Who is obligated to cover her head?
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By Laurie Novick
Rav Ezra Bick, Ilana Elzufon, Shayna Goldberg, and Rav Da’vid Sperling, eds.
Head-Covering and Marriage
We have seen
that the Talmud derives the obligation of head-covering from the sota
. Let’s revisit the relevant passage.
Her head uncovered is a matter of Torah law! For it is written, "and he uncovers the head of the woman," and [it is] taught from the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Yishmael: It is an admonishment [azhara] to the daughters of Israel that they not go out bare-headed.
Interestingly, the Talmud does not single out married women in its presentation of the mitzva. Does the obligation of head-covering apply only to married women, or to single women as well?
On the one hand, the sota is by definition married, and the obligation of head-covering gets mentioned specifically in the context of a Talmudic discussion of a married woman who could potentially lose her ketuba because of a violation of dat Moshe or dat Yehudit. The standards of dignity and modesty of a married woman would be expected to be higher than those of a woman who hadn’t married.
On the other hand, the text refers to "benot Yisrael," daughters of Israel, without specifying that only married daughters of Israel are subject to this halacha.
Early authorities differ on the question of whether single women need to cover their heads.
In his ruling on head-covering, Rambam writes that the prohibition of uncovering the head in the public square applies to single and married women alike.
Mishneh Torah Isurei Bi'a 21:17
Daughters of Israel should not go with uncovered heads in the marketplace, whether single or married.
However, as we have seen earlier
, the mishna indicates that a virgin bride went to her wedding with her head uncovered, which suggests that the obligation of head-covering does not
apply to women who have never married. Rambam, though, reads the mishna's reference to an uncovered head as but one example of possible customs unique to a virgin bride.
An opinion brought in the name of the Ge’onim offers an opposing position to that of Rambam, more aligned with the plain sense of the mishna:
Shita Mekubetzet Ketubot 15b
…Her [the bride's] head [en route to her wedding] is paru'a, meaning uncovered. Thus was the custom for the virgin [bride] and not for the widow. That which we say, " 'and he uncovers the head of the woman' and [it is] taught from the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Yishmael: It is an admonishment [azhara] to the daughters of Israel that they not go out bare-headed," one can say that it applies [specifically] to married women. (From the selections of the Ge'onim)
As the mishna teaches, a virgin bride’s uncovered head served as a clear sign that she had never been married. The Ge’onim deduce from this that the obligation of head-covering only takes effect upon marriage.
Shulchan Aruch's Ruling
Shulchan Aruch discusses the obligation of head-covering in Even Ha-ezer (in the context of laws of modesty and sexuality). There, he quotes Rambam almost verbatim, grouping single and married women together as obligated in head-covering.
Shulchan Aruch, EH 21:2
Daughters of Israel should not go in the marketplace with heads uncovered, whether single [penuya] or married [eishet ish].
In light of the sources, however, that do distinguish between married and unmarried women regarding the obligation in head-covering, commentators to Shulchan Aruch argue for a more careful reading of this ruling. One approach is to compare it to Shulchan Aruch's discussion of the laws of erva and recitation of Shema in Orach Chayyim. There, he does distinguish between married and unmarried women:
Shulchan Aruch OC 75:2
A woman's hair that she normally covers, it is prohibited to recite [Shema] facing it. ... But virgins [betulot] that normally go with heads uncovered, it is permissible.
Rav Yosef Karo's rulings in the Shulchan Aruch appear contradictory. In Even Ha-ezer he seemingly requires all women to cover their heads. But in Orach Chayyim, he distinguishes between virgins and non-virgins and writes that non-virgins go bare-headed, without suggesting that this poses a halachic problem. Furthermore, if the laws of erva apply to hair specifically when there is an obligation in head-covering, and unmarried women are actually obligated in head-covering, how is the hair of virgins not erva?
Beit Shemuel sees a difference in language between the two rulings as the key to resolving this apparent contradiction. Even Ha-ezer, defining a woman's obligation, uses the term "penuya" (which literally means “a woman who is available”). Orach Chayyim, outlining what a man may see when he recites Shema, uses the term "betulot" (virgins). Beit Shemuel reads the statement in Even Ha-ezer, that the obligation of head-covering applies to a "woman who is available”," as referring specifically to a previously-married woman who is now single and available.
