Reconsidering the Sheitel

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by R. Yaakov Hoffman

Can hair serve to conceal hair? The idea has been hotly contested in Jewish legal discourse since the sixteenth century, when some married women began to use wigs as their required hair covering.1

The debate has continued until the present day. Some communities and rabbis cling tenaciously to the stance that wigs are forbidden,2 whereas others permit or even prefer them. We will presently analyze both positions and suggest an alternate perspective: The sheitel is halachically permissible, but is not the right choice for the Jewish people today.

Those who categorically proscribe sheitels base their objection on Talmud’s presentation of the requirement that married women cover their hair. According to Biblical law, even a minimal type of head covering (kaltah) suffices, but the Jewish norm of modesty (dat Yehudit) demands a more substantial covering in public.3 A wig, which looks as if it is no covering at all, is surely no better than a token covering (kaltah);4 thus, it would be forbidden under the rubric of dat Yehudit.

The difficulty with this approach is as follows: According to many authorities, dat Yehudit is not an unchanging rabbinic decree—it simply requires a woman to cover her hair in a manner consistent with Jewish societal norms in her time and place.5 In ancient times, Jewish women apparently universally covered their hair in public with cloth coverings—thus, dat Yehudit would have forbidden sheitels.6 Nowadays, however, halacha would sanction their use in communities that accept them.

Granted, other commentators interpret dat Yehudit as a fixed rabbinic enactment not subject to local custom.7 But these Poskim generally hold that dat Yehudit simply legislates that all the hair be covered with a garment.8 Thus, a sheitel that completely conceals a woman’s natural hair should be permitted even according to this latter interpretation of dat Yehudit.

Many authorities, however, raise an additional concern regarding wigs: mar’it ‘ayin (the appearance of impropriety). First of all, one might suspect that a wig-wearing woman is not covering her hair. In addition, halacha deems a married woman’s hair to be ‘ervah (nakedness).9 It should be intrinsically immodest even to give the impression of displaying a body part that Jewish law considers lascivious.10

The argument of mar’it ‘ayin surely held sway when all married Jewish women covered their hair with a cloth covering—even the illusion of a bareheaded woman would have aroused suspicion.11 But today, everyone is quite used to the concept of bewigged women.12 As for the issue of ‘ervah, the fact that unmarried women are not obliged to cover their heads indicates that hair is not intrinsically an erotically-charged body part.13 Thus, a married woman need not be concerned about appearing bareheaded—she must only fulfill the technical requirement that Jewish married women cover their natural hair.14

The halachic arguments to forbid sheitels, at least nowadays, are tenuous—indeed, the fact that observant women have overwhelmingly accepted sheitels indicates strongly that those who vocally oppose them are on the wrong side of the debate.15 Our Sages tell us that if the Jewish people are not prophets, they are the descendants of prophets—if one is uncertain about the halacha, one can trust the nation to be doing the right thing.16 This is all the more so regarding the laws of hair covering, which are fundamentally rooted in the practice of pious Jewish women.

Nevertheless, many contemporary Poskim encourage women to avoid sheitels whenever possible, and instead wear hats, tichels, or snoods.17 This approach is very intuitive—even if a sheitel is halachically permissible, wearing a cloth covering surely reflects a higher level of modesty. Why, then, do other religious authorities feel that sheitels are the preferred hair covering?

Those who hold the latter view generally maintain that it is incumbent upon a married woman to cover every single strand of hair.18 In their assessment, a wig best accomplishes this task. It is counterproductive for a woman to be stringent and wear only cloth coverings, because something much worse is likely to result—some of her natural hair might protrude, inadvertently or otherwise.19

This argument is hard to accept, since a great many Jewish women manage to cover their hair completely with kerchiefs.20 Furthermore, the assertion that even the tiniest amount of hair may not be exposed is debatable. The Rishonim already acknowledge that a small quantity of hair generally pokes out of a woman’s headgear.21

Famously, the Lubavitcher Rebbe advanced an additional reason to prefer sheitels: It is often not socially acceptable in secular society to wear a head covering. Thus, a Jewish woman living in a Western country will likely feel more comfortable covering her hair at all times if she is wearing a wig. Wearing a cloth covering could make her feel awkward in certain social situations, and she might be tempted to remove it.22

While one can debate whether or not one should condone such a capitulation to non-Jewish mores at any time, this advice is probably no longer relevant. First of all, the Orthodox community has much more self-esteem and confidence in its distinctiveness now than it did even a few decades ago. Secondly, American society is much more accepting of unique sartorial choices. In the past, a kerchief-wearing woman might not have gotten a job in an American office. Today, one sees, for example, Muslim women in the American workforce proudly clad in their headscarves.

