HEAD-COVERING 1: HALACHIC BASIS
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Why Should a Married Woman Cover her Head?
Many women who ask this question - trying to work out how (or whether) to cover hair - seek an answer beyond a mother's practice, a groom's insistence or objection, or a friend's opinions.
It can be a difficult mitzva to keep, so a woman may seek to find how halachic sources make the 'argument' for covering hair, or a compelling discussion of why head-covering is essential to a woman's religious experience.
The Mishna and Talmud, however, do not share this agenda. As voices from a traditional society, they take for granted that a married Jewish woman should cover her hair, as many Jewish women did before her and as Halacha dictates, no explanations necessary.
Because halachic texts are not trying to convince women to keep the laws or identify with them, halachic discussions of hair covering may not feel convincing to a woman who is looking for an explanation that resonates with her.
By learning these laws with a view to understanding them on their own terms, however, we can find that 'why's, a woman's point of view, and even social considerations, do find voice in the relevant sources, though not as we might expect.
Learning from the Sota
We begin our discussion by exploring the halachic basis for a woman to cover her head. In future installments, we will look at possible rationales behind the mitzva and its potential significance, at who should cover her head, and at how and where it should be covered.
There is no single verse in the Torah that clearly commands a married woman to cover her hair. Our sages derive the halachic obligation of head-covering indirectly, from the ordeal of the sota.
A suspected sota (adulterously straying woman) is a player in a halachic tragedy: A husband suspects his wife of an illicit relationship with another man. He has an official injunction issued against her being alone with the other man. She nevertheless secludes herself with that man – and there are witnesses to prove it. The husband chooses to pursue a claim against her all the way to Beit Ha-mikdash. There, in a shaming ordeal, God’s own name is written on a scroll, which is ground into water that the woman is then forced to drink. The Divine name is thus erased in order to restore faith between the couple. If guilty of adultery, the woman and her illicit partner die a death administered by God. If proven innocent, she becomes the beneficiary of great blessing.
As part of the sota ordeal, the kohen uncovers the woman's head, and loosens her hair:
And the kohen will stand the woman up before God and uncover [u-fara, a term that can also mean “undo”] the woman's head and place on her hands the offering of remembrance, it is an offering of jealousy. And in the hands of the kohen will be the bitter, cursed waters.
The Talmud presents a midrash halacha on this verse:
Her head uncovered is a matter of Torah law! For it is written, "and he uncovers the head of the woman," and [he] 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.
The Talmud introduces this midrash halacha by stating that head-covering is "a matter of Torah law." Rashi offers two explanations:
Rashi, Ketubot 72a s.v. Admonishment
Since we do this to her [the sota] to cause her disgrace – measure for measure as she did to beautify herself for her lover – we can infer that [an uncovered head] is prohibited. Alternatively, since it is written, "And he uncovers," we can infer that at that point in time it was not uncovered. We learn from this that it is not the way of the daughters of Israel to go out with head uncovered, and this is the primary explanation.
According to Rashi's first explanation, the Talmud infers a Torah-level prohibition for a woman to go out with uncovered hair from the fact that uncovering her head is done to cause her disgrace. As punishment for her sin in uncovering her head illicitly as part of her affair, the Torah issues a special command to uncover it in public as part of her ordeal.
According to Rashi's second explanation, we can infer from the verse’s clear assumption that a married woman’s head is covered, that covering the head is considered normative for Jewish women on a Torah level.
Rav Yeshaya of Trani is another early halachic authority who maintains that there is a Torah-level obligation based on this passage.
Piskei Ri'az Ketubot 7:2:2
If she didn't have a kalta [minimum head-covering] on her head, this is prohibited from the Torah, for it is said, "And he uncovers the woman's head" – an admonishment to the daughters of Israel not to go with head uncovered.
However, a minority view understands the obligation as rabbinic. Terumat Ha-deshen explains this approach.
Terumat Ha-deshen 242
Uncovering a woman's head is only a rabbinic proscription … and the Talmud’s challenge "It is on a Torah level!" is saying that it is hinted at in the Torah.
On this view, the midrash is an asmachta, a teaching device that merely uses a Torah verse to reinforce a rabbinic law.
Dat Moshe Vi-Yehudit
When a man betroths a woman, he stipulates that it is "ke-dat Moshe ve-Yisrael," "in accordance with the law of Moshe and Israel," and this phrase is even written into the ketuba, the marriage contract. In some sources, the language used is "ke-dat Moshe vi-Yehudit," literally, “the law of Moshe and the Jewish woman.”
