Women Covering Their Hair – A Mekori Perspective

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

At the outset, I want to admit that what I put forth here is my own understanding of kisui rosh le-nashim (כסוי ראש לנשים – “headcovering for women”). As with nearly every subject, there will always be another who disagrees, but when one speaks his own view he cannot be divided. Honest and sincere study demands that one arrive at an honest and sincere conclusions. There are certainly other ways to approach the covering of women’s hair from a halakhic standpoint, but what follows is the approach that I have arrived at based on my own study and consideration – while standing on the shoulders of others – in search of “where hokhmah will be found and in which location is understanding” (Iyov 28:12, see Rashi there). My conclusions are consistent with those of several major Sefardi posekim and allow me to be intellectually honest about this topic, so I am not worried that I have somehow misled myself.

Hair Down 1The subject of women covering their hair when in public has been, and continues to be, a topic of intense discussion among both women and halakhists alike. Who is required to cover their hair? Where are they required to cover their hair? How much of their hair is required to be covered? What type of covering(s) may be used? What is the purpose of covering hair, modesty or some other consideration? Is it a matter of cultural practice or positively enacted law? Although these are all important questions, it seems that many of them elude any explicit explanation by Hazal. In fact, because the primary sources seem to be so sparse on the subject, the few statements which Hazal did make regarding kisui rosh le-nashim gave rise to a host of interpretations by the rishonim. What’s more, the actual text of the Gemara uses terminology that unfortunately caused some expositors – including the Rambam, the “Great Eagle” on whose wings many are carried out of the darkness of ignorance  – to turn an explicit statement of the Mishnah on its head, as will be discussed below, leading only to further confusion among later writers who referred to him.

It is my firm belief that the explanation put forth by the late, innovative, and intrepid halakhist, Rav Yosef Messas z”l (1892-1974) – Moroccan by birth and former rabbi of Tlemcen, Algeria and Haifa, Israel – cohesively explains all relevant texts and correctly contends that kisui rosh le-nashim is no longer a halakhic requirement in our times. The sole English translation of Rav Messas’ teshuvah on this subject is available for free download HERE. My understanding is largely based on his conclusions, but the majority of the analysis below is not covered in Rav Messas’ famous teshuvah.

However, before we discuss the conclusion, let us begin at the beginning.

The Mishnah – Dat Mosheh & Dat Yehudit

The entire subject begins with a short passage in m.Ketubot 7:4[6] that is as follows:

TEXT

אלו יוצאות שלא בכתובה העוברת על דת משה ויהודית איזו היא דת משה מאכילתו שאינו מעושר ומשמשתו נידה ולא קוצה לה חלה ונודרת ואינה מקיימת איזו היא דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע וטווה בשוק ומדברת עם כל אדם

TRANSLATION

“These are the women that are divorced (lit. “who go out”) without their kethubah payment: one who transgresses a matter of dat Mosheh or [dat] yehudit. What is considered to be dat Mosheh? She feeds her husband produce from which terumot and ma’aserot have not been taken, she has intercourse with him while she is niddah, she does not separate hallah, and she makes a neder and does not fulfill it. What is considered to be dat yehudit? She goes out in public and her head is uncovered, she spins thread in the open marketplace, and she speaks with any man who will engage her.”

As is clearly demonstrated from the text, dat Mosheh refers to the “religious practice” (the actual meaning of “dat – דת”) established by the laws of the Torah, and dat yehudit refers to the religious practices established by Jewish women. While dat Mosheh is never explicitly defined in the sources, dat yehudit is, as the Rambam states in Hilkhot Ishut 24:11[12]: “ואיזו היא דת יהודית הוא מנהג הצניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל – What is dat yehudit? It is the custom of modesty that Jewish women practice.” Rashi defines it similarly: “שנהגו בנות ישראל ואע”ג דלא כתיבא – That which Jewish women practice even though it is not written explicitly in a Biblical verse.” Lastly, the Tosafot HaRid defines it as follows: “דבר שאין בו איסור אלא שהנשים נהגות בו דרך צניעות – Something which is not connected to an actual prohibition, but women practice it as a part of feminine modesty.” But what is most important to note at this point is that the Mishnah places the uncovering of a woman’s hair in public (peru`at rosh – פרועת ראש) firmly in the category of dat yehudit and not in that of dat Mosheh.

Does The Gemara Disagree?

