Headaches and Head Coverings

19 Aug 2015

Religion is hard, and it’s supposed to be: Love of God should, by nature, be the sort of thing that claims all your heart, all your soul, all your worth.1 Halakhic Judaism complements this truth with an equal and opposite force: God loves us, and so wills that we live,2 maintain our dignity,3 preserve our wealth,4 nurture harmony among people,5 and avoid undue distress6 – generally, that we judiciously sustain our worldly wellbeing. Both claims are to be honored. When they conflict, Halakha prescribes rules for systematic mediation, and the concerned are charged with adjudicating a faithful compromise. Derakheha darkhei no’am is God’s gift and our responsibility.

Parameters for halakhic responsiveness to pain and illness are well developed and well known in cases involving shabbat, kashrut, fasting, childbirth, and milah, among others, but with respect to the obligation for married women to cover their hair, it happens, they are not. They should be. Though spoken of rarely in public forums and still less in thebeis medrash, the amount of physical distress sustained in devotion to the head-covering obligation by a substantial number of people is empirically, emphatically non-negligible. As such it requires real halakhic, pastoral, and communal engagement, and most basically, reflective understanding. That the practice is identity-defining and spiritually foundational for so many – that the stakes are so high – only deepens the need for thoughtful attunement and response.

We don’t have hard data, but we do have a wealth of anecdotal records curated by that mystical presence to which the contemporary person, isolated and pining for sympathetic community, turns to share their deepest longings, fears, and frustrations: the internet. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for a substantial minority – mi’ut ha-matsuiwould be the technical term – of people, felicity to the halakhot of hair covering involves substantial bodily and thereby emotional pain. Here are some samplings casually gleaned from various online forums:

“When I tie up my hair to cover it the band pulls on my hair and im getting headaches like every day.
today I have cut my hair (not short) but it doesnt seam to make any difference.”

[Response]: “interesting. I also have just begun to have the same thing, meaning headaches from headcoverings and I have very short hair. sometimes I feel like I have to rip off the hat or tichel (I dont, but the pain is crazy). I would love to hear what others say about this.”

I even tried thick headbands, but my hair is very fine and not thick enough to really make it work. I got headaches from them, and from the pre-tieds, and from the tichels, and from the berets. I told myself, it’s fine, because I don’t cover at home so I don’t have to wear it for so long.

…get a lot of mild to moderate headaches (I’d say daily) particularly between the hours of 7AM and 6PM Monday through Friday…I think it’s my hat/sheitel/scarf that’s doing it. Having something tight (or loose for that matter) around your head for more than a few hours can be quite uncomfortable.

One day, I was wearing my most comfortable pre-tied bandana and set out to walk to the bus stop when I was met with blinding pain. I felt a very strong migraine coming on, so much so that I really had to stop what I was doing. Without thinking, I pulled off the bandana and felt the pain ease up just slightly. It suddenly hit me. I was not okay with this.

Even something incredibly light causes issues. Even my hair being too long causes issues so I keep it short… It sucks…I wear a hat in shul on Shabbat, but I tear it off as soon as I’m out of the sanctuary, and I intentionally don’t go as early as I’d like because I can’t stand it on my head for so long. On RH and YK, I drape a small cloth over my head with no clips or ties, but it’s very unattractive and still bothers me after a time.

I find having anything (even a doily) on my head to hurt and the effect is cumulative…When my hair is longer, the pain is worse from the weight.

I have been covering my hair for over five years and have always found it a challenge. Recently, this has been getting worse… I feel like ripping off anything that I put on my head, be it a sheitel, tichel, or a really loose snood. It’s driving me crazy. I asked my husband to find me a heter to stop covering my hair which he finds really amusing . But seriously, is there any hope for me other than racing around the house, closing curtains, and running around without any hair covering?

A precise medical explanation of the phenomenon is beyond the scope of this article and well beyond the aptitudes of this author, but the testimony from the front lines indicates something like the following: For many individuals, the sustained pressure to the head, the heat, and the inadequate ventilation involved in hair covering results in steadily worsening, migraine-comparable headache symptoms with severity ranging from manageable discomfort to what is described as “excruciating pain.” It may be that these individuals belong to the estimated 13% of the population who suffer from migraines generally, or the presumably broader contingent encompassing those physiologically disposed to migraines, or migraine-like pain, given sustained exacerbating conditions. Whatever the explanation(s), the realities are such that it would be surprising if there were not a significant number of people burdened by the phenomenon.

