Can a Sheitel be Prohibited Because of Avodah Zarah?

Although Eisav’s wives presumably did not wear sheitlach made of Indian hair, according to Chazal, they were idol worshippers. But what would have happened if they had used sheitlach made from hair used in idol worship?

A Background Discussion of the Halachic Issues Involved in the Use of Indian Hair

This article was written originally several years ago, around the time that there was a huge ruckus concerning the halachic permissibility of wearing sheitlach manufactured from hair of Indian origin. The purpose of this article is to provide background to some of the halachic issues and considerations involved.

Introduction to the Laws of Avodah Zarah

In addition to the cardinal prohibition against worshipping idols, the Torah distanced us from any involvement with or benefit from Avodah Zarah. Furthermore, money received in payment for Avodah Zarah is also tainted with its stigma and may not be used. As will be described later, this money must be destroyed in a way that no one will ever be able to use it.

Chazal prohibited benefit even from the wages earned for transporting an item used in idol worship. Thus, the wages of a person who hired himself to transport wine used in idol worship are prohibited (Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 62a). He is required to destroy whatever he received as payment in such a way that no one else can use it. The Gemara rules that if he received coins as payment, he must grind up the coins and then scatter the dust to the wind, to guarantee that no one benefit from idolatry.

In this context, the Gemara recounts the following story: A man who had rented his boat to transport wine owned by idolaters was paid with a quantity of wheat. Since the wheat may not be used, Rav Chisda was asked what one should do with it. He ruled that the wheat should be burned and then the ashes buried. The Gemara asks why not scatter the ashes, rather than burying them? The Gemara responds that we do not permit this out of concern that the ashes will fertilize the ground where they fall. Thus, we see how concerned Chazal were that we not gain any benefit from idols, even so indirectly.

Among the mitzvohs concerning idol worship is the prohibition against having an Avodah Zarah in one’s house (Avodah Zarah 15a). This is based on the verse Velo savie soeivah el beisecha, You shall not bring an abomination into your house (Devarim 7:26). In addition, we may not benefit from that which decorates an Avodah Zarah, and we are prohibited from providing benefit to the Avodah Zarah (Gemara Avodah Zarah 13a). Thus, it is prohibited to make a donation if a neighbor or business contact solicits a contribution for his Avodah Zarah.

There is also a positive mitzvah to destroy Avodah Zarah. This is mentioned in the verse, Abeid teabdun es kol hamekomos asher ovdu shom hagoyim es eloheihem, “You shall completely destroy all the places where the nations worshipped their gods” (Devarim 12:2). According to Rambam, the mitzvah min haTorah applies only to destroying the Avodah Zarah itself and that which decorates and serves it. There is no Torah requirement to destroy items used in the worship of Avodah Zarah (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:1-2, as proved by Kehilos Yaakov, Bava Kamma end of #3). However, as mentioned above, one is required miderabanan to destroy anything that is prohibited to use, to make sure that no one benefits from the Avodah Zarah items (see Avodah Zarah 51b; Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 8:6).

Tikroves Avodah Zarah – An Item Used to Worship an Idol

One of the laws relating to idol worship is the prohibition against using tikroves Avodah Zarah, that is, not to benefit from an item that was used to worship Avodah Zarah. According to the accepted halachic opinion, the prohibition against using tikroves Avodah Zarah is min haTorah (Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:2; cf. Tosafos Bava Kamma 72b s.v. de’i, who rules that the prohibition is only miderabanan).

It should be noted that one is permitted to use items that are donated to Avodah Zarah, provided these items are not used for worship. Thus, gold, jewelry, and other valuables donated to a Hindu temple may be used.

Some Background Facts in the Contemporary Shaylah About Indian Hair

The Indian sub-continent is the home of the largest population of Hindus in the world. Hinduism is a religion that falls under the category of Avodah Zarah.

Most Hindu sects do not cut their hair as part of any worship. However, there is one large sect of Hindus that shave their head as an acknowledgement of thanks to one of their deities. This practice is performed by thousands of Hindu men, women, and children daily at their temple in Tirupati, India. The temple then collects what is cut and sells the women’s hair for wig manufacture.

An important halachic issue is whether the hair-shaving procedure that takes place in this Hindu Temple constitutes an act of idol worship, or whether the hair is simply donated for the use of the idol. This distinction has major halachic significance. As mentioned above, it is permitted to use an item that was donated to an Avodah Zarah. Such an item does not carry the halachic status of tikroves Avodah Zarah, which is prohibited from use. However, if the shaving is an act of idol worship, then the hair may not be used.

The Earlier Ruling

Many years ago, Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, ruled that there is no halachic problem with using the hair from the Indian temples. This responsa is printed in his Kovetz Teshuvos (1:77). The person who asked Rav Elyashiv the shaylah provided him with information based on the opinion of a university professor familiar with the Hindu religion. According to the professor, the Hindus who cut their hair do so only as a donation, just as they also donate gold, jewelry and other valuables to the temple. Although there is presumably still a prohibition in purchasing the hair from the temple (because of the prohibition against providing benefit to an idol), Rav Elyashiv ruled that there is no halachic prohibition to use this hair.