The attendant Gemara for the Mishnaic phrase “she goes out in public and her head is uncovered” on b.Ketubot 72a-b is fairly brief, but its terse and somewhat unclear phrasing has become the occasion for volumes of commentary since the era of Ravina and Rav Ashei (the original redactors of the Talmud Bavli).

TEXT

ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע:  ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא דכתיב ופרע את ראש האשה ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש [אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל – רי”ף] דאורייתא קלתה שפיר דמי דת יהודית אפילו קלתה נמי אסור אמר רבי אסי אמר ר’ יוחנן קלתה אין בה משום פרוע ראש הוי בה רבי זירא היכא אילימא בשוק דת יהודית היא ואלא בחצר אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה אמר אביי ואיתימא רב כהנא מחצר לחצר ודרך מבוי

TRANSLATION (INITIAL)

“What is considered to be dat yehudit? She goes out in public and her head is uncovered: An uncovered head is referred to in the Torah itself, and it is written, ‘And he uncovers the head of the woman’ (cf. Bamidbar 5:18). The school of Rebbi Yishma’el taught that it is a warning to the daughters of Israel that they should not go out in public with their heads uncovered. [Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shemu’el – girsa of the Rif and other rishonim], ‘According to the Torah, a kalatah (קלתה) is permissible, but [according to] dat yehudit even a kalatah (קלתה) is forbidden.’ Rebbi Asi said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘[While wearing] a kalatah (קלתה) she is not considered to have an uncovered head.’ Rebbi Zeira raised a difficulty, ‘Where [is the statement of Rebbi Yohanan applicable]? If we say that [he meant] in the open marketplace, then [we already have a statement by Shemu’el that] it is forbidden by dat yehudit, and if [he is referring to] a courtyard, then we will not be able to allow a single daughter of Avraham Avinu to remain married to her husband [i.e. since there is hardly a woman who covers her head while in her private courtyard]!’ Abaye said – and some say it was Rav Kahana – ‘[Rebbi Yohanan was referring to a woman going from] courtyard to courtyard by way of an alley.'”

Several interpretive issues and questions should stand out at first:

[1] NOWHERE in the passage does it mention dat Mosheh, but only dat yehudit. (The use of the term de-oraita will be discussed below, but dat Mosheh is simply not under discussion here.)

[2] Much depends in this passage on the definition of kalatah (קלתה). What is it?

[3] What does “according to the Torah” mean? Is it indicative of a law, or is it merely discussing the implications of the Scriptural passage in Bamidbar 5:18?

[4] Where is the description of the headcovering? The passage never discusses materials, how much hair needs to be covered in each context, or what a covering is supposed to look like. Wouldn’t Hazal have simply told us the answers to all of these pertinent questions, especially when matters of family life (i.e. divorce) is at stake?

[5] What is the meaning of “uncovered” (פרוע)? What does it mean when the kohen “uncovers” (ופרע) the hair of the sotah?

The Meaning of “De-Oraita”

Twice in the above passage, the Gemara uses the Aramaic phrase de-oraita (דאורייתא), generally understood to mean the same as min-hatorah (מן התורה – “from the Torah,” i.e. a Biblical law), but it can also have other meanings. The Sedei Hemed (4:19) demonstrates that there are numerous instances where the term de-oraita (דאורייתא) indicates something rabbinic in nature or that a law is merely hinted at in the Biblical text, using the passage as an asmakhta (“support” – i.e. a verse used as a mnemonic to remember a law, or to lend it Biblical credence, but not as the actual derivation of it). He writes as follows:

TEXT

Sedey Hemedh 4-19

TRANSLATION

19: de-oraita (דאורייתא) – We find that this language is used to describe matters that are not min-hatorah, but the Gemara only wants to say that it has a support in the Torah. This is what maran the Bet Yosef wrote in Yoreh Deah at the beginning of siman 184 (beginning with the words “And at the time…”) with regard to the rulings of the Tosafot, the Rosh, and the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Semag) with regard to the mandatory separation before the menstrual cycle, as determined by a woman’s veset (וסת), being de-oraita (דאורייתא) – see there. Our blessed teacher the Derishah writes similarly in Yoreh Deah (at the beginning of siman 183) regarding the opinion of maran (the Tur) that such separation prior to menstruation is “a law of the Torah…” – see there. We also find that maran the Bet Yosef writes in Orah Hayim 418 – at the end of the section beginning with “And the individual…” – that what it says in the Gemara regarding rosh hodesh, that it is de-oraita (דאורייתא), is only the Gemara wanting to say that its asmakhta is only hinted at in the Torah – see there. And look at the Shakh in Hoshen Mishpat 28:14 where according to both the author of the commentary known as Megillat Ester and the Shakh himself, there is a principle of Talmudic interpretation that when it says that something is “de-oraita (דאורייתא),” and is not saying so while asking a question, then it is possible to interpret it as indicating an asmakhta. Also the Afra De-Ara, in commenting the opinion of the Ara De-Rabbanan in 42:144, writes that what Rashi wrote on the Rif in tractate Beitzah (folio 37) that when it states that conducting business on Shabbat is “a Biblical prohibition” (isur de-oraita איסור דאורייתא) it is not necessarily so since it is clearly only rabbinic in origin and the Scriptural verse only comes to strengthen it. In Helek HaShitah 42b, writes in the name of the Mehazeh Avraham that he takes the position on the meaning of what Rabbenu Yonah writes in the third chapter of that Berakhot when he says that it is min-hatorah (“from the Torah”) that he wanted to say that it is hinted at in the Torah. And he concludes by admitting that this is a strained interpretation of Rabbenu Yonah, but that it is reasonable to appeal to this idea that “the Scriptural only comes to strengthen it,” since, being that it is explicit in the words of the Rambam that it is rabbinic in origin, we are comfortable in our opinion that the words of Rabbenu Yonah are in agreement with the reasoning of the Rambam – see there. And there is a further support for this in that we see that also the holy masters mentioned above are comfortable with this interpretation. And see what I have written in the second volume of this work in sections 115 (beginning with the words “And thus”) and 116. Regarding what is stated in the Gemara about melakhah on holo shel mo`ed (b.Mo`ed Katan 11b) where it says, “The laws of avelut (‘mourning’) are rabbinic, melakhah on holo shel mo`ed is Biblical (de-oraita דאורייתא),” There are those among the rishonim that maintain that the intention of saying it is de-oraita (דאורייתא) is to indicate that it has an asmakhta from what is written in the Torah [not that it is necessarily a Biblical law]. See Rabbi Eli`ezer of Metz in the Sefer Yere’im #113, the Hagahot Maimoniot on Hilkhot Yom Tov chapter 7, the Rosh at the beginning of tractate Mo`ed Katan, and the Tosafot on b.Hagigah 18, beginning with the words “The intermediate days…”

It is abundantly clear from the words of the Sedei Hemedh that the term de-oraita (דאורייתא) does not always indicate a Biblical law, but often refers to a rabbinic law that has an allusion within the Biblical text. Le-aniut da`ati, I believe that this is how de-oraita (דאורייתא) in the b.Ketubot 72a-b is properly understood. I am not alone in this, as Rashi there writes in response to the opening assertion that “An uncovered head is de-oraita (דאורייתא)” that “…[if this is so] then why did [the Mishnah] not call it dat Mosheh?!?” (72a). In other words, if going out with an “uncovered head” is Biblical in nature, then why didn’t the Mishnah list it under dat Mosheh instead of dat yehudit? Note this well.

We should hereby take notice of two things: [1] the phrase de-oraita (דאורייתא) is equated to dat Mosheh [at least possibly] by Rashi (the Rambam and other rishonim make this leap as well, as we will see), and [2] with the language of the Mishnah immediately available, why would the Gemara – if it desired to argue that covering the head was not dat yehudit – not simply say “It is dat Mosheh” instead of using the somewhat generic term “de-oraita (דאורייתא)”?

The Mysterious Kalatah

Much of the discussion around this passage of the Gemara hinges on the definition and identification of the word kalatah (קלתה), referred to three times. Rashi (72b) identifies it as a small basket used by women for carrying goods – mostly likely the Greek work basket known as a callathus. The Rambam identifies it as a mitpahat (“kerchief” – cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ishut 24:9). Other rishonim also identify it with some sort of cloth. This is most probably due to the reference of a “scarf” in the Tosefta being removed from the head of the sotah (see below), but this doesn’t necessarily make sense since the Gemara here in Ketubot is not discussing the sotah ritual at all.

What is the common thread driving these various identifications? Their relation of the Aramaic word kalatah to a root meaning “woven.”

