Why Do Orthodox Women Cover Their Hair?

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As some of you may have noticed in this post, I cover my hair.  It sounds so funny to say it in English, but that is what it is.  I guess I am just used to the Hebrew.

The question that many ask is: Why?  Why do Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair?  And is this similar to what Muslim women do?

We’ll start with the second question, since it’s a lot shorter.  Jewish women and Muslim women cover their hair for different reasons, and in different ways, and therefore, there is pretty much no comparison between the two.

In short, Jewish law does its utmost to protect women.  Jewish law – and Jewish practice, excepting a few crazies who are not/were not accepted in mainstream Judaism – has always been kinder to women than the world around us, excepting perhaps (and only perhaps) today’s modern “feminism”.  2000 years ago, Jewish women were of enviable status, and thus it continued until today.  Muslim values (not Muslim laws – I have not read Islamic holy books; Muslim values – i.e., how much of the Muslim world today behaves.**) are the exact opposite.  Women are not respected, they do not have equal rights in any way, and they are not valued.  A woman is seen, in many ways, as an object, and it is her responsibility not to tempt men.  I know that many of my readers will have a lot of questions on Jewish womens’ dress – and possibly some objections to the simplistic way I have spoken about Jewish and Muslim law – and I welcome them.  This post, however, is solely about hair covering.

Another difference is that Jewish women cover only their hair.  Muslim women cover their hair, parts of their faces, and their necks.  This is a huge difference, both to the woman and to how society views her.

Now for the first question of why Jewish women cover their hair at all.

The source for Jewish women covering their hair is in Bamidbar (Numbers) 5:18, where it speaks about a sotah.  A sotah is a woman who has been accused of adultery (today we do not accuse women of this because we do not have a Temple; if her husband accuses her they are forbidden to live together permanently).  The Chumash (Pentateuch) states that the kohen (Jewish priest), “. . . reveals the hair of the sotah.”

Since we are talking about deciding whether or not a woman committed adultery, this woman is not being seen in a positive light.  Therefore, the kohen uncovering her hair is part of the process of shaming her into admitting her crime.  Which means, therefore, that her hair is usually covered, and it is considered shameful for her to reveal it.  And since we are talking about adultery, and a single woman cannot commit adultery (because she has no husband), we learn (though there are differing opinions) that only married women need to cover their hair.

This analysis of the Chumash (Pentateuch) was written as a law already in the times of the Gemara (Talmud) in Ketubot 72a.  Modern halacha (Jewish law) also states this in the Shulchan Aruch, in the section of Even Ha’ezer (Code of Jewish Law, section 3) 21:2.*

Some of you will ask why it is shameful for a Jewish woman not to cover her hair.  The reason is simple: Most people who are married (we hope) are happy with that fact.  Just like a woman proudly wears a wedding ring, Jewish women proudly cover their hair.  And, in fact, in previous times, a hair covering served the purpose that a wedding ring serves today – to show people that she is a married woman and unavailable to others.  Think about it.  Have you never, ever met a single mother who was not embarrassed, at some point, that she did not have a wedding ring?  Have you never heard of someone who put on a ring that resembled a wedding ring, so that she would fit in?  This is the idea.  The kohen, in order to embarrass her so that she will admit her wrong and not have to be punished as severely, is taking off her wedding ring in front of a crowd – except that taking a ring off a finger is much less obvious than taking off a hair covering.  She is embarrassed.  It is shameful for her.  She acted as if she had the right to act like she was single, and now she is being portrayed as someone who forgot her commitment or didn’t care enough.

And from this, we learn that if uncovering her hair is so shameful (because covering it is a sign she is married), then married women must cover their hair.  If you see a woman with a head covering, you know that there is no point in trying to start with her.  Simple as that.

Here’s another thought: How long do women spend doing their hair each day?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  If so, she obviously thinks that her hair is very attractive and very important to her good looks.  Shouldn’t that attractiveness be reserved for her husband?  Why is she flaunting her gorgeous hair to the whole world?  She has no need to flirt with any of them.  Of this reason, I say, hmmm.  It is something to think about.  I was never one to spend a long time on my hair, never one to flaunt it, never one to flirt.  But there are many others who are not like me.  And it is the majority, not the exception, who are the basis for creating laws.  So, take it or leave it.  It is something to think about.

