SE'AR B'ISHAH 'ERVAH
(The Halakhic status of women's hair)
Rabbi Yitzchok Etshalom
Kriat Shema 3:18-19
18. If two people were sleeping [naked] under one cover, each one
of them is prohibited from reading [K'riat Sh'ma] even if he
covers up below his chest, until the cover separates them in such
a manner that this one's flesh doesn't touch the other's flesh
below the hips.
If he was sleeping with his wife or minor children and *b'nei
veito* (see Q2 below) - their bodies are considered like his body
and he isn't [overly] aware of them. Therefore, even if his flesh
touches theirs, he may turn his face away, separate below his
chest [with the cover] and read.
19. Until when are they considered minors for this matter? Until
a male is 12 years and one day old and a female is 11 years and
one day old - as long as their body build is similar to that of
mature people, "breasts formed and your hair grown" (see
Yehezqe'el [Ezekiel] 16:7) - after this point, he should not read
without using the cover to separate from them. However, if they
had not yet reached [the stage of] "breasts formed and your hair
grown", he may read next to their flesh and he doesn't need to
separate until the male is 13 years and a day old and the female
is 12 years and a day old.
[As promised, this is a continuation of the previous shiur
although it isn't directly connected with this week's text. mod.]
SE'AR B'ISHAH 'ERVAH
The Gemara in Berakhot, in listing various "exposures" of a
person which are considered "'ervah" (and thereby prohibiting the
reading of K'riat Sh'ma in the vicinity), records R. Sheshet's
statement: "Se'ar b'ishah 'ervah" (a woman’s hair is considered
‘ervah), as it says: Your hair is like a flock of goats (Shir
The reason for this status may be inferred from Rashi's earlier
comment on "kol b'ishah 'ervah" (a woman's [singing] voice is
considered 'ervah) - from the fact that a woman's voice [hair] is
praised, we see that it is alluring.
The central issue of this sugya - which we discussed last week -
is whether these classifications of 'ervah are geared towards the
husband of the woman in question - and only while he is reading
K'riat Sh'ma (and saying Tefillah) - or whether they are general
definitions of 'ervah which make those exposures "off-limits" to
any other man at all times.
Besides this issue, the inclusion of hair on this list presents a
unique problem: Almost all of the Rishonim accept the reality
that non-married women do not, as a rule, cover their hair. In
addition, many married women only cover some of their hair - so
how do we define the 'ervah? It is clearly not an inherently
private part of the body (as evidenced by both of the above
realities), so we cannot automatically define a woman's hair as
'ervah for other men at all times. It is also not
(automatically) sexually alluring, so it is hard to understand
why it would be prohibited to read K'riat Sh'ma while in the
vicinity of a woman with uncovered hair.
DAT MOSHEH V'Y'HUDIT
The Mishnayot in the seventh chapter of Ketubot list various
reasons which justify a "one-sided" divorce and settlement. In
other words, in these cases, if the woman has the justified
claim, the husband is forced to divorce her (sort of - but that's
a series of shiurim by itself) and pay the Ketubah. If, on the
other hand, the man has the justified claim, he may/must divorce
her - and she forfeits the Ketubah. Mishna 6 reads: "The
following [women] leave [their marriages] without a Ketubah:
Someone who violates *dat Mosheh v'Y'hudit* (lit. "the custom of
Mosheh and a Jewish women").
Rashi explains that "dat Yehudit" refers to those customs of
modesty which Jewish women have accepted and practiced. From the
examples given in the Mishnah, we can infer that "dat Mosheh"
refers to Halahically mandated practices which affect family
life. Rambam (MT Ishut 24:11) reads "dat Mosheh" as a Torahic
violation of modesty, among other things.)
In defining dat Yehudit, the Mishnah lists *yotz'a v'roshah
parua'* - "if she goes out and her hair is *parua'*". Three
things need to be clarified:
(a) What is the definition of parua'?
(b) "Goes out" - where?
(c) What is the source of this custom/law?
