How My Tiechel Set Me Free

Only a heretic would have the gall to suggest that appearances are simply skin deep.

Any novice at the earthling game sees clearly that appearances are deep outer expressions of the internal workings, the physical manifestation of the world in which our reality lives, where our emotions thrive and burst, where our mind wraps itself around everything, pushed out into the very type of coat we wear and the stockings we pull on. So we hard-working Jews work hard to represent.

Point your hat like that to show you’re this kind of chassid . Wear a brightly lit tiechel or a dark snood and we’ll easily know where your allegiances fly. You’re a wide-brimmed hat lady, a newsies-hat girl, a full sheital, or a fall. Shop accordingly and wave your colors high and proud.

Simple, right ?

Of course not.

One of the complications of Jewish wardrobe representation first hit me when I moved to a Sheital-Town, Brooklyn, after two years of full-blown scarf commitment. 

As I sat around my newly acquired friend’s sturdy brown table, surrounded by the faint noise of Brooklyn traffic and borough whispers, we found ourselves studying about minhag hamakom: “A minhag which is observed in a specific locality is binding upon that community.”  The words shook me like lightning:  Am I not following halacha by wearing a tiechel in Sheital Town, Brooklyn ?

The thought of not following halacha causes a tremor to pass through my precarious sense of balance within. I fell in love with Orthodox Judaism when I first read Rav Soloveitchik’s love poem to the Abishter in his Halachic Man.

How much of an immortal privilege were we granted to be able to understand and follow each ruling! How beautiful it is to be caught within the four cubits of Jewish law, bowing your head!

Due to Soloveitchik’s passionate obsession with the words and dictates from sage to sage, trickling down to our generation, halacha to me was never a poisonous sword, a shrewd serpent bent on bringing me down. 

It was always an opportunity to show my undying love for the Infinite’s bizarre love requests.  It was an opportunity to connect with the grandness of the universe, plugging myself into the incredible invisible framework of Jewish law that surrounded us.

How could I say no ?

So I put on a sheital.

I could not stomach paying $200 for a sheital, much less $2000. I could barely get myself to fork over $60 for sturdy winter boots. How could I swallow investing in a pricey sheital when we had bills to pay? Moreover, how could frugal me wear something so expensive on my head?

I went to the sheital gemach and found something “wearable”.

I felt like a moron. A subtle moron.

I felt to me like all of my powerful features were fading away into the sheital ; my tall, thin neck. My high forehead. My cheekbones wordlessly disappeared without a trace.

I knew he tried not to, but my husband, loving how I looked in tiechels, quietly smiled while grimacing, trying to be supportive.

Minhag hamakom, I would repeat to myself as I walked through the streets, a soldier to the Most High in a uniform of undying martyrdom. Minhag hamakom was my mantra and my battle cry. If Gd didn’t know how much I loved Him, He knew now.

I tried many used sheitals. My hopes were dashed again and again.  I tried buying synthetic wigs from the neighborhood shops. Though certainly the ones with the most rave reviews of all my sheital escapes, after a few weeks of scalp pulling, they too met their dumpster-end. There was little pride to be found.

After years of this, something within me finally broke. I was tired of feeling like a moron.

I decided to ask my Rav his opinion. (Insert online dance party here for our ability to email any question we want directly to our Ravs).

“I am wondering,” I wrote with hope deep in my pounding heart, “exactly how minhag hamakom relates to living in Sheital Town, Brooklyn, where I send my daughter to a school where I think half the women wear tiechels, though the general minhag of Crown Heights is to wear sheitals. When I’m picking up my daughter from school, where most women wear tiechels, versus going to a simcha in the community, where most are wearing sheitals, does the obligation to wear a certain head covering change? Is it ok to wear a tiechel because of the community we are part of within Sheital Town? “

I took a deep breath, prayed to the holy heavens who must have known that I wanted to look and feel good while following Torah law, and pressed send.

After a few hours, my beating, hopeful heart got this reply :

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“In a place like Crown Heights, where there is more than one minhag, it is permissible to follow any of the local minhagim.

