Why is the Ashkenazic custom for only married women to wear a head covering if it says in Shulchan Aruch that non-married women should also cover their hair? https://www.sefaria.org/Shulchan_Arukh%2C_Even_HaEzer.21.2?lang=bi Also, if a women’s hair is considered sensuous, shouldn’t unmarried women also cover their hair? Thank you!
Shalom, Thank you for your question. You raise an interesting question about the obligation for unmarried ladies and hair covering. Let's try to examine the issue with some sources. The Rambam (Isuray Biah 21,17) is almost unique in his opinion when he writes that “Daughters of Israel should not go with uncovered heads in the marketplace, whether single or married. “. This would seem to obligate all Jewish women, married or not, to cover their hair (at least in public). (This ruling itself is difficult because there is a Mishna (Ketubot 2:1) that states that a virgin bride would go to her wedding with her hair uncovered. However the Rambam explains the Mishna differently). The Geonim held that only married “daughters of Israel” had to cover their hair. The Shulchan Aruch (in Even HaEzer 21:2) rules “Daughters of Israel should not go in the marketplace with heads uncovered, whether single [penuya] or married [eishet ish]. “ This seems to be in line with the Rambam. However this seems to contradict the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (in Orech Haim 75:2) “A woman’s hair that she normally covers, it is prohibited to recite [Shema] facing it. … But virgins [betulot] that normally go with heads uncovered, it is permissible. “. How is this apperent contridiction to be solved? Do unmarried ladies have to cover their hair or not? The Beit Shmuel explains the difference is that a virgin does not have to cover her hair (the law in Orech Haim), but a women who has been married (even though she is now single or married) must cover her hair (the law in Even HaEzer). The Magen Avraham explains that what is forbidden is for an unmarried women to go out with her hair unfastened, but it does not have to be covered. “One can say that the uncovering of [a single woman’s head] that he [Shulchan Aruch] wrote of in Even ha-Ezer is that they undo the braids of their hair and go in the marketplace. For this is prohibited even for a single woman… The verse [about the sota] doesn’t deal with a single woman. It is only an attribute of modesty for virgins that they not go thus [with hair unfastened].” (Magen Avrahem 75:3). According to both these answers, there is no obligation for a single never married women to cover her hair (at most it should be kept braided according to the Magan Avraham (whose opinion is followed by some Chassidic communities, but certainly not by all religious women)). This is the basis for the widespread practice of nearly all single Jewish women (both Ashkanazi and Serphadi) not to cover their hair before their weddings. As to why the status of hair changes at the wedding – your question is a good one. There are many ways of explaining this. Some explain that because unmarried women would normally have uncovered hair it was not a cause for arousal (much as seeing an undressed baby is not arousing). Another explanation is that hair covering is not about arousal, but about a sign of marriage. There are other explanations – but these will suffice for now. Let me conclude by saying that the normative practice is for unmarried women to leave their hair uncovered. Even Rav Ovadyah Yosef (of blessed memory) who ruled there is a place for unmarried women to cover their hair during prayer and Torah learning ruled that in general they go about with uncovered hair. (As to his ruling about covering their hair during prayer – this too is not widely practiced, and he himself found halachic justification for those (the majority of women) who do not do so. Blessings.