Veiling practices in Judaism
and Graeco-Roman culture of the first century
From the book "Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective"
(written in 1981)
by Dr.James B. Hurley
Veiling practices of the first century are of particular
concern to students of the New Testament because the apostle Paul
refers to veiling in I Corinthians 11:2-16. The exegesis of this
passage which is offered in this book follows the general line
which I took in an article published in 1973. The materials in
this appendix are intended to provide background information to
help people grasp the social context to which Paul spoke.
Graeco-Roman customs are not subject to great debate;
therefore the appendix treats them only briefly. The difficulty
of assessing Jewish practice results in a more lengthy discussion
of it. This appendix incorporates certain material from chapter
3; the conclusions reached here are incorporated in the main body
of the book in the discussion of Judaism in chapter 3 and in the
discussion of 1 Corinthians 11 in chapter 7.
The investigation of Jewish veiling practices in the time of
Christ is made very difficult by the lack of specific graphic
information such as sculpture or art, by the lack of precision in
the terminology used to refer to veiling, and by later Islamic
practices. The evidence available to us concerning Jewish
practice stems largely from Talmudic and other late sources. The
question to be asked is whether these may legitimately be
presumed to represent Palestinian practice in the time of Christ.
A majority of students of the field have assumed so without
reflection. A close look at the evidence, however, suggests that
they may be mistaken.
Our discussion of the subject will be divided into the
(A) the seclusion of women: a test case in which we find that the
testimony of many of the witnesses is misleading about typical
Jewish practices in New Testament times; (B) Graeco-Roman
evidence about veiling in the time of Christ; (C) Jewish evidence
about veiling; (D) conclusions drawn from the evidence. The
Jewish evidence examined will include sources from time periods
ranging from the Old Testament to the early Middle Ages.
A. THE SECLUSION OF WOMEN: A TEST CASE
An examination of Jewish sources from the first century
appears to indicate that Jewish women were secluded or cloistered
in their homes and kept out of contact with men. In support of
this thesis may be offered certain commonly cited passages from
Philo, and 4 Maccabees.
In his discussion of Jewish law, "De Specialibus Legibus,"
Philo comments on the place of men and women in Judaism. His
discussion is intended to explain the wisdom of Judaism to Greek
audiences. He says:
Market places and council halls and law-courts and
gatherings and meetings where a large number of people are
assembled, and open-air life with full scope for discussion
and action - all these are suitable for men both in war and
in peace. The women are best suited to the indoor life which
never strays from the house, within which the middle door is
taken by the maidens as their boundary, and the outer door
by those who have reached full womanhood (De Spec. Leg.
This passage provides us with Philo's view of what is
appropriate. Elsewhere he gives us indication that it is not just
a matter of theory. In his description of the end of Flaccus,
prefect of Alexandria and Egypt from AD 32 to AD 37, Philo
comments on the invasion of a Jewish house by a group of
soldiers. The Jews were indignant
that their women kept in seclusion, maidens confined to the
inner chambers, who for modesty's sake avoided the sight of
men, even of their closest relations, were displayed to
eyes, not merely unfamiliar, but terrorizing . . .' (In
The Jewish writer of 4 Maccabees also wrote in about the
first century. His work sets out a Stoic view of life,
attributing it to Jews who by reason control emotion and are thus
able to endure suffering and much trial. On the lips of a pious
woman whose faith has permitted her to endure watching the
execution of her seven sons, he puts the following comment: 'I
was a pure maiden and left not my father's house, and I kept
guard over the rib which became woman's body' (4 Marc.18:7-8).
Some commentators have built from these passages (and others
which might be cited) and from Talmudic passages which stress the
importance of not talking to women and of women not going outside
'uncovered' (e.g. mKet. 7.6; mAb. 1.5) to the conclusion that
Jewish women of the first century were cloistered or secluded.
