Jewish tradition requires men to cover the head as a sign of humility before God, and women, as evidence of modesty before men, although the Bible does not explicitly command either men or women to cover the head.
According to the description of the priestly garb in Exodus (28:4, 37, 40), the high priest wore a miter (miẓnefet), and the ordinary priests a hat (migba'at). It was generally considered a sign of mourning to cover the head and face (II Sam. 15:30, 19:5; Jer. 14:3–4; Esth. 6:12). In talmudic times, too, men expressed their sense of grief while mourning by covering their heads, as did *Bar Kappara after the death of *Judah ha-Nasi (TJ, Kil. 9:4, 32b; TJ, Ket. 12:3, 35a). A mourner, one on whom a ban ( *ḥerem ) had been pronounced, and a leper, were, in fact, obliged to cover their heads (MK 15a), as was anyone who fasted in times of drought (Ta'an. 14b). These people had to muffle their heads and faces. It was considered an expression of awe before the Divine Presence to conceal the head and face, especially while praying or engaged in the study of mysticism (Ḥag. 14b; RH 17b; Ta'an. 20a). The headgear of scholars was an indication of their elevated position (Pes. 11b); some of them claimed that they never walked more than four cubits (about six feet) without a head covering (Shab. 118b; Kid. 31a; also Maim. Yad, De'ot 5:6, and Guide 3:52). The custom was, however, restricted to dignified personages; bachelors doing so were considered presumptuous (Kid. 29b). Artistic representation, such as Egyptian and Babylonian tablets or the synagogue at Dura Europos, generally depict Israelites, (and later Jews) without head covering. On the other hand, some rabbis believed that covering a child's head would ensure his piety and prevent his becoming a thief (Shab. 156b).
According to the Talmud (Ned. 30b), it was optional and a matter of custom for men to cover their heads. Palestinian custom, moreover, did not insist that the head be covered during the priestly benediction (see J. Mueller , Ḥilluf Minhagim she-bein Benei Bavel u-Venei Ereẓ Yisrael (1878),39f., no. 42). French and Spanish rabbinical authorities during the Middle Ages followed this ruling, and regarded the covering of the head during prayer and the study of the Torah merely as a custom. Some of them prayed with a bare head themselves (Abraham b. Nathan of Lunel, Ha-Manhig (Berlin, 1855), 15b, no. 45; Or Zaru'a, Hilkhot Shabbat 43). Tractate Soferim (14:15), however, rules that a person who is improperly dressed and has no headgear may not act as the ḥazzan or as the reader of the Torah in the synagogue, and may not invoke the priestly benediction upon the congregation. Moreover, the covering of the head, as an expression of the "fear of God" (yirat shamayim), and as a continuation of the practice of the Babylonian scholars (Kid. 31a), was gradually endorsed by the Ashkenazi rabbis. Even they stated, however, that it was merely a worthy custom, and that there was no injunction against praying without a head cover (Maharshal,
Resp. no. 7; Be'ur ha-Gra to Sh. Ar., OḤ 8:2). The opinion of David Halevy of Ostrog (17th century) is an exception. He declared that since Christians generally pray bareheaded, the Jewish prohibition to do so was based on the biblical injunction not to imitate the heathen custom ( *ḥukkat hagoi ; Magen David to OḤ 8:2). Traditional Jewry came to equate bareheadedness with unseemly lightmindedness and frivolity (kallut rosh), and therefore forbids it (Maim. Yad, De'ot 5:6).
The covering of the head has become one of the most hotly debated points of controversy between Reform and Orthodox Jewry. The latter regards the covering of the head, both outside and inside the synagogue, as a sign of allegiance to Jewish tradition, and demands that at least a skullcap (Heb. kippah, Yid. yarmulka) be worn. Worship with covered heads is also the accepted rule in Conservative synagogues. In Reform congregations, however, it is optional.