In any contractual situation, certain breaches of contract are so severe that the party in breach forfeits his or her standing or rights under the contract. The Mishna lists two sets of behaviors in breach of the marital relationship, for which a woman could be forced to accept divorce from her husband while forfeiting the sum provided for in her ketuba. It calls them, respectively, dat Moshe and dat Yehudit.
Mishna Ketubot 7:6
And these exit [marriage] without a ketuba: One who violates dat Moshe or Yehudit. And which [behavior] is dat Moshe? She feeds him that which is not tithed, or has relations with him while nidda, or doesn't separate challa, or vows and does not keep [her vows]. And which [behavior] is dat Yehudit? She goes out and her head is uncovered, or she spins in the marketplace, or she speaks [flirtatiously] with every man.
Rashba explains the meaning of each category in the mishna:
Responsa of Rashba 5:246
One can say that -- whether she violates a real Torah-level mitzva, or whether she violates the Jewish practice that the daughters of Israel conduct themselves modestly -- the woman leaves [the marriage] without a ketuba. Thus [the mishna] specifies what she violates and causes him [her husband] to violate among the mitzvot of the Torah. Therefore there [in the mishna] the intended meaning of Dat Moshe is real[ly a Torah prohibition], and dat Yehudit is modest Jewish conduct.
Rashba considers dat Moshe in this context to refer to Torah-level mitzvot and dat Yehudit to matters of binding custom. Dat Moshe includes situations in which a wife's transgression could also lead her husband to violate Halacha. For example, if a wife is not honest about the laws of niddah, she leads both herself and her husband to sin when they are intimate. But dat Moshe doesn't include personal violations of Torah prohibitions. For example, the Torah prohibits a woman from eating shrimp, but if she eats it, that is a personal matter for which she must do teshuva, and she does not forfeit her ketuba.
Rambam gives a similar definition of dat Yehudit as referring to Jewish women's customary modest behavior:
Mishneh Torah Ishut 24:11
What is dat Yehudit? The modest behavior that the daughters of Israel practiced.
All Jews are expected to act modestly. Still, behavior that violates dat Yehudit is considered especially inappropriate for a married woman, regarding whom it may lead to suspicion of extramarital activity.
Note that, in the mishna, head-covering falls under the category of dat Yehudit. This categorization makes some sense: it doesn't cause a woman's husband to sin, so it does not fit neatly into the category of dat Moshe. Furthermore, categorizing it as dat Yehudit highlights the extent to which going bare-headed might be considered immodest behavior.
The Talmud challenges the mishna's categorization of a woman's head-covering as only dat Yehudit. If a Jewish woman’s obligation to cover her head can be derived from the Torah, categorizing it only as dat Yehudit, which includes matters of custom, fails to make that clear.
The Talmud resolves the question by making a distinction. Going completely bare-headed would violate Torah law, while covering one’s hair inadequately would violate dat Yehudit. Let's look back at the passage we saw above, quoting more fully:
“Which is dat Yehudit? She goes out and her head is uncovered”: 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: This is an admonishment [azhara] to the daughters of Israel that they not go out bare-headed. According to Torah law, a kalta [minimum head-covering] is considered proper; according to dat Yehudit, even a kalta is also prohibited.
We will discuss this passage's implications for how to cover the head in a future installment. What is essential here is the Talmud’s assertion that there is a two-pronged obligation:
- a fundamental Torah obligation for a woman to cover her head, which we can derive from the verse about the sota;
- additional strictures of head-covering that women have taken on as a matter of custom known as dat Yehudit, which have special importance in divorce proceedings.
Is head-covering dat Moshe?
One can acknowledge the independent obligation for a woman to cover her head without listing it as dat Moshe, since, as we have seen, the category of dat Moshe does not include all possible transgressions but only specific transgressions on the part of a woman that will cause her husband to sin as well. On this reading of the Talmud, its conclusion simply establishes that dat Yehudit does not fully account for the halachic requirement of women's head-covering.
However, some early halachic authorities, including Rambam, go so far as to read the Talmud as categorizing basic head-covering as dat Moshe, and list further coverage as dat Yehudit.
Rambam Ishut 24:10-11
These are the things that if she did one of them she violated dat Moshe: She went out in the marketplace and her head was bare [galu’i]…These are the things that if she did one of them she violated dat Yehudit: She went out to the marketplace or to an open alleyway and her head was undone [paru’a] and there was no shawl over it like the other women [wear].
