Ruling on idolatrous wig hair creates frenzy in Orthodox world

new york (jta) | When word reached a fervently Orthodox enclave in Beit Shemesh, Israel, that wigs made from Indian hair may not be kosher because of the hair’s origins, pandemonium erupted.

Women replaced their $2,000 wigs with $5 kerchiefs, simple snoods and synthetic-hair substitutes as they waited to hear the final word on a religious ruling that has created chaos in the Orthodox world, where many married women cover their hair as a sign of modesty in conformance with Jewish law.

“There are humongous things going on here,” said a fervently religious woman who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh. “I know a girl who just spent $2,000 on a sheitel and was told it was no good,” she said, using the Yiddish word for wig.

The controversy reached a fervor last week when Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, one of Israel’s pre-eminent authorities on halachah, instituted a ban on wigs made from Indian hair out of concern that the hair’s original owners had used their hair for idolatrous Hindu religious ceremonies.

The hair is bought after Hindu women, who never before have cut their hair, shave their heads at the Tirupati temple in India as a sign of religious reverence. Jewish rabbinic authorities are divided over whether the hair itself is used in idolatrous worship or whether the haircut is what is ceremonially significant — and whether the hair is then forbidden according to Jewish law.

When some Jews in Israel and Brooklyn started burning their wigs — believing they were following the religious injunction to destroy idolatrous religious objects — it added fuel to the fire.