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.”