Please don’t misunderstand: This is not an epidemic, the threat isn’t cataclysmic, and the response shouldn’t be over-dramatic. But sometimes non-sensational problems deserve our attention too. And so with all the usual this-is-not-pesak and please-consult-your-own-rav disclaimers, the following is an effort at clarifying the halakhic factors involved in these cases, and to suggest some broad-stroke parameters for working through this specific but basically unremarkable conjunction of halakhic observance and physical distress. The pretension is not to settle but to enrich the discussion, and of course to help see to it that there can be one.

1) Categorizing Physical Distress

Halakha features three main categories of physical distress: (1) life-threatening (choleh she-yeish bo sakanah), (2) non-life-threatening (choleh she-ein bo sakanah), and (3) commonplace discomfort (meichush b-alma). Since hair-covering-induced headaches are predominantly non-lethal, they may fall into either of categories (2) or (3). What conditions qualify someone as not merely suffering discomfort but as a full-fledged halakhic choleh? The Shulchan Arukh’s formulation distinguishes between a “bedridden patient,” and a person who, though ill, can “pull themselves together and walk about as a healthy person.”7 To qualify as properly ill, not merely discomfited, is to be unable to walk about and conduct one’s business as does a normal, healthy person. Rema supplements this definition, glossing “Alternatively, that he has an ailment from which his entire body suffers and grows sick, as in that case, even if he can walk about, it is as if he is bedridden.”8 The supplement is intended as a clarification: What matters, according to the Rema, is not whether the person is actually incapacitated, but whether the ailment is body-comprehensive and severe rather than localized or minor and is therefore functionally comparable to outright incapacitation. So for example, a stubbed toe may not qualify because it is too localized, while feeling tired, though a full-body experience, will usually involve less pain than would be necessary to qualify the sufferer as a choleh. Synthesizing the criteria, R. Schachter offers the following straightforward formula: The choleh she-ein bo sakanah is “Anyone whose illness impairs their normal functioning.”9

What about a person who, though not currently ill, will under present conditions predictably become ill? Can one qualify as a cholehprophylactically? On a frigid winter shabbat, the Shulchan Arukh rules, one may instruct a non-Jew to light a fire, as “When it comes to cold, everyone is a sick person.”10 That is, under threat of the cold the liable-to-become-ill are to be regarded as already ill, and the appropriate measures are to be taken. R. Schachter argues this principle is generalizable11: A predictable illness to come is functionally the same, and so warrants prophylactically the same prerogatives, as an illness in the present.

It seems plausible then that by these criteria, many of the hair-covering induced headaches described above would qualify their sufferers as halakhic cholot. This would be so if either a) the pain is sufficiently severe and broad-scoped so as to impair normal functioning, or b) it is predictable that, given the status quo, the pain will soon becomesufficiently severe and broad-scoped so as to impair normal functioning. Authoritative halakhic guidance is clearly requisite, but ultimately the determination has an irreducibly subjective core: If you feel out of sorts, like you can’t bear the thought of doing the things you do, like you just can’t take the pounding in your head anymore, there’s a good chance you’re a bona fide halakhic choleh.

2) Halakhic Implications of Choleh Status

Assuming a person qualifies as a choleh, what then? The evidence varies as to the degree of license afforded. Regarding medical treatment for a choleh on shabbat, the Shulchan Arukh allows instructing a non-Jew to perform even a melachah d-oraita – for the Jew effectively violating an issur d-rabanan. After citing a number of conflicting views, he concludes that one may violate not only this but any d-rabanan prohibition, with the proviso that the action be performed in an irregular manner (b-shinui).12 Though there remains a specific aversion to a Jew violating a shabbat prohibition, even a rabbinic one, by his own hands – and so here an irregular manner is required – in principle the treatment of an illness does generally warrant the suspension of rabbinic prohibitions. This is further confirmed by the Rema, who in another context allows a choleh to employ issurei hana’ah d-rabanan (post-Pesach chametz, for example) for therapeutic purposes, even in the manner one normally enjoys them.13

Paralleling the Shulchan-Arukh’s injunction against direct shabbattransgression, Rema does prohibit the more specific, and apparently more intolerable, act of eating a rabbinically prohibited substance.14But again, this seems to be a specialized, non-generalizable exception. It has also been suggested that we may distinguish here between rabbinic injunctions which are parameter-broadening auxiliaries to d-oraita obligations (“gezerot”), and those which are self-standing (“issurim”).15 So for instance, the Ran rules that substances prohibitedd-oraita may be used abnormally, but forbids using those prohibited d-rabanan in a regular fashion, because the latter represents a direct rabbinic enactment. We, however, do not accept this ruling: The fact that, as we saw, the Rema does allow the unqualified use of issurei hana’ah d-rabanan indicates that, without a specific reason to the contrary, we may assume that any given rabbinic prohibition may be suspended in the treatment of a choleh.