● Could we read these sources in a way that would allow a woman not to cover her hair at all?
In recent history, predominantly under modern European influence, there have been entire communities of Torah-observant Jews in which the women have gone bareheaded. There are also many recent examples of pious, righteous women who have not covered their heads.
Building on the minority opinion that head-covering is not a Torah-level obligation, and on the complexity of the halachic sources regarding head-covering, some rabbis have responded to this situation by crafting a halachic justification for leaving the head completely uncovered. Most prominent of these was Rav Yosef Messas, a Sefardi halachic authority of twentieth century Morocco and Israel.
In his responsum on the topic, Rav Messas explains that his position was designed to be melamed zechut, to create a favorable judgment, on the women of Morocco in the 1950's, who did not cover their heads at all:
Rav Yosef Messas, Collected Writings, p. 211
The prohibition of uncovering the head for married women was strict among us here from past practice, and thus in all cities of the Maghreb before the coming of the French, but within a short time of their coming, the daughters of Israel broke this boundary…no reproof was of use…and now all the women go out with head bare, hair uncovered…and therefore I put my mind to teaching about them favorably [le-lamed aleihen zechut], for it is impossible to conceive of returning the matter as it was…and in my approach to seek in the words of the halachic authorities that came before me, I found only stringency upon stringency and prohibition upon prohibition…
Rav Messas acknowledges that arguments to permit women not to cover their heads, his own included, go against the grain of all the major halachic authorities.
His main argument to justify the prevailing practice in his time is to understand head-covering as only a matter of custom. He then suggests that the custom is void once head-covering is dissociated from modesty, which is accomplished when all women in a particular region go with heads uncovered.
Rav Yosef Messas, Collected Writings, p. 211
The prohibition is not from the uncovered hair itself, but rather from the custom of the daughters of Israel who were accustomed to cover their heads, because they thought at their time that this was modesty for a woman, and a woman who uncovered her hair was considered a breaker of the boundary of modesty, and for this reason the Torah warned all daughters of Israel not to do the opposite of the custom of the daughters of Israel in this. If so, now that all daughters of Israel agree that there is no modesty in covering the head...the prohibition has been fundamentally uprooted and has become permissible.
The idea that the obligation becomes moot as soon as common custom changes is highly debatable, especially if we view the obligation of head-covering as more than dat Yehudit. Modern halachic authorities overwhelmingly reject Rav Messas's idea. Additionally, in many of our communities, at least some women still practice head-covering and do associate it with modesty, which undermines his argument.
A recent article (and upcoming book) by American Rabbi Michael Broyde
similarly seeks to justify not covering one’s head. He cites rabbis who have made arguments parallel to Rav Messas’s, and suggests readings of other halachic authorities that might potentially line up with those arguments. Rabbi Broyde himself acknowledges that his argument goes against halachic consensus.
Rabbi Michael Broyde, "Hair Covering and Jewish Law: A Response," p. 91
The consensus of the Ahronim [late halachic authorities] for the last few centuries has surely been that there is an objective Torah obligation upon married women to cover their hair.
He adds that his article is meant to provide grounds to judge a woman who does not cover her head favorably, not to suggest that a woman should not cover her head.
In an article explaining why she does cover her head, Dr. Meirav Tubul Kahana writes that the weight of halachic consensus is actually the most important factor shaping her personal commitment:
Rabbanit Dr. Meirav (Tubul) Kahana, "At the End of the Day – Submission," from Olam Katan, May 2019
At the end of the day, after all the discussion and clarification of the matter of head-covering, its value and significance, we also need to say simply and with submission that thus the Oral Torah taught us, that the basis of head-covering is a Torah-level obligation. It is so difficult to exercise the muscle of submission regarding matters that are not understood and clear to us. To simply fulfill them because so commanded the Creator of the world. Especially in our generation, thinking and enlightened on the one hand, connecting and feeling on the other -- what isn’t understood or what we don't "feel" remains out of bounds. Indeed, we must look deeply, clarify, investigate and understand; there is great importance in connecting with mitzvot and to fulfilling them in joy. But the beginning and end of all mitzva fulfilment is the aspect of doing the will of one's Creator...
Halachic discussions of women's head-covering often cite another Talmudic passage, on a related issue. First, some background. The Torah prohibits men or women from uttering God's name in the presence of fully exposed male or female genitalia, which the Torah calls erva, nakedness. Rabbinic law extends this prohibition to other body parts. For example, rabbinic law considers typically-covered body parts to be erva, even though they may or may not in practice distract or arouse the one who sees them.
