“The Great Exaltation of the Mitzvah of Covering the Hair”

by the Rt. Rev. Paul C. Hewett, SSC, Bishop of the Diocese of the Holy Cross,
on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2010

In this section of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul gives a theological rationale for women at divine worship wearing a headcovering, a veil, a mantilla or a hat.  It is not the intent of this meditation to set up a dress code, but to lift the lid on this theological rationale, which had widespread acceptance as recently as two generations ago in North America.  We will be examining what for many is counter-cultural, but in doing so, can give a biblical witness for our confused and confusing times.

Our way of interpreting this passage from Scripture is from “Bo Giertz’ [1] Biblical Perspective.” Bo Giertz, sometime Bishop of Gothenburg, Sweden, was one of the great theologians of our time.  For him, the Bible was written as God wants us to have it, for all time.  Jesus’ disciples are to interpret the Scriptures as He did.  One is not to come to the Bible with one’s own predispositions, but is to let the Scriptures speak for themselves.  “Just as I believe in Christ, so I believe in the Word.  It is through the text of Scripture that Christ comes to us and awakens faith.”[2] The Bible itself is the norm and rule in all questions of interpretation.  “Scripture interprets Scripture.”

There are those who say that the Bible, or certain parts of it, is not the eternal Word written, but is determined, or at least shaped, by the culture that produced it.   We might answer this by pointing out that God chose the first century and the Jewish people as the matrix for His ultimate revelation.  The Bible is His Word, but He chose and formed the culture which would shape and transmit it.  God did not choose the twentieth century, He chose the first, and those centuries that preceded it.  St. Paul calls the time when God sent forth His Son as the fullness of time (Gal. 4: 4), the ultimate kairos, when everything was ready for Him:  Jewish religion, Roman law and Greek philosophy.   The sense of gracious patriarchy inherited by the early Church from the Old Testament, is the norm for all time.  It is the Father’s plan, shown in the total self-emptying (kenosis) of His Son on the Cross (Phil. 2: 5 – 11).  Gracious patriarchy is kenotic, self-emptying, modeled on the three Persons of the most holy Trinity.  So we do not impose today’s culture on the first century.  We are not to be conformed to this world, but “transformed by the renewing of (our) mind(s).”  (Rom. 12: 2)

Then when our Lord arrives on the scene, he does not abrogate the Law, but He fulfills it, with its mitzvahs, its commandments.  (Matthew 5: 17 – 19)  He is in fact the perfect Israelite, who perfectly obeys the Father, in the total anointing of the Holy Spirit.  He is the one who can recite Psalm 119, “the rosary of the Psalter,” with perfect integrity.  Jesus does not undo the Old Testament understanding of the hierarchy of the Kingdom.  He is the perfect Son, co-equal with the Father through His submission to Him.  (John 5: 19 – 47)  The Father is the Fountain-head of the Trinity.  God is the Father Almighty, from Whom eternally is begotten the Son, and from Whom eternally proceeds the Holy Spirit.  The three Persons are co-eternal and co-equal, One by begotteness, and One by procession. In the Kingdom, hierarchy and submission-in-hierarchy never implies inequality or inferiority, because in the Trinity, the Son and the Holy Spirit are perfectly united in absolute love with the Father.

So when St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 11: 3 “that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God,” he is not implying that woman is inferior to man.  Biblical submission to what is above one in the hierarchy is precisely what exalts that person.  The communion in the Holy Spirit with the person above one in the hierarchy exalts, lifts up and hyper-personalizes us in the hypostasis of the Son, through Whom we have union with the Father, in the glory of absolute, infinite love.  Jesus, Who descends to the lowest place, ascends to the highest.  His Mother followed the same biblical pattern.  The lowly handmaiden is now blessed by all generations.  In the union of lover and beloved, the beloved says “I have no life of my own.  He is my life.  Christ is my life.  His will is mine.  In that submission I find my identity.  In that service comes perfect freedom.  “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me is love.”  (Song of Solomon 2: 4, 16)

The mutual submission of Ephesians 5: 21 is the theology of ekstasis developed by St. Maximos the Confessor, in which the three Persons of the Trinity eternally go out of stasis in their relationships with each other, each eternally and absolutely pouring Himself into the other, co-inhering each other, in an ecstasy of outpouring and indwelling.[3] Each Person gives His glory to the other, and all glory goes to God, the Father Almighty.   

