Sisterhood Blog

The Case for the Sheitel

By Michael J. Broyde

  • Print
  • Share Share
Wikimedia Commons

Elana Maryles Sztokman, in her recent Sisterhood blog post titled “The Case Against the Sheitel,” seems to be mistaken in her critique of the wigs that many married Orthodox women choose to wear. Sheitels are a model of how Jewish law is supposed to function and change. We will know that the Arab world has modernized when they, too, favor sheitels over headscarves.

Let me explain. Many religious communities, including traditional halachic ones, have deep-seated concerns about matters of modesty. Sure, these concerns seem quaint to some of my students — students with their belly buttons out for display, students who comfortably endorse sexual activity as a form of recreation. As one of them said to me, “Sex to us is like food to Jews; we use it to celebrate, and variety is the spice of life.” But the simple fact is that how one dresses and what one shows frequently does serve as a signal of how one is prepared to act.

In ancient times, hair covering was a sign of modesty. Jewish law codified that married women ought to cover their hair. According to the Talmud in Ketubot, as understood by most (but not all) authorities, this was an immutable rule reflecting their married status, regardless of whether uncovered hair was considered erotic. Indeed, unmarried Jewish women never developed the custom to cover their hair (other than in a few Islamic lands), since hair, as opposed to belly buttons, was never a central erotic fascination, and hair covering, at least in the Jewish tradition, was connected to marriage.

As the normative practice of secular people changed and modest secular women ceased covering their hair, the sheitel developed in Orthodox Jewish society as the perfect compromise: It allowed one to remain in conformity with the basic requirements of Jewish law (that one’s hair be covered), while simultaneously recognizing that uncovered hair was no longer strictly a sign of immodest conduct. If hair were really still erotic, then Dr. Sztokman would be right that one cannot cover (erotic) hair with fake hair any more than one can cover (erotic) breasts with fake breasts.

But the great Jewish law authorities of the last centuries are more perceptive of the reality than Dr. Sztolman gives them credit for being. Women who desire to obey Jewish law while fully functioning in our open and valuable Western society found wearing a hat or a scarf to be a burden. Hence, the sheitel became the perfect compromise because it promotes conformity with both Jewish law and Western culture.

One could ask why anyone should live their life around the Talmud — a document written 1,500 years ago by great rabbis seeking to reflect the will of the Divine, as they understood it. But that is exactly the mission of Orthodoxy, and it has been for centuries. And it seems to be working as well (or even better) than many contemporary versions of Judaism.

Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University. He was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta and is a dayan in the Beth Din of America. Broyde is also the author of “Innovation and Jewish Law” (Urim, 2010).


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sheitel, Marriage, Hair Covering, Halacha

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.