Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Women's Head-covering in the Talmud, part 1

Brachot 24a
Here's the part of the sugya that is most frequently quoted:
אמר רב חסדא שוק באשה ערוה שנאמר (ישעיהו מז) גלי שוק עברי נהרות וכתיב (ישעיהו מז) תגל ערותך וגם תראה חרפתך אמר שמואל קול באשה ערוה שנא' (שיר השירים ב) כי קולך ערב ומראך נאוה אמר רב ששת שער באשה ערוה שנא' (שיר השירים ד) שערך כעדר העזים

Translation:Rav Hisda said: A woman's thigh is erva (nakedness), as it is said: (Isaiah 47:2) "Take the millstones, and grind meal; remove thy veil, strip off the train, uncover the leg, pass through the rivers.", and it is said (in the next verse) "Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen".  Shmuel said: A woman's voice is nakedness, as it is said (Song of Songs 2:14) "for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely".  Rav Sheshet said: A woman's hair is nakedness, as it is said (Song of Songs 4:) "thy hair is as a flock of goats, that trail down from mount Gilead".  

The context is a discussion of saying Shema while naked/in bed, which then broadens to a discussion of prayer while naked or in the presence of naked people, and from there to this- a question of what qualifies as a naked person that one might not be allowed to pray in their presence.

This context can be offered as a reason why the restrictions that are placed on women's dress and behavior based on this text (covering the hair, not singing in public) should be limited to when someone (male) is saying Shema.  (It's worth noticing that the implied viewpoint character, as it were, is male, and the object of his gaze is female- I don't think there's anything that goes the other way around.  But that's an artifact of our tradition, which I will not reject.  My question is, instead- is there any application of these concerns in the opposite direction?)

The other major Talmudic source regarding women's head covering makes a very different argument, not tied to liturgy.  We'll get to that one soon.  In the meantime, this sugya could send me pretty strongly in either of two directions.  Either hair is really a sexual provocation, and inappropriate to expose at all, analogized to the thigh, or it is something that is generally acceptable, but one should be particularly stringent about avoiding anything at all provocative, analogized to the voice.  The first leads me to be very stringent in covering all hair on the head at all times.  The second allows significant leniency.  It all feels very uncertain.  If this were the only text that I had, I'd be pretty uncertain of how to interpret it.  We'll see how it gets handled later, as we go.  


  1. The context is important. Note that none of the quotes offered by the various sages actually says that there's any problem with women's hair. All of them offer this opinion based on an interpretation of a particular verse. That in itself shows the vagueness of what the real prohibition is.
    As you're well aware the actual source comes from an oblique reference in the trial of the Sotah and the obligation is dealt with in, I believe, Kiddushin (might be Kesubos) in the discussion of Daas Moshe vs Daas Yehudis.
    That the direction you're going in?
    Also, Feldheim has a new Chofetz Chaim book specifically about this:,chayim&strSearchCriteria=all&PT_ID=362

    1. Anonymous- Precisely my point. That's why I wanted to tackle this sugya first- because on its own, it is so vague, and I wanted to show that. I have talked about the origin in the Sotah ritual before on this blog (Here: and here:

      I'll be talking about Ketubot 72a sometime soon. That, I think, is a more substantial sugya, and I'm still thinking about the best way to present it in a blog format.

      I do think talking about this sugya in Brachot is important though, since it feels significant for the discussion of covering the hair versus covering the head.

      And thank you for the book recommendation. Have you read it? Any thoughts?

  2. Off-topic but helpful, I hope: Years ago, (ex?-)blogger Kiwi the Geek gave me the following instructions for creating a hyperlink in a comment:
    #A HREF="put the link here">put the text here, whatever you want the reader to click on#/A>.

    Replace each # with a <

    Let's see whether this works.

    Our first textual evidence.

    Some reflections on Bamidgar 5:10.

  3. Click on the above link to read the comment that I just posted to that post.

    Shabbat Shalom!