Today’s daf (Ketubot 72b) is a key source for the laws of hair covering for married women, and a close reading of the daf is highly recommended for those who wish to know more about the subject.
However, rather than reviewing this entire subject, I’d like to examine one particular point that is made by the Gemara in response to the suggestion – which is then quickly rejected – that a woman may have to partially cover her hair even while in the privacy of her own home or courtyard. In response, the Gemara exclaims: אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה – ‘if this ruling were to the so, no daughter of Avraham Avinu (i.e. Jewish woman) would remain with her husband’. What this means is that such a stricture would be so demanding on married Jewish women that they would then rather avoid married life than subject themselves to perpetually feeling uncomfortable or unable to relax even in the privacy of their own home.
Undoubtedly, this statement, though expressed in relation to the laws of hair covering, has implications in many other areas of Jewish observance, and what we learn from here is that Jewish law should not, and must not, put such unreasonable demands on people that they are unable to live as themselves.
Still, there is something curious about the way in which the Gemara makes this point by referring to the ‘daughters of Avraham Avinu’. What, specifically, does Avraham Avinu have to do with this specific observation?
Rabbi Eliyahu Roth addresses this point in his ‘Ha’er Eineinu’ commentary where he explains that one of three qualities that identify us as being descendants of Avraham Avinu (see Yevamot 79a) is ביישנות (which is often translated as ‘shy’, but which could also be translated as ‘reserved’ or perhaps even ‘modest’). Moreover, our Sages emphasise (see Bava Batra 16a, based on Bereishit 12:11) how Avraham and Sarah acted with modesty – both individually, and towards each other.
Having explained this, Rabbi Roth then explains that even if a Jewish woman has all the qualities and lives up to those standards associated with being a descendant of Avraham Avinu, the demands of a woman to partially cover her hair even while in the privacy of her own home or courtyard would be so excessive that ‘no daughter of Avraham Avinu would remain with her husband’. Put differently, if halacha demands behaviours of people that force them to live in a way that they can’t live as themselves, then even the most modest of Jews will be found wanting and will give up.
Unfortunately, there are those who claim to speak in the name of halacha and who purport to prohibit things – oftentimes, although not always, relating to the behaviour, presence and visibility of women – which are not just permitted, but what are simply part and parcel of living a normal and healthy life. When this happens, I object – and I do so for two reasons.
Firstly, I object to the misrepresentation and – in some instances – to the pure fabrication of what people claim to be ‘halacha’. The Torah tells us מדבר שקר תרחק – that we should keep far away from all forms of misrepresentation, yet there are those who do so while claiming to wear the mantle of Torah.
But there is a second reason why this agitates me so much, which is, as I noted above, if halacha demands behaviours of people that force them to live in a way that they can’t live as themselves, then even the most modest of Jews will be found wanting and will give up – and sadly, this is happening on a regular basis in Jewish communities around the world.
In conclusion, there are many laws that can be learnt from today’s daf about hair covering and other Jewish practices. But alongside these laws is a deep lesson, captured by the words of אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה, which teaches us that Jewish law should not, and must not, put such unreasonable demands on people that they are unable to live as themselves.