It was customary for most women in the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, and the Greco-Roman world to cover their hair when they went outside the home. In biblical times, women covered their heads with veils or scarves. The unveiling of a woman's hair was considered a humiliation and punishment (Isa. 3:17; cf. Num. 5:18 on the loosening of the hair of a woman suspected of adultery; III Macc. 4:6; and Sus. 32).
In talmudic times, too, married women were enjoined to cover their hair in communal spaces (e.g., Ned. 30b; Num. R. 9:16). In a society so highly conscious of sexuality and its dangers, veiling was considered an absolute necessity to maintain modesty and chastity. If a woman walked bareheaded in the street, her husband could divorce her without repaying her dowry (Ket. 7:6). Some rabbis compared the exposure of a married woman's hair to the exposure of her private parts (Ber. 24a), and forbade the recitation of any blessing in the presence of a bareheaded woman (ibid.). The rabbis praised pious women such as Kimhit, the mother of several high priests, who took care not to uncover their hair even in the house (Yoma 47a; Lev. R. 20:11). Nevertheless, covering the head was a personal imposition and restriction from which men were glad to be exempt. According to Sotah 3:8, men differ from women in that they may appear in public "with hair unbound and in torn garments." In Eruvin 100b, one of the disadvantages or "curses" that is cited as an inevitable part of being female includes being "wrapped up like a mourner." Some aggadic sources interpret this custom as a sign of woman's shame and feeling of guilt for Eve's sin (Gen. R. 17:8; ARN2 9; Er. 100b and Rashi ad loc.; cf., also, the opinion of Paul in I Cor. 11:1–16). Girls did not have to cover their hair until the wedding ceremony (Ket. 2:1). It gradually became the accepted traditional custom for all Jewish women to cover their hair (see Sh. Ar., EH 21:2).
In the early modern period the practice of a woman's shaving off all her hair upon marriage and covering her head with a kerchief (tichal) became widespread in Hungarian, Galician, and Ukrainian Jewish communities. Justifications for this stringency were to ensure that a married woman's hair would never be exposed and to eliminate the possibility of a woman's hair rising to the surface during her ritual immersion in the mikveh, rendering it invalid. Opponents argued that shaving the head would make a woman unattractive to her husband. Toward the end of the 18th century some circles of women began to wear a wig (shaytl). This "innovation" was opposed by certain Orthodox authorities such as Moses *Sofer (see A.J. Schlesinger , Lev ha-Ivri, 2 (19283), 109, 189) but continued to be widely practiced. In the early 21st century, a diverse range of customs connected with hair covering are followed by Orthodox Jewish women. Among some modern Orthodox women, there has been renewed interest in various modes of covering the hair after marriage. Many women who are not Orthodox continue the custom of covering their hair in synagogue.
[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]
L. Loew, in: Ben Chananja, 6 (1863), 102–27, reprinted with alterations in his: Gesammelte Schriften, 2 (1890), 311–28; Buechler, in: WZKM, 19 (1905), 91–138; S. Carlebach, in: Festschrift… D. Hoffmann (1914), 454–9, and Heb. part, 218–47; Krauss, in: MGWJ, 67 (1923), 189–92; and Aptowitzer's reply ibid., 195–9, 200–2; Goldziher, in: Der Islam, 6 (1915), 301–16; Lauterpach, in: CCARY, 38 (1928), 589–603; L.M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948), 46–55. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: L.L. Bronner, "From Veil to Wig: Jewish Women's Hair Covering," in: Judaism, 42:4 (1993), 465–77; N.B. Joseph, "Hair Distractions: Women and Worship in the Responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein," in: M.D. Halpern and C. Safrai (eds.), Jewish Legal Writings by Women (1998); M.M. Levine, "The Gendered Grammar of Ancient Mediterranean Hair," in: H. Eilberg-Schwartz and W. Doniger (eds.), Off with Her Head! The Denial of Women's Identity in Myth, Religion, and Culture (1995), 76–130; L. Schreiber (ed.), Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering (2003); M. Schiller, "The Obligation of Married Women to Cover their Hair," in: The Journal of Halacha, 30 (1995), 81–108.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.