As it goes, in those cases in which the hair-covering obligation is d-rabanan (next section’s topic), it is clearly a supplementary broadening of the d-oraita version rather than a self-standing enactment. Further, it may be that head-covering is not an issur at all: According to R. Moshe Feinstein, it may just as well be a positive imperative rather than a negative injunction.16 And should there be any doubt as to the precise category of d-rabanan to which it belongs, R. Moshe argues, that doubt should be resolved toward the more lenient position, as with all d-rabanan questions.17

3) Head Covering: d-oraita or d-rabanan?

In a widely discussed article published a few years back, the argument was advanced that, according to Rambam, Tur, Shulchan Arukh and others, hair-covering is in all cases a categorically d-rabananobligation.18 We could end the discussion here. But whatever the argument’s merits, it remains more than contentious, and further, all agree that the majority of modern authorities do consider the hair covering obligation to be fundamentally d-oraita.19 That said, there are more particular conditions under which poskim do in fact categorize head covering as d-rabanan without reservation. Two notable examples from R. Moshe:

(1) A widow or divorcee. R. Moshe famously ruled that a widow for whom head covering represented an impediment to earning a living need not observe the practice, invoking among other factors the fact that the head-covering requirement for a widow is only d-rabanan.20

(2) Hair already 50% covered. If the “head” in “head covering” is regarded as an integral whole rather than a set of individually hairs, then by the principle “a majority is like a whole,” R. Moshe argues, covering half of one’s head should satisfy the requirement on adoraita level.21 Any obligation to cover any more than 50% is then d-rabanan.

More knotty, but likely most relevant, is the question of location. Thegemara itself clearly indicates a modulation of hair-covering’s d-oraita/d-rabanan status across certain parameters:

ואיזוהי דת יהודית? יוצאה וראשה פרוע. ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא! דכתיב: הופרע את ראש האשה, ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל: אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש! דאורייתא קלתה שפיר דמי, דת יהודית – אפילו קלתה נמי אסור. אמר רבי אסי אמר ר’ יוחנן, קלתה אין בה משום פרוע ראש. הוי בה רבי זירא, היכא? אילימא בשוק, דת יהודית היא! ואלא בחצר, אם כן, לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה! אמר אביי, ואיתימא רב כהנא: מחצר לחצר ודרך מבוי

Three primary categories of location are distinguished: (1) The marketplace, in which wearing only a kaltah is prohibited by dat yehudit; (2) the alleyway between various courtyards, in which wearing a kaltah does suffice for dat yehudit; (3) and the courtyard itself, in which it would be unreasonably intrusive to require even a kaltah, even by the more comprehensive standards of dat yehudit. In a marketplace, here the paradigm of a public space, it is understood that leaving one’s hair uncovered is in violation of a d-oraita obligation. The status of the other two place categories, and how to define precisely what they are, requires investigation.


Regarding the courtyard, the degree of permissiveness allowed is subject to debate. The Tur writes that if a woman goes about in a private courtyard with an uncovered head, “She is not divorced.”22From this phrasing the Bach infers that though not divorce-mandating the practice is nonetheless improprietous,23 and this ruling is endorsed by the Beit Shmuel24 and later by the Chatam Sofer.25 But the inference is rebutted by the Darkhei Moshe,26 and likewise thePerishah27 and Taz28 take clear stands against requiring hair covering in a private courtyard. (Darkhei Moshe does concede some value to covering one’s hair in a chatzer as a form of supererogatory tzeniut.) R. Moshe concludes that the clear consensus belongs to the permissive position, and importantly, argues that even those who do require hair covering in a chatzer would certainly not extend this to a woman’s private room where there is no concern of freely interloping men.29

What precisely qualifies a space as a chatzer? According to Rif30 and Rosh,31 citing a passage from the Yerushalmi,32 to qualify for leniency a courtyard must be such that is not subject to public traversal (“she-ein ha-rabim bok’in bo”). This would presumably include either cases in which access to the courtyard is blocked or otherwise restricted to the public, or cases in which masses of people simply do not regularly invade the courtyard space. But what if, in a by-nature private courtyard, it happens that some men are, or may soon become, present? R. Henkin adduces two views from the rishonim33:

(1) Ritva explains the uncovered-head license in a chatzer on the grounds that “there are no onlookers,”34 perhaps implying that we require the certainty that there are at present zero men.

