A serious research review of the subject of a woman’s pubic hair in Jewish tradition and practice.
The Orthodox Woman and Her Pubic Hair
A recent academic study by Tami S. Rowen and others investigated the issue of “Pubic Hair Grooming Prevalence and Motivation Among Women in the United States” and it went online on June 29, 2016. It was characterized as a cross-sectional analysis accomplished with a nationally representative sample. A total of 3372 women were surveyed. Fifty-six women did not answer the grooming question and so the survey pool numbered 3316 women. Of these women, 2778 (83.8%) reported pubic hair grooming and 538 (16.2%) reported never grooming.
Moreover, as Mona Chalabi wrote in The Guardian in March two years ago, many women are attempting to conceal a universal consequence of puberty and that “seeing a hair free female is also a pretty white standard of beauty”.
The question to be addressed here is: is there a Jewish angle on the question of whether pubic hair grooming is permissible?
The Nishmat web site deals with an issue related to pubic hair grooming. If a woman shaves her pubic area prior to a mikveh visit one month but then the next month leaves it unshaven, is the hair considered an element of chatzitza, something attached to the body that acts to prevent full and completer contact with the water? If so, that is a barrier which invalidates the immersion.
In Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the section dealing with the laws of the practical applications resulting from the command of ‘resting’ on the Festivals, Chapter 7, Law 20, we read in the Hebrew:
כ. מותר ליטול שפה בחולו של מועד. וליטול צפרנים ואפילו בכלי. ומעברת האשה שער מבית השחי
ומבית הערוה בין ביד בין בכלי. ועושה כל תכשיטיה במועד. כוחלת ופוקסת ומעברת סרק על פניה
וטופלת עצמה בסיד וכיוצא בו והוא שתוכל לקפלו במועד:
In English translation:-
It is permitted to cut one’s mustache during [Chol Ha]Mo’ed and to cut one’s nails,69 even using a utensil.70 A woman may remove the hair from her underarms and her pubic hair by hand, or with a utensil.71 Similarly, she may undergo all cosmetic treatments during [Chol Ha]Mo’ed: [e.g.,] she may paint her eyes, part her hair, apply rouge to her face, and apply lime to her skin72 and the like, provided she can remove it73 during [Chol Ha]Mo’ed.
The notes there, which is a Chabad site, are as follows:
69. Both fingernails and toenails (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 532:1). 70. Although the Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) quotes the Rambam’s ruling, the Ramah states that it is customary not to cut nails with a utensil during Chol HaMo’ed. [Significantly, the Rambam’s ruling with regard to Chol HaMo’ed differs from his ruling regarding the mourning rites (Hilchot Eivel 5:2).] 71. Women are, however, forbidden to cut the hair from their head, as men are (Mishnah Berurah 56:16). 72. This was done to remove hair and make the woman’s complexion ruddier (Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishnah; Mo’ed Katan 1:7). 73. Our translation is based on the Yemenite manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah and the citation of this law in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 546:5).
This ruling is based, of course, on the Talmud, and in tractate Moed Katan 9a, we read, following what is in the Mishnah which reads, in part:
…a woman may make her adornments during the days of the Festival (i.e., chol hamoed)…
תלמוד בבלי, מועד קטן, ט’ א: ועושה אשה תכשיטיה: ת”ר אלו הן תכשיטי נשים כוחלת ופוקסת
ומעבירה >סרק< ]שרק[ על פניה ואיכא דאמרי מעברת סרק על פניה של מטה
We read the expanded Bet Midrash discussion, in English:-
And a woman may make her adornments (to beautify herself, lit., ‘prepares her jewelry’ – YM) during the days of the Festival. Our Rabbis taught: These are [permitted in] woman’s adornment. She [plaits her hair], treats her [eyes] with kohl; fixes [making a parting or perhaps it means making the hair frizzy or curled. Cf. Shab. 64b, Keth. 4b and 1 [ trims her hair and nails [and] puts rouge on her face; some say she may use a razor for her privy parts.
While it is not explicitly mentioned, the context of the discussion deals with impurity or preparing for a wedding and so it may be presumed that this is relating to the woman’s preparations for the mikveh. But not necessarily.
