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The Jewish Hijab – Halacha gets hairy

October 21, 2010 – 8:29 pm87 Comments

A sheitel

By Malki Rose

It is felt by many that a basic tenet of female modesty is that married women must cover their hair.  A woman’s hair, only when married is considered ‘ervah’ (‘nakedness’) -defined as ‘that part of the body which is not normally exposed’.

This idea comes from a section of the Torah (Bamidbar/Numbers 5:18), which speaks of how a Kohen (priest) was required to deal with a ‘Sotah’ – a woman who had committed adultery.

The Gemara (Ketuvot 72a & b) states that a woman’s hair being uncovered or undone is a violation of Torah law, based on the passage, “And he [the priest] shall ‘para’ the head of the woman” (Bamidbar 5:18) – and it was taught in the school of Rabbi Yishma’el – this is a warning to Jewish women that they should not go out with their heads ‘parua’.

However, this custom, and later law, has a problematic basis.

In what appears to be the only example of this anywhere in the Torah, the rabbis of the Gemara deemed ‘parua’ to mean ‘uncovered’. This is nonsensical, since in every other context the word translates as ‘unkempt’, such is in the situation of a Nazir, a Metzorah and an Ovel, all who grow their hair for weeks, months and years, and had it wildly ‘unkempt’.

A secondary problem is with regard to the Gemara’s ban on a woman’s “going out” with hair that is ‘parua’.

Rashi explains that ‘dat yehudit’ (Laws for a Jewish Woman) refers to those customs of modesty which Jewish women have accepted and practiced in their communities. A ‘dat Moshe’ refers specifically to violations of Torah Law, literally “Law of Moses”.

In defining a particular dat Yehudit, the Mishnah lists “yotz’a v’roshah parua” – “if she goes out and her hair is ‘parua’”.

It would appear that the ‘Sotah’ verse from Bamidbar serves as a warning that Jewish women should not go out with ‘rosh parua’, meaning hair that is ‘unkempt’ – NOT ‘uncovered’.

What we are privileged to witness in the Talmudic text, is the advent of a single sweeping assumption as a tenuous basis for what becomes a ‘dat yehudit’, It then somehow manages to last for over a 1000 years, well past the social expiry of the dat Yehudit. (Keeping in mind the definition of a ‘dat yehudit’.)

This ‘dat yehudit’ ostensibly functions as a ‘Gezeirah” or ‘preventative legislation’ intended to avoid violations of Torah based commandments. To publically humiliate a woman in this manner would have, presumably, been a wonderful deterrent and warning to other women not to commit adultery… or else. (So, we can certainly see why this custom would have been popular in a tribal, male-dominated society.)

On the basis of Bamidbar’s (quasi clear) process for publically humiliating a ‘Sotah’, the Talmud states that ‘we know that a woman must keep her hair covered’, when in truth what would be more accurate would be for it to say ‘we ASSUME that she always had her hair covered’.

From this rather large assumption came this single, whopping ‘dat yehudit’.

Rabbi Yishma’el, amongst others, deduces that covering of hair amongst women of Israel was commonplace, based on the habit of uncovering a Sotah’s hair.

Additionally, in much of the middle-east it was customary for married women to cover their hair, and it was assumed that it must be only a married women’s hair which ‘becomes’ ‘erva’ once she there has been ‘Kiddushin’ (sanctification) of the marriage commitment.

They also assume that the Torah’s suggestion to uncover/un’keep’ a defiled woman’s hair is because it is a deeply important and holy religious principle, rather than merely considering it something done during that era.

What we, in 2010, with the benefit of hindsight and historical reflection are able to uncover (pardon the pun) is that women in most other cultures of that time had their hair covered too, not just Jewish or Israelite women.

Initially, the custom was a pro-Canaanite, Akkadian, Babylonian and later Arab/Bedouin custom throughout the entire middle-east, and arose and evolved as an expression of male ownership of his bride. This of course explains why only a married woman’s hair was considered ‘erva’. Years later, a woman’s hair as ‘erva’ and the custom of keeping it ‘covered’ would come to be more spiritually expressed as a very important and meaningful stage of Kiddushin. (As discussed in both the Gemara Kiddushin and Ketuvot)

It also demonstrates why Talmudic scholars came to the conclusion, again post factor, that ‘parua’ MUST by demonstrated example mean ‘uncovered’, rather than ‘unkempt’.

By definition, Tzniut (modesty) in dress is that which is communally perceived as acceptable, and ‘datei yehudit’ are always relative to ones environment.

The ‘dat yehudit’ is up to us. If we want to create a taboo on women’s hair and extend what it is we as a community consider ‘erva’ as a post-factor justification for why we embrace head covering as a law, rather than just a custom, we can. And some do.

The question is not whether it is wrong or right to generate such a ‘dat yehudit’ in a modern society, but whether it actually has a valid basis or serves any function for the woman, for the family, the community and serves to add or subtract from the beautification of the commandment.

In other words, what is the strict purpose of the ‘dat yehudit’ and is its basis truly valid?

The Torah tells us that its keeping is to be “L’chol Dor” (‘for every generation’), so we have a responsibility as a people to ensure that the genuinely meaningful Torah and its accompanying traditions are not lost to silliness generated by potentially damaging and misguided ‘datei yehudit’.

A ‘dat yehudit’ can either be a fence to protect the Torah from damage, or a fence which sadly keeps the damage in. It can preserve the negative, and keep any helpful pro-biotics out – stuff which could help the “Etz HaChayim” (‘tree of life’) grow and flourish.

The custom or law or perhaps habit of head-covering has its roots so deeply and obviously entrenched in a tribal, Bedouin, female-oppressive, middle-eastern past of 2000 years ago, with too many post factor excuses to justify its validity that it cannot possibly still be a valid ‘dat yehudit’ which enhances the keeping of Torah “L’chol dor”. But rather it serves to place the keeping of Torah firmly in reverse. In the nonsensical and the tenuous.

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