More judicious commentators have followed the lead of men
such as Jeremias, noted contradictory evidence elsewhere, and
concluded that, while seclusion may have been the practice of
Alexandria (as evidenced by Philo and the writer of 4 Maccabees,
who both were Alexandrian) and of the wealthy or Hellenfzed in
Palestine (cf. 3 Macc. 1:18), **it is not likely to have been a
practice which was rigorously followed by the peasants.** **This
conclusion is manifestly correct, as the New Testament records
attest.** **Large numbers of women were not cloistered but
circulated freely in Palestine during the time of Jesus.** **Here
then is a test case in which we find that the ideals of piety
promoted by the Talmud and even contemporary sources prove to be
misleading if taken as representative of the common practice.**
Is the veiling of women to be placed in the same category?
Before we can answer this, we must consider a variety of sources
B. GRAECO-ROMAN VEILING PRACTICES
First-century Palestine had been ruled by foreigners for
large parts of the preceding three centuries. Under the
successors of Alexander the Great (d. 330) she had been
introduced to Greek ways, which made deep inroads into certain
classes of society. The Romans began their rule some sixty years
before Christ. Their cultural influence was much less than that
of the Greeks because the Jews never embraced distinctively Roman
culture as they did Greek. We may not freely assume that Greek or
Roman customs provide valid illustrations of Palestinian customs.
We must, however, take them into account as they will have been
known by the Jews, who maintained not only political but also
extensive commercial relations with both Greek and Roman cities.
**Greek and Roman relics available to us cover a time-span
which reaches more than a full three centuries to either side of
the birth of Christ. Veiling customs and hair-styles can be
discovered by simply looking at the heads of the figures
portrayed. Such relics make it plain that both Greek and Roman
culture knew unveiled women. By the New Testament era the two
cultures were quite similar. J. Balsdon remarks of the typical
Roman woman, 'her palla [a large rectangular shawl] might cover
her head, but by Augustus' time ... it was a matter of
indifference whether women pulled the palla up over their heads
or not'. Greek remains reveal a similar situation. The Roman
palla was called a 'himation' in Greek. Graeco-Roman culture did
not require the wearing of veils.**
A further observation, however, is in order before leaving
Graeco-Roman practice. While it is clear that veiling customs
were a matter of indifference for Greeks and Romans of the first
century, it would appear that coiffure, hair-style, was not.
Remains show that both boys and girls wore their hair either
free or in one or two simple braids. Roman custom gave the men
and boys relatively short hair, while Greek men had somewhat
longer hair, sometimes reaching shoulder length. Adult women of
both cultures, on the other hand, had long hair which was drawn
up on or behind their heads in various styles. Women are not
shown with their hair loose and flowing. In literature, however,
dishevelled hair is a sign of despair, or mourning. Balsdon
remarks, 'in the [days of the Roman] republic, younger women
dressed their hair in simple style, drawing it to the back of th'
In the later periods this simplicity was lost to
ornamentation even for the younger women. From early times, the
older women ornamented their hair with more complex hair-styles
and cloth strips. By the time of Christ styles had become more
ornate and decorations more expensive. Remarking on these
decorations, Balsdon says:
the simple strips of rough wool, emblem of chastity and
symbol of the honour due to a married woman, which
originally enclosed the mass of the tutulus [the mass of
hair drawn together on the head], changed to linen or silk
ribbons in bright colours. In a variety of shapes and sizes,
they were placed in the hair, in differing styles. When they
were of precious metals, fringed with gold, held firm by
pins or little gold buckles embroidered with pearls or other
precious stones, they lost all utilitarian character, and
passed into the category of jewels.
A well-known bust of Julia, daughter of Titus, who led the
overthrow of Jerusalem in AD 70, provides an example of the
elaborate hair-styles which were worn at the Roman court in the
first century and set the styles for elsewhere. Balsdon remarks
on the bust:
This was the time when, one must assume, hours upon end were
devoted to the curling-tongs... Curl climbs on top of curl
and over the forehead there arose something which at its
best looked like the 'chef d'oeuvre' of a master pastry cook
and, at its worst, like a dry sponge. At the back the hair
was plaited, and the braids arranged in a coil which looks
like basketwork. The towering splendour was to be viewed
from one direction only, the front, and women must have
manoeuvred at social gatherings, to keep out of view the
ridiculous anti-climax which the back of their heads
Other statues and portraits provide examples of other styles
which include some with simple waves, others with complex braids,
and still others so complicated that they are thought to be wigs.
