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Head Covering and Fear of Heaven

Why are unmarried women not obligated to cover their heads, and what is the halakha regarding head covering for women during prayer? * The controversy over wigs brought from India, and the doubts about whether this involves the prohibition of deriving benefit from idolatry * What should one do when arriving at the synagogue, and finding someone else sitting in their regular seat? * Praying next to a baby who dirtied their diaper

What to do When a Guest Sits in one’s Regular Seat in the Synagogue

Q: My regular prayer seat is near the entrance of the synagogue, and as a result, guests often sit in my spot. Is it proper to ask them to get up, or since I don’t want to embarrass them, should I forfeit sitting in my regular seat for those prayers?

A: It is a mitzvah (positive commandment) for a person to establish a set place for their prayer (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 90:19), because one who establishes a set place for prayer thereby expresses the constant connection they have with God, and since their connection to the Source of Life is stable, their life is enhanced, as our Sages said: “Whoever establishes a set place for their prayer, the God of Abraham aids them,” and “their enemies fall before them” (Berachot 6b, 7b).

However, there is an even greater mitzvah to avoid paining another person, which is a branch of the commandment “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” which Rabbi Akiva said is a great principle of the Torah. Therefore, if there is no respectable place to redirect the guest, one should avoid asking them to get up from the seat. When the prayer service is already underway, such as near ‘Barchu’, it appears that even if your name is on the seat and it is possible to direct the guest elsewhere, one should not ask them to switch places.

Of course there are different situations, such as if one of them is elderly or very young, and in all situations, one must act sensitively as appropriate.

In order to avoid the problem from the start, it is preferable to arrive at the synagogue early, and if possible, even merit being among the first ten, so that guests will not sit in your seat.

Additionally, it is proper for every community to appoint a pleasant Gabai (sexton), who will kindly welcome the guests, and avoid unpleasantness by directing them to appropriate seats.

Prayer Next to a Soiled Baby

Q: I prayed next to a baby who turned out to have soiled their diaper. After I cleaned him up, do I need to repeat my prayer?

A: If the baby is older and can already eat a kezayit (olive size) portion of grain in the time it takes to eat half a loaf of bread (approx. 7 minutes), around a year old, and a foul odor emits from his excrement, it is forbidden from the Torah to pray next to him, and if you already prayed – the prayer is invalid, and you must repeat the prayer. If no foul odor emitted, the prayer is valid.

Regarding blessings recited next to a baby whose excrement emits a foul odor, the poskim (Jewish law arbiters) disagree whether they are also invalidated like the Amidah prayer and Keriat Shema, and due to the safek (doubt), one does not repeat them (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 3:9-10).

Is it Really Preferable to Die, Rather than Publicly Embarrass One’s Friend?

Q: Our Sages said: “It is better for a person to throw themselves into a fiery furnace, rather than publicly embarrass their friend” (Sotah 10b). Is this literally true, and is it really preferable for a person to die, rather than publicly embarrass their friend?

A: These words of our Sages were said hyperbolically, in order to warn about the tremendous severity of the prohibition of embarrassing others, but it is not an actual halachic obligation to sacrifice one’s life for this (Meiri Berachot 43b, Chinuch #240, Ayin Yaakov, and so wrote Rabbi Moshe Kalefon HaCohen, Brit Avot on Avot 3:15. And so implies from Rambam Deot 6:8, Teshuva 3:14).

However, some poskim imply that one must literally sacrifice their life in order not to publicly embarrass their friend (Tosafot Sotah 10b “noach“, Shaarei Teshuva 3:137, Binyan Tzion #172). However, it appears basically that their intention is for a case of extremely severe insult that would alter a person’s status to the point that they may commit suicide, or become ill and die from agony.

Why are Women Not Obligated to Wear a Kippah?

Q: Why have unmarried women not had the custom to cover their heads with a kippah like men?

A: Wearing a kippah for men is intended to inspire fear of Heaven. It is related in the Talmud (Shabbat 156b) that after it became known to the mother of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak based on his astrological sign that he was liable to become a thief, she was very strict with him to always cover his head, and this way, he grew up in Torah and mitzvot. Once, when his head covering fell off, his evil inclination overcame him, and he greatly desired to steal dates from the top of a palm tree. At that moment, Rav Nachman understood his mother’s insistence. Over time, the minhag hassidut (pious custom) was accepted among all Israel to cover one’s head all day, to the point where it became an obligatory custom (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 2:6). It appears that the custom of wearing a kippah, somewhat replaced tefillin. Ideally, one should wear tefillin all day, and since people became more meticulous about the honor of tefillin, to only wear them with complete bodily and mental purity, they are only worn during prayer, and instead, people became meticulous about wearing a kippah all day.

However, for women, head covering is for modesty and not in order to inspire fear of Heaven. Therefore, married women cover their heads, while unmarried women, who do not need to be as strict as married women, do not need to cover their heads.

