The Mitzvah of Covering the Hair
The Great Exaltation of the Mitzvah of Covering the Hair
The head covering is one of the most cherished pieces of clothing a woman possesses. With it she fulfills a great Mitzvah Min HaTorah (a Biblical mandated commandment) and it bestows on her many exceptional side benefits that emanate from fulfilling a mitzvah that is founded on tzniut (modesty), the most important characteristic of the Bat Yisrael (Daughter of Israel).
She demonstrates submission to G-d's wishes:When covering the hair a woman conceals this natural source of attraction from the eye of the public and thereby demonstrates that she is a servant of G-d. She places His wish, that an Eshet Ish (a Married Woman) covers her hair and conceals it from the view of the public, above her own natural desire to look attractive and enhance her appearance by displaying her natural hair.
She demonstrates the purity of Jewish family life:The headcovering symbolizes the kedusha (holiness) of the Jewish family, in which the wife dedicates her life to her husband to the near-total exclusion of any form of contact with other men. She therefore withholds the chen (beauty) of her hair from the view of the general public.
It is a source of Yirat Shamayim (Fear of Heaven):When this mitzvah (commandment) is kept properly and with the correct attitude it imparts considerable Yirat Shamayim (fear of heaven) to the person. Men cover their head with a yarmulke (kippah) or hat in line with the recommendation of Chazal (our Sages), "Cover your head so that you shall experience the fear of Heaven" (Shabbat 156b). If covering just part of the head as is practiced by men has such an effect, how much more must covering the complete head have a deep and far reaching effect on a woman's Yirat Shamayim.
It is a source of Kedusha (holiness) and inspiration:Considering that the head is the most distinguished and most significant part of the human body as Chazal say, "The head is king over all the limbs" (Shabbat 61a), the influence of kedusha that is transmitted to the whole person by a mitzvah done continuously with the head must be immeasurable. Significantly, Chazal say that when a man wears tefillin (phylacteries) he has a special defense against serious sin (Menachot 43b). Accordingly, a woman who lacks the outstanding mitzvah of kisuy saarot (hair covering) because she does not fulfill its halachic requirements, withholds from herself a vital source of spirituality and inspiration.
It protects from illness and pain:Who can assess the physical advantage, in protecting the person from illness and pain, that is gained from an unceasing mitzvah such as kisuy saarot. Chazal have taught us that a person is protected while he fulfills a mitzvah, as they say, "While a mitzvah is being carried out it shields and safeguards the person" (Sotah 21a). Hence, a mitzvah that is done over many hours of the day is highly prized source of protection. Similarly, the mezuzah (doorpost - encased tiny parchment scroll on upon - Devarim 6:4-9, 11:13-21), which is an ongoing mitzvah fulfilled at all times, is singled out by Chazal as a mitzvah which offers exceptional protection to people (Shabbat 32b).
It procures great dividends:The head covering enables a woman to fulfill the mitzvah of kisuy saarot minute by minute throughout the day, thereby enabling her to earn great riches both in this world and in the World to Come. While a man adorns his head with tefillin for about an hour a day, a woman has the merit to adorn her head with an article of mitzvah throughout the length of the day. In fact, one of the great Rabbanim of our generation, Hagaon Rav Shimon Schwab zt'l, once said that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of tefillin because they wear "their tefillin" throughout all hours of the day. They therefore do not require the added sanctification of tefillin as in the case of men.
Since the headcovering plays such an important role, it is only fitting that it displays the inner refinement and sensitivities of the Bat Yisrael. It should therefore be an article of clothing which adds luster and aristocracy to the royal status of the Jewish woman who is a Bat Melachim (a Princess).
The difference between a married woman and an unmarried girl:The Torah allows a girl to appear in public with her hair uncovered although it adds considerably to her chen (beauty) and demonstrates her natural good looks whilst the Torah considers it pritzut (licentiousness) for a married woman to do so. As mentioned previously, even the Umot HaOlam (the righteous non-Jews) understood this and expected their wives to cover their hair in public - see Sanhedrin 58b. A married woman is an eshet ish and this warrants that part of her beauty be withheld from the public eye. Although she should dress pleasantly and graciously in a manner with reflects her simcha (joy) and nobility, she should not display her full natural chen for everyone to see.
On the other hand, an unmarried girl need not mask part of her natural chen and may allow her hair to reflect her natural good looks (although not in way that draws attention to herself). An unmarried girl is not an eshet ish and there is therefore no need for her to cover her hair to withhold part of her chen from the public eye. Also, her good appearance can aid in finding her future partner in life. There is therefore a positive reason for her hair not to be covered and hidden - see Ketubot 53b and Mekorot 28:3-7.
We live in a time when the importance and far-reaching effect of kisuy saarot is little understood and is under threat, being presented by some as a matter of little significance. In truth, authentic Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) and the whole character of the Jewish home are dependent on women practicing all aspects of tzniut properly. The saying of Chazal, "They are like mountains that hang on a hair" (Mishnah Chagigah 10a) - is highly appropriate to our issue. It is most significant that the great Chasam Sofer zt'l and Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch zt'l who both succeeded in establishing healthy and vibrant centers of Yiddishkeit where great campaigners for this mitzvah and instilled a deep respect and reverence for it amongst their followers.
The Navi (Prophet) says, "The crown of our head has fallen; woe unto us for we have sinned" (Eicha 5:16). Due to our sins and lack of kedusha, the crown of our heads - the beautiful mitzvah of kisuy saarot, headcovering - has fallen. The crown is however not broken. It is up to us to pick it up and return it once again to its rightful place. With that we will awaken once again within ourselves the deep rooted feelings for real tzniut and kedushat Yisrael (holiness of Israel).
Modesty - An Adornment for Life, Halachot and Attitudes Concerning Tzniut of Dress & Conduct, by Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk