If one searches Tanach for references of hair, one will find a surprisingly large number of instances where hair is mentioned in very different connotations.
- We find Joseph in Genesis being described as “na’ar” or “lad”. Rashi brings a Midrash saying that Joseph would act like an immature lad, playing with his hair and making himself look handsome.
- Forty-two lads are reported as having mocked Elijah the prophet, saying, “Go up you bald-head”. Elijah sent two bears that mauled them to death.
- Absalom, son of King David, gets entangled in a tree by his long tresses and subsequently meets his death.
- Jacob covers his arms with hair in order to fool his visually-impaired father Isaac into giving him his more follically blessed brother Esau’s blessings.
Perhaps the two strongest models of hair representing seductiveness and power are those of the wayward wife and Samson. Samson’s power is represented by his hair and he is eventually betrayed by his wife Delilah to the Philistines after he is left powerless when she cuts his hair. The wayward wife’s hair is uncovered by the Priest, signifying the stripping of her power.
The description of the wayward wife is actually the source for the law of married women covering their hair. Commentators on the Bible learnt from this episode that since the wayward wife’s hair was uncovered as a sign of shame and powerlessness, she evidently originally covered her hair. According to the Oral Tradition, unmarried girls did not need to cover their hair. However, it became the accepted practice in Sephardic communities for unmarried girls to cover their hair.
Around the end of the eighteenth century the wearing of wigs became acceptable practice in Eastern Europe. Despite initial protests from religious leaders the women persisted and today the wig is common in Orthodox communities, especially outside of Israel.
In our times Orthodox women cover their hair and recently in Israel it is becoming more and more acceptable for women to cover their hair in all sorts of manners- be it with a bandanna, hat, ribbon, beret, scarf etc. In most communities women will cover their hair when in synagogue, unrelated to whether they do or don’t usually, out of respect for the sanctity of the place.
There are many reasons brought for why Jewish women who live according to Jewish Law must cover their hair. Interestingly, according to Jewish Mysticism, the woman carries a certain energy in the hairs on her head and this special light and energy should be preserved by covering her hair. Therefore, the Jewish woman will cover her hair in order to safeguard this unique energy for her own house.