In the sacramental world-view that supersaturates all Holy Scripture, all theology, all experience of God, has its outward and visible sign.  To cover the head, or not to cover it, is an outward sign, and St. Paul tells us why it is important.  “The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.  Every man, praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.   But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head…for a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God:  but the woman is the glory of the man.”  (1 Cor. 11: 3 - 7)  The woman’s head covering shows that she is under  authority in the hierarchy of the Kingdom – the authority of either her husband or her father, or a father-figure, which could be a family member or a pastor.  In the Kingdom, where all is communion-in-love, to be under authority also means to be protected, and to be cherished.  The authority of the Christian husband and father is the gracious, kenotic patriarchy of God, the Father Almighty.  Authority in the Kingdom is the sanction to serve, to wear the maniple of service and wash the disciples’ feet.

Here now is St. Paul’s Christian anthropology, taken from Genesis, chapters 1 and 2.  “For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.  Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.  For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.”  (vss. 8 – 10)  One of the roles of angels is to protect and uphold God’s order in creation and the hierarchy of the Kingdom.  The angels notice when this order is disobeyed and seek to minister in the ensuing confusion.  Has any time in history ever been more confused than ours?  The basic confusion today relates to sexual identity.  So many of our boys do not grow up to be men-in-Christ, due to the break-down of Christian fatherhood.  So many of our girls do not grow up to be daughters of the new Eve, our blessed Mother.  But the angels minister, invisibly, to renew the Bride of Christ in submission to the eternal Word.   One summer at a youth camp the girls all made chapel-caps to wear during the Liturgy.  They were delighted to enter more fully into God’s plan for their distinctive role.  The boys served at the Altar, and the girls had chapel-caps, and the angels rejoiced.

The head coverings we wear in church are a dress rehearsal for heaven.  When clergy wear head coverings, they take them off during times of prayer, and during the Gospel and the Great Thanksgiving.  Women leave theirs on through the whole Liturgy, as St. Paul directs.  If we do not like this arrangement on earth, why are we suddenly going to like it in heaven?  God wants us to get ready for heaven, where the worship is as He directs, not as we prefer.  In heaven, among the many big surprises God has for us, is the amazing transformation of our head covering.  We are to be crowned.  “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”  (Rev. 2: 10)   The Bible gives different names for these crowns, such as  “crown of righteousness” and “crown of glory,” all pointing to the wondrous participation our Lord gives us in His eternal victory.  He has given us “exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”  (2 Peter 1: 4)     

Vss. 11 - 12 are St. Paul’s teaching that in the Kingdom, men and women are not interchangeable, but they are equal…equal and complementary, as is the case with the three Persons of the most holy Trinity.  “…neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.  For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.”  In both the Old and New Testaments there is a remarkable balance in the roles of men and women.  In creation, Eve is taken out of the side of Adam.  In the new creation, the Second Adam is taken out of the New Eve.  In both covenants, there is one thing a man can do that a woman cannot (be the priest), and one thing a woman can do that a man cannot (conceive, bear and give birth to children).   

Vss. 13 – 14 are an argument from nature.  It is natural for women to have long hair, and men to have short.  Arguments from nature are appropriate in theology because the Father created the natural order through His Son, His Word, the divine Logos, in the Holy Spirit.   

In vs. 15 St. Paul says that “if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”  She therefore covers her glory with a symbol of the authority over her.  And authority and glory are related in the Kingdom.  Authority is the sanction to serve, and glory is self-giving love.   The “King of glory” is Jesus on the Cross.          