(2) Terumat Ha-Deshen’s formulation, on the other hand, is “where the masses are not commonly present, there is no concern,”35 which would seem to allow for relaxing the head-covering requirement even where there is some possibility that people may traverse the chatzer, so long as they do not regularly do so.36 It is possible to suggest, though not certain, that this would extend even to exceptional instances in which men are in fact passing through.

On the Terumat Ha-Deshen’s view, one is not required to guard against the mere possibility of onlookers. It also may be that the obligation is not to ensure against the result that one’s hair be seen, but as a matter of personal virtue to comport oneself in a privacy-minded manner, and that duty is met in full even when the results are marred by unpredictable interlopers. Finally, R. Henkin suggests an interpretation focused not on the number of people, but on their identity: Perhaps the requirement to cover one’s head fully is intended as a notification for others of one’s marital status, and so in a neighborhood courtyard, where “everyone knows your name,” the concern falls away.37

Conclusion: In a non-public courtyard, one is not required to cover their hair, though it may be praiseworthy to do so. A courtyard is non-public if substantial numbers of people do not regularly pass through, perhaps even if, on a given occasion, it happens that some have. Finally, we may be more likely to consider a place a chatzer if everyone regularly present is on familiar terms.

Me-chatzer l-chatzer derekh mavoi:

It is clear from the Ketuvot passage that in an alleyway between courtyards only an intermediate degree of head-covering is required, but it is not immediately clear whether this minimal requirement is d-oraita or d-rabanan. To put it another way: In an alleyway, would having no head covering at all transgress a d-oraita obligation? On the prevailing view, headlined by the Beit Shmuel, the Taz, and possibly the Rambam,38 the answer is no: The d-oraita requirement exists only in full-fledged, marketplacelike public spaces. Everywhere else, head-covering is at most required rabbinically.

But what is and is not a public space still requires clarification.Teshuvot Beit Yitzchak poses an intriguing question39: The gemarasays that the hair-covering requirement is derived from the obligation to uncover the hair of a sotah. But of course the sotah proceedings took place within the walled, traversal-limiting confines of the temple courtyard; if this is the source, should not the hair-covering obligation likewise apply in less than fully public places? Perhaps, Beit Yitzchaksuggests, the temple courtyard was exceptional in that, despite not qualifying as a classical public domain, it was treated as one on account of the large numbers of people present at any given time. It would follow that any space, if sufficiently populated, may a require head covering on a d-oraita level as if in a marketplace. This conclusion is in apparent tension with the Yerushalmi, noted in passing earlier, which states simply that “Chatzer she-ha-rabim bokin bo harei hu ke-mavoi; she-ein ha-rabim bokin bo, harei hu ke-chatzer,” indicating that, even with masses present, a courtyard is at most to be considered an alleyway. Beit Yitzchak is therefore forced to reinterpret the Yerushalmi as relating only to moderate, not large, crowds. In support of this position he adduces the Taz, who clarifies that thegemara’s ‘alleyway’ intends a place in which “the masses are not regularly present, though some do traverse.” To restrict the head-covering requirement to a d-rabanan level, on this view, an alleyway may have some, but not too many people.

Endorsing the Beit Yitzchak’s position, R. Henkin adds an important, categorical qualification: Its provenance is limited to outdoor spaces. In explaining the practice of brides not covering their hair at their weddings, he notes that, “In countries where the chupah is held indoors and the bride does not go outside, if the wedding feast is held in the same or an adjacent hall she has as yet incurred no Torah obligation to cover her hair.”40 The large numbers of wedding guests notwithstanding, the mere fact that the wedding takes place indoors is in itself sufficient to rule out any d-oraita obligation: “Inside, no matter how many people have gathered, it is not d-oraita.”41 Applying the principle to analogous cases would yield the conclusion that an indoor mall, a bustling workplace, or a crowded subway car, to think of a few, would similarly qualify.

