Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 29 May 2004 / 9 Sivan 5764

Wigs and Idolatry

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: T. R. in Belgium

Dear Rabbi,

Could you please enlighten me on the controversy surrounding wearing wigs made of human hair from India, and also is it permissible to continue wearing one. Thank you in advance, T. R.

Dear T.R.

The Rabbis who oppose the use of Indian-hair wigs are not just splitting hairs. The root of the problem is that the hair from India seems to come from idolatrous ceremonies. Worshipers grow their hair in honor of a certain god, pledging to cut the hair at the temple of the god as a sacrificial thank-offering when their prayer is answered. Of the 20 million annual pilgrims to the Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh, millions offer their hair. Six hundred barbers are employed by the temple to shave the pilgrims' hair 24 hours a day. Inside the "tonsuring" room, devotees sit cross-legged on the floor, and bend their head forward to let a temple barber shave their scalp with a straight razor blade. Attendants collect the bundles of hair in dustpans and deposit them in large bins.

The hair is then auctioned to wigmakers, earning the temple a hair-raising 5.6 million dollars. Although India is a small part of the global hair business compared to China, Indian temple-hair heads the industry in price. Indian hair is generally finer than Chinese and more similar to European and American hair. After being processed, Tirupati hair longer than 16 inches sells for as much as $165 a kilogram (2.2 pounds). Shorter hair goes for about $100 a kilogram. Some strands bought at auction are made into hair extensions that are sold to Western women for as much as $3,000 for a full head of hair.

The problem is that the Torah not only forbids idolatry itself, but also prohibits deriving benefit from any accessory, decoration or sacrifice to idol worship. Primarily, such a sacrifice is forbidden only when it is similar to the Jewish Temple offerings of meat, flour, oil, wine and water. However, when this object of idolatrous sacrifice (tikrovet avoda zara) is whats normally offered, and is cut or broken in honor of the god, it is also forbidden to derive benefit from it in any way. Furthermore, the sacrificed object can never be nullified, even if its been changed or altered by some process, and even if its been indiscernibly mixed with some other permitted material.

According to this, the Indian woman who tilts her head to have her hair cut, as well as the idolatrous barber who cuts it, are both actively offering a sacrifice to the god (even if the hair is discarded), prohibiting the hair from being used in any way, even if its eventually processed and mixed with other, permitted hair. [In fact, L-Cysteine, a certain food ingredient that can be produced from human hair, would also prohibit an entire food if the hair is from India, for the above reason that anything which is sacrificed to idolatry can never be nullified.] This means that any wig with human hair would be forbidden to wear unless it could be ascertained for certain that none of the hair originated in India.

A leading Torah authority, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, asserts that there are other problems than just wearing such a wig. Rambam writes that the prohibition against deriving benefit from offerings to idol worship is from the verse, "Nor shall you bring an abhorrence into your house" (Deut. 7:26). Accordingly, he writes, it should be forbidden to keep such a wig in the home even without wearing it. Also, since the actual money received for objects sacrificed in idol worship becomes forbidden, one must be careful not to receive money from one who sells or otherwise works with such wigs. He suggests that one who buys a synthetic wig or other permitted item from a person who profits from such wigs should pay the exact price in cash, or with a check or credit card, in order to avoid receiving change from money that may have been paid for them.

Maran HaGaon Rabbi Elyashiv has also recently prohibited Indian wigs. After sending Rabbi A. D. Dunner from England to India to witness the Tirupati temple ceremony first hand, he ruled as follows: Regarding human hair wigs in Israel, since most are from Indian hair, all are forbidden unless the origin is known. Regarding wigs in other countries, if the majority of wigs are from a permitted source, all wigs are technically permitted, but one must clarify the source of each specific wig. Regarding wigs made from synthetic hair, if they contain human hair as well (which is often the case), they must be treated as other human hair wigs as above. In a case of doubt whether they contain human hair, they are permitted. Rabbi Elyashiv concludes that since objects associated with idol worship are to be burnt in fire, wigs from hair generally known to originate in India (but not specifically from the temple) should be burned, while wigs specifically known to be from the Tirupati temple must be burned.

Since the mitzvah of womens hair covering is a highly individual issue, this is not a personal ruling. Rather one must consult a local halachic expert who is able to ascertain the origin of the wigs available in ones community. Also, it should be clear that we are not taking sides on the issue, but merely presenting the opinions currently available. This controversy has been explored in the past, and, as then, lenient opinions may be forthcoming.

Sources:

  • Avoda Zara 50a,b
  • Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 139:1,2,3
  • Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Daat vHalacha; Teshuvot vHanhagot 2:414, 3:265; Public letter of Iyar 5764
  • Rabbi Mordechai Gross, in Teshuvot MBeit Levi (regarding L-Cysteine)
  • Rambam, Avoda Zara 7:2, also see Rashi, Avoda Zara 64a, s.v. "Rabbanan"
  • Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 133:1
  • Public letter of Rabbi Yoseph Efrati in the name of Maran HaGaon Rabbi Elyashiv, 22 Iyar 5764. In a letter of 5 Sivan, Rabbi Elyashiv confirmed Rabbi Efratis account of his ruling.

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