The elaborate styles were matched by elaborate ornamentation.
Gold, jewels and pearls were worn on the body, in the ears and on
the hair. In his "Natural History" (9) the elder Pliny complained
of the vast sums being spent on such items. T.G.Tucker provides
the following description of hair-styling.
It might have a parting or no parting; it might be plaited
over the head and fastened by jewelled tortoise-shell combs,
or by pins of ivory, silver, or bronze with jewelled heads
... it might be carried to the back and rest in a knot on
the neck, who was bound with ribbons; it might be piled into
a huge pyramid or 'towers of many stories', so that it often
looked tall in front and appeared quite a different person
at the back; it might be encased in a coloured cloth or in a
net of gold thread....
Styles at the Roman court were not uniform but were ornate.
They no doubt set patterns which were emulated throughout the
society, much as the styles of our movie stars and 'high society'
set patterns today.
From what we have seen thus far of Roman styles it is easy
to see how a woman's hair was at the same time a mark of her
dignity and a potential show-place for her wealth or vanity. In
our examination of Assyrian culture, we found that the 'veil',
which was never clearly described, functioned as a symbol of rank
and dignity. As Balsdon points out, the hair of Roman women
served the same function. In view of its significance for Roman
and Greet women, we must ask, in our examination of the veiling
customs among the Jews, whether a woman air played any symbolic
role for them.
C. JEWISH VEILING CUSTOMS
**In our review of women's roles in the Old Testament we saw
that the Israelites did NOT practise veiling as we usually think
of it. In this section we shall look once again at Old Testament
materials before considering later Jewish practice.**
1. Old Testament veiling reconsidered
In our previous discussion we argued from numerous examples
that the faces of women in the Old Testament were visible to men.
From this we deduced that they were not wearing veils of the
Islamic sort. Tamar, who played the prostitute with Judah, was
the only exception (Gn.38). We know little about that situation
save that her face was covered as she sat by the road soliciting
and that it did not seem strange to Judah, who never saw her face
although he made love to her. Her garments were not her usual
widow's clothes. Whether they were typical of a harlot, we do not
know. From this event we dare not generalize.
The Roman "palla" or shawl which was discussed above offers
a new possibility. Perhaps the Israelites knew such a garment as
a veil for women. Its use would explain the visibility of women's
faces as the garment covered only the top of the head. The
available texts give us no information about such a piece of
clothing. If, with reservations, we may draw from later Near
Eastern practice, we note that both men and women are known to
have used such wraps to protect their heads from the sun. In
practical situation then both sexes used garments like the palls.
One name for them in Greek is "peribolaion," which means 'a thing
thrown around'. The word parallels our English term 'wrap'.
Another, generally lighter garment which served this purpose was
**The lack of any Old Testament legislation concerning the
wearing of a veil of any sort speaks as forcefully against
assuming universal veiling of women as does the evidence of women
whose faces were visible. Any veiling which took place was a
matter of custom rather than biblical requirement.**
Archaeology has provided us with very little of help in
identifying Hebrew practice. There is, however, a monument of
Sennacherib's which shows captive Hebrew women wearing garments
like the Roman "palla" or the Greek "himation" which are draped
over their heads and extend to their feet. **This relief
demonstrates that Hebrews of that period knew such garments and
that they did not practise total veiling after the Islamic
What it does not tell us is why the women had their shawls
up. Was it the sun on the journey or the social setting which
motivated them? **Whatever the case, we must once again conclude
that there is no basis upon which to assert that the Old
Testament knows veiling as a common practice.**
If, instead of the veil, we consider hair, there are things
to be learned from the Old Testament. The way in which one wore
his or her hair WAS of importance in the Old Testament. The
shaving of the head was a cause of great shame (2 Sa.10:4-5; Is.