In answer to the question – ‘Is it allowed to trim the hair from the pubic area or to wax/shave the entire area before mikveh?’ – an answer is:
It is permissible to trim, shave, or wax pubic hair. In some Sephardic communities, this is even the prevailing custom. Something that is about to be removed may be a chatzitzah. Thus, if one intends to remove body hair at some point, or if one periodically removes that hair, removal should be undertaken prior to immersion and not afterwards. Waxing should be done a little in advance so that there is no chatzitzah [interposition] problem of wax left adhering to skin.
Note that it is not that pubic hair could be considered as “coming between the purifying waters and the body” which is chatzitzah but if, as one’s normative practice, removes or trims pubic hair either for comfort or fashion, then as a result of that practice the hair becomes characterized as “coming in-between” and therefore should be removed.
Another consideration is the nature of hair itself. It has been pointed out that
Chazal treated body hair on women as unwanted. They interpreted (at Sanhedrin 21a) biblical praise (Ezekiel 16:14) of the beauty of Jewish women to refer to their lack of underarm and pubic hair. It was only later, according to Rashi, when they acted immodestly that they were punished and grew hair in those areas.
As is dealt with in tractate Sanhedrin 21a:-
וישנאה אמנון שנאה גדולה מאוד )שמואל ב יג( מ”ט. אמר ר’ יצחק נימא נקשרה לו ועשאתו כרות
שפכה וכי נקשרה לו איהי מאי עבדה אלא אימא קשרה לו נימא ועשאתו כרות שפכה איני
Then Amnon hated her with exceeding great hatred, etc. (II Sam. XIII, 15.; 39) For what reason? —
R. Isaac answered: A hair becoming entangled, mutilated him in his private parts. If this happened of itself, what was her part in it? — But we might rather say that she entangled it and caused, mutilation. But is this so? Did not Raba expound: What is meant by the verse: And thy renown went forth among the nations for thy beauty (Ezek. XVI, 14.; 40) It is that the daughters of Israel had neither under-arm nor pubic hair.
As for the value of hair, as the Kabala explains, hair is a union between male and female energies as characterized by the hollow of the hair surrounded by the substance of the hair. In the same way light entering creation is more male than the light surrounding creation, the hollow of the hair is also male. The male aspect of Keter/Crown is Will; the hidden female essence is Pleasure – only in hair is essence exposed. The hair of the beard is constructed similar to pubic hair because both hide the secret; women are naturally hidden, therefore only men have beards.
But there is another aspect. Beauty. Or Fashion.
And as with fashion, it comes and goes. Pubic hair can be thought of as “unclean…too suggestive…weird”. Naomi Wolf had observed in late 2003 a generational gap:
In my gym, the 40-year-old women have adult pubic hair; the twentysomethings have all been trimmed and styled…
And, in addition, she visited an old friend who now lives in a Yesha-located community and made a comment about hair that is relevant to this discussion:
I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.” When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only with her husband—the kids are not allowed—the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day—in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair. She must feel, I thought, so hot.
I do not know if Rabbis, or their wives, the “rebbitzen”, have been asked about the propriety of the Brazilian bikini wax (but that would mean wearing bikinis and that would be problematic from a modesty aspect), other aspects of depilation or whether hair fashion – coifing one’s cassoulet (no, not the French-style casserole of beans, meats, vegetables, and herbs, slowly simmered or baked in a slow oven, or is that cholent?, but what was defined as the feminine “general musky pubic area”) – should be utilized (there was the incident when Mario Testino photographed Carmen Kass for a Gucci campaign in an exposed position with her pubic hair waxed into a “G”, what was considered fashion’s ultimate instrumentalization) or whether a woman can really do everything she can to meet every passing fad, even if it’s uncomfortable, time-consuming, irritating, expensive, troubling, humiliating? After all, external hair fashion has no limits with Orthodox women.
As the blogger “Redneck Mommy” records in her Tale of Blue Thunder, she desired to please her husband and found her “inspiration”:-
“I knew exactly what it was I needed to do to surprise my husband home in a manner he’d never forget. I was going to dye what little hair remaining on my body blue. That’s right. It was time to turn the old landing strip into a runway he’d never forget…
…In big bold print the instructions warned the user to avoid getting hair near any ‘sensitive‘ skin. So standing in front of a mirror and trying to twist my body, I applied the toxic bleach to my bush while carefully avoiding any bits that may get burned. Once that was done, I noticed that the instructions said to leave on for twenty or thirty minutes to appropriately lighten the hair…Toweling off, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and dropped the towel to inspect my masterpiece under the harsh glare of the bathroom lights.
