Are There Halachot of Sheitels?

One of the most frequent questions I get, out and about as a visibly Orthodox Jew, is about sheitels. “Excuse me, are you Orthodox? Can I ask you a question? Why do Orthodox women wear those beautiful wigs; doesn’t that defeat the point?”

“Well,” I like to answer, “For starters, it depends what you think the point is.”

One thing that I think is often missing from general conversation about Jewish hot-button issues, including but not limited to questions surrounding women’s attire specifically and “roles” more generally, is a careful attention to the multifaceted sources that have shaped our laws through the centuries. Our halachic heritage is built through an intricate mix of text and real-world practice, and neither should be minimized.

The issue of hair covering is no different –in fact, is a prime example.

On one hand, there are those who view hair covering entirely as a matter of communal custom or even of personal practice: “What a woman wears on her head is no one’s business but her own!” Certainly, that is true, at the very least in a practical sense. On the other hand, a friend of mine recently referred to “the halachot of sheitels,” apparently in the sense of specific guidelines about what sort of sheitel is or is not permitted. If there could be such a thing as a set of halachic guidelines about what a woman must wear on her head, then is it really only her business or is it “halacha’s business”? If it is halacha’s business, does that mean other people might have a responsibility to educate women who don’t seem to be following halacha?

As is so often the case in matters of Jewish tradition – though we might often forget this truth about our tradition – both extremes could be right, or at least could claim basis in the sources, as could many other nuanced perspectives.

As I like to put it when asked about sheitels (and it is not only the unaffiliated, or non-Jewish, who ask), hair covering is a particularly tricky subject to pin down for several reasons, the first being that the Torah source is derived backwards. There is no pasuk that says a married woman must cover her hair; rather, the requirement is inferred from the fact that one of the acts prescribed for the sotah ritual is that the kohen must uncover[1] her hair.[2]

How does the uncovering of the sotah’s hair lead to a conclusion that it must be required for married women to cover their hair? Rashi on the Gemara offers two explanations, with different implications as far as our ability to draw conclusions about the “point” of hair covering.

In his first explanation, Rashi suggests that the sotah’s hair is uncovered specifically as a midah keneged midah punishment: presumably, she beautified herself for her paramour, including uncovering her hair, so she is punished by being shamed in the same way. According to this explanation, one might well suggest that the purpose of hair covering has something to do with modesty – i.e. not making oneself alluring through exposure/styling of hair – and assess potential covers within the question of how modest they are.

The second explanation, and the one Rashi himself prefers, is that the need to uncover the sotah’s hair indicates that it had until that moment been covered. In this approach, the pasuk is understood to imply the fact that married women (such as a sotah) must cover their hair - but it tells us nothing about the reason. One might, if we understand the Gemara this way, completely ignore any questions of relative modesty and simply make sure there is some object on a woman’s head.[3]

This second perspective seems to fit nicely with those authorities – as I understand it, those most widely accepted by Ashkenazi communities – who wrote that the only requirement was for a woman to cover her natural hair. (See Shiltei Giborim on Rif Shabbos 29a – cited by the Rema in his Darchei Moshe commentary, Orach Chaim 303.)

Those who find this unsatisfying might then speculate as to the reason, and perhaps that is how we get to those perspectives which suggest hair covering is for the woman herself, to be aware and know she has something on her head, as an extra barrier between herself and the men around her now that she is married and has let her modesty guard down, so to speak, in her relationship with her husband. (This is a perspective I hear often, in various permutations, but I am unaware of any source for it earlier than the past century.) Whatever we might speculate about the reason, however, if we have no fundamental reason attached to the requirement in our fundamental halachic sources, then we can assume that halachically any cover will do. Even a wig – maybe even a beautiful one, and maybe even a glamorous or alluring style. Those questions as to style would then be best left to an individual woman’s sensitivities as to how she wishes to present herself to the world in general; indeed, her choice alone, perhaps with guidance from her chosen mentors.

However, other scholars have focused on Rashi’s first explanation, and extrapolated a reason from it that might well have implications not just for the question of wearing a sheitel but for questions of its cut and style. If the sotah is punished for having used her hair to look beautiful for a man she should not have been trying to attract, we might then conclude that the requirement to cover is actually a requirement that a married woman not use hair to make herself beautiful in front of other men.

If this is the “point” of the practice, it may indeed be defeated by wearing a wig. For instance, Rabbi Avraham ben Tzvi Hirsch Teomim takes just this approach and argues that a wig, being hair, is exactly as sensually suggestive as the hair attached to a woman’s head.[4] In his view, wigs fundamentally do not satisfy the Torah requirement and it is therefore forbidden on a Torah level for a married woman to go in public with nothing but a wig on her head.

One might also take a similar approach and suggest that wigs are valid head coverings according to Torah law, but only if they are not unduly attractive. Defining such parameters would of course be enormously difficult, and definitions even of the Torah law could end up being somewhat subjective, but in theory this approach would represent a viable interpretation of halacha.

