Tichels (Yiddish) or mitpachat (Hebrew) are Jewish terms for headscarves. The name tichel stems from the Yiddish "Tuch", meaning cloth, while mitpachat is a "Hebrew word from the Torah which literally means a covering or mantle, though is also used to mean many other things such as towel, apron, bandage, or wrap." There are also terms in Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and other languages spoken by Jews. As I personally refer to them as tichels, that is the language I will use throughout this blog.
A tichel can come in any style, though stylistically, Jewish communities have created their own distinct wrappings that have flourished and gained popularity. If a non-Jewish person would wear one, it would simply be known as a headscarf or by the name from their community and tradition, as they are not Jewish.
It is important to note that while historically gendered, head coverings and veils are non-gendered and are free to be worn by any person, should they so choose. As I am discussing the historical use and backstory to these concepts, I reference the historic gendering and thought processes behind these. This does not mean that they are exclusive to any gender group. I encourage you to wear what makes you most comfortable.
Since the days of the bible, people have covered their hair and their heads. From the head-coverings of the high priests to the shawls and scarves used by women, it is a common and vital part of Jewish culture.
In the modern-day, however, there is a misconception, fueled by the most popular articles that show up when you Google 'Tichel', that tichels belong exclusively to married Orthodox women. This is not true.
While we must acknowledge that Orthodox women have maintained the tradition and kept it alive, the use of head coverings does not solely belong to them.
I attempted to cover the history of tichels and kippot in my blog post "Veiling: Jewish and Witchy Headcoverings", people wanted more. I will refrain from rehashing the history of Kippot, but will dive into tichels, their history, and their place in modern Jewish communities.
Halakha demands that a married woman covers her hair. Though, like all Jewish things, it is complicated. Covered by what? How much of it? There are pages upon pages dedicated to this discussion within the Talmud and other Jewish texts.
My Jewish Learning states, "The origin of the tradition lies in the Sotah ritual, a ceremony described in the Bible that tests the fidelity of a woman accused of adultery. According to the Torah, the priest uncovers or unbraids the accused woman’s hair as part of the humiliation that precedes the ceremony (Numbers 5:18). From this, the Talmud (Ketuboth 72) concludes that under normal circumstances hair covering is a biblical requirement for women."
The mishna stated: And who is considered a woman who violates the precepts of Jewish women? One who goes out and her head is uncovered.
The Gemara asks: The prohibition against a woman going out with her head uncovered is not merely a custom of Jewish women. Rather, it is by Torah law, as it is written with regard to a woman suspected by her husband of having been unfaithful: “And he shall uncover the head of the woman” (Numbers 5:18).
And the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: From here there is a warning to Jewish women not to go out with an uncovered head, since if the Torah states that a woman suspected of adultery must have her head uncovered, this indicates that a married woman must generally cover her head.
While this passage mentions the history of uncovered hair being linked to adultery, there were many practical uses for headscarves. It wasn't until the latter end of the 20th century that the popularity of headscarves waned in Western culture. They protected their wearer from sunburn, heatstroke, insects, and kept hair clean and untangled.
While it is generally agreed upon that married women are required to cover their hair in classical interpretations of Jewish law, this does not mean that all Jewish women do. Some only cover their hair while praying or lighting Shabbat candles, others will use a kippah/yarmulke rather than a headscarf, while others choose not to cover at all.
IMAGE: Drawings of Jewish dress from the 17th and 18th centuries (top) and 18th centuries (bottom).
But, historically, it was just not Jewish law that encouraged women to cover their hair. Minhag, or Jewish tradition, is heavily influenced by the cultures in which the Jews live. Under Islamic rule, "Jewish women in many places covered their faces with veils" and "there are reports that unmarried Jewish women in Muslim countries such as Yemen, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere continued to cover their hair even into modern times." (1).
Maimonides, the RAMBAM, also lived under Islamic rule. He ruled that all Jewish women should cover their hair, married or not.
"Maimonides ruled that, whether because of the “law of Moses” or because of the “law of Jewish women,” there is an obligation to go out with a head-covering, and sometimes even two. His interpretation of these sources seems to extend to all women, married or not." (1).