Beit Shemuel 21:5
Whether a single woman – Meaning, a widow or divorcee (should not uncover her hair), but a virgin is permitted
According to this reading of the Shulchan Aruch, previously-married women are obligated in head-covering even if currently single. Other single women are exempt from head-covering. This fits nicely with the overall distinction between married and never-married women to which the mishna attests and which is supported in subsequent sources.
● Why should a woman’s marital status affect whether her hair is erva?
Ra'avyah is the source of this distinction:
Ra'avyah I Berachot 76
All the matters [that we mentioned above] as erva refer to something they do not normally reveal. But we are not concerned about a virgin who normally reveals her hair, since there are no improper thoughts [from it].
A married woman's hair was typically covered because of the obligation learned from the sota. Our sages extend the laws of erva to typically-covered part of the body when they are revealed.
According to Ra'avyah (and Rosh, Tur, and Shulchan Aruch who follow him), men are used to seeing the hair of unmarried women, which is typically uncovered. Because it is familiar, it does not arouse improper thoughts and is not considered
To Ra'avyah, if a man sees a woman’s hair, and doesn’t know whether she is married, is it erva? No, unless it actively has an effect on him. Men often have some familiarity with the women they tend to see when reciting Keri'at Shema, and women with uncovered heads were presumed to be unmarried, so that their hair would not be considered typically-covered. Regardless, Ra'avyah's distinction becomes a formal halachic definition, applied whether or not a specific man is aware of the marital status of the woman he sees.
Some types of erva are absolute, their status unchanging in any circumstance. Others are contingent on other factors. Ra'avyah and those who follow him view hair's erva status as contingent on other factors: whether men are habituated to seeing it and the very obligation to cover it.
The question of which of these factors is dominant is central to a related halachic discussion. Halachic authorities disagree on whether married women’s hair retains its
erva status in places where is common for married women to go bareheaded in public, in contravention of Halacha. Aruch Ha-shulchan says it is not considered
erva, because the
erva status of hair is contingent on its being typically-covered. Mishna Berura, on the other hand, says it is considered
erva, because the obligation of head-covering makes the
erva status of married women's hair absolute.
● Are there any strictures on single women going uncovered?
Magen Avraham suggests that there is a stricture on unmarried women's hair, out of concern for modesty, though not a full requirement to keep it covered:
Magen Avraham 75:3
One can say that the uncovering of [a single woman's head] that he [Shulchan Aruch] wrote of in Even ha-Ezer is that they undo the braids of their hair and go in the marketplace. For this is prohibited even for a single woman… The verse [about the sota] doesn't deal with a single woman. It is only an attribute of modesty for virgins that they not go thus [with hair unfastened].
Magen Avraham resolves the apparent contradiction in the Shulchan Aruch in a unique fashion. He maintains that the Torah-level obligation to cover hair applies only to married women, which is why the Shulchan Aruch excludes unmarried women from the discussion of what men may see when reciting Shema. However, unmarried women are still included fully in the personal obligation to be modest. Magen Avraham believes that, due to modesty concerns, single women should wear their hair fastened, as in a braid. Upon marriage, the Torah-level obligation of head-covering takes effect, including additional modesty strictures.
Though Magen Avraham's is a minority opinion, there are Chassidic communities in which unmarried girls and women wear their hair braided. Out of modesty, unmarried women in many communities take care not to wear hair long and loose, or in very teased, showy styles.
Divorcees and Widows
As we saw above, Shulchan Aruch states that both a married woman and a "penuya
," a single woman (literally “available”), must cover her head. Penuya
is understood as excluding virgins from the obligation,
but including divorcees or widows.
Therefore, a divorced or widowed woman is generally halachically obligated to cover her hair. The Talmud Yerushalmi provides support for this halachic ruling.