Rav Yitzchak said: An [exposed] hand-breath in a woman is [considered as akin to] nakedness [erva]. For what [halachic context]?...[Even] with his wife and for reciting Shema. Rav Sheshet said: Hair in a woman is [considered as akin to] nakedness [erva], as it is said, "Your hair is like a flock of goats" (Shir Ha-shirim 4:1)
When he recites Shema, a man may not see a hand-breath of a woman's body that is typically covered, even if the woman in question is his wife.
In the context of this Talmudic discussion of erva, Rav Sheshet stipulates that a woman's hair is erva. The verse that he quotes, from Shir Ha-shirim, evokes a flock of glossy goats seen from afar, moving in undulating waves. The image is of shining and bobbing hair. This proof-text suggests that a woman's hair can potentially be an erotic distraction to men when they recite Shema. Rav Sheshet's position considering women's hair as erva may be influenced by its being a typically-covered body part, as seen, for example, in the mishna of dat Yehudit. (We'll discuss what, or whose, hair falls under this category in a future installment.)
Rav Sheshet's teaching on hair does not affect women's recitation of Shema or berachot. Though it is not considered ideal, Halacha permits a woman to recite Shema, prayers and berachot in the presence of any other woman's or her own uncovered body parts, excluding genitalia. A woman can disregard another woman's uncovered hair, because there is a halachic presumption that it will not arouse or distract her.
The definition of hair as erva does obligate men to turn their heads (or, arguably, to shut their eyes) when reciting Shema, or by extension a prayer or beracha, when a woman's head is uncovered in their presence. According to one school of thought, it is forbidden for a man to see the uncovered hair at any time.
As we will see, the halachic discussion of the whos and hows of headcovering draws on this passage. In cases or contexts where a woman's exposed hair is considered erva, many halachic authorities take it as a given that she may not expose it. Exposing hair in that situation to the extent that it halachically interferes with someone else's recitation of Shema or tefilla is inconsiderate, and leaving even rabbinic-level erva exposed may be considered at odds with the value of modesty in our "holy camp," which reminds us of dat Yehudit.
Some scholars, among them Rav Yerucham Fischel Perlow (early twentieth-century Poland and Lithuania), have suggested the possibility that the obligation of head-covering depends on its status as erva.
Rav Yerucham Fischel Perlow, Commentary to Sefer Ha-Mitzvot of Rav Sa'adya Ga'on
But in the Talmuds it is explained that a Torah-level prohibition is learned from this verse (Bemidbar 5:18). Perhaps it is possible to say that the prohibition is not learned [directly] from this verse itself. Rather since we learn from the verse that the way of the daughters of Israel is thus [not to go bareheaded], we infer that it is an immodest matter that can lead to illicit relations. If so, it naturally leads to a Torah prohibition under the rubric of "Do not place a stumbling block before the bind" (Va-yikra 19:14).
To be clear, though, with a few exceptions, there is halachic consensus that the obligation of women's head-covering derives chiefly from the sota and, secondarily, from dat Yehudit. The association of hair with erva is a related halacha that can provide additional reason for head-covering. Rav Moshe Feinstein takes this approach:
Responsa Iggerot Moshe O.C. I:42
Even the married women became accustomed to go with heads uncovered. Even though it is prohibited, it is not erva regarding Keri'at Shema and words of Torah.
We will examine the contention that hair's erva status can change in our next installment. What is important to note for now is that Rav Moshe makes it clear that the prohibition of going bareheaded remains in place even if erva does not apply. Our series follows Rav Moshe's approach to this issue.
Next, we explore different explanations offered for the significance of the obligation of head-covering.
- Henkin, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl, “Contemporary Tseni’ut” Tradition 37:3 (Fall 2003), pp. 1-48.
- Shulman, Rabbi Eli Baruch, “Exchange: Hair Covering and Jewish Law: A Response” Tradition 43:2 (Summer 2010), pp. 73-88.
 See also the parallel version in Sifri:
Sifri Bemidbar Naso 11
He uncovers the head of the woman…it teaches that daughters of Israel cover their heads.
