Hair Wars

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For the past few decades, married women covering their hair has attained a meaning beyond the halakhic obligation. It has become a sign of increased religious observance particularly among the young, rejection of parental modeling, a shift to the right. This significance adds layers of meaning to discussions that might seem purely halakhic.

R. Michael J. Broyde has dedicated many articles to exploring the startling theory that many authorities of the past would not have required married women to cover their hair in a society, such as today’s Western world, where married women regularly walk around with revealed hair. This approach cuts against the grain of accepted wisdom. It not only contradicts the conclusion of all contemporary literature, it disputes the essentially universal understanding of the sources by anyone approaching the subject. But is R. Broyde wrong?

In a recent issue of the journal Tradition, R. Broyde presented an extended argument of his position (link). In the latest issue, R. Eli Shulman critiques that presentation extensively, to which R. Broyde responds at length. The entire exchange can be found here: link.

Who is right? A few years ago, I spent many hours carefully going through R. Broyde’s arguments and concluded that, in my opinion, he is incorrect. To offer a critique now, however, I would have to spend even more time combing through his latest article on the subject, an effort for which I currently lack the stamina. The issue is complex because the subject contains many moving pieces. It involves terms that lack precise definitions, which leads different authorities to sometimes saying similar things with very different meanings.

For now, I leave it up to these two fine scholars to work it out.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

12 comments

  1. You left one group out- women
    A pretty important group esp the ones who have not been covering their hair for decades and longer

  2. Without looking at the sources you mention the oruch hashulchan comes to mind and the machazei eliyha by the author of ‘os vehodor’.
    The reason why a married woman’s head has to be covered and not a girl is because it is a sign of ‘servitude’. That is why men cover their head as well. When the Jews went out of Egypt ‘yad rama’ the targum says with an ‘open’ or uncovered head.
    Today when women demand equal rights, it can be quite understood that covering ones hair (or head) is demeaning.

  3. R' Doniel Sayani

    The responsum of Rabbi Yosef Messas is also interesting to analyze on this issue. I wish that an analysis of the responsa of Rabbi Messas on areas such as haircovering, the mechitza, the eruv, kasrut, etc. would be studied more in-depth in a translated form, similar to the analysis of Marc Herman and Eliezer Schweid on R’ Chaim Hirschenson.

  4. I have no place entering the halachic dispute between Rabbis Broyde and Shulman. But I would observe that, among orthodox people I know, hair covering was rare for those who got married in the 1950’s and 1960’s, almost universal from around 1975-1990 and has declined somewhat since then. And the decline seems primarily to be a reaction to the increased focus on dress and hair covering as the principal criterion for judging women’s piety.

  5. I would not think to criticize either Rav Broyde or Shulman, shlit”a to both of them. However, when I read the original article, one thing struck me: it seems that there are 2 levels of obligation to cover the hair – a Daat Moshe which requires some kind of covering (a baseball cap would probably be enough) and a Daas Yehudis which is far more variable up to and including a complete covering of every last strand. While Rav Broyde brought many relevant poskim and teshuvos, I never got the impression that any of them were talking about the Daas Moshe aspect, just the Daas Yehudis aspect while the article seems to see hair covering as an all-or-nothing aspect. If the Rav could clarify that I would be grateful.

  6. Chaim1, your suggestion is intriguing but I’m not sure it corresponds to what I see in the frum, MO women I know who married in the post-1990 period. What communities of women are you speaking about?

    Barry Kornblau

  7. Oops, my previous comment should have been addressed to Mike S., not Chaim1 (although Chaim1’s opinion is certainly welcome, too!).

  8. Mike S, correct
    Even for those that went to Mir in Europe or Torah VDas in NY.

  9. I am confused by R’ Broyde’s footnote 25 on p.100 addressing the R. Yochanan mikva story. Perhaps I am having a hasam/hachah problem, but it appears to me that his citation of Tosfos in Bava Metsia 84a does not prove his point. It appears that Tosfos is saying that R. Yochanan was able to sit where he sat precisely because he was not able to observe that which he should not have seen. Otherwise he would have suffered the consequence of “ruach znunim”

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