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.]

Introduction

At the outset, I will admit that what I present here is my own understanding of kisui rosh le-nashim (כסוי ראש לנשים – lit. “headcovering for women”). As with nearly every topic of halakhah there are conclusions that disagree with my own, but when one speaks his own view he cannot be divided. Honest and sincere study demands that one arrive at an honest and sincere conclusion – as it says “a judge can only rule in accordance with what his eyes see.”

The subject of women covering their hair when in public has been, and continues to be, a topic of intense discussion among women and halakhists alike. Questions such as “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?” still seem to beset many women who grapple with the practice of kisui rosh today. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is that, although these are all important questions, many of them seem to elude an explicit explanation by Hazal. In fact, because the primary sources leave many of these points to the imagination, the few statements Hazal did make 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 what he had written.

After much study and careful consideration, it is my firm belief that the explanation put forth by the late, innovative, and intrepid halakhist, Rav Yosef Messas z”l (1892-1974) cohesively explains all relevant texts and correctly contends that kisui rosh le-nashim is no longer a halakhic requirement in our times. At the conclusion of his famous responsum, Rav Messas writes that “there is much more that could be explained in detail regarding this matter, but the time is not currently available for me to do so.” As such, the majority of the analysis below is not included in Rav Messas’ original examination of the topic but is intended to serve as an appended explanation of the primary sources which time did not permit the holy sage in his lifetime to expound. 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 the Mishnah (Ketubot 7:4):

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

“These are the women that are divorced without their ketubah payment: one who transgresses a matter of dat Mosheh or [dat] yehudit. What is considered to be dat Mosheh? If she feeds her husband produce from which priestly portions and tithes have not been taken, if she has intercourse with him while she is a menstruant, if she does not separate the requisite portion of dough for the priests, or if she makes a vow and does not fulfill it. What is considered to be dat yehudit? If she goes out in public while her head is uncovered, if she spins thread in the open marketplace, or if she speaks flirtatiously with any man who will engage her.”

As is clear from the text, dat Mosheh refers to “religious practice” (the actual meaning of “dat – דת”) which is established by the laws of the Torah, and dat yehudit refers to the religious practices established by Jewish women and is explained in this way by various Rishonim:

i. Rambam states in Hilkhot Ishut 24:11: “ואיזו היא דת יהודית הוא מנהג הצניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל – What is dat yehudit? It is the custom of modesty that Jewish women practice.”

ii. 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.”

iii. 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.”

What is most important to note at this point is that the Mishnah categorizes the uncovering of a woman’s hair in public (peru’at rosh – פרועת ראש) explicitly as 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” is found in b.Ketubot 72a-b and is fairly brief, but its pithy and somewhat unclear phrasing has become the occasion for volumes of commentary since redaction of the Babylonian Talmud.

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 a violation of dat yehudit? If she goes out in public and her head is uncovered: An uncovered head is referred to in the Torah itself, as 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*], ‘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 this statement of Rebbi Yohanan applicable? If we say that he referred to 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!** 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.’”

*represents the girsa of the Rif and other Rishonim

**i.e. since there is hardly a woman who covers her head while in her private courtyard

Upon reading the above Gemara, several important observations and questions immediately stand out:

  1. Nowhere in b.Ketubot 72a-b does it mention dat Mosheh, but only dat yehudit. In fact, the phrase dat Mosheh never appears in the Gemara of the entire tractate of Ketubot, whereas dat yehudit appears twice. The most natural assumption is that dat Mosheh is simply not under discussion here. (The use of the phrase de-oraita will be discussed in detail below.)
  2. A proper understanding of this Gemara depends on the identification 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. Why does the Gemara lack a description of a proper 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. Why wouldn’t Hazal simply explain what constitutes a proper headcovering, especially when matters of family life (i.e. divorce) are at stake?
  5. What is the meaning and scope of the word “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 indicates a concept that is either rabbinic in nature or that the law under discussion is 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). In his entry on the Aramaic term de-oraita, the Sedei Hemed writes as follows:

י״ט דאורייתא – מצינו דנאמר לשון זה על דבר שאינו מה״ת ור״ל שיש לו סמך באורייתא כ״כ מרן הב״י יו״ד רסי׳ קפ״ד ד״ה ובשעת וכו׳ במ״ש התוס׳ והרא״ש וסמ״ג דפרישה שסמוך לוסת דאורייתא עי״ש וכיוצא לזה כתב הר״ב הדרישה ביו״ד רס״י קפ״ג ע״ד מרן שכ׳ דין תורה וכו׳ עי״ש וכן מצינו שכתב מרן הב״י א״ח סימן תי״ח סוד״ה ויחיד דמ״ש בש״ס גבי ר״ח דאורייתא הוא  ר״ל שנרמז אסמכתא שלו בתורה עי״ש ועיין ש״ך ח״מ סי׳ כ״ח ס״ק י״ד דבין להרב מגילת אסתר בין להרמש״ך כי אמרינן בעלמא דאורייתא שלא בלשון תמיהא דאורייתא היא וכו׳ אפ״ל שהוא אסמכתא גם הרב עפרא דארעא ע״ד הרב ארעא דרבנן במ״ב אות קמ״ד כתב דמ״ש רש״י שבהרי״ף במס׳ ביצה דף ל״ז במקח וממכר בשבת הוא איסור דאורייתא לאו דוקא דהא ודאי אינו אלא מדרבנן ובמכתב לחזקיהו בחלק השיטה דף מ״ב ע״ב כ׳ בשם הרב מחזה אברהם שצדד לפרש מ״ש הרב רבנו יונה בפ״ג דברכות שהוא מן התורה דר״ל דנרמז בתורה ושסיים שזה דוחק וכ׳ ע״ז במכתב לחזקיהו דכיון דמבואר בדברי הרמב״ם שהוא מדבריהם תנוח דעתינו לפרש גם דברי הרר״י שיהיו  מוסמכים לסברת הרמב״ם עי״ש ויש סעד לזה דהא חזינן דרבנן קדישי הנז״ל ניחא להו בהני ועיין במה שכתבתי במערכת הבי״ת אות קט״ז (בד״ה ולכן) ובאות קי״ו וגבי מלאכה בחוה״מ דאורייתא יש מן הראשונים שפירשו דהכונה לומר שיש לה אסמכתא בדאורייתא עיין להרא״ם בס׳ יראים סי׳ קי״ג ובהג״מ פ״ז מהלכות יו״ט והרא״ש בריש מס׳ מ״ק ותוספות בחגיגה דף י״ח ד״ה חולו:

19: De-oraita (דאורייתא) – We find that this language is used to describe matters that are not min-hatorah, but only that the Gemara 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 respect to the rulings of the Tosafot, the Rosh, and the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Semag) in regard to the mandatory sexual separation just prior to the expected onset of 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, i.e. 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, it states 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 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, not that it is actually a law of 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 passage 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 the fact that we observe that the holy masters mentioned above are also 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 that 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 Maimoniyot 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 exposition of the Sedei Hemed 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. In my humble opinion, I believe that this is exactly how de-oraita (דאורייתא) in the b.Ketubot 72a-b is properly understood. In fact, I do not believe that it is possible to coherently read it in any other fashion, given the explicit wording of the Mishnah. Apparently, I am not alone in this contention, 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 a prohibition that is Biblical in nature, then why didn’t the Mishnah list it under dat Mosheh instead of dat yehudit? Note this well, as it is very important.

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 incorrectly make this leap as well, as we will see).
  2. With the language of the Mishnah immediately available, it seems incredibly unlikely that the Gemara, if it desired to argue that covering the head was not dat yehudit, would not just simply say something like, “The Mishnah is incorrect. It is dat Mosheh”? Instead the Gemara uses the somewhat generic term “de-oraita (דאורייתא)” and makes not mention whatsoever of a supposed recategorization of what is stated in the Mishnah with regard to haircovering in public. Not only this, but as noted above, the Gemara readily uses the cognate term dat yehudit not once, but twice.

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 Grecian work basket known as a callathus. The Rambam identifies it as a mitpahat (“kerchief” – cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ishut 24:9), and other rishonim similarly 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 in Ketubot since it is not discussing the sotah ritual at all. What is the common thread driving these various identifications? It seems to be their relation of the Aramaic word kalatah to a Semitic root meaning “woven.”

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

  1. 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. Additionally, the Tosefta in t.Sotah 3:1 specificies that in those days the kohen removed a tza’ifah (צעיפה – a “scarf”) from the head of the sotah, not a kalatah.
  2. What are the descriptive parameters of such a basket, scarf (צעיפה), or kerchief (מטפחת)? If kalatah was meant to refer to any of them, then why did the Gemara not simply use those terms?
  3. Assuming the presence of a cloth or kerchief on the head in b.Ketubot 72a-b due to an implication drawn from the use of para’ during the sotah ritual, inevitably leads to the further assumption of other headgear (and perhaps even a series of garments, as will be shown) by logical extension. Other headgear is not mentioned by the Gemara, and adopting such a line of reasoning seems to be an overly-complicated solution to enlist in simply defining a single word.

Rabbi Ya’akov Reischer (1661-1733), in his responsa collection entitled Shevut Ya’akov (1:103), suggested the unique position, accepted by several major halakhists (including Rav Yosef Messas z”l), that kalatah (קלתה) means “braids” or “braiding.” He relates the Aramaic word kalatah (קלתה) to the Hebrew word keli’ot         (קליעות). This identification makes natural 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 that “undoing the hair” means “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, referenced above in the introduction.

