Must your wife cover her hair, her elbows, and her knees to be in accordance with Jewish law? Is it a fact, as I have heard since I can remember, that a married lady must, according to all opinions, cover all that and more. Indeed, the reaction of many is—woe to the woman who doesn’t cover up to a great degree, for she will be considered in breach of halacha. She will be considered to be dressed immodestly, if not promiscuously.
The preliminary answer—and this a preliminary piece—is no. Your wife needn’t.
You see, it all comes down to the idea of Daas Yehudis (Jewish Practice). “What is Daas Yehudis?, and why have I not heard of it before?” you may ask. And even if you have heard of it, you may not know it’s full significance. If you want to read at length on the issue, read Rabbi Michael J Broyde on the subject. If you aren’t interested in reading a document with 101 footnotes, read on here.
There is a Mishnah in Kesubos (72a) that divides things, pretty neatly, into two categories: Daas Moshe and Daas Yehudis. Here the text (followed by a translation):
These are to be divorced without receiving their ketubah: a wife who transgresses the law of Moshe or [one who transgresses] Jewish practice. What is [regarded as a wife’s transgression against] the law of Moshe? Feeding her husband with untithed food, having relations with him during the period of her menstruation, not setting apart her dough-offering [hallah], or making vows and not fulfilling them. What [is deemed to be a wife’s transgression against] Jewish practice? Going out with her hair uncovered, spinning in the street [thereby exposing her arms] or conversing [i.e., flirting] with every man. Abba Shaul says; [Including] also a wife who curses her husband’s parents in his presence. Rabbi Tarfon says; Also one who screams [demanding relations]. And how loud is considered a screamer? A woman whose voice can be heard by her neighbors when she speaks inside her house. [All the aforementioned require witnesses and adequate warning in order to be liable to divorce without receiving her ketubah.]
In this situation, how is Daas Yehudis to be understand? It’s complicated. But there is a strong case to be made to accept what the Rambam writes in Mishneh Torah Ishut 24:12(among others):
ואי זו היא דת יהודית הוא מנהג הצניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל. ואלו הן הדברים שאם עשתה אחת מהן עברה על דת יהודית. יוצאה לשוק או למבוי מפולש וראשה פרוע ואין עליה רדיד ככל הנשים. אע”פ ששערה מכוסה במטפחת. או שהיתה טווה בשוק וורד וכיוצא בו כנגד פניה על פדחתה או על לחייה כדרך שעושות העכו”ם הפרוצות. או שטווה בשוק ומראת זרועותיה לבני אדם. או שהיתה משחקת עם הבחורים. או שהיתה תובעת התשמיש בקול רם מבעלה עד ששכנותיה שומעות אותה מדברת על עסקי תשמיש. או שהיתה מקללת אבי בעלה בפני בעלה:
What is meant by “the Jewish faith”? The customs of modesty that Jewish women practice. When a woman performs any of the following acts, she is considered to have violated the Jewish faith:
- a) she goes to the marketplace or a lane with openings at both ends without having her head [fully] covered – i.e., her hair is covered by a handkerchief, but not with a veil like all other women,
- b) she spins [flax or wool] with a rose on her face- on her forehead or on her cheek – like immodest gentile women,
- c) she spins in the marketplace and shows her forearms to men;
- d) she plays frivolously with young lads,
- e) she demands sexual intimacy from her husband in a loud voice until her neighbors hear her talking about their intimate affairs, or
- f) she curses her husband’s father in her husband’s presence.
Full disclosure: Rambam separates hair covering in two, and puts part of it in the Daas Moshe category and part of it in the Daas Yehudis category. But, as delineated at great length in Broyde’s article, many Rishonim–including but not limited to Rosh, Tosafos, and Semak–do put hair covering in the Daas Yehudis category. At any rate, Rambam’s simple definition for Daas Yehudis is serviceable. It is, “The customs of modesty that Jewish women practice”. (As opposed to Daas Moshe which is Biblical and immutable.)
So, to answer, on a very basic level, our original question of: “Must your wife cover up?”. We must simply say, whatever qualifies as “The customs of modesty that Jewish women practice”. This changes from time to time and place to place. If you live in Williamsburg in 2017, modesty meets covering head, shoulder, knees, and toes. If you live in the orient during certain times, modesty means going full Taliban and covering the face. If you live in Teaneck, New Jersey in 2017 or in Paris in 1917, it cannot be said that “the modesty that Jewish women practice” is that of hair covering nor elbow and knee covering. Modest Jewish women have dressed, and do dress, more liberally in certain times and places, and that has strong support in Halacha.