3:17; 7:20; Je.7:29). Long or dishevelled hair also had a
significance. Hebrew response to something which was a cause of
great regret, sorrow or repentance, involved tearing of the
clothes and letting the hair fly loose (sometimes with dirt or
ashes upon it), or even cutting it off. Thus, death called forth
mourning, which was signified by wailing and lack of care for the
self; clothes were torn for sorrow and the hair let loose and
dirt put on it or it was cut off (Lv.21:5,10-12; Dt.14:1; Jos.
7:6; 1 Sa.4:12; Is.15:1-3; Je.7:29; 16:6). Thus Joshua and the
people tear their clothes, weep and put ashes on their heads when
Achan's sin led to their defeat at Ai (Jos.7:6). Likewise Josiah
began mourning when the book of the law was read to him and he
realized the sin of Israel (2 Ki.22:11). God responded to his
actions through Huldah, saying, 'because your heart was penitent,
and you humbled yourself . . . and . . . rent your clothes and
wept . . . I also have heard you' (2 Ki.22:19, RSV).
Dishevelled hair was a universal Near Eastern sign of
mourning. Hebrew culture used long hair in other ways as well. As
a highly visible sign, it set its wearer off from others. The
leper, the Nazirite, the suspected adulteress and perhaps the
warrior all wore long hair. Leviticus 13:45 directs that the
leper wear torn clothes, let his hair hang loose (paru), cover
his upper lip (with his garment), and cry, 'Unclean, unclean'.
Even at a distance he was recognized as distinct and to be
In the case of the Nazirite, it was the sign of a vow of
special dedication to God. During the time of his dedication he
might not touch wine or gape products and might not become
ceremonially unclean by touching dead persons, even if they were
of his own family. Numbers 6:5 instructs, 'During the entire
period of his vow of separation no razor may be used on his head.
He must be holy [dedicated or set apart from that which is
common] until the period of his separation to the LORD is over,
he must let the hair of his head grow long (gadel pera'),' The
long hair of the Nazirite shows him to be set apart from others
by dedication to God rather than by unclean disease, as was the
leper. At the end of the time of his vow, the Nazirite brought
offerings to the Lord and cut off his locks, which were offered
to the Lord in the fire. **Women, as men, might become
The priests who served the Lord were forbidden, as was the
Nazirite, from entering into mourning rites. In Leviticus 10:6
Aaron and his remaining sons are forbidden to let their hair hang
loose (al tipra 'u) as a sign of mourning for the two who died by
the Lord's hand. A more general prohibition, of the same sort but
for the high priest, is found in Leviticus 21:10 (Id' yipra').
Ezekiel 44:20 calls for holiness on the part of the priests in
the new temple. They are commanded neither to shave their heads,
nor to let their locks grow (up ra lo'), but rather to trim their
hair. The dedication of the priest to God meant that he could not
enter into the usual signs of mourning.
In each of the examples cited above, the Hebrew root pr' is
used to indicate hair hanging loose or dishevelled. In a related
meaning it can be used of other situations in which things are
'let loose', 'unsheathed' or 'uncovered', for instance Exodus
32:25 where Aaron 'let loose' the people before the idolatrous
calf. The reference here is either to chaos or possible to
'uncovering' or to nakedness in sacred sexual acts.
There is one other important passage in which the verb pr'
is used of hair hanging loose, Numbers 5:18. This is found in the
chapter which precedes the intructions for the Nazirite and which
gives instructions for the administration of the bitter-water'
rite for a woman suspected of adultery. The priest was told to
place the woman before the Lord and to unbind her hair or lay
bare her head (uparah e't ro's). The letting loose of her hair
sets the woman apart. She is not sacredly dedicated as the
Nazirite, but is suspected of being unclean as the leper, except
in a moral sense. Having let her hair loose, the priest gave her
the 'bitter water' to drink. If the water did not cause swelling
and bodily deterioration, the woman was cleared of the charges
and returned to her home, presumably putting her hair up once
again. The fact that the woman's hair was let loose necessarily
presumes that it was previously put up in some manner, and that
that would be a typical style for women. **The sign of her shame
was not the removing of her veil (although this would be done if
she were wearing one), but the loosing of her hair.**
I draw the following conclusions from the evidence reviewed:
1. The Old Testament never commanded the veiling of women in any
fashion. 2. Its narrative portions give no indication of general
veiling of women after the Muslim fashion (total coverage save
the eyes) or even of over-the-hair veiling, although there is
evidence that Hebrew women taken captive by Sennacherib wore
shawls over their heads for a reason unknown to us. 3. The
bitter-water rite of Numbers 5:18 calls for the loosing of hair
rather than the stripping of a veil. It presumes that a woman's
hair would be somehow put up, indicating that this style was
probably the general practice.