 

The Meaning of “An Uncovered Head”

It is seemingly taken for granted by many commentators that the meaning of word para’ (פרע) is “uncovered.” This, however, is not true – or, at least, not completely. What para’ clearly 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:

  1. Vayikra 21:10 – The kohen gadol is not allowed to grow his hair “long” (and unkempt).
  2. Bamidbar 6:5 – The hair of the nazir is supposed to “grow wild” throughout the nazarite vow.
  3. Devarim 32:42 – Enemies described as having “long/wild hair.”
  4. 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:

  1. Shemot 32:25 – Mosheh saw that the people had “gone wild” or “become unrestrained” during the worship of the golden calf.
  2. Mishlei 29:18 – Without prophecy, the nation is “unrestrained,” “loose,” or “disorganized.”

In rabbinic usage, the meaning of “loose,” “unrestrained,” “unkempt” is also maintained. Tractate Ketubot (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 a virgin bride wears her hair when she is escorted from the house of her father to the house of her new husband.

Rashi makes a blanket statement in b.Sotah 8a regarding the word para’ (פרע), which would seem to contradict a simple reading of “loose.” He says:

ופרע: בכל מקום לשון גילוי הוא

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

This is somewhat of an odd statement by Rashi, especially in light of his other explicit statements about the meaning of Bamidbar 5:18 to the effect that para’ means “to loosen hair from its braids.” It seems clear, however, that para’ in the context of the sotah ritual implies the entire act of removing the covering from the head, revealing the hair underneath, and then proceeding to dishevel it so it rests loosely across the shoulders.

Putting It All Together

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

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 a violation of dat yehudit? If she goes out in public and her hair is loose and upon her shoulders: The idea that it is shameful for a woman to have 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 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 is 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 ketubah 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.’”

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 in the times of the Gemara. Although no such garment is specifically mentioned by 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 any sort of explicit mention or description.

This interpretation makes much more sense and requires the least amount of innovation an assumption on the part of the reader. It also leaves the entire concern of kisui rosh le-nashim under the rubric of dat yehudit, which is exactly where it is placed by the Mishnah.

I will now examine the parallel section of the Talmud Yerushalmi and consider the opinion of the Rambam, as codified in the Mishneh Torah.

 

The Talmud Yerushalmi

The text of the Talmud Yerushalmi is often terse, using language and terminology which is largely unfamiliar to the student of the Bavli – and this case is no exception. This is not to say, as is unfortunately commonly the case among halakhists, that it should be disregarded or that it is somehow not useful as a halakhic source (halilah). To the contrary, the Talmud Yerushalmi is extremely valuable source and very important for many 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 (and in some cases no explanation at all) – 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, what follows is a brief examination of y.Ketuvot 7:6, which contains the following passage:

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:

“…and her 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). There is a courtyard that is analogous to 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 analogous to a courtyard.”

Some differences – and possible similarities – with the corresponding section of the Talmud Bavli are as follows:

  1. Whereas the Bavli uses the word kalatah, the Yerushalmi uses another word altogether: kaflatin, a word that may possibly be in the plural. Both the Penei Mosheh and the Korban Eidah explain kaflatin (קפלטין) using 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 some opinions, refers to 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).
  2. Rebbi Yohanan, if we assume that this is the same statement as the one attributed to him in the Bavli, is understood here as explaining the law for a courtyard, whereas in b.Ketubot 72a-b it is determined that he is giving the law for briefly passing between courtyards via a semi-private alley.
  3. 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. In fact, it makes no reference to it at all.
  4. The passage in the Yerushalmi ends by stipulating that the status of either a courtyard or an alleyway is subject to change on a case-by-case basis, depending of the amount of public traffic each receives. The Bavli makes no such stipulations.

Tzarikh Iyyun. (The matter needs further investigation.)

The View of the Rambam

Due to the historical centrality of the Mishneh Torah to halakhah, and due to the fact that many later halakhists and posekim have been influenced by the Rambam in their understanding of kisui rosh le-nashim, I will now examine his view.

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 clearly states his understanding of the halakhah in plain language. The most difficult task in regard to the Rambam is ascertaining how he arrives at his particular position from the text of the Talmud.