Even if it may once have applied in the United States, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s advice has always been out of place in Israel. In a majority-Jewish country, the job of the Orthodox community is to steer society as a whole towards the Torah’s values. In such a culture, all married women cover their hair, so it is unnecessary and even inappropriate to circumvent the halachic ideal of modesty by using wigs. If we long for a unified, Torah-observant Jewish people, and hopefully soon experience the redemption, we cannot remain in a mentality which takes diasporic norms and fashions so much into consideration.

Both in Israel and elsewhere, there is one community in particular whose continued attachment to the sheitel is perplexing: the world of Lithuanian-style yeshivot. This group prides itself on isolation from secular culture, as well as stringencies in matters of halacha. One would expect that they would be the first to reject sheitels. In actuality, many yeshivish people look askance at the idea of insisting on cloth coverings. Why?

The yeshivish preference for wigs might have to do with the fact that in recent history, many Orthodox women did not cover their hair at all. In such a societal reality, sheitels became associated with those pious women who covered their hair at all times, as opposed to others who donned hats only for religious functions. Thus, the sheitel came to be thought of as the mark of a scrupulously observant woman.

Furthermore, the chareidi world generally places a greater emphasis on the importance of dressing formally (for both men and women), as they view doing so as a religiously significant mark of refinement.23 Of course, what constitutes dignified dress is subjective, and Western social norms influence the contemporary Jewish view. For example, chareidi women generally eschew ankle-length skirts as overly casual, although these are objectively more modest than skirts that reach just below the knee.24 The inclination to choose wigs specifically can similarly be attributed to the fact that Western culture generally considers women more presentable when they are bareheaded.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that preferring sheitels is incongruous with the fact that Jews nowadays are much more likely to avoid leniencies and workarounds than they once were. In the last century or so, for example, it was the norm for non-Chasidic observant men in Western countries to be clean-shaven. Nowadays, it is quite commonplace to sport a beard (especially after marriage). This is not necessarily because people are concerned with the halachic viability of electric shavers (although some no doubt are), but because they recognize that the time has come to return to the traditional (one could perhaps even go so far as to say “authentic”) visage of the Jewish man: bearded.25

The treatment of the sheitel has clearly lagged behind other areas of religious practice, in which contemporary Jews tend to display greater sensitivity to the spirit of the law. It is true that there is a strong halachic basis for married women to wear wigs at a time and place where such is the norm. But just because something is permissible, this does not mean that it is advisable. While it would be unreasonable (and halachically unnecessary) to expect all women to immediately cease wearing sheitels, the frum community would do well to consider whether the continued use of sheitels reflects the spiritual direction in which we wish to head.

 


  1. For a comprehensive citation of the literature, see Otzar ha-Poskim on Even Ha-‘Ezer 21:2 (notes 24:5-8). 

  2. Today, avoidance of sheitels is primarily associated with certain Sefardic and Chasidic communities, as well as the pre-Zionist community in Jerusalem (yishuv ha-yashan). See Responsa Yabia‘ Omer Even Ha-‘Ezer 5:5 for a Sefardic perspective, and Responsa Divrei Chayim Yoreh De‘ah 2:59 for a Chasidic perspective. 

  3. Ketubot 72b. According to most Rishonim, kaltah here means a basket, as per its usual meaning (e.g., Rashi ad loc.). Rambam, however, holds that it is a small kerchief, as opposed to the large shawl required by dat Yehudit (Hilchot Ishut 24:12). 

  4. According to the Musaf He-‘Aruch, this is explicit in the Talmud Yerushalmi, which uses the word kaflatin instead of kaltah (Ketubot 7:6). According to the Musaf He-‘Aruch, kaflatin means a wig. There are, however, other interpretations of the Yerushalmi. 

  5. Rambam Hilchot Ishut 13:11 and 24:12, followed by Shulchan Aruch Even Ha-‘Ezer 115:4. See Responsa Bnei Banim 3:21. 

  6. The Talmud does mention false hair (Shabbat 64b, Nazir 28b), but does not explicitly address its use as a covering. 

  7. See Responsa Bnei Banim 3:22. 

  8. Shitah Mekubetzet (Ketubot 72b) states that dat Yehudit forbids a woman from wearing a kaltah (basket) because some of her hair can be seen through the weave. Others hold that even if the basket covered the hair completely, it would still be forbidden because it is an incidental covering rather than a garment designed specifically as headgear (Responsa Bnei Banim 3:21). 