At the end of this post, I would like to refer you to two sites:

1) AskMoses, who generously provided me with the sources (the answers I knew already, but I was too lazy to find the sources myself).  This site answers many, many, many questions about Judaism, and they do an excellent job.

2) Wrapunzel, a site dedicated to hair covering.  She uses mostly (if not only) scarves, and it is a beautiful site that gives the idea of hair covering a much nicer rap (pun not intended) than it usually gets.

*Just for your knowledge – this is the only part of womens’ dress that is actually mentioned in the Chumash (Pentateuch) and in Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law).  The rest of the dress code was written for men and later adapted to both men and women.  Meaning, men are also required to dress modestly; the onus is not solely on the woman. 

However, a Jewish woman is not allowed to decide to dress immodestly, because of what we call, “The Law of Judith” (das Yehudis); i.e., Jewish women took these stringencies upon themselves over the years, and it became incorporated into what a Jewish woman is required to do.  So yes, it was a choice for previous generations, and they chose to follow a certain dress code.  But after a few decades (or hundred years), the rabbis gave this dress code their approval, and now it is binding.  But it is by no means on the same level as a Biblical command.

**As I have long suspected, there is a large gap between what the Quran dictates and what is actually practiced.

15 thoughts on “Why Do Orthodox Women Cover Their Hair?

  1. I don’t agree with Muslims being forced to wear the niqab or hijab; nonetheless, the following quote, “In one sentence, Jewish values protect and value women; Jewish law does its best to ensure that Jewish women are not cheap,” is the exact same argument I hear by Muslims for the forced veiling of Muslim women. So, I think you’re going to have to explain quite a bit more what distinguishes Jews from Muslims in this respect. I have no stake in this, by the way: I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim.


    • Take a look at womens’ rights in Muslim-ruled countries . . .
      Take a look at how women are treated . . .
      Obviously, there are Muslims who are exceptions to this rule. However, the exceptions do not make the rule. In Christian-ruled countries, treatment is better.

      Also, take a look at the news coming out of Britain and France about Muslims “taking” over neighborhoods and insisting on other residents conforming to their dress codes.

      BTW – what body part is the center of all human body language?


      • Hmmm… These are good and valid points that I definitely agree with. I was never asserting that the conditions of Jewish women are in any way as bad as the conditions of Muslim women. I don’t think I said anything like that and I didn’t mean to imply that. I was just talking about your justification for Jewish women covering their heads specifically. Take a look back at the sentence I highlighted. Change “Jewish” with “Muslim” and it’s the same argument I’ve heard from Muslims a thousand times over. I just think that this one sentence needs a little polish 🙂


  2. Wow! This is so interesting! Do the men do anything differently after marriage to distinguish that they are married besides wearing a ring? Also, if you are widowed or divorced what is the protocol for head covering? Thanks for sharing!


    • Actually, Jewish men are not required to wear a wedding ring – some do, some don’t. It is a custom in many communities that a man begins to wear a tallit after his wedding, during the morning prayer services. Some communities, however, begin wearing a tallit from age 13, bar mitzva. In some communities, a married man wears a different hat or type of coat on Shabbat – but not always. So no, there is nothing mandated for men the way it is for women.

      This probably is because under Biblical law, a man is allowed to take more than one wife – under certain conditions. There was a law enacted in European Jewish communities about a thousand years ago forbidding a man to take more than one wife. However, Sephardic communities (Yemen, Iraq, Spain, etc.) permitted it, so that even today, some Jews who immigrated from those countries still have more than one wife. However, today’s generation has generally adopted the European-Jewish custom of monogamy.

      Widowed or divorced women generally keep their hair covered; however, there are opinions who allow her to uncover it, so if the situation is a question (very short marriage, wants to remarry and has no kids, etc.), the woman will generally ask her rabbi. I know of two divorcees who covered their hair and were told to uncover it by their rabbi. I am not sure why.


  3. Very interesting facts about jews. However wrong I info. About muslim women. We do not cover our face. We only cover our hair and neck. Men and women are equal in islam. And covering our hair and wearing decently is for woman protection. Finally u r not forced to cover your hair. I am muslim and am not covering my hair.


    • I think it depends on where the woman in question lives. I see, very often, women who cover their entire faces except their eyes – and even their eyes are exposed only by a thin slit. Also, there are some places where women ARE forced to cover their faces and hair. I certainly am glad you’re not living in one of them. 🙂


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