In conclusion, any place (a) featuring restricted access, (b) that is otherwise predictably unpopulated, and possibly (c) that is simply indoors, can be plausibly regarded as a place in which the obligation to cover one’s hair is at most d-rabanan.

4) Conclusions:

Because many of these questions require greater and more rigorous clarification, because these issues bear a vital communal valence, and because each case is unique and deeply personal, any fixed policy recommendation would be inappropriate. What can be offered is a set of considerations, questions, and suggestions of use in engaging these issues thoughtfully.

Those for whom head-covering entails substantial physical distress should, in conversation with their families, communities, and rabbis, think through the degree of pain they sustain and whether it impedes their capacity to live their daily lives. If it does, they may consider whether certain of their regular, regularly problem-causing environments – their home, backyard, car, low-traffic office – qualify as places in which the head-covering obligation may be d-rabanan; the factors involved may include the number of people present, the number of people liable to become present, whether or not it is indoors, and whether it is controlled and familiar. Given that determination, it may then be considered whether the head-covering obligation ought to be relaxed – employing a less constricting method, covering less – or suspended long enough to alleviate or prevent undue pain.

Beyond any specific resolution proposed in any given case, the mere ability to address the issue intelligently, openly, and faithfully is an inestimable benefit to all involved. Simply having a plan is a spring of comfort and strength, and the capacity for shared understanding, reflection, and collaboration is the ground for healthy communal life. Making sure those can happen is our responsibility.

This article originally appeared on Rabbi Gil Student’s blog, Torah Musings.

  1. Devarim 6:5. 
  2. See Rashi to Sanhedrin 74a, s.v. sevara hu.  
  3. Berachot 19b.  
  4. Yoma 39a, Chullin 49b, Rosh Hashanah 27a. 
  5. Gittin 59a; Mishna Shevi’it 4:3.  
  6. Ketuvot 60a.  
  7. Shulchan Arukh, OC 328:17. 
  8. Gloss to Shulchan Arukh, 328:17. 
  9. R. Herschel Schachter, Eretz Ha-Tzvi, siman 6. “Kol she-nimna mi-l-fol pe’ulotav b-ofen normali me-chamat chulyo.” 
  10. See Shulchan Arukh, OC 276:5. 
  11. R. Herschel Schachter, Eretz Ha-Tzvi, siman 6 
  12. SA, OC 328:17. 
  13. See Rama to Yoreh De’ah, 155:3.  
  14. Ibid.  
  15. R. Herschel Schachter, Eretz Ha-Tzvi, siman 6. 
  16. Igrot Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer vol. 1, siman 57.  
  17. See ibid.  
  18. See R. Michael J. Broyde, “Hair Covering and Jewish Law: Biblical and Objective (Dat Moshe) or Rabbinic and Subjective (Dat Yehudit), in Tradition 42:3 (2009), 97-109.  
  19. See ibid, 98.  
  20. See Igros Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer 1:57.  
  21. Ibid, 1:58 
  22. Tur, Even Ha-Ezer 115. 
  23. See for example the comments of Bach, EH 115:3. 
  24. Bet Shmuel 115:9.  
  25. Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Orach Chaim, siman 36.  
  26. Darkhei Moshe, Even Ha-Ezer 115:4.  
  27. Perisha, Even Ha-Ezer 115:11.  
  28. Taz, Even Ha-Ezer 115:5.  
  29. Igros Moshe, EH 1:58. 
  30. Riv, Ketuvot 32b.  
  31. Rosh, Ketuvot 7:9.  
  32. Yerushalmi Ketuvot, 7:7. “Chatzer she-ha-rabim bokin bo harei hu k-mavoi; she-ein ha-rabim bokin bo, harei hu k-chatzer.” 
  33. See R. Y.H. Henkin, Teshuvot B’nei Banim 4:10. 
  34. See Shita Mekubetzet to Ketuvot 72b. “Keivan she-ein sham ro’in” 
  35. Terumat Ha-Deshen, siman 10. “heikha d-lo shekhikha rabim sham ein kepeida” 
  36. See Benei Banim, vol. 3. 
  37. B’nei Banim 4:10.  
  38. See Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ishut, chapter 24.  
  39. See Beit Yitzchak, 14:2.  
  40. Rabbi J.H. Henkin, Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Women’s Issues, 155. Cf. R. Henkin, B’nei Banim 3:23.  
  41. R. Henkin, Teshuvot B’nei Banim 3:23. Emphasis added.  


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.