Maimonides is further cited that it was grounds for a divorce for a woman to leave the house without a chador, a garment made up of a cloak that covers the hair and the body, with an opening at the front.
Maimonides is in good company, with "The Shulḥan ‘arukh indicates that there is no distinction in this regard between married and single women: “Jewish women, married or not, should not walk in the street with their hair uncovered” (1).
However, this idea of prescription is not agreed upon. Many did not agree that unmarried women were required to cover their hair. In recent decades, minhag has switched to encourage only married women to do so. But, there is an important difference between not being obligated to do something and being forbidden from doing something.
Because of the change in perception regarding head coverings, people react very differently to non-married people donning tichels now than they might have even a hundred years ago in Eretz Yisrael, Europe, and the Americas. While Jews may be loathed to admit it, our fashion is impacted by that of non-Jews around us, meaning in places where headscarves are considered safe, we often feel more comfortable donning them.
This is important also in the discussion of tichels exclusively belonging to Orthodox women. Ironically, it is mostly men and non-Orthodox people I have seen enforcing this belief system. In conversation with Orthodox women, I have found that their reaction generally leans more towards puzzled at why one would take that on than angry or possessive.
However, this doesn't stop people online ranting and raving against the resurgence of tichels by nonmarried people. As I've demonstrated, while Orthodox Jewish women have carried the tradition to the present, this shorter part of history is far from indicative that the tichel belongs to only one kind of Jew.
This may in part be fueled by the idea that those who wear tichels when not married, Orthodox women, are only doing it for fashion or culture. While both may be true, and there is nothing wrong with either, many also wear it for religious reasons.
It is also important to discuss the very real impact of antisemitism on coverings one hair. Outside of Eretz Yisrael and a few other countries, tichels are very often swapped out for safer forms of hair coverings. Because of the stark way in which a head covering can identify a person as non-Christian (excluding nuns habits or mantillas worn in Church), many Jews have switched away from wrapping in favor of less conspicuous head-coverings like hats, berets, snoods, or wigs. Others have dropped the practice of covering their hair completely.
Image: Two Yemenite Girls, Courtesy of Joan Roth, VIA Jewish Women’s Archive
Many Jews are taken aback when entering Jewish communities outside of Eretz Yisrael and seeing the lack of headscarves---posting videos and tweets about how sad it made them and how they wished the world were safer for Jews so we could wear our traditional styles without fear.
There is, however, a huge resurgence movement towards the tichel, and not just by married women. People of all genders, movements, and levels of observance have begun to be drawn towards covering their hair and reconnecting with traditions deemed by those before us as too dangerous.
Judaism is constantly redefining its own beliefs around modesty, and it is up to each individual to choose how they dress, so it is no wonder that people are reconnecting with the act of coverings one hair, even if it is only sometimes.
So why do non-married, non-Orthodox Jews wear tichels?
I wanted to highlight the voices of others who also choose to wear the tichel. These are responses from Jews of all nationalities, movements, genders, and levels of observance. My own answers are at the end.
For many, the tichel represents a connection to their heritage.
I wear a tichel (not every day) for a couple reasons! First, it helps connect me to my Jewish heritage. Second, I take the subway and I don’t want to have to wash my hair every time I come home!
I am Jewish, nonbinary, and queer. I have been raised and socialized as a woman.
It helps me connect to my Judaism and signal to others visually that I’m Jewish! It makes me feel like I’m a part of a community, and when I see other people with their hair covered, I feel like we can have each other’s backs. (Bella Grace)
For others, it is a form of resistance against assimilation and antisemitism.
I’m refusing to forget my heritage. As the youngest of the family, I am the furthest away from their generation. I fear they will be forgotten as time passes, as I have kids and they have kids of their own. As greats-greats and great-great-greats are added to their titles, their names fade. Their stories fade. The tichel gives me moments to remember my Judaism. Where did it come from? Who made it so I was blessed to be born Jewish? Simply, they did. They persisted, survived, and made if so I can exist as a jew in public with little to no fear of hate or threat of death. I cannot thank them enough for their survival in impossible conditions. The tichel keeps me humble, keeps me thinking of them. The tichel reminds me of how lucky I am to be alive (Alexa).