ANALYSIS OF THE GEMARA
The Gemara (Ketubot 72a-b), commenting directly on this Mishnah,
states the following:
*Roshah parua'* (if her hair is uncovered/undone) is [not only a
violation of dat yehudit, it is a violation of] Torah law, as it
says [referring to the Sotah - see below] "And he [the Cohen]
shall *para'* the head of the woman" (Bamidbar [Numbers] 5:18) -
and it was taught in the school of R. Yishma'el - this is a
warning to Jewish women that they should not go out with their
heads parua'. [Response:] From the Torah, *kalatah* (prob. a
type of basket women wore on their heads where they could keep
sundry items - see Rashi 72b s.v. kalatah) is sufficient; dat
yehudit [prohibits going out] even with [only] *kalatah*. R. Asi
said in the name of R. Yohanan - [going out with only] kalatah is
not considered *parua' rosh*. R. Zera asked - where [is this
Halakhah applicable]? If you say in the marketplace (=public
area), it is a violation of dat yehudit! If you say in her
courtyard, (i.e. that she need not cover with more than kalatah
but that a totally uncovered head is unacceptable) - if so, you
leave no daughter to Avraham Avinu who can stay married to her
husband (i.e. no Jewish woman would exercise such care to cover
her head in her own courtyard). Abaye responded: It refers to
going from one courtyard to another via the alley.
Although parua' in other circumstances may mean "undone" (as in
"untied"), in this context, it does seem to mean "uncovered" -
from the fact that it is a specific type of hair-covering which
is required even in the semi-public areas - and another type of
covering in the fully public domain.
Rosh Parua' shows up in four contexts in the Torah:
(a) Metzora' - someone with scale disease (see Vayyikra
[Leviticus] 13), while under quarantine, has a rosh parua'
(Vayyikra 13:45). The Gemara (Mo'ed Katan 15a) explains, in the
name of R. Elazar, that this means "growing his hair" (i.e. not
getting it cut) - and parua' then means "unkempt". As a matter of
fact, the Metzora' specifically does have to keep his head
covered - see MT Tum'at Tza'ra'at 10:6.
(b) Mourning - in Vayyikra 10:6, Mosheh warns Aharon and his
family not to adopt the typical mourning customs upon the death
of Nadav and Avihu (and the rest of the people will do the
mourning). Included in the activities which they should not do
are rosh parua'. Here, again, the meaning is "unkempt".
(c) Nazir - in Bamidbar 6:5, the Nazir is defined as *gadel
pera'* - here it is clear that it means "unkempt" (no
(d) Sotah - as part of the ritual of the Sotah (a woman suspected
of adultery) the Kohen makes her hair parua' (as above, Bamidbar
5:18). From the Mishna in Sotah (1:5) it seems clear that the
Kohen would "undo" her hair (i.e., untie it so that it fell
The Gemara's version of R. Yish'ma'el's comment on this - that
the Sotah verse serves as a warning that Jewish women should not
go out with rosh parua' - may, therefore, refer to hair that is
untied - not necessarily uncovered.
However, the Sifri's reading of R. Yishma'el is a bit different:
"This teaches that B'not Yisra'el cover their hair." (Sifri Naso
#11, p. 17 in Wahrman edition). The two differences here as very
(a) in the Sifri, R. Yishma'el is reporting a common custom
(since the Sotah's hair is uncovered, we can infer that it would
have otherwise been covered) - but not as a law;
(b) in the Sifri, the focus is on covering, not just "tying".
Putting the two sources together (i.e. accepting the inherent
validity of each reading - which is certainly debatable), we find
a law which forbids Jewish women from going out with their hair
unfettered - and a custom (dating back to the times of the Torah)
that Jewish women indeed cover their hair (when they go out?).
(A CIRCULAR) DEFINITION OF 'ERVAH
As noted last week (regarding the "uncovered tefach"), 'ervah
(with one or two exceptions) is defined as that part of the body
which is not normally exposed - such that its exposure is cause
for stimulation. The Gemara in Berakhot merely adds voice (which
is intangible - see Raaviah's remarks at #76), shok (which is
sometimes covered, sometimes not - see R'ah's comments ont he
sugya) and se'ar, which is not directly part of the body.
However, how do we define (if at all) what parts of the body
should be covered, such that their exposure becomes defined as
'ervah? We cannot say "cover anything which is an 'ervah" -
because 'ervah is defined as covered parts of the body!
This is where dat yehudit comes in - Jewish women (and men) have
practiced levels of modesty for generations which then becomes
defined as "Jewish dress". This modesty is more a function of
dignity than directly a valuation of certain parts of the body
being stimulating. Our sugya in Ketubot bears this out - since
kalata completely covers the head, yet is not sufficient for a
woman going to the fully public domain (MT Ishut 24:12), we must
infer that "proper" hair-covering is not (just) an issue of
keeping her hair out of sight of other people (men?). (See,
however, Orhot Hayyim, Hilkhot Ketubot #33, s.v. v'ei zo).
Rather, there is a type of Jewish modesty and dignity which
demands certain type of behavior and dress when in public. See
Ishut 24:12, where Rambam clearly reads dat yehudit as being
outfitted "in the manner of all the women".