There are several difficulties with these identifications, however, that occur to me:

[i] If it is a basket, then what does that have to do with the shaming of the sotah in Bamidbar 5:18? Does the kohen remove a basket from her head? Certainly not. Besides, the Tosefta in t.Sotah 3:1 specifically indicates that in those days the kohen removed a tza`ifah (צעיפה – a “scarf”) from the head of the sotah during the process, not a kalatah.

[ii] What are the descriptive parameters of such a basket, a scarf (צעיפה), or kerchief (מטפחת)? If kalatah was meant to refer to either of them, then why did the Gemara not simply use those terms?

[iii] If the assumption of a cloth or kerchief on the head is due to the implication of para` during the sotah ritual, as noted previously, and it may make some initial sense on its surface, but it requires an assumption of other headgear and perhaps even a series of garments by logical extension which are not even mentioned by the Gemara. This seems to be an overly-complicated solution to properly understanding the text of the Talmud itself.

Rabbi Ya`akov Reischer (1661-1733), in his responsa collection entitled Shevut Ya`akov (1:103), suggested a unique position, accepted by several major halakhists (including Rav Yosef Messas z”l), that kalatah (קלתה) means “braids” or “braiding.” He relates the Aramaic kalatah (קלתה) to the Hebrew keli`ot (קליעות). This identification makes sense in the context of the sotah, since the Mishnah says in b.Sotah 7a that “ufara` – and [the kohen] uncovers” means that “he undoes her hair” and Rashi explains “from its braids (מקליעתו) – as the Gemara will explain below.” (see 8a)

It seems clear, then, that kalatah here is a reference to the woman’s hair while braided and/or tied upon her head, apparently even without a covering over the top of them (e.g. a scarf, hat, etc.) This understanding of the word kalatah is also maintained by the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, ca. 1635-1682), as is referenced in the teshuvah of Rav Messas z”l on this topic, available on the website.

The Meaning of “An Uncovered Head”

It is seemingly taken for granted by most commentators that the meaning of word para` (פרע) is “uncovered.” This, however, is not true – or, at least, not completely. What the word means – both in Biblical and Rabbinic usage – is “loose” or “unrestrained,” and has the connotation of hair that is uncovered and unkempt.

Here are examples of Biblical usage with regard to hair:

[a] Vayikra 21:10 – The kohen gadol is not allowed to grow his hair “long” (and unkempt).

[b] Bamidbar 6:5 – The hair of the nazir is supposed to “grow wild” throughout the nezirut.

[c] Devarim 32:42 – Enemies described as having “long/wild hair.”

[d] Yehezkel 44:20 – The kohanim not allowed to either shave or let their hair grow “long/wild” (i.e. unkempt).

Examples of para` not in reference to hair:

[e] Shemot 32:25 – Mosheh saw that the people had “gone wild” or “become unrestrained” during the worship of the golden calf.

[f] Mishlei 29:18 – Without prophecy, the nation is “unrestrained” or “loose.”

In rabbinic usage, the meaning of “loose,” “unrestrained,” “unkempt” is maintained. Also masekhet Kethubot (15b), in the Mishnah there, discusses a virgin bride on her wedding day leaving her special canopy on the way to the huppah while “her head is ‘uncovered'” (roshah parua` – ראשה פרוע), signifying that this is her first marriage. Both Rashi and the Tosafot HaRid explain that this means that her hair is loose and “upon her shoulders.” They further explain that this is the custom of how the bride is when she is escorted from the house of her father to the house of her husband.

Rashi makes a blanket statement in b.Sotah 8a regarding the word para` (פרע):

TEXT

ופרע: בכל מקום לשון גילוי הוא

TRANSLATION

And he loosens: In every place it is the language of revealing.”

This is an interesting statement by Rashi, especially in light of his other explicit statements about the meaning of Bamidbar 5:18 to the effect that it means “to loosen [hair from its braids].” It seems clear, however, that para` in the context of the sotah implies the entire act of removing the covering from the head, revealing the hair underneath, and disheveling it so it is loose across the shoulders.