  9. Brachot 24b. 

  10. Cf. R. Michael Broyde, “Hair Covering and Jewish Law: A Response” Tradition 42:3, p. 106, who gives a very interesting analogy regarding covering other body parts. 

  11. On the other hand, at that time, there was absolutely no mistaking wigs for real hair, whereas nowadays even an average-quality sheitel is much more hair-like (R. Avi Heinberg). 

  12. See Responsa Iggerot Moshe Even Ha-‘Ezer 2:12. 

  13. This is part of the reason many authorities permit a man to recite prayers facing a married woman’s hair nowadays that women commonly go bareheaded. The source for this idea is Aruch Ha-Shulchan Orach Chayim 75:7. See also Responsa Or Yitzchak vol. 1 Even Ha-‘Ezer 3. 

  14. But, of course, a sheitel cannot be so well-made that it is impossible to distinguish from natural hair. See R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk, Modesty—An Adornment for Life, pp. 248ff. (In general, there is room to disagree with many of R. Falk’s halachic arguments, but his discussion of this issue is quite cogent.) R. Mordechai Willig also mentions this point frequently. 

  15. It is still dismaying, however, that long and/or voluptuous wigs have become fashionable even in very frum communities. This is not a violation of the laws of hair covering per se, but of the general Torah value of tzniut (modesty), which enjoins both men and women to eschew alluring and eye-grabbing clothing and behavior. See, e.g., Responsa Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 4:294, although numerous Poskim have expressed this sentiment. 

  16. See Yerushalmi, Shabbat 19:1 and Bavli, Brachot 45a. 

  17. E.g., R. Y.S. Elyashiv and R. Hershel Schachter. 

  18. Zohar Naso 125b. For a discussion of this topic from the perspective of pure halacha, see Otzar Ha-Poskim to Even Ha-‘Ezer 21:2 (notes 24:2-3). See also Kuntres Mi-Ba‘ad Le-Tzamatech by R. Natan Gestetner (printed in the back of Responsa Lehorot Natan vol. 5) and Responsa Shevet Ha-Levi 5:199:1. 

  19. Responsa Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 1:62. 

  20. Furthermore, R. Y.S. Elyashiv is said to have remarked that hair often protrudes from sheitels as well (heard from R. M.M. Karp). 

  21. Raavad refers to hair that is chutz le-tzammatah (Rashba, Brachot 24b); many Rishonim echo this phraseology and Rema codifies it (Orach Chayim 75:2). The simple understanding of this phrase is that it includes only hair that inadvertently peeks out of a garment that is designed to cover the head completely (see an almost identical definition in Responsa Chatam Sofer 1:36). However, many authorities interpret it far more leniently (R. Yitzchak Yosef, Otzar Dinim Le-Isha U-Le-Vat p. 368, Responsa Iggerot Moshe Even Ha-‘Ezer 1:58; see a rejoinder in Kuntres Mi-Ba‘ad Le-Tzammatech, op. cit.). Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue that any classical sources permit uncovering large swaths of hair in public. But see Reponsa Bnei Banim 3:21 for a potential justification for those nowadays who do so. The matter requires much further analysis, which is beyond the scope of the present article. 

  22. https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/72875/jewish/Wearing-A-Sheitel.htm. R. Shimon Schwab had a slightly different take on this general idea: He refused to give a haskama to a book arguing against sheitels, maintaining that although sheitels are not ideal, one should not tell a woman she may only wear cloth coverings, since she may stop covering her hair altogether (R. Hershel Schachter). 

  23. Serious dati le’umi women, who are less concerned with formality, often observe a level of modesty that surpasses many chareidi women. For example, they wear ankle-length skirts and kerchiefs that completely cover the hair. 

  24. R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk, Modesty—An Adornment for Life, pp. 306-308. 

  25. Other examples abound, one of which is mechirat chametz: Many choose to dispose of chametz before Passover rather than conducting the controversial sale, partly because of halachic objections but partly because of discomfort with a feeling of circumventing the law. 

About Yaakov Hoffman

Yaakov Hoffman is the rabbi of Washington Heights Congregation and a member of the Kollel L’Horaah of RIETS. He has had a lifelong interest in the history of halacha and is a practicing sofer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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