(By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times)
It is called “Tonsuring” and it is at the center of a great debate that has once again resurfaced. Tonsuring is when women cut off all of their hair in a temple for religious purposes. A few years ago, frum Jews across the world stopped wearing sheitels with hair that could have come from these temples. Eventually, the issue settled with many of the wig manufacturers obtaining supervision from Rabbis stating that the source of the hair was permitted.
In a nutshell, the Rabbonim who signed the letter are convinced that it is highly likely that virtually all hair in sheitels, no matter the origin – contain Indian temple hair that is Takroves Avodah Zarah – from which it is forbidden to benefit. The issues of Takoreves Avodah Zaraj, offerings given on the worship of idols are discussed in Shulchan Aruch Yore Deah 139:6. It is based on the Gemorah in Avodah Zarah 59b.
Those that signed the letter and forbid it believe that Indian temple hair is so ubiquitous, that it has found its way into almost every geographical location where sheitels are made. The hair is stripped of its pigment in a near month-long process and supposedly sold to other markets to augment their stocks of hair.
[This latter point, however, is disputed by other industry experts that this author has interviewed.]
The letter, signed by a number of Israel-based Rabbonim, was posted in shuls across the New York area. The letter was signed by Rav Chaim Meir HaLevi Vosner, the Rav and Av Beis Din of Zichron Meir; Rav Sriel Rosenberg a Raavad in Bnei Brak; Rav Yehudah Silman, an Av Beis Din in Bnei Brak; Rav Shimon Bodni, Chaver, Moetzes Chochmei haTorah, and Rav Moshe Mordechai Karp of Modiin.
The letter states that no hechsher on sheitels are effective because it is impossible to truly know the origin of the hair and that temple hair comprises the overwhelming majority of hair for human hair wigs.
The Kol Koreh, believe it or not, quotes a person named “Vince Selva” of the “Indo Asian Human Hair International Inc.” company who makes a number of claims about temple hair. The Kol Koreh also lists 25 alleged “Facts” about the human hair industry
This author was present with Rav Belsky zt”l when he both researched the issue and when he discussed the issue of Avodah Zarah with the Poskim in Eretz Yisroel. Dayan Dunner’s research was that the Indian women were actually giving their hair as an offering to “the gods” and that the hair was, therefore, considered Takroves Avodah Zarah – something that the Torah forbids. The research of others, including that of Rav Belsky zt”l was that the women were offering to shave their hair as a sign of devotion and that the hair was not an offering per se. According to their understanding, the hair is not an offering and is therefore permitted.
This author’s own research at the time, speaking to representatives of India at the Indian consulate, also indicated that it was not an offering per se.
Rav Belsky zatzal discussed other reasons for permitting it in his Sefer Shulchan HaLevi page 438 where letters back and forth with Rav Elyashiv zatzal are printed.
Subsequent research done by this author these past two weeks revealed that there are indeed Hindu pilgrim women who offer their hair for both reasons. Some offer their hair as a sign of surrendering one’s ego. Others offer their hair in payment of a debt. Punari Aruni, a Hindu pilgrim in her 40’s, appears in the documentary “Hair India” and she is definitely from the surrendering ego camp.
According to Hindu lore, Vishnu, “the Preserver of the World”, took out a loan in order to pay for his wedding. Vishnu’s loan was so large, however, that it would take him thousands of years to pay off his debt. Now many devout Hindus help pay off Vishnu’s debt by offering their hair. [Someone wryly noted that the concept of making large chasunahs is what created the sheitel problem in the first place.]
Those Hindus that believe in this lore and donate their hair on this account would be producing takroves avodah zarah.
Another version has it that the “god Vishnu” was hit on the head with an axe which caused him to lose a section of his hair. The female angel “Neela Devi” then offered him a lock of her hair as a replacement. Vishnu was so moved that from that point on, he granted wishes to anyone who offered their own hair in devotion. This version can be interpreted in both ways discussed above.
