It appears that women in ancient Israel generally grew their hair long and let it fall down to their shoulders. Isaiah's description of the hairstyles of the women of Jerusalem indicates that they also wore it gathered, or in plaits as gathered and rolled into a knot at the back of the head, or in plaits (Mesopotamian style).[1] At the same time, it was customary in biblical times for women to cover their heads with veils or scarfs, as a sign of chastity and modesty, The unveiling of a woman's hair was considered a humiliation and punishment (as in the case of adultery).[2]

The custom compelling Jewish women to cover their hair on all is described in the Mishnah as a "Jewish Ordinance"; if a woman walked bareheaded in the street, her husband could divorce her without repaying her dowry.[3] Later on, the custom was explained by a reference to Numbers 5:18, "And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and let the hair of the woman's head go loose."[4] This injunction was held to imply that in ordinary circumstances the Hebrew woman covered her hair.

According to the Mishanic injunction, girls did not have to cover their hair until the wedding ceremony; indeed, if a Jewish girl went with uncovered head, it was presumptive evidence that she was unmarried.[5] It later become common in many Sephardi communities for unmarried girls to cover their hair as well, possibly under influence of Moslem custom.

What may at first have been a modest etiquette grew into a scrupulous rule. Some aggadic sources began to interpret this custom as a sign of woman's shame and feeling of guilt for Eve's sin,[6] while the rabbis compared exposure of a married woman's hair to the exposure of her privy parts (and forbid the recital of any blessing in the presence of a bareheaded woman).[7]

>While more pious women took care not to uncover their hair even in the house, the general custom in the late Middle Ages was to appear in public, and in the presence of strange men, with covered hair.[8]

Toward the end of the 18th century some circles of East European women began to wear a wig (shaytl). Many religious authorities protested against this "innovation," viewing it as a sign of assimilation, and pointing to the nuns as worthy of imitation by the daughters of Israel.[9] The women persisted nonetheless, and the wig has become common attire in many orthodox circles.

In modern times, only the strictly Orthodox insist on women covering their hair all the time. It remains the practice in most Orthodox, and in many non-Orthodox congregations, for women to cover their hair in synagogue.

[1] Isaiah 3:24 [back]
[2] Isa, 3: 17: Num, 5:18; III Macc, 4:6; and Sus, 32 [back]
[3] Mishnah Ketubbot 7:6; B. Kamma 8:6 [back]
[4] BT Ketubbot 72a; Sifre 1:2 [back]
[5] Mishnah Ketubbot 2:1,10; BT Berakhot 24a [back]
[6] Gen, R, 17:8; Er, 100b and Rashi; Paul in I Cor, II: I 16 [back]
[7] Ber 24a [back]
[8] Shulkhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) EH 21: 2 [back]
[9] Moses Sofer, Samuel Katznellenogen [back]

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