Putting It All Together

With the language clarified, it is now possible to suggest a more cohesive reading of the Talmudic text. What I suggest is as follows:

TEXT

ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע:  ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא דכתיב ופרע את ראש האשה ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש [אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל – רי”ף] דאורייתא קלתה שפיר דמי דת יהודית אפילו קלתה נמי אסור אמר רבי אסי אמר ר’ יוחנן קלתה אין בה משום פרוע ראש הוי בה רבי זירא היכא אילימא בשוק דת יהודית היא ואלא בחצר אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה אמר אביי ואיתימא רב כהנא מחצר לחצר ודרך מבוי

TRANSLATION (RESEARCHED)

“What is considered to be dat yehudit? She goes out in public and her hair is loose and upon her shoulders: Having her hair loose and on her shoulders is alluded to by the Torah, as it is written, ‘and the kohen shall loosen the woman’s head [of hair] from its braids [and let it rest upon her shoulders].’ And the School of Rebbi Yishmael taught that this passage is a warning to the daughters of Israel (i.e. Jewish women) not to go out in public with their hair loosened and unkempt. Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Shemu’el, ‘From the simple implication of the Torah, having her hair up and braided while in public is permissible, but according to the custom of Jewish women even hair while braided in also forbidden to be worn in public (i.e. the braids need to be covered as well with some sort of hat or kerchief).’ Rav Asi said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘While her hair is braided, we do not consider a woman to have infringed on the prohibition of having her hair loose (i.e. she cannot be divorced without her kethubah as described in the Mishnah).’ Rebbi Zeira raised a difficulty with this statement, ‘Where [is the statement of Rebbi Yohanan applicable]? If we say that he meant in the open marketplace, then we already have a statement by Shemu’el that it is forbidden by the custom of Jewish women, and if he is referring to a courtyard, then we will not be able to allow a single daughter of Avraham Avinu to remain married to her husband [i.e. since there is hardly a woman who worries about her hair while in her private courtyard]! Abaye said – and some say it was Rav Kahana – ‘[Rebbi Yohanan was referring to a woman going from] courtyard to courtyard by way of an alley.'”

So according to the Gemara, nothing – not a covering and not braids – is required either within a house or a private courtyard. Braided hair – as opposed to it being down and loose upon the shoulders – is acceptable when briefly going between private spaces via a semi-public thoroughfare. Another covering, presumably a scarf or a hat, is required by standards of modesty practiced by Jewish women. Although no garment specific is mentioned in the Gemara, it seems reasonable that Hazal assumed that the hair coverings used in each community by women – a practice that was nearly universal in the ancient world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa – would suffice to fulfill dat yehudit and thus did not require an explicit description.

This interpretation makes much more sense and requires the least amount of innovation an assumption on the part of the reader.

The Talmud Yerushalmi

The text of the Talmud Yerushalmi is often terse and uses unfamiliar language and terminology – this case is no exception. This is not to say, as is unfortunately common, that it should be disregarded or that it is not useful as a halakhic source (halilah). To the contrary, it is extremely valuable in a great many ways and for very important reasons. However, due to it being less-developed and less-studied throughout the centuries following its redaction, it often offers us less in the way of explanation than does the Bavli – but this is certainly not always the case. So, for the sake of being thorough and in order to properly honor the hakhamim of Eretz Yisra’el, we will briefly examine y.Ketuvot 7:6, which contains the following passage:

TEXT

וראשה פרוע לחצר אמרו ק”ו למבוי רבי חייה בשם רבי יוחנן היוצאה בקפלטין שלה אין בה משום ראשה פרוע הדא דתימא לחצר אבל למבוי יש בה משום יוצאה וראשה פרוע יש חצר שהוא כמבוי ויש מבוי שהוא כחצר חצר שהרבים בוקעין בתוכה הרי הוא כמבוי ומבוי שאין הרבים בוקעין בתוכו הרי הוא כחצר

TRANSLATION

“…and her head [of hair] is loose – This was spoken in reference to a woman being within a private courtyard, so all the more so (קל וחומר) should this be the case in an alleyway. Rebbi Hiyyah said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘The woman who goes out with her kaflatin (קפלטין), we do not considered to have transgressed the prohibition of having her hair loose in public [i.e. she cannot be divorced without her ketubah payment because of this].’ This is what you say with regard to a private courtyard, but in an alleyway we do consider a woman to have transgressed the prohibition of having her hair loose in public [i.e. even while wearing her kaflatin (קפלטין)]. There is a courtyard that is like an alleyway – a courtyard into which the public traffic breaks. And behold there is an alleyway into which the traffic of the public does not break and it is like a courtyard.”

