A few weeks ago, in his weekly motzaei Shabbos shiur, the chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Yitzchok Yosef, shlita, voiced his opinion that sheitels are forbidden, even those with a hechsher. (Rav Yosef is one of the leading halachic poskim in Israel.)
According to a report in Arutz Sheva: Rabbi Yosef stated that his own investigation found indisputable evidence that the hair used in the wigs sold to the haredi public comes from “idolatrous” rituals.
“I looked carefully into the matter, using every possible means. It became clear, one hundred percent certain, that the hair comes from idolatry. A person who buys a wig and brings it into their home cannot complain afterwards what terrible things happen to them. See, you brought idolatry into your home.”
The Chief Rabbi further criticized the practice of wearing wigs on the grounds of modesty.
“What does the Torah mean when it says ‘let the hair of the woman’s head go loose’? We learn from here that a woman must wear a hair covering, for modesty. What kind of ‘modesty’ did the Torah refer to? With a wig? I’m not talking about halacha, I’m talking about common sense. This is modesty? This is the madness of girls.”
Why There Is Basis to Be Lenient
Although the leniency for sheitels is rather shaky these days because of the avodah zarah problem, respectfully, it is this author’s contention that there is enough halachic basis to be lenient. Here is why:
Tonsuring, the halachic issue under discussion, is when women cut off all of their hair in a temple for religious purposes. A few years ago, frum Jews across the world stopped wearing sheitels with hair that could have come from these temples. Eventually, the issue settled, with many of the wig manufacturers obtaining supervision from rabbis stating that the source of the hair was permitted.
The issue cropped up again recently, and there is a growing movement in Eretz Yisrael and in some American communities to forbid it again.
Those Who Forbid It
Many rabbanim are convinced that it is highly likely that virtually all sheitels, no matter the origin, contain Indian temple hair that is takroves avodah zarah from which it is forbidden to benefit. The issues of takroves avodah zarah, offerings given on the worship of idols, are discussed in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 139:6. It is based on the Gemara in Avodah Zarah 59b.
Those who forbid it believe that Indian temple hair is so ubiquitous that it has found its way into almost every geographical location where sheitels are made. The hair is stripped of its pigment in a near-month-long process and supposedly sold to other markets to augment their stocks of hair. (This latter point, however, is disputed by other industry experts this author has interviewed.)
Three years ago, a letter, signed by a number of Israel-based rabbanim, was posted in shuls across the New York area. The letter was signed by Rav Chaim Meir HaLevi Vosner, the rav and av beis din of Zichron Meir; Rav Sriel Rosenberg, a Raavad in Bnei Brak; Rav Yehudah Silman, an av beis din in Bnei Brak; Rav Shimon Bodni, chaver, Moetzes Chochmei haTorah; and Rav Moshe Mordechai Karp of Modi’in.
The letter states that no hechsher on sheitels is effective because it is impossible to truly know the origin of the hair and that temple hair comprises the overwhelming majority of hair for human hair wigs.
That kol koreh, believe it or not, quotes a person named “Vince Selva” of the “Indo Asian Human Hair International Inc.” company who makes a number of claims about temple hair. The kol koreh also lists 25 alleged “facts” about the human hair industry.
What Is Their Real Intent?
This author was present with Rav Belsky, zt’l, when he researched the issue and when he discussed the issue of avodah zarah with the poskim in Eretz Yisrael. Dayan Dunner’s research was that the Indian women were actually giving their hair as an offering to “the gods” and that the hair was, therefore, considered takroves avodah zarah — something that the Torah forbids. The research of others, including that of Rav Belsky, zt’l, was that the women were offering to shave their hair as a sign of devotion and that the hair was not an offering per se. According to their understanding, the hair is not an offering and is therefore permitted.
This author’s own research at the time, speaking to representatives of India at the Indian consulate, also indicated that it was not an offering per se. Rav Belsky, zt’l, discussed other reasons for permitting it in his Sefer Shulchan HaLevi (page 438) where letters back and forth with Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, are printed.
Subsequent research done by this author revealed that there are Hindu pilgrim women who offer their hair for both reasons. Some offer their hair as a sign of surrendering one’s ego. Others offer their hair in payment of a debt. Punari Aruni, a Hindu pilgrim in her 40s, appears in the documentary “Hair India” and she is definitely from the “surrendering ego” camp.
According to Hindu lore, Vishnu, “the Preserver of the World,” took out a loan in order to pay for his wedding. Vishnu’s loan was so large, however, that it would take him thousands of years to pay off his debt. Now many devout Hindus help pay off Vishnu’s debt by offering their hair. (Someone wryly noted that the concept of making large chasunahs is what created the sheitel problem in the first place.) Those Hindus who believe in this lore and donate their hair on this account would be producing takroves avodah zarah.