Similarly, Arianna says:
I wear a tichel because it makes me feel rooted and grounded in my Jewish self.
I'm from a family that lived in Brooklyn and moved to Florida, that lost a lot of our identity as jews from fear of persecution, so we assimilated. I’m the first member in three generations to start reclaiming more of my identity. I’m 21, nonbinary, and unmarried. I started wearing a tichel this year when I saw all of the antisemitism present at the capital riots and now, everywhere. My family is supportive but scared for me to present as Jewish (Arianna).
I started wearing a tichel almost a year ago after seeing various non-married and non-Orthodox Jewish woman wearing them on social media (including you!). I was very drawn to the idea and the first time I tried one on, I felt more like myself than I had ever felt. I imagined that some of my ancestors would have worn a tichel even if none of the woman in my family wear one
Wearing a tichel is a way of connecting to Judaism everyday as well as my ancestors. I like the spiritual idea of the tichel being a sort of "protection" or barrier from bad "vibes" or energy, especially as a hypersensitive person (Gabrielle)
For even others still, it is a means of spiritual connection.
I cover my hair on Shabbat, holy days, religious study days. Days when I am with G-d. It helps me feel less vain and less connected to & obsessed with my body. It’s a way to reach out spiritually. (Selene)
I wear tichel because I love the look of them and I appreciate their symbolism. Wearing one helps me feel connected to my Judaism, reminds me of God's constant presence and allows me to express my Judaism stylistically (Liora)
My tichel is a reminder to that Hashem is always with me and of my own beauty. Feeling confident without showing my hair has helped me attain a new level of confidence. Further more, it allows me to take a piece of my culture with me throughout my day. I get strange looks but I don't care. It makes me proud to be part of such a vibrant, vast community (Liora).
For quite a few, it serves another purpose entirely:
I started wearing a tichel because it was expected of me (I was raised Orthodox) and I looked forward to it my whole life. I love wearing it as it is a symbol of my commitment to my marriage and Judaism (Debra)
As for others,
I have loved covering my hair since I was a child. There are many photos of me with various headscarves (some good-looking, others looking more like I got my head stuck in a bag) on since I was a little kid. I grew up with my mother not covering her hair with the exception of for Kabbalat Shabbat, but I had family members who did, as did other people I knew. I began wearing a tichel, on and off, at about fifteen or sixteen years old. In my own complicated journey with Judaism, the choice to wear a tichel (even occasionally) was an important one.
I began wearing one more consistently when I began working from home, as I didn't have to explain myself to others. Those in my life took it in stride (with a joke here or there), but it quickly became an important part of my day.
Wearing a tichel, much like tznius in general, allows me to choose who gets to see my hair and when. It creates a barrier between me and the outside world that only I can lift. I am fully in control of my own body.
I am also invariably more connected to my Judaism when I wear it. While I need no reminder on a daily basis, it is a beautiful feeling to exist in a way that I feel exemplifies my Judaism. I am not more Jewish when I wear it, but I am honoring the part of me that reaches for tradition, for community, for history, and for observance.
Being openly, vibrantly Jewish is something that has taken me quite a long time. Tichels serve as a part of my connection to myself, Judaism, and HaShem.
How to start ticheling?
Once you have made the decision to begin wearing a tichel, how you go about it is entirely up to you. From a small bandana style to a full hair covering, it is entirely dependent on your comfort. For those living in spaces where wearing a head-covering can be dangerous, the rise of bandana fashion is extremely useful. You can find amazing tutorials on YouTube (check out Wrapunzel!)
There are also no regulations on how often, or how long, you have to wear a tichel. Whether you prefer to wear it for Shabbat or prayer or wear it when you are drawn to it, it is entirely up to you.
Don't feel obligated to go zero to a hundred or feel obligated to wear a certain style that does not feel comfortable to you.
Just remember: some people may assume that you are married because of it.
You may also experience harassment. Many people are unaware of Jews' history with headscarves and may assume you are Muslim or of another faith. It is our duty as a community to stand up for our siblings from other religions and defend them in these situations.
Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues , No. 23, The Jewish Woman and Her Body / Consulting Editor: Rachel S. Harris (Spring–Fall 2012), pp. 35-59