Some differences – and possible similarities – with the sugyah in the Bavli are as follows:

[i] Whereas the Bavli uses the word kalatah, the Yerushalmi uses another word altogether: kaflatin (קפלטין), a word that may possibly be in the plural. Both the Penei Mosheh and the Korban Eidah explain kaflatin (קפלטין) with the word mitpahat (מטפחת) and the Arukh brings an opinion that it is Latin for hanging curls of hair and a pe’ah nokhrit (פאה נכרית) which, according to certain opinions, means a wig. The Me’iri, in his Bet HaBehirah on b.Ketubot 72a equates kaflatin (קפלטין) with the kalatah of the Bavli, which he views as being a kerchief (mitpahat מטפחת).

[ii] Rebbi Yohanan, if we assume that this is the same or a similar statement as the one attributed to him in the Bavli, is understood here to be giving the law for a courtyard, whereas in b.Ketubot 72a-b it is determined that he is giving the law for passing between courtyards briefly via a semi-private alley.

[iii] Perhaps the most obvious difference from the Bavli is that the Yerushalmi does not build its case from the parashah involving the sotah in Bamidbar 5:18.

[iv] The passage in the Yerushalmi ends by stipulating that the status of both a courtyard and an alleyway is subject to change on the basis of the amount of public traffic they receive. The Bavli makes no such stipulations.

Tzarikh Iyyun. (The matter needs further investigation.)

The View of the Rambam

Due to the magnificence and centrality of the Mishneh Torah to halakhah, and particularly to mekoriyut, we will now examine the view of the Rambam on this subject. And while I certainly do not believe, as is unfortunately the common conception in the Haredi-Hasidic world, that the Mishneh Torah is essentially a closed and incoherent work from which it is nearly impossible to perceive the position of the Rambam from Hazal on any given issue, in this case a complete understanding is, in some ways, truly difficult.

Completely elucidating the opinion of the Rambam with regard to the issue of kisui rosh le-nashim, dat Mosheh, and dat yehudit is not the most difficult task at hand, however, as he does clearly state his understanding of the law in plain language. The most difficult task in regard to the Rambam is ascertaining how he gets from the text of the talmud to arrive at his particular position.

There is neither need nor space here to go through all the details that comprise the breadth of the view of the Rambam – which would be a major undertaking all by itself – but there are two main points I would like to address here:

[1] First, but not entirely relevant to the main point of our discussion here, is that in the Mishneh Torah, “dat Mosheh” does not refer only to things which are min-hatorah necessarily, but also includes things which are rabbinic in nature (as the Rambam highlights in Hilkhot Ishut 24), yet they are nevertheless thought by the Rambam to be based on actual directives of the Torah itself. This ambiguity as to the definition of dat Mosheh – seemingly being composed of both laws that are min-hatorah and mi-divreihem – is perhaps the central reason for the difficulties present in the Rambam’s expressed perspective vis-à-vis the text of the Gemara in b.Ketubot 72a-b.

[2] Second, and most important to our discussion, is that while the Mishnah clearly lists “going out with an uncovered head” in the category of dat yehudit, the Rambam lists it under dat Mosheh (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 24:9[11]), creating an entirely different category for what constitutes a violation of dat yehudit, namely going out without a full-body cloak known as a radid (רדיד), which is analogous to the khimaar (خمار) or abaayah (عباية) worn by Muslim women (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 13:13; 24:11 and Shir HaShirim 5:7). His understanding of dat Mosheh is his perception of a requirement from the Torah for women to wear a headscarf called a mitpahat (מטפחת – cf. Hilkhot Ishut 24:9). So we can clearly see that the Rambam essentially relates dat Mosheh and dath yehudit to two different garments, each increasing in their level of coverage respectively. But it does not stop there since, as we will see shortly, the Rambam assumes the presence of yet a third garment.

It is my firm contention, and I am not alone in this reading of the Rambam, that he more or less draws lines between the text of the Gemara to the pieces of women’s clothing commonly worn in the Arab-Muslim world in which he resided. The section of the Mishneh Torah that bears this out most clearly is in Hilkhot Sotah 3:5, where he describes the shaming of the suspected adulteress as follows:

TEXT

וכל איש שיחפוץ לבוא ולראותה יבוא ויראה והיא עומדת ביניהן בלא רדיד ולא מטפחת אלא בבגדיה וכופח שעל ראשה כמו שהאישה בתוך ביתה

TRANSLATION

“…and any man who so desires to come and see her comes and sees her, and she stands among them without a full-body cloak (רדיד), without a headscarf (מטפחת) – nothing except for her clothes and the cap (כופח) which is upon her head, just as a woman is dressed while within her house.”

