New American Reform Responsa
13. Women with Heads Covered in the Synagogue
QUESTION:In my synagogue, which is a little more traditional, it is customary for women to wear hats and to have their hair covered during services; is a wig sufficient? What is the traditional basis for this? Does the custom have ancient roots? (Richard Bernstein, Miami FL)
ANSWER: Various periods in history have considered different portions of the female body as sexually enticing. Hair was certainly considered so in the Talmudic period, and it was to be covered for that reason among married women (M Ket 2.1; 72a; Yeb 114b; Ber 24a; I Cor 11.5). Maimonides insisted on hair covering for married and unmarried women in public places (Yad Hil Issurei Biah 21.17). The matter has been discussed at considerable length through responsa as well as other classical sources. A full summary has been provided by Samuel Krauss “The Jewish Rite of Covering the Head” (Hebrew Union College Annual 19 pp 121 ff; and J. Z. Lauterbach (Studies in Jewish Law, Custom, and Folklore pp 225 ff and Otzar Haposqim Vol 9). We, of course, are concerned primarily with the question of whether prayer may be conducted when a woman’s head, married or unmarried, is not covered. Caro definitely felt that it was necessary for all women to cover their head during prayer (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 75.2); yet unmarried virgins who customarily go bareheaded could do so in the synagogue also. In a later age when uncovered hair became the general custom of society, it was no longer considered necessary for women to cover their hair. Hair in those societies had lost its sexual overtones (Y. Hayim Sefer Huqei Hanashim 17.1; Masat Mosheh Even Haezer 21.5; Sefer Eleh Hamitzvot Mitzvah #262). Among the Orthodox this represents a minority view; the majority continue to agree with Caro (Moses Feinstein Igrot Mosheh Even Haezer 1:53; Y. Weinberg Seridei Esh 3.30; E. Waldenberg Tzitz EliezerVol 7 48:3; etc).
In modern times traditional authorities have reached a somewhat different conclusion. Women had changed their mode of dress, and so women’s hair was generally now not covered, and this, therefore, no longer constituted a barrier against prayer in a synagogue (Arukh HashulhanOrah Hayim 75.8). These and other modern authorities as well as those of the last century realized that many women who were forced to cover their hair did so with a wig, which in some instances was more beautiful than their original hair, and so made them more rather than less enticing. This was precisely what the original prohibition intended to combat.
The traditional statements therefore are clear. The hair of married women, possibly unmarried women, must be covered during public prayer. A wig is generally also considered sufficient covering outside the synagogue, but not within, mainly as a matter of marit ayin.However, some modern Orthodox authorities have given way to the widespread custom of Orthodox women not having their hair covered and have permitted this in the synagogue.
Our Reform view is different. We do not see uncovered hair as likely to distract and be sexually arousing. The question of a wig would not arise. Women may worship in our synagogue with hair covered or uncovered, as they wish.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.