Another version has it that the “god Vishnu” was hit on the head with an axe which caused him to lose a section of his hair. The female angel “Neela Devi” then offered him a lock of her hair as a replacement. Vishnu was so moved that from that point on, he granted wishes to those who offered their own hair in devotion. This version can be interpreted in both ways discussed above.
We Should Be Stringent on Extensions
It is this author’s view that hair extensions are actually a significant halachic problem and should be avoided. The company “Great Lengths” produces high-end extensions that are manufactured exclusively from temple hair. As far as wigs themselves, the origin is more nuanced.
That Which Is Sold Is Permitted
There are also hair exporters that have agents approaching men in India who pay money so that their wives will sell their hair. The exporters offer an Indian man $10 for his wife’s head of hair, according to a January 2014 article on the subject by Katie Rucke. According to a director at Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, the largest of some 28 temples in India that export hair, the temple does not pay the pilgrims any money for their hair, and they use the money obtained from selling it to meet the educational, medical, and nutritional needs of the desperately poor. The temple offers some 30,000 daily meals for the poor.
What Percentage Are True Offerings As an Avodah Zarah Gift?
Some women most assuredly are offering their hair as a gift and it would thus be considered takroves avodah zarah. Tirumala Venkateswara, for example, attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each day, making it the temple with the most hair donations in India. The temple features 18 shaving halls, but there are so many people waiting to donate their hair that women and young girls can wait for up to five hours to donate.
At the temple, some 650 barbers sit in lines on the concrete floor and tie the women’s hair into ponytails before cutting it off. Once the large portions of hair are removed, the barbers use a razor to shave each pilgrim’s head, before dousing their head with water to wash away any blood.
For those who are curious, on average, each woman donates about 10 ounces of hair, which goes for about $350.
The article continues, “Baskets filled with hair are collected every six hours and stored in a vast warehouse where it is piled knee deep.
“It’s estimated that each year India exports an estimated 2,000 tons of temple hair a year. The best — or longest — hair will sell for about $580 per pound. The hair is sold in yearly auctions that take place in March or April. One ton of hair is equal to donations from about 3,000 women. Since the shaving ceremony and sale of hair is not limited to one “holy site,” and 85 percent of the people in India are Hindu, those companies that export India’s human hair don’t foresee a shortage of temple hair anytime soon.”
General Sfeik Sfeikah
In this author’s view, the wigs with a hechsher are permitted through a halachic mechanism known as sfeik sfeikah, a double doubt. We use this concept of sfeik sfeikah throughout Shulchan Aruch. We use it in Yoreh De’ah 122:6 to permit the pot of an eino Yehudi in his home when it was used accidentally.
So what is the sfeik sfeikah here? Firstly, there is a doubt as to whether it is actually an offering. If someone were to cut off his or her thumb to show his or her dedication to their idol, it does not mean that the thumb was given as an actual offering. Body parts may be different.
Secondly, it is unclear whether the hair made in other countries came from India. This is certainly grounds for a halachic safeik. It should be known that not all the hair is sold to wig manufacturers, and much of the volume is sold to stuff mattresses, create oil filters, or is further extracted for the amino acids. Notwithstanding the volume of hair that is sold, it does not mean that all wigs throughout the world contain the hair. (The impetus for forbidding the entire issue is thus lessened with this information.)
Thirdly, there is a strong possibility that in regard to including it in a sfeik sfeikah, the halachah is that its sale makes it no longer considered a takroves avodah zarah on account of bitul, negation. The reason we are generally stringent is because avodah zarah is a serious matter, but for the purposes of inclusion in a sfeik sfeikah, we would be more lenient in this case and it would be permitted.
This is what Rav Yosef Teumim holds in his Pri Megadim (Siman 586). This is based on the Gemara in Zevachim 74a where the Gemara does not rule like Shmuel (in his stringency of not applying a sfeik sfeikah regarding a takroves avodah zarah). The Beis Shlomo O.C. 30 is also lenient in this matter of implementing a sfek sfeikah to permit a possible takroves avodah zarah. This case is even better because there are three doubts here.
It seems that the third campaign of this controversy is only just beginning. It is important that the matter be brought up again before the gedolei ha’poskim in America. It is likely that they will permit it based upon the triple doubt raised here or upon similar grounds. It is this author’s view that any hair marked “ethical” may be problematic because they do come from a temple. Also, any extensions sold in hair salons may be problematic as well (but perhaps could be permitted based upon just a double doubt).
When this author spoke to Rav Karp about the letter three years ago and questioned the source of the “due diligence” behind the information, he referred me to a few people who provided the information. We really do need to make an airtight system, however.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com.