Yerushalmi Ketubot 2:1
A virgin subsequent to marriage [i.e., a widow whose husband died immediately after the ceremony] does not go out with her head uncovered.
According to a simple reading of this passage, once a woman has been married, she is obligated in head-covering from then on, even if the marriage was never consummated. Marriage subjects a woman to the obligation, and perhaps defines a woman's hair from then on as 'typically-covered.'
This is true even if her marriage was tragically brief and never consummated, and all the more so if she lived for some amount of time as a married woman.
Grounds for Uncovering
Remember, however, that the Torah basis for covering the head is the sota
, who is married. For this reason, Rav Moshe Feinstein argues that the obligation of head-covering for a divorcee or widow is on a lower rabbinic level, dat yehudit
Furthermore, the prohibition of uncovering the head is derived indirectly via inference from the Torah, not from an explicit statement. Both of these points together create room for leniency in a case of great need.
What counts as great need? The examples found in halachic literature are financial duress and dating.
I. Financial duress
Rav Moshe lays out his argument to allow uncovering in cases of financial duress in a responsum:
Responsa Iggerot Moshe EH 1:57
I was asked about a woman who was widowed and needs to support her children and cannot find employment that will be sufficient to support her children unless she does not cover her head when she is in the office working at her job, if she is permitted [to uncover her hair]. And I answered that there is room to allow her [to uncover] in a great need such as this, for it is clear … that even though a widow is prohibited to go with her head uncovered, it is only because of dat yehudit, for on a Torah level it was only said for a married woman. And therefore, since one can explain that since it was not stated in the Torah with the language of prohibition, it is only a positive obligation that she go with a head-covering…If it is only a positive obligation, then a financially urgent situation of greater than a fifth [of her funds is halachically permitted]…But in any event, with a married woman, which is on a Torah level, it should be prohibited [even under this kind of financial duress].
Rav Moshe explains that we are never obligated to spend beyond a certain amount of money to fulfill a positive obligation. A woman's losing her chance to earn a livelihood because of her head-covering would certainly exceed this amount.
In the case of a married woman, we are more cautious. Even great financial duress would be insufficient to overcome her Torah-level obligation – which may be a prohibition and not just a positive commandment. But in the case of a formerly-married woman, there is room for leniency.
II. Dating Head-covering may interfere with a woman’s efforts to remarry. Since head-covering often functions as a sign of marital status, it may deter potential partners. In another responsum, Rav Moshe recognizes this concern:
Responsa Iggerot Moshe EH 4:32:4
If there is room to permit a divorcee to go with her head uncovered so that it will not be known that she was married.
His honor was in doubt regarding a young divorced woman who does not want others to know that she was married, and therefore wishes to go without a head-covering, and even though she does not wish to deceive…she intends that after [people] get to know her and someone likes her and is interested in marrying her, she will not lose her attractiveness when she tells him afterwards that she had a husband and got divorced. But when [people] know from the beginning that she is divorced, they won't want to consider her at all. And it is understandable that one should be concerned with this…There is room to permit for her as well, since this is a great loss regarding finding someone to marry her, just as I permitted there. For the requirement that a divorced woman cover her head is also not on a Torah level but is dat yehudit. But she needs to know that in a place where there is no concern [about this], she must cover her head, and head-covering should not be entirely permitted for this purpose.
Rav Moshe rules leniently to permit a widow or divorcee to uncover her head for the sake of remarriage. The boundaries of whether this permission to uncover could be applied just on a date or in any setting where she might encounter a potential partner are unclear. Practice varies by community.
Not everyone agrees with Rav Moshe's approach. Rav Ovadya Yosef, for example, does not permit widows or divorcees to go with their heads uncovered. However, he does permit them to wear wigs as an unobtrusive head-covering, even though in other cases he generally does not permit married women to wear wigs as head-covering.
Responsa Yabi'a Omer EH 4:3
For a single divorcee or widow, for whom the entire prohibition of going bare-headed in public is not on a Torah level…there is room to be lenient for them with [wearing] a wig.
Rav Ovadya agrees with Rav Moshe that head-covering for a formerly-married woman is a rabbinic-level requirement, and that this leaves some room for leniency.
