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Kippahs and wigs

· Different motivations for men and women in the Jewish world ·

“Cover your head because the divine presence is always above it”, the Jewish texts prescribe. This prescription is much more rigid and binding for men than it is for women.

Observant Jews wear a form of headgear in the shape of a skull-cap, the kippah. This is prescribed for all men, whether they are married or single, and even very small boys wear them. The kippah is considered compulsory in the synagogue, when reading the sacred texts and at mealtimes, but orthodox Jews wear it all the time. It is not a prescription of biblical origin, although it was already present in later texts, the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud.

For women, the motive for the obligation to cover their heads is rather different. Indeed whereas for men it is a sign of respect for the divine presence, for women it is a sign of discretion and modesty. Many Jewish women go about freely without covering their heads, and they do not even cover their heads when praying, as is customary in many communities, such as in Italian ones, for example.

Only orthodox and ultra-orthodox women do so. They usually wear a kerchief knotted behind the neck, known in Hebrew as a tichel or mitpachat, or even berets or fetching hats.

In other cases instead, over closely-cropped hair they wear wigs, generally combed in an old-fashioned style and in such a way as to reveal that they are in fact wigs and not real hair. We have read about them in Singer’s short stories and novels, among others, and in the whole of the narrative that has come down to us from the world of the shtetl, the Jewish villages in Eastern Europe where so many Jews lived before the Shoah. Many are to be seen nowadays in American and Israeli ultra-orthodox communities, in Brooklyn and in Meah Shearim. The rule requires that married women only – and not young women yet to be married – cover their heads. From their wedding day they may be permitted to have their heads uncovered only in the family or in intimacy with their husband. Outside their hair must never be shown.

However in the Jewish world no prohibition or custom has ever prevented the face from being shown and throughout history the woman’s face has always remained unveiled. Only recently has a group of ultra-orthodox women attempted to introduce the burka in Israel.

As in the case of the kippah, the covering of women's heads is not a biblical prescription, even if the question is still controversial. Rather, it seems to be a part of that broad body of laws that the Mishnah and the Talmud formulated from the biblical texts so as to build that “wall around the Torah” which in the rabbis' intention was to serve in preserving the Jewish identity from persecution and from the enticements of integration.

In the case of the female head being covered, the Talmud picks up on a biblical passage (Num 5:18), in which the priest unbinds the hair of a woman as a sign of humiliation and penitence, thus deducing that it was usual for women to keep their heads covered.

According to other interpretations the need to cover the head pertains less to a true and proper written set of rules than to the body of prescriptions known as customs, minhag in Hebrew, and which comply with the requirement of maintaining modesty, tzniut.

The concept of tzniut is fundamental in the Jewish world and concerns both behaviour and the way of dressing and of doing the hair. It was originally a term that applied to both men and women, implying modesty and humility. It later came to designate specifically an attitude and manner of dressing, for women, such as to discourage the looks and desires of men.

The intensely erotic nature of hair is often stressed in the texts, with frequent references to the Song of Songs, and great importance is also given in the orthodox world to the obligation to cover the arms. The tzniut varies from situation to situation, from place to place, and depends on the customs of each community. So it is that in some oriental communities, particularly in Yemen, under the Muslim influence outside them it was customary for women to cover their heads with a proper veil, yet always leaving their faces uncovered.

Anna Foa

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