This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Veiled Threats*

Of late, the liberal democracies have been in a state of much agitation about how to maintain their multicultural ideals in the face of challenges from traditional Muslim ladies whose religion requires that they keep their visages concealed under a veil or burka. In Canada, questions are being raised about hijabs in high school sports, identification at voting booths, and photos on drivers' licenses.

Judaism, of course, has its own traditions of female modesty that restrict aspects of their wardrobes, whether it involves covering the hair of married women or concealing other limbs from public view. For the most part, the women who maintain those standards resign themselves to the limitations that they create.

Is it conceivable that a Jewish woman might also claim a religious duty to conceal her visage under a veil? Notwithstanding the impressions created by some Hollywood biblical epics, that prospect seems unlikely.

References to veils are quite rare in classical Jewish documents. A case in point is a passage in the Mishnah that is concerned with defining normal clothing that may be worn outside the house on the sabbath, as distinct from more exotic accessories whose use would be classified as carrying and thereby constitute violations of the prohibition against carrying burdens outside the home.

In this connection, the Mishnah declares: Arabian women may go outside while veiled, and Median women may walk outside with their cloaks buttoned around their shoulders.

Fending off the obvious question about why the Mishnah is concerned with the behaviour of Arabian women, Rashi explains that the law is actually referring to Jewish ladies who live in Arabia where they follow the local custom of wearing veils.

Rashi goes on to provide additional details about veils: It is the custom of Arab women to keep their heads and faces wrapped, except for their eyes. In Arabic this practice is designated by the verb R'L--the same unusual root that is employed by the Mishnah. It is not clear where Rashi, living in northern France, acquired his proficiency in Arabic, but evidently his assertion is correct. The cognate root in Arabic has the meaning of a kind of veil of which a part hangs down in front.

Rashi also sends us to a biblical text where the same root appears among assorted ostentatious ornaments and attire worn by the shameless daughters of ancient Zion. The prophet Isaiah assures them that those extravagances will be taken from them when God gives them their inevitable comeuppance. The biblical expression is usually translated as a scarf or shawl.

At any rate, the implication of the Mishnah, as elaborated by Rashi, is that veils were not an everyday spectacle among the Jewish populace of Israel. The only place where they were likely to be found was in the far-off reaches of Arabia where the Jewish ladies presumably conformed to the local dress codes.

Indeed this is consistent with a pattern that would become common in medieval and modern times. The daughters of Israel were often expected to adhere to the social expectations of their non-Jewish sisters. Thus, in Islamic societies like Ottoman Smyrna, though Jewish women were not required to don the veil, they often chose to wear long white sheets with black veils that completely covered their faces. In Turkestan they concealed their features behind thick rigid veils woven from horse hair that extended from forehead to waist.

Because the veil was considered a sign of dignity and respectability, some medieval societies forbade Jewish women from wearing them, or insisted that they use different colors in order to be recognizable. In the thirteenth century Jewish women in much of Europe were ordered to wear two stripes on their veils. In Persia, Jewish women had to wear black veils in public, as distinct from the white ones of the Muslim women,

In another Sabbath-related discussion in the Mishnah, the rabbis set out minimum quantities of forbidden items that must be carried outside before one is in violation of the law. With respect to mascara, the amount is defined as enough to apply to one eye. The sages of the Talmud were understandably perplexed, since minimum amounts in such instances are usually defined in terms of quantities that can be put to a legitimate use, and there is no obvious reason why a person would apply cosmetics to a single eye.

The solution proposed in the Talmud is that there are Jewish women who are so modest that their veils leave an opening for only a single eye. Evidently, even those modest maidens were not above enhancing their visible assets for better effect.

Arguably, Jewish tradition's most famous veiled woman was Tamar, Judah's widowed daughter-in-law, who disguised herself as a harlot in order to seduce Judah. And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place... When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

The rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud found some of these details incongruous. Though the simple sense of the story would seem to be that Tamar's veil was intended to disguise her identity from Judah, Rabbi Eleazar preferred to read the detail as if it were part of her harlot's attire. This raised an interpretive difficulty, in that your standard working girl is unlikely to be wearing such modest wrappings!

In the face of this difficulty, Rabbi Eleazar proposed a different way of reading the story. He suggested that Tamar did not wear the veil while seducing Judah; rather, it was an indication of her demure habits while residing in Judah's household. Because she had scrupulously kept her face covered at all times, Judah did not recognize her when he had his liaison with her on the road to Timnath. Rabbi Eleazar interpreted this as a praiseworthy quality.

It should be noted that some later commentators found it perfectly reasonable that harlots would ply their trade with veils on their faces. For example, Nahmanides reported that this was the common practice in his own locality, medieval Gerona, where the ladies would enhance their mystique by covering part of their face while applying makeup to their eyes and lips. In this way, some of them maintained separate identities as respectable, albeit desperate, housewives. This is what the harlots do still today in our lands, and when they return to their towns they can keep their secret.

In the midrashic compendium Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis derived an entirely different lesson from this episode. Rabbi Aha cited it as evidence that a man should familiarize himself with the appearances of the females in his household, in order to avoid awkward situations. In support for his observation, he adduced the case of Judah who mistook Tamar to be a harlot because she had covered her face while in Judah's household.

Though this interpretation is based on the same exegetical premises as Rabbi Eleazar's in the Talmud, it derives a completely opposite lesson. Unlike Rabbi Eleazar, Rabbi Aha focused on Judah's mistake, and deduced that excessive modesty in the home can lead to potentially fatal wardrobe malfunctions.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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