Women’s head coverings are a symbol of the completed work of the Cross, where the glory of self-giving love is completely revealed to all the world, for all time, and eternity.  At the foot of the Cross, the holy women, the little remnant that is there, are covered, or overshadowed, by the figure of the crucified Saviour.  They are literally under the Blood, and the wounds, which now dazzle all creation.  They are covered by this one stupendous atoning act.  Glory is a covering over God’s people.  “Round each habitation hov’ring, See the cloud and fire appear For a glory and a covering Showing that the Lord is near.”  (Hymn 385)

The woman wearing the head covering is, in “the chain of command,” under the cosmic rule of the crucified One, Who is risen and alive forevermore.  When St. John the Divine saw Him in His risen and ascended glory in Heaven, he fell at His feet as dead.  “And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:  I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”  (Rev. 1: 17 - 18)  John was faced with more glory than he could handle, so he fell prostrate.  Beloved, at every Eucharist we are there with John, lifted in the Holy Spirit to ascend with Christ in the heavenlies, to worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, to sup with our Lord in the glory of the new creation.  Immersion in all that glory can be like putting a million volts through a tiny piece of bell wire.  The least we can have is some insulation, and the head covering is a little piece of insulation, to help us handle all that glory.   

Glory must often be veiled.  Our risen Lord comes to us under the veils of bread and wine.  Our Lady is often shown wearing a long blue veil,  the color of the veil in the Temple, and of God’s glory there.  There is an ancient and widespread tradition about Mary’s veil, the Protecting Veil.   A medieval German statue depicts Mary wearing a veil that goes to the ground, a cope.  Peeking out of its sides, from top to bottom, are diminutive men, women and children...all of us, in fact.  The Blessed Mother’s Veil is our protection and our home in the Family of God.

With Mary, a woman is revealed as the Bride of the Holy Spirit, the Womb of God, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Shrine of Grace and now, the Queen of Heaven.  All this is veiled, just as Moses had to put a veil over his face when he came down from the mountain after receiving the Ten Commandments.  His face shone so that the people could not bear to look at him.  (Exodus 34: 33)  The Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, and later, in the Temple, was veiled, because sinful man cannot bear the infinite holiness of God, until the final Day of Atonement, when the veil in the Temple is rent from top to bottom, and sinful man now has boldness of access to the throne of grace.  (Heb. 10: 19)  The veil of the Old Covenant is “done away in Christ…(so that) we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”  (2 Cor. 3: 5 – 18)  St. Seraphim of Sarov, from 19th century Russia, sometimes wore a towel over his face for the same reason Moses did.  His face would sometimes shine like the sun.  Tabernacles are veiled, and chalices.  A  Rood Screen is a kind of veil.  Brides wear veils on the wedding day.  Nuns “take the veil,” and a woman who covers her head in church is more directly linking her ministry with that of the nuns in the convent.  The heart-beat of the Church is its monasteries and convents, and laity and clergy alike, who are not in religious life, often want to make an explicit connection of their ministries with those of the professed religious, by becoming associates.

The veil is done away in Christ.  We can use veils, to create a greater sense of transcendent mystery, or in the interest of simplicity, dispense with them.  Mary, in heaven, is described as “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”  (Rev. 12: 1)  Nothing is said about her veil, one way or the other, although it could be said that her veil is now the sun itself.  But the head covering for women remains.  Mary’s is now the crown of twelve stars.  Should anyone be contentious about the head covering, St. Paul says, “we have no such custom (of dispensing with the head covering), neither the churches of God.”  (1 Cor. 11: 16)  “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.”  (vs. 1) 

Violating the divine order, the divine hierarchy, is a reduction of status for women.  Did the gnostic feminism of the past 50 years bring liberation?  It has brought 1.5 billion abortions wordwide, and a culture of death.  Women in the Church should not live under their privileges, and miss the blessing, the exaltation, of the head covering.  And as we find ourselves having more contact with Muslims, there is an evangelistic opportunity in the head covering, in giving witness to Muslims of the new life in Christ for men and women, and how the essential mystery of creation is the nuptial mystery of Bridegroom and Bride.  (Psalm 45;  Ezekiel 16;  Hosea 2: 19 – 23;  Ephesians 5: 21 – 33;  Rev. 21: 2, 9.  There, the bride, the Lamb’s wife, is adorned for her husband)   

St. Paul wrote 1 Cor. 11: 2 – 16 and all his epistles as a Jewish Christian with a rabbinic background.  So we conclude this meditation with a piece from Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk, which sheds light on St. Paul’s teaching on the head covering as a privilege, a blessing and true exaltation.  What Rabbi Falk writes is not obliterated by Christ, but fulfilled, and made even more glorious.  There is a lot we can learn from orthodox Judaism, especially in matters of family religion and home liturgy.

