Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hair Beliefs, Part VI

In my hair beliefs series, I haven't gotten around to Judaism because there is just so much on the subject.

I first became aware of distinct Judaic hair beliefs when on a play date as a child.

Me: "Why does your mother wear a wig? Is there something wrong with her hair?" (Look, I was about seven years old ...)

Cassie: "Her hair's fine. She's just can't show it to other people."

"Who says?"

"The Rabbi. We're Jewish. Only my dad can see my mother's hair."

The sheitel, or Jewish wig head covering, came about due to the Jewish law observed by Orthodox Jews called the Halachot of Tzniut, that is, modesty. Sheitels can be made of human hair, but the hair cannot have been used for idolatrous purposes before being made into a wig. Some sheitels even have kosher certification. For more, check out Wikipedia.

But the above begs the question -- why must women cover their hair? The biblical basis is squirreled away in a few passages here and there in the Pentateuch. For commentary, I refer you to Ask the Rabbi, where Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that hair equals "sensuality control." Follow the link for a more complete description, but basically, our faces contain both physical and intellectual qualities. For instance, the mouth and eyes are physical/sensual components, whereas the forehead is intellectual. Since hair covers the intellectual part, it is a marker of sorts, a "mechanism for control," to remind the person not to be too physical, to guide one's behavior with intellect. The commentary concludes:
If you think about this for a while you will get a sense of why Judaism concerns itself with issues such as the covering of a woman's hair (sensuality), Payot [those curly sidelocks] for a man (dividing the part of the brain that controls the sensual from that which is involved in the intellectual); and even why we cut a young boy's hair for the first time at the age we begin his education (learning how to use his intellect to control his behavior).
For Rabbi Hirsch, hair seems to symbolize the human effort to achieve mind over matter. I had never thought of it that way.

Regardless, even that one small paragraph seems to me a lot to digest. I'm not the only one. Lynne Schreiber has written a book about it: Hide & Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering, which compiles the views of dozens of women.

If you would like to learn more about hair references in the Bible, the debate in Judaism about whether head coverings are custom or law, and the history of Judaic hair beliefs regarding women, check out this article written by Dr. Leila Leah Bronner called To Cover or Not to Cover: That is the Question -- Jewish Hair Laws Through the Ages.

As for Judaic hair beliefs regarding men, that will have wait until a later post.