Headcoverings in MT - Table 3

Table 1.1

[Just a side note before moving forward: Whenever punitive “shaming” is mentioned in connection with Jewish jurisprudence, especially when it is a woman, it is important to clearly explain that it is always “measure for measure” (middah ke-neged middah). In other words, the person who is the object of the shame is first found guilty of shameful behavior. In the case of the sotah, it is not true that simply any jealous husband may simply subject his wife to the drinking of the mei ha-marim hame’orerim (“the bitter waters that cause curse” – cf. Bamidbar 5:18). She must first have repeatedly demonstrated the shameful and distasteful behavior of openly spending time alone with other men and talking flirtatiously with them, even after her husband has asked her not to do so. Without these prerequisite actions on her part, establishing her behavior patterns through valid witnesses, and having been properly warned – not only should he not make her drink the waters of curse, it is forbidden by halakhah for him to do so (cf. Hilkhot Sotah 1). Judaism is a system of order based on reason and law – it does not obsess itself with subjugating women and it does not indulge obsessively jealous husbands. דו”ק]

Headcoverings in the MT - Table 2

Table 1.2

Le-aniut da`ati, the claim that the Rambam assumed Arab norms of dress and modesty, reading it back into the Gemara, is incontrovertible based on this text.  The kupah (כופח), which is a small “cap” similar to what some Arab-Muslim women wear under their hijaab, is also mentioned as being part of the kesut (“clothing”) that a husband owes his wife according to halakhah (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 13:1). No reference to this garment or the full-body cloak (radid רדיד), however, exists in the words of Hazal.

Headcoverings MT vs Gemara - Table 4

Table 1.3

Ardent “Rambamists” must deal with this reality. It is incumbent upon them to admit that the construct – as presented in the Mishneh Torah and displayed in the tables above – is derived independently of Talmudic law and only alludes to it in a cursory manner. All of this is said, of course, with only the greatest respect and honor for the Nesher HaGadol, Rav Mosheh ben Maimon z”l.

Practical Summary

In response to the questions posed in the introduction:

Where were Jewish women required to cover their hair in the times of the Gemara? In the times of the Gemara, when it was the standard “custom of Jewish women,” they were only required to cover their hair fully in the public sphere (“the marketplace”) and partially – or perhaps just braided and not covered – in a semi-public place (“an alleyway”). And these places, if frequented by the public may also be places where it is required for a woman to cover their hair (Yerushalmi).

What type of covering is required? A type of covering required to be worn on a woman’s head is never specified by Hazal. Apparently there is a partial type of covering (or, again, more likely not a covering but a woman’s hair being braided), a mysterious object referred to as a kalatah. The required size, material, shape, etc. is never mentioned for the kalatah either.

How much hair needs to be covered – every single hair, most of it, part of it? The amount of hair required to be covered is never explicitly discussed in either the Mishnah and the Talmud.

What is the purpose for covering the hair according to the halakhah? The purpose for covering the hair was for modesty and propriety because it was “the practice of Jewish women.” Rabbi Yishma’el only says that the pasuk in the Torah regarding the sotah is only a “warning” (אזהרה – azharah), not an actual law. Neither the Sanhedrin nor any other bet din ever ruled on this. The courts only upheld the common practice of women, just as they upheld common practices when it came to hiring day-laborers and other halakhic matters tied to the cultural context of a particular place and time.

Jewish women covered their hair in the ancient world because it was the custom of women in nearly every culture in those times to do so. This is the reason why it was not necessary to make it a law in the Torah or for Hazal to make it a ruling. Since the Torah did not make a law, Hazal did not feel it was necessary for them to legislate every detail of feminine modesty, but only to enforce the sentiments of propriety for married women in that time. Since the cultural sentiment of modesty at that time included women covering their hair while in public, and that not doing so was considered shameful and lewd, Hazal entitled a husband at that time to divorce his wife, should she carry herself that way in public, because it was embarrassing. This would also have also been the case, according to the Mishnah, for women who carried on conversations with men who were not their relatives, but today since women and men talk normally in public, no bet din would grant a divorce without a ketubah payment for this reason.

Other things we know:

The covering of heir is listed by Hazal under the category of “custom” not “law” – the Mishnah explicitly calling it dat yehudit and NOT dat Mosheh. Placing it under “dat Mosheh” is a misreading of the Gemara by the Rambam (and those who followed him in his error) which was apparently motivated by Islamic cultural norms.

