Sheitl (also sheitel, shaytel or shaitel, depending on your preference) is not, as it might sound, a term of abuse, but a Yiddish word meaning wig. Generally, it is used to refer to the wigs worn by married Orthodox Jewish women. Take a wander around Golders Green or Stamford Hill and you will see sheitls in varying shapes and forms: long or short, black, brown, red or blonde, curly or straight, well-made or simply apalling.
Why — or why not — wear a wig?
The driving force behind a woman covering her head is modesty. The rabbis whose discussions form the Talmud explain how a woman's hair is one of the most erotic parts of her body. This argument is derived from Song of Songs 4.1, where a woman's hair is likened to a flock of goats. (Quite where the erotic link between hair and goats can be found is beyond me. But who am I to argue?) Essentially, it amounts to a woman saving a part of herself for her husband. However, there are other people able to see a married woman's hair: her children, other women and perhaps her father or brothers.
In Numbers 5 (5.18) and Isaiah 3 (3.16-17) references to uncovering a woman's head are related to instances of shame or humiliation; it was a punishment for adultery.
Apart from these references, it is in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 75) where it is laid out that married women should cover their heads.
Of course, some sheitls are so well made that they are more glamourous than the owner's own hair. If you can afford it, you could have a different sheitl for every day of the week. There is no concern about greying hair, either. So there are benefits to counter the discomfort and the heat that sheitls generate. Yet, somehow, they seem to defeat the object of wearing one, and certainly objections have been, and continue to be, raised.
Wigs and their alternatives:
The development of the wig as a headcovering appears to have arisen in Italy during the 16th Century. Before then, it was normal for a woman to maintain her modesty using a scarf, veil or hat. Genesis 24 (24.65) notes how Rebecca covered herself with a scarf when she saw Isaac coming into view on the horizon. The use of a scarf or hat remains the norm for most Sephardi women, although wigs are not unknown, especially in areas where Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities live in proximity.
Some women prefer to wear a snood (the best way that I can explain it is like a giant sock for the head), or a scarf or hat. These alternatives might be a matter of convenience, or because they feel uncomfortable about turning a mitzvah into a fashion parade. Women who wear sheitls in public often prefer to cover their heads with snoods or scarves when at home.
In the Middle Ages, women would often cover their heads in public, or when in the company of strange men, but would leave it uncovered when at home. This appears to be something that is returning in popularity, allowing women to balance retaining their modesty with some degree of freedom.
For the majority of women who belong to United or Conservative congregations, the general rule is to cover their heads when in shul, lighting shabbat candles or davening. Certainly, my mother and grandmother have adopted this approach. Women who are part of the Reform movement do not usually cover their heads in this way, although many choose to wear kippot, instead.
Before marriage, after divorce, and in widowhood:
As I am not yet married, I am under no obligation to cover my head. The Moorish influence over some old Sephardi communities did mean that unmarried women began to cover their heads, although this is no longer standard practice. Divorced and widowed women are still expected to cover their heads.
Not keeping things under wraps:
- arieh and wertperch
The day after wertperch's and grundoon's handfasting, seven of us met in Golders Green for brunch. We sat in a kosher cafe, playing 'Spot the Sheitl', deciding if women were wearing wigs, or not.