**From these conclusions it would seem likely that Hebrew
customs, as reflected in the Old Testament, were quite close to
those of Greece and Rome in the time of Christ and that a woman's
hair was a sign of her dignity and honour. A veil might perhaps
2. Veiling in Josephus
Josephus (from the first century A.D.) provides us with an
account of the bitter-water ceremony in his "Antiquities." A
certain amount of **care has to be exercised about this
particular work as it was very much an apologetic effort and is
in error in numerous details.** Josephus published his first
edition of the work in AD 93-94, more than twenty years after the
destruction of the temple, but within the life of persons who
might have actually observed the ceremony. The relevant text
One of the priests stations her (the suspected woman) at the
gates which face the Temple and, after removing the veil (to
himation) from her head, inscribes the name of God upon a
skin [parchment] he then bids her declare upon oath that she
has done her husband no wrong. . . .
Josephus' account neglects various elements of the rite as
required in Numbers 5. He does not, for instance, mention the
loosing of the woman's hair, which is prescribed in Numbers and
described in other accounts. It is valuable for our purposes,
however, to note that the garment removed from the woman's head
is the "himation," which corresponds to the Roman"palls" and is a
rectangular shawl. **Josephus' text, therefore, bears witness to
head veiling, but not facial veiling in this public situation.**
3. Veiling in the Mishnah
The 'tractates' of the Mishnah represent digests of rules
for Jewish life as brought together towards the end of the second
century AD, evidently by Rabbi Judah the Patriarch. Much of their
teaching stems from earlier days, some regulations originating
before the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and perhaps even
before the time of Christ. The Mishnah is only broadly organized
and shows clearly the efforts of the rabbis to adapt Jewish life
to the loss of the temple and the Jewish state. It does mention
veiling and hair at several points. **Examination of some of
these passages offers limited insight into the practices of that
In a passage discussing evidence which proved that a woman
had married as a virgin rather than as a widow or as a divorced
woman, the Mishnah comments, '. . . if there are witnesses that
she went forth [to the marriage] in a litter and with her hair
unbound ... (mKet. 2.1)' she must be considered to have married
as a virgin. This passage uses the Hebrew verb pr' to describe
the girl's hair. We deduce from this that married women did not
wear their hair loose but rather put it up. When we examine the
evidence of the Talmud, we shall see that Judaism came to use the
verb pr'to mean 'to take off a covering and let the hair flow
loose'. It is easy to see how this could come about since it was
necessary to take off any covering to get to the hair and since a
derivative meaning meant 'uncover'. The two have been conflated.
It is possible that the Mishnah is using the verb in this
conflated fashion, although the more traditional meanings would
be equally satisfactory. The same observation applies to mKet
7.6, which grants divorce without financial settlement for the
offence of going out with the hair unbound. **The Mishnah is not
clear about veiling customs, but reflects serious concern about
either the veiling or hair-style of married women.**
4. Veiling in the Talmud
The Babylonian Talmud is an extended commentary on the
Mishnah which was prepared over a period of several centuries.
The date of its final form is generally placed in the late fifth
or sixth century AD. It incorporates a wealth of diverse material
from various eras and is therefore difficult to evaluate with
respect to the date of a given tradition. We shall examine a few
passages concerning veiling and hairstyle.