A formerly married woman can be more lenient with how and where she covers her hair than she was while married, without jettisoning the mitzva altogether.
·Why doesn't head-covering automatically come off when marriage is over?
When a woman is married, she is subject to a more demanding definition of modesty and dignity than prior to her marriage. Once her dignity has become associated with head-covering, the shift is not fully reversible. It is important to remember that, while head-covering can signal marital status, it is not the reason for the obligation in head-covering.
The end of a marriage, whether through death or divorce, is generally a time of emotional turmoil. After the initial transition to the new reality, a woman may go through a process of redefining, rediscovering, or reclaiming her identity. Because head-covering is so central to a woman’s self-presentation and is so closely linked with marriage, this will often include thoughts about how and whether she wishes to continue covering.
A woman in this situation may sincerely prefer to continue head-covering. She may enjoy covering her hair. She may feel that head-covering confers dignity or social status within the community. She may find that it offers continuity, helping her maintain a coherent identity as she transitions to post-married life. She may see head-covering as a high halachic ideal that she strives to meet.
In the words of Shaine Spolter:
Shaine Spolter, “A Widow’s Peek,” in Hide & Seek, ed. Lynne Schreiber (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2006), p. 119
Thus, I remain an oxymoron, a non-married person with a married person’s obligation. I embrace my responsibilities both with joy and sadness. I am joyful to fulfill those obligations which elevate me to a level of holiness, but sad that I can’t reach my full potential as a shnayim – a twosome.
I am proud to have been married to the wonderful talmid chacham who was my husband and to be the mother and grandmother of children dedicated to lives of Torah. I always want people to recognize that side of me. For that reason, and because I have been instructed to do so, I cover my head with pride.
A woman may have mixed feelings, but be more comfortable continuing to cover due to communal expectations - especially if she has children and other mothers in the community cover their heads.
Alternatively, a woman may find that continuing to cover is emotionally painful. She may never have enjoyed covering her hair. She may experience head-covering as a constant reminder of trauma experienced in the marriage, or when it ended. Or she may feel that head-covering no longer fits her sense of who she is.
Head-covering of any sort after a marriage has ended can present an emotional strain, as a woman adjusts to being single. Emotional well-being is a relevant consideration in halachic rulings, so a woman in this situation should seek halachic counsel even if the other criteria for leniency do not seem applicable.
At which stage of the marriage ritual does the obligation of head-covering take effect? Let’s explore the different opinions.
According to the most stringent view, a bride needs to cover her head immediately after betrothal, eirusin (usually effected by transfer of the ring). This is the point at which she becomes prohibited to other men.
Responsa Chavot Yair 196
For how can she go with her head uncovered when she [has the status of] an eishet ish [exclusive to one man]? And even were you to say that betrothed women in Talmudic times would go out with heads uncovered, that is because in their days the betrothal was long before the wedding.
Chavot Yair explains that a betrothed woman might have been permitted to leave her head uncovered specifically in Talmudic times, when there was a clear distinction between the two phases. In our day, eirusin and nissu’in are performed one after the other, so head-covering should be obligatory sooner.
While many notable halachic authorities including Mahari Ha-Levi,
Rabbi Akiva Eiger
and Mishna Berura
rule accordingly, many others disagree.
As we have seen
, the mishna teaches that a bride would travel to her wedding with her hair loose. In mishnaic times, she would have been betrothed well beforehand. The Yerushalmi quoted above notes that a woman following nissu’in
would not go out with her head uncovered, even if she had not had relations.
A simple reading of these sources indicates that the completion of nissu’in marks the point at which a woman becomes obligated in head-covering. Completing nissu’in may be defined in different ways for this purpose.
I. After Chuppa
One definition of completing nissu’in is the recitation of the sheva berachot under the chuppa.
If the obligation takes effect immediately after the chuppa, then the kalla's head should be covered beforehand, since it is impractical to cover it during the chuppa. Today, both eirusin and nissu’in take place under the chuppa, so coming to the chuppa with head covered has the added benefit of satisfying the opinion of those who require head-covering following betrothal. Rav Moshe Sternbuch advocates coming to the chuppa with a covered head.