WE SHOULD BE STRINGENT ON EXTENSIONS
It is this author’s view that hair extensions are actually a significant halachic problem and should be avoided. The company “Great Lengths” which produces high end extensions are manufactured exclusively from temple hair. As far as wigs themselves, the origin is more nuanced.
There are also hair exporters that have agents approaching men in India who pay money so that their wives will sell their hair. The exporters offer the Indian men $10 for their wives head of hair, according to a January 2014 article on the subject by Katie Rucke. According to a director at Tirumala Venkateswara Temple the largest of some 28 temples in India that export hair, the temple does not pay the pilgrims any money for their hair and they use the money obtained from selling it to meet the educational, medical and nutritional needs of the desperately poor. The temple offers some 30,000 daily meals for the poor.
There are a number of issues that need to be addressed. The first issue is what percentage of the women are actually offering their hair as a gift to their gods? Some women most assuredly are offering it as a gift and it would thus be considered takroves avodah zarah. It is this author’s opinion that those Rabbis who felt that
Tirumala Venkateswara, for example, attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each day, making it the temple with the most hair donations in India. The temple features 18 shaving halls, but there are so many people waiting to donate their hair that women and young girls can wait for up to five hours to donate.
At the temple, some 650 barbers sit in lines on the concrete floor and tie the women’s hair into ponytails before cutting it off. Once the large portions of hair are removed, the barbers use a razor to shave each pilgrims head, before dousing their head with water to wash away any blood.
For those that are curious, on average, each woman donates about 10 oz of hair, which goes for about $350.
The article continues, “Baskets filled with hair are collected every six hours and stored in a vast warehouse where it is piled knee deep.
It’s estimated that each year India exports an estimated 2,000 tons of temple hair a year. The best – or longest – hair will sell for about $580 per pound. The hair is sold in yearly auctions that take place in March or April.. One ton of hair is equal to donations from about 3,000 women. Since the shaving ceremony and sale of hair is not limited to one “holy site”, and 85 percent of the people in India are Hindu, those companies that export India’s human hair don’t foresee a shortage of temple hair anytime soon.”
In this author’s view, the wigs with a hechsher are permitted threw a halachic mechanism known as Sfek Sfaikah – a double doubt.
Firstly, there is a doubt as to whether it is actually an offering. If someone were to cut off his or her thumb to show his or her dedication to their idol, it does not mean that the thumb was given as an actual offering.
Secondly, it is unclear whether the hair made in other countries actually ever came from India. This is certainly grounds for a halachic safaik. It should be known that not all the hair is sold to wig manufacturers and much of the volume is sold to stuff mattresses, create oil filters, or further extracted for the amino acids – so notwithstanding the volume of hair that is sold – it does not mean that all wigs throughout the world contain the hair. [The impetus for forbidding the entire issue is thus lessened with this information.]
Thirdly, there is a strong possibility that in regard to including it in a sfek sfaikah – that the halacha is that its sale makes it no longer considered a Takroves Avodah Zarah on account of bitul. In other words, the reason we are generally stringent is because it is a serious matter – Avodah Zarah, but for inclusion in a sfek sfaikah it would be permitted. Indeed, this is what Rav Yoseph Teumim holds in his Pri Magadim (Siman 586). This is based on the Gemorah in Zvachim 74a where the Gemorah does not rule like Shmuel. The Beis Shlomo OC 30 is also lenient in this matter of implementing a sfek sfaikah to permit a possible Takroves Avodah Zarah. This case is even better because there are three doubt here.
It is this author’s view that the second campaign of this controversy is only just beginning. It is important that the matter be brought up again before the Gedolei HaPoskim in American. It is likely that they will permit it based upon the triple doubt raised here or upon similar grounds. It is this author’s view that any hair marked “ethical” may be problematic because they do come from a temple. Also, any extension sold in hair salons may be problematic as well (but perhaps could be permitted based upon just a double doubt.)
When this author spoke to Rav Karp about the letter and questioned the source of the “due diligence” behind the information, he referred me to a few people who provided the information. Stay tuned.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org