We also know that covering the hair is no longer “the custom of Jewish women” today. Nothing proves this more than the widespread custom of Haredi women to wear wigs in order to “cover” their hair. There is no difference, in either reality or halakhah, between a woman’s hair and a wig (a pe’ah nokhrit is not a sheitel, and notice that the Gemara here in this sugyah doesn’t mention one either – cf. GR”A, Shenot Eliyahu on Masekhet Shabbat 6:5). All that sheitels have proven is that even the most stringent sectors of orthodox Jewry are completely fine with women wearing a fashionable yet modest hairstyle today.

Finally, Who is required to cover their hair today? In reality, no one. Rav Yosef Messas z”l has written an unassailable defense of women no longer being required to cover their hair at all in modern times. A full English translation of his teshuvah can be downloaded HERE. He explains that since it was merely the custom of Jewish women tied to the broader context of feminine modesty in that time and place, since the societal norms have changed, so has the halakhah in this matter.

Final Thoughts

A great deal more could be written on this subject from the standpoint of halakhah, but perhaps more important is the over-arching religious philosophy connected to it. In other words, what are we trying to accomplish and what reality is before us? These are central questions that demand an answer.

When women are asked why they cover their hair today, they usually respond that it has to do with “tznius” (modesty), but when they are asked how wearing a wig – or even covering their hair in the first place – makes them more modest than the next woman who doesn’t, most women will respond that they do not think that a woman with uncovered hair is necessarily “not tznius” or immodest at all. Instead, they propose new definitions of modesty, such as “modesty does not mean being unattractive or hiding beauty” which of course cannot be true as this is exactly what the concept of modesty was in the ancient world, and to a certain extent it still is. In fact, the word for “modesty” (צניעות) comes from a root meaning “hidden” or “to hide.” Other times, women will express how covering their hair is a personal choice that helps remind them of their “submission to God.” This certainly a nice and meaningful idea, but really has no source in Hazal. Lastly, and this is especially true when discussing wigs, women often give kabbalistic reasons why they cover their hair. All of this is to highlight the fact of Rav Messas’ assessment that the status of women’s hair in our modern world has completely changed from how it was viewed socially in previous eras and in ancient times. Because it is not seen as anything other than a personal religious choice, one which no longer contains any real moral value – only social implications – new reasons for continuing the practice of covering the hair in public needed to be sought out.

This is the reality in front of us. And so the next question is: What is the goal given this reality? Is it to re-create the past? Is it to re-invent the rationale behind Jewish practices? Is it to pretend that cultural norms in this area haven’t changed? As I have said before, other than examining the halakhah honestly, which is the duty of Jews for any subject in Judaism, I do not believe that women’s modesty really even needs to be on the docket. I have never met an honestly religious woman who was not modest. Women already have an innate sense of propriety within moral cultures and so there seems to be little need for Jewish men to worry about it. Maybe this is why the Sanhedrin never ruled on this matter, but simply upheld “the custom of Jewish women” (i.e. dat yehudit)?

Kol tuv,

YB

3 thoughts on “Women Covering Their Hair – A Mekori Perspective

  1. “Elevated status in the Torah system is authentically achieved through humility, refining one’s character, and high moral and ethical standards.”

    Or, alternatively, elevated status is achieved through intellectual perfection, which is diminished due to the obsession with materiality you allude to.

    Either way, kol hakavod for your continued scholarship. I’ve printed out this analysis and will make this part of my yom tov limmud. Have a chag sameach!

    Like

    • לק”י

      Shalom, Alan.

      As usual, thank you for your comments.

      I agree with your sentiments whole-heartedly. Much of the elitism in the Haredi-Hasidic world is due to an obsession with money. But this is nothing more than a fulfillment of the wisdom of Hazal when they warned that one who does not have gainful employment combined with Torah study will, in the end, “rob his fellow creatures.” All of the humroth and fancy, silver-plated, velvet, embroidered, satin methods for fulfilling misswoth – and all while trying to make sure that all of your children do not have to work, etc. – creates so much intense pressure to gain access to money and possessions in any way that can be readily rationalized. HaShem ya`azor.

      I’m glad that you enjoy my work and I pray that it helps lead you to a place that you want to be. My only aim is to help.

      Hagh Sameah and best wishes for a great three-day weekend.

      Kol tuv,

      YB

      Like

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