Teshuvot Ve-hanhagot 5:334
In the Yerushalmi… it is explicit that there is no permission for a married woman not to cover her head even if she has not had relations, and therefore it is certainly fitting that she come to the chuppa with a head-covering, and remain that way.
II. After Yichud
Another definition of completing nissu’in is yichud, when the couple are secluded together after the chuppa.
If the obligation takes effect only with yichud, then the Ashkenazi bride need not cover her head until the couple emerge from the yichud room. There are strong grounds for most Sefardi brides not to cover at the wedding at all, since Sefardi couples typically do not seclude themselves at the wedding but wait until returning home.
Responsa Yechaveh Da'at 5:62
A bride is not obligated to cover her head immediately after the sheva berachot under the chuppa, since she remains in the halachic category of a betrothed woman until after yichud. According to Ashkenazi custom, that the chatan and kalla seclude themselves immediately after the sheva berachot under the chuppa, the kalla must cover her head immediately when she leaves the yichud room. But Sefardim and members of Eidot Hamizrach do not have the custom of yichud, except after the end of the wedding feast when they go home.
If the obligation applies following yichud, then a kalla who will be in yichud only after the wedding need not cover her head until afterwards.
Even for Ashkenazi couples who seclude themselves in the yichud
room at the wedding, it is possible that the obligation only takes effect after the first night together. Rav Moshe Feinstein explains:
Responsa Iggerot Moshe OC 6:3
For the obligation takes effect when she is reputed to have had relations, and this is after the first night, for then she has a presumption of having had relations, whether it was the chuppa of a ritually pure woman or a chuppa of a woman in nidda [who do not consummate the first night].
According to Rav Moshe, the yichud
overnight gives the woman the status of a bride who is presumed to have had relations, even if the couple did not yet consummate their marriage.
It is that status change that differentiates married women from single women, who are not obligated in head-covering. This teshuva
is widely relied upon to permit brides not to cover their hair at the wedding or until the morning after the wedding.
A woman who does not don a full head-covering at her wedding may be relying on another factor, the wedding veil. Even though the wedding veil is not considered full coverage, there may be a special allowance for brides to suffice with it.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Quoted in Et Tzenuim Chochma I, p. 166
But regarding covering the bride at the time of the chuppa and the feast, even though Mishna Berura in 75:11 obligates covering for the betrothed woman and how much more so for the married woman, even so, if the bride or one of the sides [families] doesn't want it, then one should concede and rely on the veil with which brides cover themselves, even though it is thin.
Relying on the veil for head-covering may explain the common practice to leave the wedding veil folded back on the head throughout the wedding feast. If relying on this view, and not Rav Moshe's, then a bride who removes her veil before leaving the wedding hall should us a head-covering at that point.
In our next installment, we address how a woman should cover her head.
 פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם כתובות ב:א
שעשו לה מה שדרך אנשי אותו המקום לעשות לבתולות
Peirush Ha-mishna Le-Rambam, Ketubot 2:1
They did to her what is the way of the people of that place to do for virgin[brides]
“Rav Sheshet said: The hair of a woman is erva” - for women who normally to cover their hair. But regarding virgins, who normally go with hair uncovered, it is permitted to recite Shema facing them.
This is another example of a halachic authority taking the approach that the obligation to cover one's head does not depend on whether it is considered erva
Aruch HaShulchan OC 75:7
And let us decry the immodesty of our generation in our great iniquities, that for many years the daughters of Israel have been immodest in this iniquity and go with uncovered heads, and crying out about this has been of no help and no use. And now the plague has spread, that the married women go with their hair [uncovered] like the virgins. Woe unto us that this has come to pass in our time. Nevertheless, in any case, halachically it would appear that it we are permitted to pray and to recite berachot in front of their exposed heads, since now most of them go this way and it has become like uncovered parts of her body…and since among us the married women are also thus, naturally there are no improper thoughts.
