice in light of societal changes will be offered.
Historians and anthropologists show that hair has diverse socioreligious and symbolic value in many civilizations.(3) Our interest, however, will be to isolate the meanings that hair has held specifically in Jewish civilization at different times in history. Nowhere does the Bible present an explicit command for women to cover their hair. Yet, because women in the ancient Near East, as in later Greece and Rome, veiled themselves when they went outside, one can assume that the custom probably also existed in ancient Israel. However, the function and symbolic value of hair in the Bible had little to do with the way Jewish customs developed in later centuries. Early classical rabbinic literature, namely Talmud and Midrash, presents an entirely different approach to the problem of hair covering. At that time, hair covering became not only a fashion or a custom, as in the Bible, but was objectified as a rule and regulation for women to follow as a religious obligation. Later rabbinic literature of the Middle Ages further reenforced women's hair covering as an integral part of Jewish religious observance. Only in the modern period was the practice seriously challenged as it faded from general societal convention.
Woman's Hair in the Bible
The Bible presents hair as an ornament, enhancing the appearance of a woman. The attraction of a woman's hair is poetically expressed in the Biblical Song of Songs: "Your hair is like a flock of goats from Gilead" (6:5). The Talmud not only regarded women's hair as beautiful, but as erotic; and for that reason it had to be covered.
Conversely, cutting her hair was a way to make a woman unattractive. The sole place in the Bible depicting a woman's hair being cut is in the laws of the captive woman (Deut. 21:12). After a period of one month, during which time she was permitted to mourn her family, the captor might then claim her for his wife. The fact that her hair was shaved at the beginning of her captivity, whether as a sign of her subjugation or as a part of her mourning, may also indicate to what extent hair was considered an adornment to women. The classical rabbis, including Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim, 8:5; see generally, J.H. Hertz's Edition of the Pentateuch, at Deut. 21:12), have suggested that cutting her hair made the captive less attractive to her captor, perhaps even with the intent that over the course of the month his ardor would cool and he would eventually let her go.
The practive of shaving a woman's hair upon marriage, while not directly influenced by this Biblical account, became prevalent in Central Europe and especially Hungary in the early modern period.(4) This shows that a practice which the Bible viewed as an aberration could be converted into normative religious ritual. …