In earlier times, there was a single, uniform minhag in every town. In that situation, it was obligatory to conform to minhag ha-makom. Today, there are very few places that have a single, uniform minhag. Today, it is permissible to follow any of the minhagim that are locally recognized.

Historically, the change occurred after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Before that, uniformity of practice was the rule everywhere. After the expulsion, Sefardic Jews came to live in London, Amsterdam, Rhodos, Turkey, Egypt, etc.

With more than one minhag community in town it was decided that each local minhag is acceptable: both the original minhag of the town and the new Sefardic minhag brought from Spain.”

“But,” I persisted, typing furiously back, heart fluttering, “do I have to cover all of my hair ? Someone just sent me this link from a book refuting Moshe Feinstein’s heter, saying it was only for a specific case, and said that there isn’t a source for woman to be able to show any hair.”

I included the excerpt from the book.

My Rav’s response exemplified my romantic obsession with the Oral Law, and why one should take great care to learn from those who are seriously in a love affair with it. Though he spoke through the distant echo of the internet, in his typed words I heard the amusement in his eyes, the deep endearment to the complexity of Jewish history and rulings, and the simultaneous exasperation and appreciation for his fellow serious, thinking Jews.

“It is the nature of Rabbis that they disagree with each other on the understanding of halacha,” he explained via email, with great patience.

“This is largely what the mitzva of Talmud Torah is about.There are endless examples of contemporary rabbis claiming that those who disagree with them really did not mean what they said and in fact agree.

There surely are cases where opinions expressed by deceased rabbis are inapplicable in contemporary situations. On the other hand, it is wrong to claim that R. Moshe Feinstein or any other great rabbi published an opinion and failed to mention that that opinion was limited to certain circumstances that might change. If R. Moshe Feinstein indeed published an opinion about a specific case that has no application today, he was guilty of falsifying the Torah by failing to mention that his opinion was limited to that case. When halachic opinions are limited to specific cases (as they sometimes are) it behooves the rabbi to prove why those special circumstances deserve a different halacha than generally application.

Bottom line: There is no objection to following R. Moshe Feinstein’s published opinions. He decided which of his thousands of opinions to publish. And I cannot believe that he published an opinion for the general public unless he held that that opinion was of general application.”

So there I had it. I ripped off my most recent fake hair acquisition, and sighed with slow pleasure as the soft skin of a tiechel covered my head.

Except that, of course, life isn’t that simple.

I still want a sheital. I want a short sheital that compliments my face and makes all of my features sing.

Because I don’t want to make a statement. I want to blend in. To extrapolate: I want to be expressive in my wardrobe, but not overly verbose. Because like any of our Jewish religious gang sign headgears, what covers our hair can speak volumes. And I’m not the shouting type.

In this sheital-ed town, I want the thoughtfulness in my voice to be the loudest part of my appearance, I want the kindness in my face the first thing you notice, rather than wondering what it is that I am wearing and where my affiliations lie.

I love Chabad Chassidus, yet also jive to the other strains of Judaism, and believe in integration of Torah and secular worlds.  There’s not really a hat for that.

Except my face that’s open to hearing your thoughts, my voice that desperately wants to exchange opinions. So I just need to find the proper headgear for all occasions that will take your eyes away from my outsides, and into my inner.

One day, soon, when we’re rich and $500 dollars seems like penny-change,  I will invest in that sheital as well. That beautifully cut sheital that highlights my personality and brings more light to my face.

Until then, I will always thank my Rav for giving me that loving and meticulous insight into a Torah-true path that allowed me to let go of the sheital hand-me-downs and to re-embrace my scarf-covering days.

Because  whatever we wear, the important thing is how it makes us feel about ourselves.

True, the beauty of a Jewish woman comes from within. But if she doesn’t feel beautiful without, she loses a part of herself. She loses a grasp on the totality of her power. And we need our strong Jewish women in this crazy, mixed-up world .

So attach yourself to the plethora of Jewish traditions abounding from our sacred sage conversations throughout the ages, and let your headgear shine, Jewish mamas.

Let your headgear shine.