In this week’s parshah, Yitzchak’s other son Esav is so named because of his peculiar birth-trait of being born covered with hair. The name is a play on the word asui — “made,” as if he was born already with no need to grow anymore physically. It is most interesting that the signifier of this trait of this was his hair, which answers many questions regarding the Torah’s outlook on this particular body part (if it could be called that).
In halachah, the point of determining a boy or girl’s maturation is when he or she sprouts two hairs in their “lower beard,” which indicates that their bodies have developed the means to carry out the task they were created for, i.e., producing children. Even without these examples, a simple observation of the patterns of hair growth on the human body shows that hair sprouts up in new places as one ages or becomes thicker or darker in others. The fact that this process slows down and that one’s hair begins to fall out or thin as one approaches middle age suggests, though, that hair is an indication of the status of one’s physical development, both in its growing stages and its shrinking stages.
Because man’s true existence in this world is one of de-emphasizing his physical nature, hair is therefore something that is dealt with in Jewish law in a few interesting ways. There is no explicit Torah prohibition against a man growing his head hair, but there are many indications that growing out one’s hair, i.e., not trimming it, is a sign of mourning. The Kohen Gadol is forbidden from allowing it to grow when he is mourning, part of his otherwise need to remain in constant levels of simchah. The nazir grows his hair as part of his nazirus, but this could be because the act of cutting his hair goes against the nature of his vow as opposed to long hair being an indication of it (thirty days of hair growth is not necessarily a lot).
Also, the peyos that one is commanded to keep are also not necessarily due to anything special about long hair covering the temples but with leaving them completely bare of hair. Cutting one’s beard, though, is very frowned upon, as is a man cutting his lower beard as well (in that it imitates a women’s practice). Before beginning their service in the Temple, the Levi’im were commanded to shave off all their hair, as was a metzorah undergoing his purification. There are many places, therefore, where hair has a central place in the halachos relating to men.
For obvious reasons, all of the above halachos do not apply to women. Instead, the major area in which women’s hair is dealt with is the head hair. From the fact that a women suspected of adultery (in very specific circumstances) has her head covering removed as a sign of her disparagement, it is assumed that a dignified woman covers her hair. Whether the issue is seeing her natural hair or seeing any hair on a married woman’s head might be what distinguishes the custom among Ashkenazim and Sephardim to wear wigs or not, but the difference nonetheless remains.
According to what it appears the Torah has to say about hair, though, the issue about a woman’s hair is less about the actual object—the collection of the follicles—but what it represents. As in the case of Esav, hair is a visible indication of one’s physical maturity, in particular in those areas that cannot be seen. Because the physical aspect of man’s being is one that needs to be downplayed because of man’s potential to abuse it for his own purposes (and not for spiritual endeavors), one doesn’t let one’s hair grow too long but controls it just like all aspects of his physical being. However, the hair of certain parts is kept long as a sign of real maturity.
Facial hair and peyos are forbidden to be cut or shorn to show that men are to appreciate the growth of the parts of the body that help him fulfill his true potential, i.e., the sensory organs. In addition, it can be said that since the actual prohibition is in removing all of one’s hair from the area in front of one’s ears, the real problem is in actively destroying the growth of hair in the area of the senses.
Women, though, whose essential purpose in the world is not to grow intellectually but to harness the energies they already contain and produce great things with them, have no need for constant development of their sensory organs. Their primary drive is connecting through feeling, which finds its expression primarily within the context of marriage and child-rearing.
Just like they build the child within their bodies before birth, they similarly build their children throughout adolescence, being with them every step of the way and bestowing upon them their every need. This doesn’t require any more physical maturity than to gestate children and be energetic enough to better relate to their young. For a woman, then, the only real maturity her body requires is in the reproductive sense, which is the only other place on her body where significant hair grows. Hence, unlike men, they have no prohibition against cutting off all of their facial hair.
Head hair is a bit different, but still embodies this same idea. Although it grows upon a person’s head from very early in life until very late, and therefore might not be subject to the same understanding as hair of the rest of the body, it’s still a facet of one’s physical growth as a product of one’s mental perspective towards it. There’s a tradition to leave boy’s hair uncut until his third birthday, the year in which boys become accustomed to their first mitzvos of wearing a kippah, tzitzis, and learning alef-beis. The act of cutting their hair shows them that although they have been growing physically for some time now, it is necessary to tame that growth in conjunction with accepting the yoke of mitzvos.
Because girls are not commanded in the same number of mitzvos as men, in particular those placed on their bodies, they do not undergo a similar ceremonial reminder. Instead, the physical aspect of a woman is her greatest expression of mitzvah, in that her body is the place where she gives life to children — that physical maturity is not one to be diminished, but nonetheless directed towards her role as mother and wife. Therefore, covering her hair is meant to show that the physical growth she exudes is only for her husband, the only man allowed to see it. She is not required by the Torah to cut her hair but instead cover it, showing that her physical growth is solely for the context of marriage where it is utilized for the holiest of purposes.
The issue of wigs that married women wear to cover their natural hair is very much affected by the depth of the matter. Only in recent times, perhaps due to the rise in affluence of Orthodox Jews, has the question been raised regarding styled wigs made to appear very similar to that of a woman’s regular hair. Some raise very serious issues with this practice, and declare in no small terms the wearing of such wigs being the cause of incredible tribulations facing the Jewish people. The women who do wear them view the diatribe against their choice with confusion, or worse with disdain at those seeking to inject their interpretation of the halachah against accepted custom. With no intent to favor any one side, perhaps the issue can be explained in light of what was mentioned regarding the Torah’s outlook on hair covering in general.
Since a woman’s hair indicates her physical maturity, its need to be covered shows that that maturity is directed towards one place: her husband and her role as the developer of a family. If the wig shows the world that she is still young and available, then it is not doing a great job (“attractive” is not necessarily the issue, but “young”). But if a woman’s wig reflects her status as a married woman, and not a single woman seeking a husband, then it serves the purpose of what a head-covering is intended for. Obviously there are more factors that need to be considered regarding one’s individual decision, but perhaps this discussion will shed some light into the issue without “splitting hairs.”