However, several years later, Rav Elyashiv and other prominent gedolim ruled that the hair sold by this Hindu temple is prohibited for use because of tikroves Avodah Zarah.

What changed?

As explained above, the critical question is whether the hair-shaving ceremony in this temple is simply a donation or is a form of worship. At the time of Rav Elyashiv’s earlier responsum, he was told that the haircutting was not an act of idol worship. When the second controversy erupted, he was told that the ritual does constitute Avodah Zarah.

It should be noted that Rav Moshe Shternbuch, shlit”a, currently Rosh Av Besdin of the Eidah HaChareidis in Yerushalayim, published a tshuvah prohibiting the use of any sheitel produced with Indian hair, because of tikroves Avodah Zarah. This was published about the same time that Rav Elyashiv had published his lenient ruling.

Bitul — Nullifying the Prohibited Hair

What happens if the Hindu hair is mixed in with other hair? This is a very common case, since Indian hair is much less expensive to purchase than European hair and at the same time is not readily discernable in a European sheitel. (As a matter of fact, it has been discovered that some manufacturers add Indian hair on a regular basis into their expensive “100% European Hair” Sheitlach.)

Assuming that hair shorn in the Hindu temple is prohibited because of tikroves Avodah Zarah, does that mean that any sheitel that includes any Indian hair is prohibited to be used? What about the concept of bitul, whereby a prohibited substance that is mixed into other substances in a manner that it can no longer be identified is permitted?

However, the concept of bitul does not apply in most cases when Avodah Zarah items became mixed into permitted items. Chazal applied different parameters to the concept of bitul as applied to Avodah Zarah because of the seriousness of the prohibition. Therefore, if a sheitel contains hair from different sources, such as hair made of European hair with some Hindu hair added, the sheitel should be treated as an Indian hair sheitel. Thus, according to Rav Elyashiv, this sheitel should be destroyed in a way that no one may end up using it. It is not necessary to burn the sheitel. It would be satisfactory to cut it up and place it in the garbage.

However, there is some halachic lenience in this question. Since the concept that Avodah Zarah is not boteil is a rabbinic injunction and not a Torah law, one may be lenient when it is uncertain that there is a prohibition. This is based on the halachic principle called safek derabanan lekula, that one may be lenient in regard to a doubt involving a rabbinic prohibition.

Thus, in a situation where a sheitel is manufactured from predominantly synthetic material, or predominantly European hair, yet there is a concern as to whether some prohibited hair might have been added, the halacha is that the sheitel may be worn.

It should be noted that, when attempting to determine the composition of a sheitel, one cannot rely on the information provided by a non-frum or non-Jewish manufacturer. In general, halacha accepts testimony from these sources only in limited instances.

Hairs and Sheitlach of Undetermined Origin

What happens if one has a human hair sheitel, but cannot determine the origin of the hair used in it? In this situation, the determining factor is the status of most sheitlach. If most sheitlach contain non-kosher hair, then the sheitel of indeterminate origin may not be worn. However, if most sheitlach are permitted, than this sheitel is also permitted.

Many synthetic sheitlach contain some natural hairs to strengthen the sheitel. In this instance, there is an interesting side shaylah. One can determine whether there are human hairs in these sheitlach by checking the hairs of the sheitel under a microscope. The human hairs will look different from the synthetic material. However, there is no way that this inspection can tell us the country of origin of the human hairs, and it certainly cannot tell us whether the hairs were involved in any worship. Is one required to check the hairs of a synthetic sheitel under a microscope to determine whether there are any human hairs? All the poskim I have heard from have ruled leniently concerning this issue – one is not required to have the sheitel checked.

Color of Sheitel

I have heard people say that there should be no halachic problem with blond- and red- sheitlach, since Indian women have dark hair. Unfortunately, based on my conversations with sheitel machers, there does not seem to be any basis for this assumption. In most instances, the hair used in sheitlach is bleached and then (much later in the process) dyed to a specific color. Thus, there is no reason to assume that simply because a sheitel is fair, the hair from which it is made cannot have originated in a Hindu temple.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this critique was written to supply background material to the question that became a big controversy several years ago. To the best of my information, this issue is not a major problem now. However, I would like to close the article with an unedited part of the original article I wrote then.

“Had someone told me six months ago that I would be dealing with a shaylah pertaining to Hilchos Avodah Zarah, I probably would have laughed. Who could imagine that in the modern world, shaylos about these issues would affect virtually every frum household? It goes to show us how ayn kol chodosh tachas hashemesh, There is nothing new under the sun (Koheles 1:9).”