The fact that married women cover their hair, may be the most distinguishing feature of “modest dress” in the religious Jewish world. Be it a scarf, hat, beret, “snood,” wig, turban, or creative combination of the above — if an observant, married woman is in public, she’ll have something on her head and her hair will be under it.
Single women anticipate this practice with a wide range of feelings. One whose identity is strongly bound up with her hair may recoil at the idea of “squelching herself” by covering it. One who lives to shop will eagerly embrace the opportunity to add a whole new section to her wardrobe. Others are less than enthusiastic, but determined to make the best of it: “If I have to cover my hair, I’m going to have fun doing it!” Finally (believe it or not), there are women who greet the whole issue with nothing more than a shrug.
Men, too, often have distinct feelings about the whole business, both pro and con. Of course, any person’s attitude towards head covering will be colored by what he or she thinks is the reason for it. A popular explanation is that since a woman’s hair is sexually attractive, once she marries, she should “save it for her husband.” This idea appeals to many. Yet it overlooks the fact that divorcées and widows generally cover theirs as well. It would seem that there’s a deeper explanation.
Hair covering, while commonly seen as an extension of tzniut, is, in fact, in a category of its own. There are at least two different, yet complementary, approaches to understanding this practice. One talks about covering one’s hair, the other about covering one’s head. Both see hair/head covering as reflecting a deep and irreversible change that a woman experiences in undergoing the transition from being single to being married.
One of the most significant passages a person can make, which in the traditional Jewish world occurs upon marrying, is from sexual naiveté to direct knowledge of intimacy between man and woman. This strongly impacts upon our self-image, which in turn affects the message we broadcast, consciously or unconsciously, to others. Just as an inexperienced woman may unconsciously project her innocence, an experienced woman is likely to unwittingly communicate her lack of it.
While crossing the threshold of sexual experience is deeply transformative for both sexes, Judaism understands its impact to be greater upon a female, whose sexuality is more bound up with her being. Marital intimacy exposes her to a profound, new dimension of her womanhood, as well as the power inherent in it. When a woman who is no longer sexually naive displays something sensual of herself, it is now likely to “radiate more energy,” because of her own experiential awareness of what it can evoke.
One sensual aspect of a woman is her hair. While men are usually quite aware of this, some young women claim not to be. At the same time, they can often be observed nonchalantly brushing their hair from their eyes, combing their fingers through it, sweeping it off their foreheads so it immediately falls back, putting it loosely in a ponytail and seconds later letting it cascade down, tossing it over their shoulders — most conspicuously when there are guys around. (If it’s so in the way, ever wonder why they don’t just put it up in a bun?) The fact is that most women know full well the power of “letting your hair down.”
When a woman covers her hair upon marrying, she makes the statement: “My eyes have been opened — and at the same time, I intend to keep my sexuality where it belongs: in the intimacy of marriage.” With sexual experience seen as the key element of transition, there are opinions that even a single woman whose innocence is behind her should cover her hair, although this isn’t the practice.
Gaining direct sexual knowledge, however, is not the only change which marrying brings about. Ideally, marriage opens the door to new levels of self- and other-awareness, opportunities for emulating God through profound, multifaceted giving, and gradually achieving the wholeness that Judaism understands to exist only in the union of male and female. Spiritually, entering the world of marriage is a significant “coming of age,” and confers upon the individual a higher standing in the eyes of the community.
Judaism, along with many contemporary psychologists and feminists, sees women as strongly defining themselves in the context of human relationships. Marriage, in particular, gives most women a deep feeling of fulfillment. The Torah expresses this in describing Eve as having been created as a partner to Adam, who, in contradistinction, was created alone. That upon marrying, a woman, more than a man, truly “comes into her own” likewise causes her stature to undergo a more marked change. In a society which exalts autonomy and independence, all this may sound offensive. To the Jewish mind, however, life is about relationships, of which — next to our relationship with God — marriage is the ultimate.
Cross-culturally, when we want recognition of our higher status, we draw attention to our heads. A graduating university student wears a distinctive, tasseled, four-cornered cap. Dignitaries from almost all religions wear impressive-looking headgear. The priests in the Jewish Temple wore turbanlike head apparel. Among members of a Native American tribe, the chief wears the largest headdress. All intuitively recognize that the head, where the mind lies, represents the seat of our humanness, and that by emphasizing it, you create an even stronger statement of your stature as a human being.
In this view, a woman covers her head upon marrying as a sign of the greater dignity now attributed to her. From this perspective, even a bald woman would cover her head. Someone I know who enjoys wearing a variety of striking and beautiful head coverings once overheard two non-Jewish women remarking to each other about how regal she looked. Many women, in fact, regard their head covering as a queen does her crown.
While a married woman can revert to being single, she cannot similarly reverse the sexual and spiritual awakening marriage brings about, and therefore divorced or widowed women generally continue to cover their hair. Here, however, exceptions can be made — in which case, what one believes to be the principal reason for hair/head covering will be significant.
Religious men, as well, observe customs which reflect the association of marital stature with head covering, although to a lesser degree. In many circles, a man will wear a hat more consistently upon marrying. It is then that most Ashkenazi men start praying with a tallit (prayer shawl), and while Sephardi men do so from their bar mitzvah or even earlier, most wear the tallit over their heads only once they’re married.
Whichever approach to hair/head covering a woman favors, the two ideas of reserving her sexuality and expressing her dignity are inherently intertwined. Just as “letting your hair down” connotes not only sensual self-display but also abandoning more dignified behavior, putting one’s hair under cover goes hand in hand with asking for more respect as a married woman.
While most educated religious women have no problem with covering their hair, many (especially those whose larger societies look strangely upon head coverings) feel more presentable wearing a wig. Outsiders to Judaism often have trouble understanding why, in many opinions, this is acceptable. “Isn’t it hypocritical,” they’ll contest, “for a woman to cover her head with something that looks like her own hair — or even better?”
First, please notice that nothing I’ve said implies that covering one’s hair, as opposed to “wearing a shmatteh (rag) on your head,” means deliberately looking unattractive. On the contrary, a married woman is no less entitled to look presentable than a single woman, and a wig may help her achieve this.
Of course, some wigs raise the issue of the letter versus the spirit of the law. A wig designed to draw attention to itself — whether conspicuously large, long, and flouncy, or very unusually styled — does a spiritual injustice to the woman who wears it. A less flamboyant wig, on the other hand, which contributes to the impression of a woman’s internal self-worth, is doing its job. (This same principle applies to clothing and head coverings — as well as to makeup, which Jewish women traditionally haven’t shied away from, aware that it, too, can be tastefully used in the service of tzniut.)
All in all, looking well-put-together in a nonprovocative fashion — “attractive but not attracting” — doesn’t detract from but enhances a woman’s personhood. With a true understanding of tzniut, a woman can project herself in such a way that her outer beauty is not negated, but becomes welded to the beauty of her inner self.
As to the possibility of a wig passing for real hair, most wigs are easily identifiable as such, particularly within wig-wearing communities. Yet even when observers may not realize, due to either the wig or their own innocence, that a woman’s “hair” isn’t growing out of her head, she herself knows. The permissibility of wigs, therefore, makes a telling statement about head covering: that first and foremost, a woman is covering her hair for herself. Even as a purely private symbol, head covering is a powerful personal reminder of her marital status and her consequent responsibility to project herself with greater reserve and dignity.
Reprinted from “Outside/Inside” A fresh look at Tzniut by Gila Manolson. Available at www.gila-manolson.com