 We follow Rav Moshe Feinstein's explanation of Rashi’s commentary:
Iggerot Moshe EH 1:57
According to the first explanation…he [Rashi] considers it a prohibition, and see Ritva who wrote in accordance with this explanation of Rashi that we infer that uncovering the head is peritzut [immodest behavior] for a woman, for therefore it is certainly prohibited. According to the latter language…it sounds as though it is a matter of mitzva upon her to go with a head-covering and not a matter of prohibition, just that it automatically becomes a prohibition, since she violates the positive commandment when she goes bare-headed…
 An alternative reading of this passage would be that a hint to a rabbinic-level prohibition is found in the Torah. Presumably, this is the reading of Terumat HaDeshen, below, note 8.
 He claims, as opposed to the common understanding of it, that this is the correct reading of Rambam's position (quoted below).
 See, for example, Yerushalmi Ketubot 4:8, Ramban al Ha-Torah Devarim 21:12, Beit Yosef EH 149. See also:
In accordance with dat Moshe ve-Yisrael…It was necessary for us to write this [in the ketuba] to inform us that he only wrote himself a ketuba so that she would conduct [herself] with him in accordance with dat Moshe and Yehudit, as we learn in the mishna, "And these exit [marriage] without a ketuba: One who violates dat Moshe or Yehudit."
 Rosh Ketubot 7:9
If she violates other transgressions, such as if she herself ate something prohibited, she has not forfeited her ketuba.
 See also Rashi:
Rashi Sota 25a
Violates dat Yehudit, by not being modest
 Rosh Ketubot 7:11
Dat Yehudit causes forfeit [of the ketuba] because of brazenness and because of the concern of adultery.
 Others following this approach include Semag:
Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Positive Mitzvot 48
These are the things that if she did one of them she violated dat Moshe: She went out in the marketplace and her head was bare.
 On Terumat ha-Deshen's reading, that Rambam maintains head-covering is a rabbinic obligation, dat Moshe can be rabbinic. We saw the more common opposing view of dat Moshe in Rashba, supra.
 Rabbi Michael Broyde, “Hair Covering and Jewish Law,” Tradition, 42:3 (Fall 2009): 97-179. Rabbi Michael Broyde, “Hair Covering and Jewish Law: A Response,” Tradition 43:2 (Summer 2010): 89-108. Available here. See also Rabbi Eli Shulman’s response at that link and “Controversy or Contrivance? The Attempted Justification for Uncovered Married Women’s Hair” By Rabbis Yosef Wiener and Yosef Ifrah, available here.
 Devarim 23:15
For the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to give your enemies before you. Therefore, your camp should be holy, that He not see in you any matter of nakedness and turn away from you.
It is written "That He should not see in you any matter of nakedness." This [verse] is necessary in accordance with the view of Rav Yehuda, For Rav Yehuda said: If an idolater is naked, it is prohibited to recite Shema in his presence. Why specify an idolater? Even a Jew also [is included in the prohibition].
 Shulchan Aruch OC 75:1
[If one sees] an uncovered handsbreadth of a woman['s body] in a place it is her practice to cover...it is prohibited to recite Shema in her presence.
 An alternate reading, that women's hair is only erva if a man ogles it, is found in a number of early commentators.
 There is debate about this issue, based on the opposing opinion of Rosh Berachot 3:37, cited by Rema 75:1, but normative Halacha follows Rashba on this matter:
Mishna Challa 2:3
A woman may sit and separate her challa naked, because she is able to cover herself [her genitalia when sitting]
Rashba Berachot 24a s.v. Amar Rav Chisda
Specifically for others and for men because of possible fantasizing [is it considered erva], but for herself it is not [considered erva], for we learn in a Mishna, "A woman may sit and separate her challa naked."
Mishna Berura 75:8
Even regarding another woman, she may recite Shema and pray in her presence when she [the other woman] is naked, and the later authorities agree with Rashba.
 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefilla 4:8
And from seeing erva for keri'at Shema, so too do we keep distant from it for tefilla.
 Rambam does not include mention of hair as erva in the relevant discussion regarding keri'at Shema (Laws of Shema 3:15), but he does treat it as erva in his discussion in general of what a man may look at, which applies to all contexts.
Mishneh Torah, Issurei Bi'a 21:2
Even to hear the voice of a woman who is erva to him [i.e., a woman with whom relations would be prohibited] or to see her hair is prohibited
 A more halachic way of formulating this would be as an application of the mitzva, known as lifnei iver, not to trip up another person, leading him or her to violate a commandment, which arguably may apply here. See Rav Perlow below. For more on lifnei iver, see Sefer Ha-mitzvot 237.