It is possible to interpret that women’s observance of the laws of modesty in their clothing expresses fear of Heaven more, and therefore, there is no need for a head covering as well, in order to express fear of Heaven.

Unmarried Women are Not Obligated to Wear a Kippah in Prayer, or Blessings

Some poskim say that when mentioning God’s name and reciting blessings, even unmarried women should cover their heads, since in this matter, there is no difference between men and women, but rather, it is an independent obligation to cover one’s head when mentioning God’s name (Ish Matzliach, Yaskil Avdi). Others say that, at the very least, during the Amidah, women should cover their heads (Yabia Omer 6:15).

However, in practice, unmarried women are not meticulous about this, and even during prayer, do not have the custom to cover their heads. Only men have an obligatory, minhag hassidut to cover their heads all day, in order to inspire them to fear of Heaven, and therefore, they have a complete obligation to cover their heads when mentioning God’s name. But for unmarried women who do not practice this pious custom, it does not express fear of Heaven for them, and therefore, they are not obligated in it when praying and reciting blessings (see Peninei Halakha: Women’s Prayer 10:6).

Are Married Women Obligated to Cover Their Heads During Prayer and Blessings?

Married women must cover their heads during prayer, since without a head covering, they would be dressed contrary to halakha. Even one who is not accustomed to being meticulous about head covering, should at least be careful about this during prayer even when alone in her home, since it is inappropriate to pray while dressed in a manner not respectable according to halakha.

Regarding reciting blessings and verses that contain God’s name, some say that even when a woman is alone, if she is married, she must be careful to cover her head (Yabia Omer 6:15). And some say that since unmarried women are not obligated in this, married women are also not obligated, since the obligation for married women to cover their heads is only due to modesty, and since when reciting blessings there is no obligation to dress respectably, their law follows that of unmarried women, and it is permitted for them to recite blessings and the bedtime Shema without a head covering. And this is the prevalent custom and the halakha (Peninei Halakha: Women’s Prayer 10:6).

Wigs Whose Hair is from India

About twenty years ago, in 2004, a controversy arose regarding wigs whose hair is imported from India. It became clear that some of the hair is brought from the area of the city of Tirupati in southern India, where there is a place of worship visited by tens of millions of people each year, many of whom shave their head hair before coming before the idol. The hair belonging to the place of worship is then sold to the wig industry.

Those poskim prohibiting, argued that shaving the hair is an act of worship, and is therefore considered a quasi-sacrificial slaughtering (shechita), rendering the hair forbidden for benefit.

In contrast, those poskim permitting, clarified with people familiar with the religion, and it became clear that shaving the hair is not an act of worship, but merely preparation before coming submissively before the idol, and is therefore not forbidden for benefit.

Halakha to Permit

Even if we accept the claim of the stringent poskim that there is concern that shaving the hair is considered worship, wigs made from hair brought from India may be permitted, since this involves a sfeik sfeika (a double doubt), and the halakha is that even regarding the prohibition of deriving benefit from idolatry – in a sfeik sfeika, the law follows the lenient opinion, as explained in the Mishnah: “One who finds idolatry fragments, they are permitted” (Avodah Zarah 41a). Rashi, Rambam and others explained, based on the Gemara (ibid. 41b), that this is a sfeik sfeika – doubtful whether they worshipped these idols, and if they were worshipped – perhaps the non-Jews nullified them. And so is codified in halakha (Shach YD 141:7).

Therefore, even when certain the wig hair came from Tirupati, the wig is permitted for benefit, and therefore, it is permitted to purchase it, and wear it. All the more so when it is unknown if it came from there, and then, there would be three doubts.

The Three Doubts in Brief

The first doubt: Whether shaving the hair is an act of worship that can forbid the hair from benefit, or if it is not an act of worship but merely preparation before coming to the idol. From clarifying the matter, it appears the lenient opinion is correct, since the priests of the religion itself said that shaving is not worship, and the hair is considered impure for them, and unfit for an offering. However, the stringent argued that the masses think it is worship, and therefore, it is considered a way of worshiping that idol, thus forbidding the hair.

The second doubt: Even if we accept the stringent view that shaving the hair is worship, the Rishonim (early authorities) disputed whether a worship that resembles the Temple service only partially, such as shaving hair which partially resembles animal slaughter, forbids the offering from benefit. According to Ramban, Rashba and Ritva it does not forbid, while according to Tosafot, Tur and Shulchan Aruch YD 139:3, it forbids.

The third doubt relates to laws of taravot (mixtures), meaning, that even if we say shaving the hair is worship, and even if we say this worship forbids the hair, according to the lenient opinion, the Tirupati hair is batel (nullified) among the rest of the hair brought from India for the wig industry, and the hair leaving India is batel among hair from the rest of the world, while according to the stringent opinion, it is not batel (since the reasoning of the sides is complex, we will not mention them).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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