There is neither need nor space here to go through every detail that inherent in 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 which are directly relevant to this investigation:

  1. First, but not entirely relevant to the main point of our discussion here, is that in the Mishneh Torah, “dat Mosheh” does not only refer to things which are necessarily min-hatorah, 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 – i.e. that is not an exclusive reference to either Biblical or Rabbinic laws, but is used by the Rambam to designate both – 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), 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). The Rambam’s understanding of dat Mosheh is based on his own perception of a requirement in the Torah for women to wear a headscarf called a mitpahat (מטפחת – cf. Hilkhot Ishut 24:9). From this, it becomes clear that the Rambam relates dat Mosheh and dath yehudit to two different garments, each increasing in their level of coverage, respectively. But his derivation 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 reads articles of women’s clothing into the text of the Gemara, garments commonly worn by women 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:

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

“…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, without a headscarf – nothing except for her clothes and the cap which is upon her head, just as a woman is dressed while within her house.”

Neither the full-body cloak nor the cap are legislated anywhere in the Gemara as necessary attire for Jewish women. These garments do, however, directly correspond to Islamic attire in the 12th century. Only the headscarf mentioned by the Rambam has any basis in the Talmud, and this is only the case when one equates the kalatah or kaflatin of Hazal to a mitpahat.

The following two tables show the series of Islamic garments assumed by the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah, and their relationship to the text of the Gemara:

Table 1.1

Headcoverings in the Mishneh Torah as Postulated by the Rambam

Public

(dat yehudit)

Courtyard/Semi-Public Alleyway

(dat Mosheh)

Private

(inside the house)

Full-body Cloak (רדיד)

Headscarf (מטפחת)

Headscarf (מטפחת)

Cap (כופח) Cap (כופח)

Cap (כופח)

Sources:

Full-body Cloak (רדיד) – Hilkhot Ishut 13:13, 24:11

Headscarf (מטפחת) – Hilkhot Ishut 24:9

Cap (כופח) – Hilkhot Ishut 13:1; Hilkhot Sotah 3:5

Table 1.2

Headcoverings – Rambam vis-à-vis Gemara

Full-body Cloak (רדיד) Not mentioned
Headscarf (מטפחת) = kalatah (קלתה)?
Cap (כופח) Not mentioned

The assertion that the Rambam assumed Arab norms of dress and modesty, reading it back into his understanding of the Gemara, is incontrovertible. The kupah (כופח), a small “cap” similar to what many Arab-Muslim women wear under their hijaab (حجاب), is mentioned by the Rambam as part of the kesut (“clothing”) that a husband owes his wife according to halakhah (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 13:1), yet, as was mentioned previously, no reference to this garment or the full-body cloak (radid רדיד), however, exists in the words of Hazal.

As an aside, it would seem that is incumbent on ardent “Rambamists” to deal with this reality. To be intellectually honest, they must 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, if at all. 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 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., however, is never mentioned for the kalatah.

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 referring to the hair of 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.

The reason that Jewish women covered their hair in the ancient world was 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 formal ruling. Since the Torah only mentioned it without making it a law, Hazal did not feel it was necessary 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 socially 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:

  1. The covering of hair by women is specifically listed by Hazal under the category of “custom” and 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.
  2. We also know that covering the hair can no longer be considered “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. (Important note: a pe’ah nokhrit is not a sheitel, and notice that the Gemara in doesn’t mention one either – cf. Gra, Shenot Eliyahu on Shabbat 6:5). The only fact that the widespread use of sheitels has proven is that even the most stringent sectors of orthodox Jewry have no social objection to women wearing a fashionable yet modest hairstyle in public.

Who is required to cover their hair today?

In reality, no one. As mentioned in the introduction, Rav Yosef Messas z”l has written an unassailable defense of women no longer being required to cover their hair in modern times. A full English translation of his teshuvah is appended to this essay. In it he explains that since covering the hair was merely a custom of Jewish women which was tied to the broader context of feminine modesty in that time and place, and since the societal norms have changed, the halakhah has also changed in this matter – uprooting and nullifying the previous practice.

Final Thoughts

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

When women today are asked why they cover their hair, they usually respond that it has little or nothing to do with actual “tznius” (modesty). When 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, many women will respond that they don’t think that a woman with uncovered hair is acting less modestly at all. Instead,  out of a human need to have one’s deeds be meaningful, 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 such that it guards their husband and children from calamity or poverty. All of this serves to highlight the astuteness of Rav Messas’ observation 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, and one which no longer contains any real moral value (only social implications), new reasons for continuing the practice of covering the hair in public were to be sought out.

The next question should be: What is the goal given that this is the reality before us? Is the ultimate goal a recreation of the past? Is it to re-invent the original rationale behind Jewish practices? Is it to somehow 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 given topic of Jewish law and tradition, I do not believe that women’s modesty really even needs to be on the halakhic docket. The reason I say this is that never in my life have I met an honestly religious woman who was not generally modest in either deportment or attire. 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. Perhaps this is why the Sanhedrin never formally ruled on this matter, but simply chose to uphold “the custom of Jewish women.”

With sincerity of heart according to what my eyes have seen,

Yehudah Barukh Ilan

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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