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Parshas Korach (5775)

Hair

This week's Torah portion tells the story of Korach's rebellion against Moses. The first verse states that Korach, who was an aspiring Levite from a distinguished family, took with him those two famous Biblical troublemakers, Dothan and Abiram, as well as On, son of Peles, to start a revolt against the leadership of Moses and his brother, Aaron, the High Priest. To make a long story very short - Korach, Dothan and Abiram and their families lost the argument and were punished by being miraculously swallowed up alive by the earth.

The question is ….what ever happened to On, son of Peles? He was originally mentioned as one of Korach's co-conspirators, but when it comes to punishment time, his name is not mentioned as one of those swallowed up in the ground.

To solve this mystery, we have to go to the Talmud, which records an Oral Tradition as to what happened behind the scenes of Korach's rebellion.

You see, On descended from the tribe of Reuven, and, as such, was originally supposed to enjoy certain privileges and responsibilities within the hierarchy of the Jewish people. But then came the Golden Calf, and the tribe of Reuven didn't act responsibly as a first-born tribe should, and was subsequently removed from its special status, to be replaced by the tribe of Levi, who did the right thing at the scene of the Golden Calf. Korach persuaded On to rebel against Moses, in order to regain his original, coveted status of privileged firstborn.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 99b tells us that, as it happened, On's wife had the insight and intuition to see through Korach's evil scheme, and attempted to persuade her husband not to rebel against Moses, the leader of the Jewish people. Even after hearing her sound arguments, however, On told his wife that he had no choice since he had taken an oath to join Korach, and he couldn't turn back now. So On's wife decided to take matters into her own hands. She fed On a really good meal, and got him intoxicated with some strong booze. While he was sleeping inside the tent, she sat herself down at the entrance to the tent, with her hair fully uncovered. She knew that any minute, Korach would come by to pick up her husband for their planned rebellion against Moses. When Korach and his entourage came and saw her hair exposed, they immediately turned away from her tent, and left On to sleep through the entire rebellion and its aftermath.

We see from this story that married Jewish women always covered their hair in public, to the point that seeing a woman with her hair uncovered sitting outside her tent was shocking and caused men to turn aside to refrain from looking at her.

The Biblical source for married women covering their hair in public can be found in Parshas Naso (see Numbers 5:18; see also the Talmud in Kesubos 72a), and the great majority of Jewish women throughout history embraced this special tradition. [Divorced or widowed women are also required to cover their hair, although some Halachic authorities hold that their obligation is Rabbinic.]

In more recent times – especially after the sexual revolution of the 60’s - it has become harder for some modern women to cover their hair, and they have been doing so begrudgingly. As Gila Manolson writes in her book OUTSIDE/INSIDE: A Fresh Look at Tzniut:

“The most distinguishing feature of religious Jewish female dress is the head covering a married woman wears. Be it a hat, beret, scarf, snood, turban, wig, fall, or creative combination of any of the above, she’ll have something on her head, and her hair will be under it. Religious single women anticipate this practice with a wide range of feelings. One who’s really into her hair may recoil at the idea of covering it. Those who dread “bad hair days” are relieved to kiss them goodbye. Others are unenthusiastic but determined to make the best of it: ‘If I have to cover my hair, I’m going to have fun doing it!’ And some greet the whole issue with nothing more than a shrug.”

Of course, there are many Jewish women today, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, who find this particular Halachah (Jewish law) too difficult for them to observe for a variety of reasons (and I don’t judge them) and they don’t cover their hair at all (or they cover it partially).

Still others have an issue with the whole concept of women having to cover their hair in front of men. They say, if the point of women covering their hair in public is so as not to attract other men, then let the men not look! And those expensive wigs that some religious women wear often look better and more attractive than their actual hair!

If you have a problem with this mitzvah, it would be worth your while to read Gila Manolson’s amazing book OUTSIDE/INSIDE: A Fresh Look at Tzniut (pages 57-61) where she addresses all the issues and offers a beautiful explanation of the law of hair covering and its deeper symbolism and meaning.

I would like to share with you a slightly different approach to the mitzvah of women’s hair covering which helped me understand it better, and it has to do with the symbolism of hair in general:

Did you ever wonder why we humans have a preponderance of hair on certain parts of our body (e.g. facial hair, underarm hair, pubic hair, head hair) and not on others? We can ask such questions since Judaism believes that we and everything else in this world were created by a purposeful Creator Who created and designed everything with precision and purpose – so why did G-d design us with more hair on some parts of the body?

It is a fundamental teaching of Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) that everything G-d created in the physical world is rooted in some spiritual analogue, which is its source. Physical reality is merely a refraction of spiritual essence.

The mystics teach that physical hair represents the spiritual concept of hashpa’ah, influencing others. Just as hair at a point closest to the body is considered chemically “alive” and a part of the person, while hair that is further away from the body is no longer alive but is merely an extension of the person, so, too, a person whom one influence is not actually a live part of him but is rather an extension of himself.

For this reason, we find more hair on and around those organs and parts of the body which can be used to influence others. (It’s almost as if by placing more hair on those parts of the body, G-d is reminding us to make sure we use those body parts properly and influence others with them.)

So, for example, we have an abundance of hair under our arms where they protrude from the body because our arms can be used to write and to convey messages that can greatly influence others. And we have more hair around the male and female genitalia because they are the most obvious organs of hashpa’ah and influence - we can use them to create life itself!

We also find a preponderance of hair around the mouth because it, too, is a major organ of hashpa’ah. And since teaching Torah publically – which has had the greatest influence of all on mankind – has generally been the province of men (why that is we can talk about some other time), we find that men have more facial hair than women.

Finally, we humans usually have an abundance of hair on our heads – and women more so than men - because the top of the head represents the essence of the person, and the essential role of the Jewish woman is to enable, empower and influence those around her – i.e. her husband and children - to actualize their potential and to be the best they can be.

[Although some might consider the notion that the Jewish woman’s essential role is to enable her husband and children to reach their full potential to be prejudiced against women, the truth is that she is really no different than a therapist or psychologist whose job it is to help others be their best. Of course, wives and mothers – unlike therapists - don’t get paid for what they do, so in today’s money-driven society we don’t think it’s worth much.]

This explains why it is so important for a married woman to cover her hair in public - and it has nothing at all to do with making her look less attractive and enticing to other men. Rather, by covering her hair, she reminds herself at all times of the great spiritual power that she has to positively or negatively influence all those around her – as represented by the hair on her head – and to reserve and channel all that influence inwards to her husband, children and family where it is most needed.

It is interesting that we find the popular idiom of a woman “letting her hair down”, which, according to UrbanDictionary.com, means “to leave behind one's inhibitions or to behave in a way that is free from social limitations or any code of conduct.” This stands in stark contrast to a woman who “covers up her hair’ to remind herself of the code of conduct that is expected of her and the channeling of her influence in the right direction.

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