Yep, it’s blue all right, I laughed to myself…By this time I had spent nearly two hours of my life (two hours I will never get back) all in the effort to surprise my husband with a blue bush. He’d better damn well appreciate this, I muttered to myself as I got dressed and cleaned up the remnants of the toxic waste…
And after hair, we have vagazzling (or vajazzling) which is the act of gluing shiny things tiny crystals or even glitter to one’s vagina or even color-coordinate to an outfit. And while I will avoid any piercing suggestions, the use of specialized jewelry has a Biblical precedent.
Among the precious things contributed to a special tribute, as described in Numbers 31, is something termed a kumaz in verse 50 but translated, wrongly, as “girdle”:
And we have brought the LORD’S offering, what every man hath gotten, of jewels of gold, armlets, and bracelets, signet-rings, ear-rings, and girdles, to make atonement for our souls…
And in Hebrew:
וַ נקְרֵב אֶַת קָרְ בן יְַוָה, אִַישׁ אֲַשֶׁר מַָצָא כְַלִי זָהָב אֶַצְעָדָה וְַצָמִיד, ט ב עת, עַָגִיל וְַכוּמָז – -לְ כפֵר על- — – –
As DovBear discussed it:
And what is the kumaz?
Rashi on Exodus 35:22 – A golden ornament worn against a woman’s private parts. Our Sages explained the derivation of the name as kaan mokom zima —“here is the place of lewdness.” Rashi on BT Ber 24a s.v. takhshitin she-bifnin- “Kumaz is the chastity belt of the vagina that they would make for their daughters. They would pierce the walls of the vagina like they would pierce the ears. They would insert it so that the men could not have sex with them. [But Rashi at Numbers 31:50 writes it was in the shape of a womb and was intended to compensate for the evil thoughts in connection with the daughters of Midian at Shittim (see below)– YM] Questions for discussion: (1) Is Rashi saying two different things here? His first comment seems to be discussing some kind of jewelry, as the context would suggest. The other comments seems to be discussing some kind of tool. (2) Rashi bases himself on the Talmud, and presumably a long line of interpreters who read kumaz as either a kind of genital jewelery, or a type of chastity piercing. Is this reading supported by archeology or other extra-biblical materials? (3) What – if anything – does the fact that the ancient interpreters imagined chastity devices were common tell us about their own view of women? (4) On Exodus 35:22 verse Rashi says the women were still wearing their jewelry when the men donated it to the Tabernacle, that is they were brought the jewelry to the Tabernacle while they were still on the women.
(This is how Onkelos, and Rashi deal with the odd appearance of the word on/עַל in our verse, and also creates a nice antithesis with the sin of the Golden Calf when the man also donated gold jewelry that women were, per the midrash, unwilling to give up)
The question: If Rashi believed the kumaz was a chastity piercing, how can he suggest the women were divested of it in public?
But why “in public”. They were not necessarily divested of it in public but removed it in private after a public demand.
In tractate Shabbat 64a, we read:-
R. Eleazar said: ‘Agil is a cast of female breasts; kumaz is a cast of the womb. R. Joseph observed: Thus it is that we translate it machoch, [meaning] the place that leads to obscenity
[gihuk]. Said Rabbah to him, It is implied in the very Writ itself: Kumaz=here [Ka-an] is
the place [Mekom] of unchastity [Zimmah] (Treating kumaz as an abbreviation).
Incidentally, Rav Saadia Gaon describes it as a belt around a woman’s hip from which hang jewelry and trinkets. A kosher sashay? And the use of a kumaz has been recently mentioned at a religious forum.
And to return to the unique aspect of the sin with the daughters of the Midianites, as the Rav of Brody, Shlomo Kluger, states:
when Yisrael sinned with the daughters of Midian there were two sins besides the actual sin of forbidden relationships – one was that the others did not see fit to avenge Hashem, and the second was that they did not protest against the sinners. Therefore, when Pinchos came and killed Zimri, he rectified these two sins…
The idolatry of Baal Peor is the pagan practice of worshipping one’s own excrement, whereby the person is venerating waste — that which has been left over and rejected after all nutritive potential has been extracted from a substance.