The Great Exaltation of the Mitzvah of Covering the Hair:

The head covering is one of the most cherished pieces of clothing a woman possesses. With it she fulfills a great Mitzvah Min HaTorah (a Biblical mandated commandment) and it bestows on her many exceptional side benefits that emanate from fulfilling a mitzvah that is founded on tzniut (modesty), the most important characteristic of the Bat Yisrael (Daughter of Israel).

a)  She demonstrates submission to G-d's wishes:  When covering the hair a woman conceals this natural source of attraction from the eye of the public and thereby demonstrates that she is a servant of G-d. She places His wish, that an Eshet Ish (a Married Woman) covers her hair and conceals it from the view of the public, above her own natural desire to look attractive and enhance her appearance by displaying her natural hair.

b)  She demonstrates the purity of Jewish family life:  The headcovering symbolizes the kedusha (holiness) of the Jewish family, in which the wife dedicates her life to her husband to the near-total exclusion of any form of contact with other men. She therefore withholds the chen (beauty) of her hair from the view of the general public.

c)  It is a source of Yirat Shamayim (Fear of Heaven):  When this mitzvah (commandment) is kept properly and with the correct attitude it imparts considerable Yirat Shamayim (fear of heaven) to the person. Men cover their head with a yarmulke (kippah) or hat in line with the recommendation of Chazal (our Sages), "Cover your head so that you shall experience the fear of Heaven" (Shabbat 156b). If covering just part of the head as is practiced by men has such an effect, how much more must covering the complete head have a deep and far reaching effect on a woman's Yirat Shamayim.

d)  It is a source of Kedusha (holiness) and inspiration: Considering that the head is the most distinguished and most significant part of the human body as Chazal say, "The head is king over all the limbs" (Shabbat 61a), the influence of kedusha that is transmitted to the whole person by a mitzvah done continuously with the head must be immeasurable. Significantly, Chazal say that when a man wears tefillin (phylacteries) he has a special defense against serious sin (Menachot 43b). Accordingly, a woman who lacks the outstanding mitzvah of kisuy saarot (hair covering) because she does not fulfill its halachic requirements, withholds from herself a vital source of spirituality and inspiration.

e)  It protects from illness and pain:  Who can assess the physical advantage, in protecting the person from illness and pain, that is gained from an unceasing mitzvah such as kisuy saarot. Chazal have taught us that a person is protected while he fulfills a mitzvah, as they say, "While a mitzvah is being carried out it shields and safeguards the person" (Sotah 21a). Hence, a mitzvah that is done over many hours of the day is highly prized source of protection. Similarly, the mezuzah (doorpost - encased tiny parchment scroll on upon - Devarim 6:4-9, 11:13-21), which is an ongoing mitzvah fulfilled at all times, is singled out by Chazal as a mitzvah which offers exceptional protection to people (Shabbat 32b).

f)  It procures great dividends:  The head covering enables a woman to fulfill the mitzvah of kisuy saarot minute by minute throughout the day, thereby enabling her to earn great riches both in this world and in the World to Come. While a man adorns his head with tefillin for about an hour a day, a woman has the merit to adorn her head with an article of mitzvah throughout the length of the day. In fact, one of the great Rabbanim of our generation, Hagaon Rav Shimon Schwab zt'l, once said that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of tefillin because they wear "their tefillin" throughout all hours of the day. They therefore do not require the added sanctification of tefillin as in the case of men.  Since the headcovering plays such an important role, it is only fitting that it displays the inner refinement and sensitivities of the Bat Yisrael. It should therefore be an article of clothing which adds luster and aristocracy to the royal status of the Jewish woman who is a Bat Melachim (a Princess).

g)  The difference between a married woman and an unmarried girl:  The Torah allows a girl to appear in public with her hair uncovered although it adds considerably to her chen (beauty) and demonstrates her natural good looks whilst the Torah considers it pritzut (licentiousness) for a married woman to do so. As mentioned previously, even the Umot HaOlam (the righteous non-Jews) understood this and expected their wives to cover their hair in public - see Sanhedrin 58b. A married woman is an eshet ish and this warrants that part of her beauty be withheld from the public eye. Although she should dress pleasantly and graciously in a manner with reflects her simcha (joy) and nobility, she should not display her full natural chen for everyone to see.

