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Why Do Orthodox Jewish Women Shave Their Heads?


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Dear Jew in the City-

Why do Orthodox Jewish women shave their heads?

Thank you,
Kylie

Dear Kylie-

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:

  • Ohn ben Peles was saved from being part of Korach’s rebellion by his wife. When Korach’s men came to fetch Ohn, she sat the entrance to their tent with her hair uncovered, causing the messengers to turn around and walk away (Sanhedrin 109b-110a);
  • The Rabbis asked Kimchis what she had done to merit having seven sons serve as Kohein Gadol (High Priest). She responded that the beams of her house never saw her with her hair uncovered. While the Rabbis rejected her hypothesis (because many other women have acted likewise), the extent to which she observed this law is still presented as an example of meritorious behavior (Yoma 47a; see Yerushalmi Megilla 1:10 for the accepted opinion as to the merit of Kimchis);
  • Rabbi Akiva once fined a man 400 zuz (an exorbitant sum) for uncovering a woman’s hair in public. The man subsequently demonstrated that the woman did not hesitate to uncover her own hair in public but Rabbi Akiva refused to reduce the fine saying that the woman’s willingness to uncover her own hair does not give the man license to do so (Baba Kama 8:6).

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.

Sincerely,
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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  1. If Kimchis had 7 sons who each became a Kohen Gadol, does that mean she had 6 sons die in her lifetime? Or is there some way where each one became impure and another son had to take over as Kohen Gadol temporarily?

    • Yeah, I always wondered that, too.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : October 29, 2019 at 8:09 am

      The latter; one who substitutes for an incapacitated Kohein Gadol is also considered a Kohein Gadol. If the ones who had served had died, she wouldn’t have been asked about her merits!

  2. AJ, it’s the second. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a zechus. Each son served as the Kohen Gadol at some point, but more than one person at a time could be qualified to serve as the Kohen Gadol should the “chief” Kohen Gadol be impure or otherwise indisposed. The position of “vice” Kohen Gadol is known as “s’gan kohen gadol.”

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book. For more Q&A, follow his new video series, Ask Rabbi Jack, on YouTube.