In this week’s parsha, Naso, we find a biblical reference to the practice of married Jewish women covering their hair. The Sotah ritual was designed to test, through supernatural means, the possible guilt of a married woman whose husband suspected her of committing adultery. During the Sotah ritual, the Kohein (priest) was required to stand before the woman suspected of adultery and uncover her hair. The Talmud explains that, from the fact that her hair is uncovered during the Sotah ritual, we can infer that a married woman's hair is normally covered.
The practice of hair covering is one of the immediate markers of an Orthodox woman and one that many people don’t fully understand.
An obvious parallel to hair covering for women is the kippah (known in Yiddish as a yarmulke). However, the two are not identical.
One important difference is whether one is covering one’s head or one’s hair. A kippah is meant to cover one’s head. The Talmud teaches that the purpose of a kippah is to remind the wearer that G-d is always above. In fact, yarmulke comes from an Aramaic expression (yirah malka) that expresses veneration for G-d. By contrast, a woman’s head covering is meant to cover her hair.
Even the most casual synagogue attendees are likely familiar with the chapel cap (doily), which some women pin onto their heads while attending synagogue services. Women who do not generally cover their hair sometimes wear hats to synagogue. These customs appear to emerge from the sense that one ought not pray while bareheaded. In that sense, they are more related to the head covering of the kippah than to the hair covering of an Orthodox woman.
Another difference is that even young children may wear a kippah whereas hair covering is reserved for married women. A third difference is that, in non-Orthodox communities, it is not unusual to see a woman wearing a kippah, often in a very feminine style. While Jewish men are required wear something on their head, there is no mitzvah for them to cover their hair.
Both a kippah and hair covering are markers of Jewish identification. For the insider, the style of kippah or the style of hair covering signifies with which part of the community s/he is associated. For example, a black velvet kippah signifies association with the yeshiva world where a kippah srugra (knitted kippah) identifies the wearer as a Modern Orthodox Jew. These distinctions are not always completely accurate. I recall being amused seeing a kippah for sale that was half black velvet and half kippah sruga.
This sociological principal applies to women and their hair coverings as well. For example, a Modern Orthodox woman will sometimes wear a hat that does not cover all of her hair. Lubavitch women almost always wear sheitels (wigs). Women in the yeshiva world will generally wear a sheitel for formal occasions, but often wear snoods (decorative fabric bags worn at the back of the head to hold the hair) for less formal occasions.
Many wonder how a Jewish woman can wear a sheitel that is practically indistinguishable from real hair and may even improve her appearance. The underlying assumption is that a married woman covers her hair in order to look less attractive.
This is not the case.
Covering one’s hair is a way of containing the sensual energy that is emitted through the hair and directing it right back to the woman herself. By contrast, uncovered hair dissipates this energy into the world at large. Covering one’s hair is a reflexive spiritual process that has more to do with the woman’s intimate relationship with herself and her husband than with the world around her. This might be why some Chassidic women wear a hat on top of a wig. The wig is the hair covering that contains her sensual energy and the hat is a social statement, marking her as a married woman.
This explanation, that hair covering is something a woman does for her own spirituality, goes a long way to understanding why, whether a woman covers her hair with a hat, a tichel (scarf) or a sheitel, as long as her hair is covered, she has fulfilled the mitzvah.
Among the 613 commandments, there is no mitzvah to be unattractive.