On the other hand, an unmarried girl need not mask part of her natural chen and may allow her hair to reflect her natural good looks (although not in way that draws attention to herself). An unmarried girl is not an eshet ish and there is therefore no need for her to cover her hair to withhold part of her chen from the public eye. Also, her good appearance can aid in finding her future partner in life. There is therefore a positive reason for her hair not to be covered and hidden - see Ketubot 53b and Mekorot 28:3-7.

We live in a time when the importance and far-reaching effect of kisuy saarot is little understood and is under threat, being presented by some as a matter of little significance. In truth, authentic Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) and the whole character of the Jewish home are dependent on women practicing all aspects of tzniut properly. The saying of Chazal, "They are like mountains that hang on a hair" (Mishnah Chagigah 10a) - is highly appropriate to our issue. It is most significant that the great Chasam Sofer zt'l and Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch zt'l who both succeeded in establishing healthy and vibrant centers of Yiddishkeit where great campaigners for this mitzvah and instilled a deep respect and reverence for it amongst their followers.
The Navi (Prophet) says, "The crown of our head has fallen; woe unto us for we have sinned" (Eicha 5:16). Due to our sins and lack of kedusha, the crown of our heads - the beautiful mitzvah of kisuy saarot, headcovering - has fallen. The crown is however not broken. It is up to us to pick it up and return it once again to its rightful place. With that we will awaken once again within ourselves the deep rooted feelings for real tzniut and kedushat Yisrael (holiness of Israel).

Source:  Modesty - An Adornment for Life, Halachot and Attitudes Concerning Tzniut of Dress & Conduct, by Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk

Another helpful article on this website opens up the theological significance of modesty:

“All About Headcoverings”

“According to Judaism, G-d wanted us to enjoy an existence in which our physicality wouldn’t stand in the way of defining ourselves internally.  G-d therefore gave the first man and woman a great gift:  the inborn ability to see each other in their totality.  With this perfect vision, man and woman saw each other’s outer self and inner self as one inseparable unit.  When man looked at woman, he simultaneously saw her mind, heart, and spirit.  At the same moment that woman appreciated man’s appearance, she appreciated who he really was…

Tzniut – Modesty…is the most fundamental way of using your outside to tell others who you are on the inside.  It makes the statement:  “I am much more that what meets the eye.  If you want to see the real me, you’ll have to look deeper.”  Outside actions create inside awareness; wearing a symbolic and something tangible between us and the Above reinforces that idea that G-d is always watching.

Covering the hair was a sign of modesty in society and throughout history, but times and definitions of modesty have changed.  The goal of this website is not to tell women how to cover their hair, but to influence, if possible, one to thinking, talking and learning about modesty.

For many women new to head coverings, to cover your hair or not to cover the hair is not a simple decision, instead it is a choice that evolves with learning.  May my various designs, made to appeal to the varied levels of observance and knowledge of the head covering, help you in that decision.”

Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of heav’n, to earth come down, Fix in us thy humble dwelling, All thy faithful mercies crown.  Jesus thou art all compassion, Pure unbounded love thou art; Visit us with thy salvation, Enter every trembling heart.
Come, almighty to deliver, Let us all thy life receive; Suddenly return, and never, Nevermore thy temples leave.  Thee we would be alway blessing, Serve thee as thy hosts above, Pray and praise thee without ceasing, Glory in thy perfect love.

Finish then thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be; Let us see thy great salvation Perfectly restored in thee:  Changed from glory into glory, Till in heaven we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before thee, Lost in wonder, love, and praise.  Amen.  (Charles Wesley)

[1] Johansson, Torbjörn in Imberg, Rune, ed., Talet om Korset – Guds Kraft, pp.  205 – 236.

[2] Ibid, p. 205

[3] cf. Zizioulas, Being as Communion, pp. 44 & 91 – 92.


lb-corner rb-corner