An instructional passage for our purposes is the Talmud's
discussion of the Mishnah about going outside without having the
hair bound up (mKet. 7.6; bKet. 72a, b). The Talmud quotes the
Mishnah at the start of the discussion: 'These are divorced
without receiving their Kethubah: A wife who transgresses the law
of Moses or Jewish practice' (mKet. 7.6). The Mishnah uses going
outside with 'uncovered head' as an example of violation of
Jewish practice: 'And what [is a transgression of] Jewish
practice? Going out with head 'uncovered' (Ps); prw) (mKet.7.6).
The Mishnah's explicit view of the nature of the offence as
a violation of Jewish practice rather than a Pentateuchal
obligation is particularly significant when it is compared with
the Talmud's view. After citing the Mishnah account, the Talmud
[Is not the prohibition against going out with] an uncovered
head Pentateuchal; for it is written [in Numbers 5:18] and
he shall uncover the woman's head, and this, it was taught
at the school of Rabbi Ishmael, was a warning to the
daughters of Israel that they should not go out with
uncovered head (bprw' r's)? Pentateuchally it is quite
satisfactory [if her head is covered by] her work basket;
according to Jewish practice, however, she is forbidden [to
go out uncovered) even with her basket on her head
The following points should be noted:
1. The school of Rabbi Ishmael apparently interpreted the verb
"pr" to refer to unveiling the head rather than loosing the hair.
This allowed them to apply the Numbers passage in which "pr" is
used to the case at hand and thus to make veiling a Pentateuchal
rather than a customary obligation.
2. This interpretation caused a conflict with the teaching of the
Mishnah, a completely unacceptable situation. The rabbis were
therefore forced to discover a way in which they could explain
the apparent contradiction.
3. They did so by explaining that, while even a basket satisfied
the Pentateuchal regulation, Jewish custom demanded more
covering. Thus it was going out without adequate covering which
violated Jewish practice.
4. The coverings under consideration were almost surely not after
the Islamic pattern, as a woman with a basket over the face could
not see where she was going. A shawl draped over the head could
be imitated by putting a basket over the hair.
The school of Rabbi Ishmael lacked any texts requiring veils
and has in fact taken advantage of two meanings of the word 'pr'.
In this discourse the term relates to uncovering while in Numbers
5 it certainly included and perhaps exclusively meant unloosing
the hair. That the Talmud knows 'pr' as 'unloosing the hair' is
made clear by its discussion of administering the bitter-water
rite of Numbers 5. Sotah 8a says:
... what is the object of the text [of Numbers 51 declaring,
'and let the hair of her head go loose (pr)'? It teaches
that the priest undoes her hair (str).
In this passage there can be no confusion concerning the
meaning of 'pr' as the verb 'str,' translated 'undoes her hair',
means 'unravel' or 'tear down. It is not her veil but her hair-do
which is being discussed. This is made more clear still a few
lines later when the rite itself is described:
she [the adulteress] wound a beautiful scarf about her head
for him [the adulterer], therefore a priest removes her cph
[headgear of some sort] and places it under her feet. . . .
She plaited her hair for him; therefore the prist undoes
(str, tears down) her hair (bSotah 8b, 9a).
It is not clear what the cph was; it may have been a cap or
a veil or any other sort of headgear. It is clear, however, that
her head was bare when the priest undid or 'tore down' her hair
(str), and that is what Sotah 8a said corresponded to the rite of
Numbers 5. We conclude, therefore, that the school of Rabbi
Ishmael was taking advantage of a possible meaning of pr and knew
full well that the action called for by Numbers 5:18 was the
loosing of the hair rather than simply the removing of a veil.
Rabbi Ishmael's pun was not intended to establish a debated
point with regard to the necessity of coverings. All parties
conceded the appropriateness of head-coverings. The debate was
with respect to the Pentateuchal nature of the obligation.
Numerous rabbinical texts could be adduced to demonstrate that
head coverings were expected. We shall look at only three.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Yours, 1.1, in a section
discussing the purity of the high priest, there is a brief remark
about Kamhith, a woman who was said to have had seven sons who
become high priests:
'What good works have you done?' the sages asked her. 'I
swear, she replied, 'that the rafters of my house have not
seen my hair nor the border of my shirt (so great was her
modesty and chastity)' (jYoma 1.1).
