Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Unveiling the mysteries of hair covering

This is my latest column from The Chronicle.

When I was first becoming acquainted with the Orthodox practice of married women covering their hair, I remember noticing that one woman I knew sometimes had her hair covered by a cloth head-covering, and other times wore a neat, chin-length hairdo with bangs.

It seemed odd to me that sometimes her hair was covered, and other times it was not. I later found out that her “uncovered hair” was in fact a wig.

Over time, I learned that there are many different customs related to hair-covering, concerning everything from how much of the head or hair should be covered, and in what places and circumstances, to the materials used – everything from scarves and hats to wigs, and sometimes more than one at the same time.

The variety of hair-covering methods is a reflection of different interpretations of halachah, outside cultural influences and personal preferences.

Hair covering is among the most difficult of Orthodox practices to understand and accept, and I sympathize with those who find the practice utterly baffling.

As an unmarried woman who, according to halachah, is not yet obligated to cover my hair, I also find the practice somewhat challenging.

The Torah does not offer a specific reason for hair covering, but in practice this mitzvah is primarily an expression of modesty.

There are opinions in halachah that describe a married woman’s hair as erva, a term that refers to “nakedness,” and indicates that hair has seductive properties. While that idea is difficult for the American mind to grasp – especially since this category apparently does not apply to single women’s hair – even our culture acknowledges the beauty enhancements of hair. Models, for example, generally wear long, luxurious tresses, and letting one’s hair down is a euphemism for relaxing one’s inhibitions.

Of course, wearing a gorgeous shaitel (wig) would not appear to be particularly modest, especially if the woman’s natural hair was not nearly as flattering. However, most women who wear shaitels manage to strike a balance between hair coverings that are comfortable and attractive and those that are unduly attention-grabbing.

In Judaism, when something is covered, whether a person’s body or a religious object, such as a Torah scroll, it is concealed not because it is debased, but because it is special. While halachah permits a married woman to uncover her hair in the presence of other women and immediate family members of either gender, her hair becomes something private and exclusive.

Covering one’s hair becomes symbolic of the idea that there are some things that are to be shared only between husband and wife.

In some ways it is the act of covering that makes the hair special. When something is covered it takes on an aura of mystery and it becomes that much more appealing.

A few years ago, a married friend of mine had a teaching job at a juvenile detention center. When her students realized that she was wearing a wig, they began badgering her to take it off, just once, so that they could see her hair. They were obsessed with seeing her hair, as though it had magical properties.

And that reminds me of another example of modesty. Many Orthodox women do not wear short sleeves and are careful to keep their elbows covered. The idea is that even a woman’s upper arms can be alluring, and the elbow is a good point of demarcation.

Of course, elbows on their own are generally not especially seductive parts of one’s body. A college friend of mine used to say that when she got married, she would roll up her sleeves and ask her husband if he found her elbows sexy. “Hopefully he’ll say yes,” advised another friend.

The first friend has been married for several years now. I once asked her husband what he thought of her elbows, and, in reply, he pretended to swoon.

I’m sure he feels the same way about her hair.


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