And know further that even if this woman and her friends in that place normally go bareheaded in the marketplace, in the manner of the immodest, it is prohibited…Since they are halachically required to cover their hair [and this is a Torah prohibition, as it is written, "and he uncovers the head of the woman," implying that she is covered,] and also all the daughters of Israel who hold fast to the laws of Moshe have been careful about this from the days of our earliest forefathers until today, it is in the category of erva and prohibited to recite Shema in front of them and he [Shulchan Aruch] only comes to exclude virgins who are permitted to go with heads uncovered…
What about women who have never been married, but are not virgins?
Chelkat Mechokek does obligate never-married women who have had relations in head-covering:
Chelkat Mechokek EH 21:2
Whether a single woman or a married woman – This refers to an unmarried woman who has had relations, but a virgin we say that she goes out [to her wedding] with a veil and her head uncovered, and so it is in Bach and see the Mordechai.
Pitchei Teshuva ad loc. brings a number of dissenting opinions, including that of Panim Me'irot:
Responsa Panim Me'irot I:35
But since it has been clarified that a single woman has no Torah-level prohibition, if so why should we involve ourselves with her in these important matters to force her to cover her head? If it is because of the ketuba [of a new, prospective groom, which is different for a non-virgin], doesn’t anyone who marries a woman check out and investigate her? Since it has become public that she has had relations, whatever he does for her in the ketuba is voluntary and he is allowed to add [to the sum so that it is like a virgin's ketuba]. The practice of covering her [the single non-virgin's] head is for her benefit, that she not be shamed or cursed by passersby who see her pregnant and know she had had relations, but where she says that the enactment is unsatisfactory for her, as in this case, we listen to her. I wrote in accordance with my humble opinion, Meir.
Head-covering for an unmarried woman is rabbinic and meant to prevent embarrassment to a woman who was obviously single and pregnant, so it is a woman's right to refuse it.
Mishna Berura rules that a woman in this situation is not forced to cover her head:
Mishna Berura 75:11
Unmarried women who have had relations must cover their heads, but in any case if she had relations and does not wish to go out with a scarf [or other covering] on her head as is the way of [married] women, we cannot force her.
 Dagul Me-rvava
Chelkat Mechokek and Beit Shemuel understood accurately that [a penuya] refers to a widow and divorcee, and this is from the words of the Yerushalmi in Ketubot 2:1 (at the end).
Yeshu'ot Ya'akov EH 21, Responsum of the Author's Grandson
A widow and a divorcee from marriage are also prohibited from going bareheaded, not because of the Torah-level prohibition of "And he uncovered the head of the woman," but only because, since they had already covered their heads, they are prohibited from uncovering them again because of erva.
On this logic, the only issue for a widow or divorcee is erva, so that whether the hair could subsequently be uncovered would depend on the debated question of whether hair is considered typically-covered as soon as the obligation kicks in and from then on, or only in cases where common practice is to cover it.
 Responsa Mahari Ha-Levi 9
We have learned that a betrothed woman is in the halachic category of a married woman, who is prohibited from going out with head uncovered.
Mahari Ha-levi (Rav Yitzchak ben Rav Shemuel Ha-Levi, 1580-1640, Poland) argues that the bride described in the mishna as going to her wedding with her hair loose did in fact cover her head, but left a few strands out to indicate she was a virgin.
 Responsa Rabbi Akiva Eiger Second Edition 79
If so one certainly cannot rely on the Shevut Ya'akov [who says the obligation to cover begins with relations] against the viewpoint of the great sages cited above [Mahari Ha-levi and Chavat Yair], and even if it was not [prohibited] as a matter of law, it would be fitting to rule [against uncovering] based on the reasonable explanation of the Chavat Yair.
And betrothed virgins are prohibited from going bareheaded
In contrast, Shevut Ya'akov maintains that the onset of obligation was with relations, which aligns with the rejected opinion that a woman who was never married but had relations would be obligated in head covering.
Responsa Shevut Ya'akov I:103
A virgin who has been betrothed and is not yet married is permitted to go bareheaded…for as long as she has not had relations she is permitted to go like all of the virgins, which is not the case if she has had relations…