Photo Credit: Andrea Grinberg
Women in scarves

I am gratified by Mrs. Vilenkin’s interest in my recent article, in which I argue that sheitels are halachically permissible but not the ideal head covering for Jewish women. As a Chabad shlucha, Mrs. Vilenkin is understandably distressed that I take issue with the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s insistence that all married women wear a sheitel specifically. While she is certainly entitled to favor her Rebbe’s position, her accusation that I “misrepresented” the Rebbe’s perspective is unfounded.

In my article, I ascribe the following position to the Lubavitcher Rebbe: “Wearing a head covering is generally not socially acceptable in secular society. Thus, a Jewish woman living in a Western country will feel more comfortable covering her hair in public if she wears a wig. Wearing a cloth covering could make her feel awkward in certain social situations, and she might be tempted to remove it.”

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Mrs. Vilenkin states that this presentation is completely inaccurate; she claims that the Rebbe’s sole reason for preferring sheitels to hats and kerchiefs is that sheitels are more likely to cover all of a woman’s hair. Since Mrs. Vilenkin is surely much better-versed in the published words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe than I, I am surprised that she is unaware of such explicit statements as:

“It is easy to take off a kerchief, which is not the case with a sheitel. When one is at a gathering and wears a sheitel, then even if President Eisenhower were to enter the room she would not take off the sheitel. This is not so with a kerchief which can easily be taken off.” This and several other quotes to this effect can be found at www.chabad.org (search for “sheitel”).

I never meant to imply that potential social discomfort was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s only reason for insisting on a sheitel. He certainly also agreed with the idea that the sheitel is to be preferred because it excels at covering all of a woman’s hair. But since I had already cited this argument in the name of R. Moshe Sternbuch, I only explicitly linked the Rebbe with the sociological reason, which is more unique to him.

Addressing the former argument, Mrs. Vilenkin writes: “The Rebbe’s opposition to wearing kerchiefs was due to the likelihood that some hair would be exposed – even temporarily – and thus lead a woman to transgress a ‘major prohibition’ as explained in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 75.”

In fact, however, the Rema (75:2) – following several Rishonim – explicitly states that some hair protrudes from a woman’s head covering. Poskim debate extensively the question of precisely how much hair a woman may uncover. It’s true that many authorities (including the Zohar) require a woman to cover all of her hair, but one can hardly characterize this position as being “explained in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 75.”

Furthermore, while it is perhaps somewhat easier for women to cover all their hair with a sheitel than with a hat or kerchief, it is by no means guaranteed. Experience shows that hair sometimes protrudes out of a sheitel as well. That is actually one of the reasons why Rav Elyashiv rejected pro-sheitel arguments (as related to me by his close student, R. M.M. Karp). We should also not lose sight of the fact that our foremothers managed to cover all their hair with kerchiefs for hundreds of years, and many women succeed in doing so today as well.

Mrs. Vilenkin also claims that already in the days of Mishnah (Shabbat 64b) “virtuous married women wore wigs of natural hair – obviously to appear beautiful.” Actually, the Mishnah states that a woman may wear natural “strands of hair” on Shabbat as well as a pe’ah nochrit. “Pe’ah nochrit” is the Modern Hebrew term for “wig,” but it is far from clear that the mishnaic hairpiece of this name was at all analogous to contemporary wigs. Furthermore, the Mishnah states that a pe’ah nochrit may be worn on Shabbat only in a courtyard, not the public domain.

The truth is that the question of whether or not the mishnaic reference to “pe’ah nochrit” constitutes proof that uncovered wigs are permitted in general for married women in public has been a central focus of the debate surrounding sheitels since its inception (see Responsa Be’er Sheva 18).

Mrs. Vilenkin closes her response to my article with several paragraphs explaining why married women wearing wigs is not a violation of mar’it ayin. I am perplexed why she felt the need to do so. In my article, I made this exact point at some length, even citing the same responsum of R. Moshe Feinstein that Mrs. Vilenkin does. She also repeats my parenthetical assertion that even those who permit wigs require them to be styled modestly. (Regarding the point she cites from Yaskil Avdi, see R. Ovadia Yosef’s cogent rebuttal in Yabia Omer, Even HaEzer 5:5:8).

A final point: Mrs. Vilenkin seems to ascribe to me the view that the “Rebbe was adamant that married women wear sheitels…because he wanted…to ‘circumvent a halachic ideal.’” I certainly do not think that the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself thought that sheitels were not ideal. My description of the sheitel as a workaround reflects my own appraisal of the sheitel, which does not accord with that of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

People are often strongly pro- or anti-sheitel simply due to their affiliation with a certain religious group. My goal in the article was to encourage people to think critically about the sheitel in an intellectually honest and nuanced manner. I thank Mrs. Vilenkin for the opportunity to further clarify this important topic.

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Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman leads Washington Heights Congregation (“The Bridge Shul”). He is a member of the Kollel L’Horaah of RIETS and has had a lifelong interest in the history of halacha. He can be reached at rabbi@bridgeshul.com.