Dear Jew in the City-
Why do Orthodox Jewish women shave their heads?
Thanks for your question. To say that Orthodox Jewish women shave their heads is a huge generalization, and not a particularly accurate one. What the majority of Orthodox women do is cover their hair.
The parameters of the laws of tzniyus (modesty) are not explicit in the Torah. They are part of the Torah she’b’al peh – our oral tradition, which was communicated teacher-to-student until finally being committed to writing in the Talmud. There are, however, allusions to the laws of tzniyus in the Torah.
Perhaps the best-known allusion to the law of women’s hair occurs in parshas Naso, in the section of the sotah (the suspected woman). Numbers 5:18 tells us that the kohein stands the suspected woman before Hashem and uncovers her hair; the Talmud in Kesubos (72a) observes that the Torah takes it for granted that a married woman’s hair is normally covered.
The parts of the body that are considered ervah (private because they are potentially sexually-attractive) are alluded to in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs). This includes the hair, as per verse 4:1, “You are beautiful, my love, you are beautiful. Your eyes are like doves, your hair inside your kerchief is like a flock of goats that stream down from Mount Gilad” (Brachos 24a). Of course, the details of different types of ervah differ. For example, a woman’s singing voice is considered private in halacha but not her speaking voice. Similarly, uncovered hair is considered private for a married woman but not for a single woman. (It’s also not retroactive; married women don’t have to hide photos of themselves from before they were married.)
We see the concept of married women’s hair covering taken as a given throughout Talmudic literature:
There are other examples I could cite but the point is clear: our Sages universally agree that a married woman covering her hair is part of the laws of tzniyus. But shaving hair off? That’s a practice observed in a few particular communities; it’s not a sweeping societal norm among Orthodox Jews in general.
According to some Hasidic authorities, the only way to ensure that a woman’s hair doesn’t eventually stray from under her hat/turban/scarf/kerchief/wig/etc. is not to have any. There’s also a concern that hair might create an interposition when using the mikva. Ostensibly, this practice is based upon a statement in the Zohar (parshas Naso) to the effect that the mikva should not see a woman’s hair.
The fact that there may be such a source is hardly a “slam-dunk” in favor of head-shaving for a variety of reasons. The Talmud in several places either implies or states explicitly that the practice of women is not to shave their heads. For example, Eiruvin 100b says that one of the “curses of Eve” is that women grow their hair long, while Nazir 28b says that a man can cancel his wife’s vow to shave her head if he finds it unattractive. Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch expressly prohibits women from shaving their heads (YD 182:5). The Zohar, while important, is not a halachic work so ruling from when it contradicts the Talmud or works of halacha is not a simple thing, and Hasidic communities act differently in such a situation than non-Hasidic communities. So this matter goes beyond merely acting leniently vs. acting stringently. (There are also those authorities who say that that’s not even what that Zohar means.)
This is not even the practice of all Hasidic communities. There are some Hasidic sects where the leadership may consider it obligatory for their adherents, others where it may be an optional practice, and still others where it may be virtually unheard of.
So is head-shaving a thing? Yes, but chiefly among women who belong to communities that follow that understanding of the Zohar in this matter. The majority of Orthodox women do not shave their heads. Rather, they cover their hair in a variety of ways and to a variety of degrees.
For more information, see The Tzniyus Book by Rabbi Abramowitz, available on Amazon.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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