So far, we have focused only on the question of whether a wig – or certain kinds of wigs – would satisfy the Torah requirement for married women to cover their heads. There is, however, another level to the mitzvah, and therefore another level of complication.

The Gemara in Ketuvot further tells us that there is a dat Yehudit element to the mitzvah that demands more than the Torah obligation. According to many scholars, “dat Yehudit” refers to the norms of actual practice of Jewish women specifically in the context of modesty. (See, for instance, Rambam Hilchot Ishut 24:12) This part of the requirement is also difficult to define, and an attempt to do so –including an attempt to determine whether dat Yehudit can change, and to what extent and through what mechanism – would be way beyond the scope of this article. We should, however, remember if the norm in a certain community has been that married women do not go in public with an uncovered wig, or perhaps only wear those of particular styles that are not considered “immodest,” then it would gain a level of prohibition in that community even if the Torah fundamentally allows all wigs.

There is one further avenue of halachic analysis that agrees wigs would fundamentally satisfy both Torah law and the requirements of dat Yehudit, but objects to them because of other halachic concerns. The most commonly discussed secondary halachic issue is the concern of marit ayin, that people who see a woman in a wig will think she is not covering her hair. (See the responsa of Be’er Sheva, siman 18.) Many argue this concern doesn’t apply to wigs, but others believe it does – thereby classifying uncovered wigs as a violation at least of Rabbinic law.

In this realm as well, the style or quality of the wig – how “natural” it looks – might well play a role in determining the actual halacha: If one is of the position that a wig satisfies the Torah requirement of covering, but violates marit ayin, then one might also say a wig which is obviously a wig is perfectly fine but that one which is so beautiful as to be mistaken for real hair is forbidden – not because it is too beautiful or immodest, but because it looks like she is violating the requirement to have some object on her head. How do we define “obviously”? This, too, offers a lot of room for subjectivity not just in the realm of “spirit of the law,” but in applying the “letter of the law” as well.

(On the side that argues wigs do not violate marit ayin, I highly recommend reading the teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein in which he compares women wearing wigs to men shaving with a razor that satisfies technical halacha but might lead people to think he used a forbidden razor. He applies the same considerations to his halachic analyses regarding both genders, and suggests that a man who would shave with such a razor, but doesn’t want his wife to wear a wig, is a hypocrite. See Igros Moshe Even HaEzer volume II siman 12.)

So, what do we do with all these explanations and interpretations and opinions?

The first time I ever taught the halachot of hair covering, I was a first-year high school teacher overwhelmed with preparation and assigned my students to research various topics before I had had the chance to review the sources carefully myself. This led to an awkward moment when one of the students assigned to the topic of hair covering asked me “So which opinion do you follow, Mrs. Rudolph?” and I couldn’t remember, at that moment, which posek it was. Over a decade later, I have the confidence to give the real answer: I cover the way I do because my mother does and because that is the norm among those whose Jewish philosophy and practice most aligns with mine. I would wear a sheitel if I found them comfortable, and I do wear scarves that allow just a little hair to show, not because I find one particular interpretation of the sources most compelling, but because my community has adopted the halachic rulings of some poskim over others. This is where text and practice intertwine, and rather than being embarrassed, I am proud to be a part of a mesorah with such depth and breadth, with such intricate thought and analysis, with room for so many different practices – though not all – to be considered “halachic.”

It would be tragic, as well as inaccurate, for us to relegate this entire area of halacha to the realm of “personal choice” or “custom” and forget that there are real d’Oraita and d’Rabbanan laws at play. On the other hand, it would also be tragic – and inaccurate – for us to forget the richness of our halachic heritage, to crawl into the box of our personal community and psak, and forget that there are other valid halachic approaches. And what would be the most tragic of all would be to not only forget that this area of halacha does indeed leave room for a wide variety of practices, but to vilify those who follow a different psak without taking the time to study and ask and learn what might be behind what they do.

Teaching others one’s own perspective is great; arguing the merits of one approach versus another is fun and an integral part of our tradition of Torah study. But shaming those who disagree is never okay.

[1] According to the translation accepted by the majority of halachic authorities over the centuries. See Torah Temimah on Bamidbar 5:18 for alternatives.

[2] See Bamidbar 5:18 and Ketuvos 72a. While the Gemara in Berachos 24a also refers to women’s hair, there it is likely more about whether a man may recite shema (or other words of prayer/study) in the presence of a woman who does not have her hair covered, rather than offering a direct source about what the women herself should be doing. Moreover, for the sake of addressing sheitels in particular, Ketuvos is the more relevant source.

[3] The question of how much hair must be covered, within either of Rashi’s explanations, is beyond the scope of this essay.

[4] שו"ת חסד לאברהם מהדורא תניינא חלק ב אבן העזר סימן פז – Though he acknowledges that Rashi himself labels the second explanation as “ikar,” he finds the first more compelling.


Related content from Sarah Rudolph in OU Life: Halacha-Shaming is Counter-Productive, in Addition to Just Plain Wrong