Wig Ban Creates Chaos Across the Global Shtetl

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When word reached an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Beit Shemesh, Israel, that wigs made from Indian hair may not be kosher because of the hair’s heathen origins, pandemonium erupted.

Women replaced their $2,000 wigs with $5 kerchiefs, simple snoods and synthetic-hair substitutes as they waited to hear the final word on a religious ruling that has created chaos in the Orthodox world, where many married women cover their hair as a sign of modesty in conformance with Jewish law.

“There are humongous things going on here,” said one woman who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Using the Yiddish word for wig, she said, “I know a girl who just spent $2,000 on a sheitel and was told it was no good.”

The controversy reached a fervor last week when Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, one of Israel’s pre-eminent authorities on rabbinic law, or halachah, instituted a ban on wigs made from India out of concern that the hair had been used for idolatrous Hindu religious ceremonies.

The hair is bought after Hindu women, who have never cut their hair before, shave their heads at the Tirupati temple in India as a sign of religious reverence. Rabbinic authorities are divided over whether the the act of cutting the hair is ceremonially significant, or whether the hair itself should be treated as if it were used in idolatrous worship.

“On the one hand it’s comical, but on the other hand it’s a serious issue,” said Chaim Waxman, a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“We’re not used to thinking in terms of idolatry, because for 2,000 years monotheism prevailed in the Western world, where Jews lived,” Waxman said. But “if in fact Hinduism is idolatry, and if in fact the cutting of the hair is part of the ritual, then theoretically it could be a problem.”

Many anxious women were racing to figure out whether their wigs contained Indian hair or were made of “kosher” hair from Europe or elsewhere in Asia. Some Jews in Israel and Brooklyn started burning their wigs — believing they were following the religious injunction to destroy idolatrous religious objects.

Wig makers hastened to find religious authorities to compile lists of wigs whose provenance was not under suspicion, and then posted them on the Internet.

“In general, the mass hysteria has a lot to do with the communications today, with all the faxes and the e-mails. In the old days, a thing like this would take such a long time,” said Jeremy Stern, an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Israel. “The Internet has really made everything a global shtetl.”

Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn to Bnei Brak in Israel are debating the intricacies of Hindu worship at a temple halfway around the word.

Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, director of the Central Committee of Chabad Rabbis of America, said his group appointed a six-person rabbinical task force to look into the matter.

“Some serious questions were raised, and they need to be dealt with in a serious way,” he said. “Somebody from India is coming here. There have been numerous calls and correspondence from India. It’s fact finding more than anything else.”

Human-hair wigs can be expensive; custom-made ones sell for more than $2,000. But the controversy is about more than just money.

Aside from the obvious religious issues involved, certain forces in the ultra-Orthodox community are using the brouhaha to bolster a century-old argument against the use of wigs.

“The goal is that the women will be modest. And how do you do it? With head coverings,” said Menachem Friedman, a sociologist at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. “But when the woman is more erotic wearing a particular kind of head covering, that presents a problem.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.