June 7, 2006

Wigs pose dilemma for religious Jewish women

By Megan Goldin

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - To wear them or not to wear them?

That is the question for ultra-Orthodox Jewish women caught
in a dilemma after the wigs that many of them wear to cover
their hair under religious modesty regulations were found by
rabbinical sages to violate Jewish law.

The problem arose about two years ago when Israeli rabbis
discovered that hair cut from the heads of Hindu worshipers at
Indian temples was being used to manufacture wigs worn by
religious Jews.

"It was a big scandal because they found out that the hair
that was collected in India was used in rituals for idol
worship," said Amir Zahavi, the manager of a wig factory on the
edge of Tel Aviv.

Hindu rituals, such as those performed in the temples, are
considered sacrilegious under strictly monotheistic Jewish law.

The hair used in such practices certainly can't be used to
make wigs that ultra-Orthodox women wear under religious edicts
that require all married Jewish women to cover their hair in
public or when in the presence of men other than their

"It was a big problem and in a very short period of time
most women stopped wearing wigs. There were cases in which wigs
were burned in the street," Zahavi said.

The Indian hair controversy fueled an already simmering
debate in the world of ultra-Orthodox Jewry about whether wigs,
known as "sheitels," should be worn at all.

Traditionally scarves were worn by married women to fulfill

the requirement to cover their hair after marriage.

But some more modern ultra-Orthodox women began to wear
wigs made from human or synthetic hair, sparking debate among
devout Jews about whether wigs, which could be mistaken for
real hair, violated the spirit of Judaism.


The discovery about hair used in Hindu rituals caused
pandemonium. Rabbinical experts went from wig factory to wig
factory in Israel and abroad to ensure that wigs for the
ultra-Orthodox market did not include hair from India.

The rabbinical emissaries granted certificates of kashrut,
or approval, to wigs they found to be free of Indian hair in
the same way that they issue stamps of approval to food
products adhering to Jewish dietary rules.

"These days everything must be kosher. From food to mobile
phones to kids' toys to even wigs," said Shalhevet Hasviel, a
writer at a fashion magazine for ultra-Orthodox women.

As a result, prices for human hair wigs went through the
roof. A wig made from Caucasian hair -- the most highly
sought-after material -- could cost as much as $2,000.

Merchants travel through some of the poorest regions in the
world to buy women's locks for the wig trade, paying around
$5-$10 for a full head of hair and selling it to wig makers for
anything from between $700 and $2,000 per kilo.

"It's very hard to get good quality hair," said Zahavi.

"You need virgin hair that hasn't been dyed and hasn't been
highlighted, and it's getting harder and harder to get good
hair that hasn't been colored these days."

Some rabbis prefer wigs over other head-coverings, noting
that wigs prevent hair from slipping out and being seen by men.

Another consideration, they say, is that wigs allow Jewish
women living abroad to blend into their society, reducing the
risk they might be singled out for anti-Semitic attacks.

But other rabbis -- especially from Jewish communities of
Middle Eastern descent -- are deeply opposed to women wearing
wigs. Using hair to cover one's own hair, those rabbis say,
violates the spirit of ritual law.

"You can buy wigs these days that are not modest and are of
such good quality that they are more beautiful than the women's
real hair," said Shelly, an ultra-Orthodox mother in Jerusalem,
who wears a headscarf over her dark locks.