By the way, remember the act of plaiting above, in the Moed Katan? Consider the Midrash Rabba:
Behold, a man of the children of Israel came, and brought… a Midianite woman before the eyes of Moses, and before the eyes of all the congregation of the children of Israel; and they stood weeping (25:6)
The woman said to him: “I shall give myself to none but Moses, for so my father Balak bade me, not to yield to anyone but to Moses your master, because my father is a king.” Said he to her: “Behold, I am as great as he is! I shall bring you out before their eyes!” He seized her by her plait and brought her to Moses. He said to him: “O son of Amram! Is this woman permitted or forbidden?” He answered him: “She is forbidden to you.” Said Zimri to him: “The woman whom you married was a Midianitess!” Thereupon Moses felt powerless and the law slipped from his mind…
More importantly, there is a theological as well as social aspect in this connection. As explained by Chabad:
Pleasure divorced from its purpose—pleasure for the sake of pleasure—is a corrupt pleasure, a subversion of its function and utility. A physical act has meaning and validity only insofar as it serves the divine purpose in creation; when the pleasure associated with the act becomes its end, it is a hollow act, an act depleted of its soul and divine vitality. This is the deeper significance of the idolatry of Baal Peor. The worshippers of Peor hallowed their bodily waste: to them, matter alone, even that which has been depleted of all vital potential, was an object of veneration. The very thought of such “worship” might be repulsive to any sane individual, but this is exactly what a person does when he regards the physical as desirable in and of itself, rather than for its vital content—its potential to serve the divine purpose in creation. This was the error of those who indulged in Peor-worship on the eve of their entry into the Holy Land…
In fact, the incident of Baal Pe’or brings us around to the beginnings of female empowerment, for good or bad, as dealt with by Bar-Ilan’s Yonah Bar-Maoz in discussing the portion of Mattot:-
One suggestion is that Moses entrusted to the military commanders the important radical change that the Torah made in woman’s legal status as compared with accepted practice in Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilization. Henceforth women were to be viewed as legal entities in their own right, regarding both their rights and their obligations. A woman was to be considered responsible for her actions, on one hand, so that, for example, were she to commit adultery it would not be her husband’s prerogative to decide whether or not to punish her. On the other hand, a woman was not to be punished for the sins of her husband.
All this had been made clear to the army commanders shortly before the campaign…In the account of the campaign against Midian the issue is the extent of responsibility to be borne by the daughters of Midian for their perverse behavior in the matter of Baal Peor. They surely acted on the initiative of the men and with their consent, and therefore the army commanders believed that it was the men who should be punished; hence they slew by the sword every male, as required in an optional war This angered Moses, who told them that they had not understood the message that follows from the laws of vows: in every area, save for the narrow limits within which a woman might take upon herself various prohibitions and obligations, woman is not subject to man’s domination, and surely not when she is called upon to transgress severe prohibitions. In such instances the woman is solely responsible for her behavior, and if she should sin she must be punished. Therefore the daughters of Midian who turned themselves over to harlotry cannot go free of retribution, even if they did so at the guidance or even the pressure of the men.
Moreover, Moses said: “Yet they are the very ones who at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague” (Num. 31:16). In other words, in any other war one could say, “It is the way of men to conquer, but not the way of women to conquer,” and therefore one could view females as the weaker sex that must be protected against the consequences of actions by the stronger sex, which is always busy with territorial battles. That is not the case here, for war had been waged against Israel primarily by the women in order to undermine the foundation of Jewish morality and to corrupt the spirit of the people. Thus females had brought destruction and loss of life instead of applying their special abilities of bringing life into the world.
All of which leads us to our conclusion:
an Orthodox woman surely can engage in actions to beautify herself, in an external way such as engaging in Torah-learning as well as in a most private way, even treating her body to exotic treatements. But it should be done for the purpose of maintaining a proper relationship that furthers Jewish values: her life with her husband, the mitzvah of procreation and the building a family for the future, not for the moment.