The text is unrealistic in its idealization of the woman's
modesty and chastity, but makes its point very well. It was
clearly an ideal at that time that women should cover their hair
as an expression of modesty. **It should be noted, in addition,
that the text gives us another bit of information. Kamhith did
not refer to her face as hidden, but rather to her hair as
veiled. This corresponds well with our earlier observations about
head rather than facial veiling among the Jews.**
As part of a discussion of vows, the Babylonian Talmud (bNed
30a) makes the following remark, assuming it as self-evident:
'Men sometimes cover their heads and sometimes do not; but
women's hair is always covered, and children are always
By the time this was written a covering was an assumed fact
of life for women. Men covered their heads for prayer or as a
sign of respect for the holy.
If we look at another passage we can learn more about what
sort of hair coverings were and were not in view in the Talmud.
Tractate Shabbath discusses obligations for the sabbath day.
Chapter 6 of the tractate discusses what people may wear on the
sabbath. The opening section (6.]) describes a number of facial
and head ornaments for women which may not be worn outside on the
sabbath. From the prohibition we may infer that the ornaments
might be worn on other days and that this fact makes total
veiling unlikely, because it would seem pointless to wear facial
ornaments and hair ornaments if they were to be covered by a
complete veil from the time of leaving the house. Section 6 of
the same chapter says that 'Arabian women may go out on the
sabbath) wearing a veil (r'lwt).' The corresponding Arabic word
(ra'l) describes a veil which covers all but the eyes of its
wearer. The fact that the veil was not considered an ornament for
Arabian Jewesses but was for others argues forcefully that
Arabian Jewesses were customarily veiled and that others were
One final comment is in order before we turn to the Pesikta
Rabbati and draw conclusions concerning Jewish veiling customs.
It has been observed that, although Islamic literature has a
fairly detailed vocabulary about veiling practices, Judaism lacks
any technical terminology for it. Analogy suggests that this
reflects a relative lack of interest in the topic. The extreme
care with which the rabbis debated details, for instance,
concerning bathing after menstruation (bNid. 66a-67b) provides a
good example of a topic which was of importance to them. If
veiling was restricted to a hair covering or was not an issue, we
can understand the lack of detail about it.
5. Post-Talmudic veiling: Pesikta Rabbati
The "Pesikta Rabbati" is a collection of Jewish discourses
regarding the Scriptures which has been dated variously between
the late sixth and the tenth centuries of this era. Its teachings
are judged, at various points, to derive from the Talmudic period
and perhaps even earlier. Piska 26 contains a saying, attributed
to (but obviously not really derived from) the prophet Jeremiah,
in which a high priest administers the bitter-water rite of
Numbers 5 to a woman suspected of adultery. When the woman was
brought to him for the ritual cup of bitter water, 'he bared her
head, disarrayed her hair, held out the cup - saw that she was
his mother!' It would seem that the veil which the woman wore hid
her face from her son at the time of her arrival and that beneath
the veil, she wore her hair done up in some manner.
**This account was written in Palestine after the Islamic
conquest and seems to project backwards to the time of Jeremiah
the total veiling imposed by the prophet Muhammad upon his
followers. This is a good example of historical anachronism. We
have seen evidence that the Hebrews did not veil in Jeremiah's
time and scholarly studies have shown that full veiling, although
practised in some parts of Arabia, was not generally practised in
the Near East until enforced by Islam. Among the Bedouin it never
did succeed; many of their women remain unveiled. The Jews of
Palestine moved from their over-the-head veiling to the Islamic
fashion as a matter of necessity after Islamic conquest, but
probably without much protest. By the time of the Pesikta the
older customs had been forgotten and the current practices were
simply projected onto former remarks about 'veils'. It would seem
quite likely that a similar process produced Talmudic assumptions
about the necessity of veiling in earlier times. In the case of
Rabbi Ishmael, this has obviously happened. By assuming that the
veiling practices of his day applied in patriarchal times, he was
unable to use a biblical text from patriarchal Israel, which
required the loosing of hair and which presumed the necessity of
having the hair up, to demonstrate the necessity of having a
covering upon the tied-up hair. It is more likely that the
Hebrews of Numbers 5 had customs like the Bedouin than like those
of Rabbi Ishmael.**
The following observations, drawn from our survey of Near
Eastern veiling customs, helps us in answering our questions
about coiffure and veiling in the first century of this era.
