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!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." http://jd.fo/r50mf With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • 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.