Thursday, May 31, 2012

Some Reflections on BaMidbar 5:18

I know that I wrote about this verse yesterday, and my internal rotation is telling me that I should be showing you a style post now.  But that will have to wait until tomorrow, I think.  Instead, I'm about to share another thought about what I wrote about yesterday.

We make a lot of deductions from that verse.  1. Since the sotah's hair is uncovered/unbraided, it must not have been visible/loose before.  2. Since her hair was covered in this context, it was always covered.  3.  Since her hair was covered, it was covered for modesty, and uncovering it was immodest.  4. That covering has to do with her marital status, and not with adulthood (not necessarily so unconnected a status, in those days).  5.  When we discuss a covering, we presume that it covers all a woman's hair, and not just her head, which is what is stated in the verse.  And the list could go on.

Now, some of this gets cleared up, or problematized in later sources.  We don't, after all, derive law straight from the Torah.  But still, as far as a verse to hang later practice onto, this is pretty tenuous.  Interesting and fun to play with- but tenuous in terms of proving much of anything as established biblical law...

I rather enjoy this tenuous connection.  It gives deep significance to the practice of head-covering, but doesn't bind very closely, in terms of precision and limits.

On the other hand, it ties head-covering to a whole host of complex issues: body modesty, the Temple and its rituals (the context is the Sotah ritual, the ritual for determining if a woman has committed adultery or not), and relationships and marriage, besides the obvious gender issues.  It gives me space to go in all sorts of directions with this practice, both positive and negative.


  1. I do not share your enthusiam for "this tenuous connection." As I said in one of my ancient posts, Things that I learned from “Hide & Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering”, " If the whole point of a Jewish woman covering her hair is that doing so is a signal to other knowledgeable Jews that she is already married, and therefore, unavailable, then why on earth should a no-longer-married woman not be permitted to make her status clearly visible? And if the purpose of covering one's hair is tzniut, modesty, why does the tradition of covering one's hair apply only to married women? From my own perspective, this makes no sense."

    The irony is that I cover my head anyway because that was my family's minhag (custom) when I was growing up. My parents' rabbi (Conservative) was a staunch believer that *everyone*--male, female, married, single, young or old--should wear a head-covering in synagogue. Consequently, to this day, I would be as likely to enter a shul bareheaded as to eat a ham and cheese on rye during Pesach (Passover)! I was quite surprised to learn that, in Orthodox circles, only married women covered their heads, and always felt weird when, out of respect for that practice, I entered an Orthodox shul bareheaded while I was still single. And I confess to being more than a little surprised, upon entering Modern Orthodox synagogues for occasions other than worship, to find myself, still a Conservative Jew, one of the few women wearing a head-covering.

    On a slightly-related topic, why the practice, among many, but not all, Orthodox men, of reserving the wearing of a tallit gadol/prayer shawl with ritual fringes (as opposed to a tallit katan, an under-the-clothes garment with ritual fringes) for married men? A mitzvah (commandment) is a mitzvah, for heaven's sake, and, aside from p'ru u-r'vu (be fruitful and multiply) and the laws of taharat ha-mishpachah (family purity), has nothing to do with marital status. (Sure, one can argue that one fulfils one's chiyuv/obligation by wearing a tallit katan, but in that case, what's the purpose of the tallit gadol in the first place?) I think the German (and Sefardi) Jews have the right idea--every male should begin wearing a tallit gadol from the age of bar mitzvah (13), when he becomes obligated to observe the mitzvot (commandments). Likewise, why the nonsense about waiting until one is married to light Shabbat (Sabbath) and holiday candles? If it's a mitzvah, it's a mitzvah, and every female should begin lighting candles at the age of bat mitzvah (12), when she becomes obligated to observe the mitzvot.

    Okay, I think I've hijacked your post for long enough. We now return to our regularly-scheduled program. :)

    1. You have good points, in terms of the reasoning. There's an uncomfortable connection that I've started to notice between sex and hair covering. I don't know why hair should get sexier on someone who isn't a virgin than on someone who is, but it does seem like the rabbis wanted to build that connection. It's mysterious, and probably insulting.

      Like you, I think that head covering is the real Jewish ideal for all Jews, male and female (and anyone else- I don't think that folks who are genderqueer should be identifying themselves with bare heads, either. Now I'm getting silly, but oh well.) I do find both meaning and enjoyment in an added degree of covering post-marriage. I'm still trying to understand why, and how that relates to the sources, quite honestly. That's part of the project of this blog.

      The business of wearing tallit gadol only after marriage is one of those weird Eastern European customs that a variety of rabbis, including gedolim from that part of the world, have frowned upon. The Sefardi custom (in general- there may be differences and exceptions- I haven't done real research) is to begin wearing tallit gadol at bar mitzvah. I believe that the German minhag (at least in some German communities, and one Conservative shul in Long Island) is to begin wearing tallit gadol at a similar time to when you begin wearing tallit katan- somewhere around when toilet training is Really reliable.

      I've never heard that unmarried folks shouldn't light shabbos candles. I've heard that they should light 1 candle, rather than 2. I've heard young men "rely on their mother's bracha" even when away from home, but that seems to be a folks custom, not a halakhic decision.

  2. Sorry, I forgot to add a question mark--I'm not entirely sure about the Sefardi minhag regarding the wearing of a tallit gadol. I think the minhag is either from Bar Mitzvah or from childhood, but I may be wrong.

  3. This was such a great post and Shira poses a great point. My husband and I have talked about our daughters covering before marriage. We see single women covering or being "uncovered" like in Genesis with Rebecca and in Isaiah 47. I'm not quite sure what to make of these examples here so I will just teach my daughters modesty and if hubby wants them or allows them to cover as teens then they will. In the meantime, they will be taught to do it for sure when they get married :)

    1. Brittnei- I hope to encourage my daughters to cover their head (vs. their hair) in some way, since I do think it is a contemporary Jewish ideal, and worthwhile as a reminder of God's continual presence- but that won't be a modesty-related covering. (Think headband/large hairclip/kippah/etc) However, I imagine that by the time they're teenagers, they'll probably be deciding for themselves whether or not the practice is meaningful for them. Same with adult children, married or unmarried. But that all is quite a ways off for my family...