1. Evidence taken from first-century and rabbinic sources must be
carefully weighed before being accepted as reflective of general
Palestinian practice in the first century. A study of evidence
for the seclusion of women showed that, in an effort to promote
their cause, first-century writers sometimes presented practices
of the wealthy or ideals of the pious such as the seclusion of
women as though they were the common practice. The Talmudic
authors likewise sought to promote their ideals. This sometimes
led them to overstate their case or to read the pious practices
of the day back into the past. It is therefore possible that
veiling evidence from the Talmud or even then contemporary
writers may overstate its case by making a pious view appear a
2. Graeco-Roman practice of the day, as evidenced by art and
literature, did not include mandatory veiling of any sort. Facial
veiling was unknown and whether or not women pulled their shawls
(palla, Latin; himation or peribolaion, Greek) over their heads
was a matter of indifference.
3. Graeco-Roman custom was concerned with the coiffure of women.
Loose and hanging hair was a sign of mourning. A woman's hair was
generally dressed with great care. It was frequently braided and
decorated, sometimes with very costly ornaments. The dressed hair
was a sign of rank and dignity.
4. The Old Testament includes no requirements of veiling for
women, although it presumes that their hair will be put up (Nu.
5:18). The inferential evidence from the Old Testament precludes
full facial veiling but it is not incompatible with veiling by
drawing a shawl over the head. Evidence from a monument of
Sennacherib (705-681 BC) witnesses such a veil, although its
purpose is unclear.
5. Loose hair was a sign of separation among the Hebrews.
Mourning, leprosy, Nazirite vows, suspicion of adultery and
repentance all called for such a coiffure.
6. Josephus, a contemporary of Paul, testifies explicitly to the
practice of drawing the himation over the head as a veil.
7. The evidence of late second-century Mishnah is difficult to
assess. Its use of the Hebrew word pr', which meant 'loosed hair'
in the Old Testament, is ambiguous and may include unveiling it
as well. Such a broadening of the meaning of the term is easily
understood as any covering must be removed if hair is to be
8. The evidence of the Talmud indicates that by somewhere between
the third and the sixth century it had become the practice of
Jewish piety for women to go outside with a shawl drawn over
their heads. Full facial veiling was not the practice of Talmudic
9. The Talmud uses the Hebrew word pr' to refer both to removing
a covering and to loosing hair.
10. By the time of the Pesikta Rabbati, after the Islamic
conquest, the Jews of Palestine understood veiling according to
the Islamic practice of full facial veiling and projected this
practice backwards as they read the older history and as they
made illustrations from it.
From the ten observations above, the following five
conclusions relevant to the question of Jewish veiling practices
in the time of Jesus may be drawn.
1. The Old Testament assumes that a woman's hair will be put up;
it nowhere requires or even illustrates the veiling of women as a
general custom. This applies to full facial veiling and to
veiling with a shawl over the head. The latter custom may,
however, have existed.
2. There is almost no likelihood that the Jews of the time of
Christ practised the full facial veiling of women after the
pattern of Islam.
3. It is possible that it was the practice of Jewish piety in
that era for women to wear a shawl over the head when out of
4. In less wealthy areas and in areas of weaker tradition, more
lax piety, or of either Greek or Roman influence, it is likely
that veiling by a shawl would have been a matter of either
indifference or neglect.
5. Among Jews, Greeks and Romans alike loosed hair was a
sign of distress and not a hair-do for adult women. Women of all
three societies put their hair up and decorated it in various,
sometimes expensive, ways. Their hair, so done, was a sign of
their dignity and honour.
Entered on this Website January 2008
The ** at the beginning and ending of certain sections are my
doing, to give emphasis, and were not by Dr.Hurley - Keith Hunt