(By the way, the Gemara here clearly permits a woman to have her
hair totally parua' in her own courtyard - and certainly inside
her house - and does not qualify that with considerations of
other people/men being there. Perhaps there is no problem with
"exposure" to other people, as long as it is in the house which
is deemed private and where dignity has a different set of
Once that has become the custom, a breach of it becomes a problem
of 'ervah (at the very least, for K'riat Sh'ma and Tefillah).
Since it was never the custom (in most countries) for Jewish
girls who were still single to cover their heads in public, (for
a possibly divergent view, see MT Issurei Bi'ah 21:2). By the
way, it is clear that the customs of dress among Jewish women
differ(ed) from place to place - see Teshuvot Maharm al-Ashkar
This shiur is meant only as an introduction to some of the issues
related to women's head-covering. By no means is it meant to be
exhaustive and, as always, should not be used for practical
Halakhic guidance. A competent Halakhic authority should always
be consulted personally.
There are several relevant issues which were not discussed here -
chiefly the "wig" controversy. Indeed there are many Halakhic
authorities who do not permit the use of a wig for a woman's
head-covering; converesely, a common and wide-spread custom among
many great Rabbinic families is for the women to wear wigs.
now, to the questions:
Q1: Who are *b'nei veito*?
A: Rashi (Berakhot 24a s.v. haya yashen) understands the term as
referring to the wife. Tosafot (ad loc. s.v. vehatanya)
challenges this and prefers a reading (of the Gemara there) which
elides the term. Bach (ad loc. #2) reads "ishto uv'nei veito",
leaving out "banav"; thus "b'nei veito" become "his children."
Rambam cannot accept either of these readings, since he lists all
three (wife, children and the elusive "b'nei veito"). It would
be tempting to translate the term as referring to his servants -
that the children of his servants while they are young are
included here - but that is precluded by Rambam's use of all
these terms: "avadav" (his servants), "ishto" (his wife), "banav"
(his children) and "b'nei veito" (?) in MT Eruvin 4:1, Ma'aser
10:2 and M'tam'ei Mishkav uMoshav 10:5.
A possible reading would be "his wife's children"; since we do
find a wife occasionally being referred to as "beito" (see
Shabbat 118b and Rashi s.v ishti) - if she had children from an
earlier marriage, they could be included in b'nei veito.
Alternatively, the phrase may be a case of *ashigrat leishna* -
habit of the tongue; generally, a man's household includes his
wife, children and "everyone else"; this phrase may sometimes
"roll off the tongue" even when not directly appropriate. See,
for example, JT Terumot 1:1 in reference to Heresh. See also
Maggid Mishneh at Issurei Bi'ah 12:22.
Q2: Why does he have to turn his face away from his own family
members - either he should have to turn his body away - or not
turn at all (after all, it isn't the face that generates the
A: From the sugya in Berakhot (24a), it would seem that the
intent of *mah'zir panav* (he turns his face away) actually means
to turn fully around so that his back is to the bed-mates body.
See also Rabbenu Manoach on our Halakhah for an explanation of
why a "full turn" is necessary.
Q3: Why are there two ages of majority, depending on body
growth? Either it should be purely based on age, or on body
A: The Gemara quotes a statement which permits reading K'riat
Sh'ma while in bed with family members who are *k'tanim*
(minors). The Gemara then cites a dispute about the age at which
they cease to be minors - and Rambam (like Rif) rules like the
second opinion - until 11 (girl) or 12 (boy) years old - as long
as these "signs" have begun. However, as Rabbenu Yonah (Berakhot
15a in Rif pages, s.v. ve'idi) points out, once they have reached
majority (12/13), they are no longer in the category of *k'tanim*
and, regardless of physical development, it is prohibited to read
K'riat Sh'ma while they are in bed with the prospective reader
unless something separates their flesh from his.
Q4: Stylistic question - why does Rambam utilize this phrase
from Yehezqe'el to describe a maturing youth?
A: The Gemara itself (Berakhot 24a) uses this phrase to describe
"coming of age"; so the question is why the Gemara does so. From
the sugya in Niddah (48a), it seems that these two "signs", which
in the original (Yehezqe'el 16) are used to allegorically
describe the coming of age of B'nei Yisra'el in Egypt, are the
indications of imminent puberty. In addition, Rabbenu Yonah
(ibid.) explains that this phrase is immediately followed by
*v'at 'erom v'eryah* - "and you were naked"; hence, the
definition of *'eryah/'ervah* is based on these characteristics.
See also Bava Metzia' 93b, where a verse is used (in a similar
style as ours) to directly guide how far a hired watchman must go
to protect his bail.
Rambam, Copyright (c) 1999 Project