Most people probably don't know about the Wives and Wigs controversy that brewed in the pages of London's Jewish Standard for two months in 1890. It all began apparently innocently, with a question signed by one יהודי (i.e., "Jew," i.e. Anonymous):
February 21, 1890
The question was, nowadays, do women still need to wear a sheitel?
In the following issue (February 28, 1890) a Dr. Klein, residing in Paris, and "A Funny Little Kentish Maid," (this was Victorian England, after all) responded. Klein asked, first of all, who says women must wear a sheitel in the first place? According to halacha they must cover their hair, but the form of covering is not specified. Secondly, מה נשתנה העת הזאת, or Why is this epoch different from any other? In other words, the question itself
lacks a clear premise.
Dr. Klein was in fact Theodore Klein (1845-1902) a Parisian physician, and son of Rabbi Solomon Klein (1814-1867) of Colmar. Klein was a member of the Jewish Consistory of Paris, and also the president of the Société de l'Etude Talmudique.
The Funny Little Kentish Maid replies in a fashion that was probably very in tune with the particulars of the religious situation of her time and place, and suggests that it is less important that Jewish women wear a sheitel and more important that they do not profane Shabbat. She claims that many women cook on Saturday in preparation for Sunday! Furthermore, she writes that no one should be surprised that the husbands of these women are also mechalelei shabbos, and that the women should shore up their Sabbath observance and positively influence their husbands.
Note that the Jewish Standard appended a line stating that due to space limitations they did not print several letters. After one week's respite, the March 14, 1890 issue printed a letter from Naphtali Herz Imber (famed Hebrew poet, author of the poem which the Israeli national anthem is based upon). Imber gives a unique interpretation of a vaguely specified Talmudic source, and claims that according to the Talmud the wearing of a sheitel is itself ground for divorce! As for covering the hair, that was the practice only of "very few women of extraordinary piety," rather than a general requirement:
In the next issue (March 21, 1890) Dr. Klein pulls out an unambiguous Gemara which states that women must cover their hair, and asks if Imber could "prove his statement by as clear a text, and one of equal authority."
Another respondent, signed I. Student, seems to raise the specter of whether or not יהודי, who had asked the question in the first place, was acting as an agent provocateur, since the question was about the obligation of women "at the present time." Klein was correct in asking what difference time makes. However, he disagrees with Klein's equation of the Talmudic פאה נכרית with the sheitel. He believes that the meaning of this term is something along the line of hair extensions, rather than a full wig. He then adds several sources regarding hair covering generally and sheitel wearing specifically, including one lenient opinion. But in sum, while women are required by halacha to cover their hair, it needn't be with a sheitel.
In the same issue (March 21, 1890) Israel Zangwill gives a witty summary of the situation. One almost imagines him eating popcorn as he reads the exchanges and thinks up puns. After the "Wives and Wigs" controversy ends, he suggests, perhaps there will be a discussion about "Husbands and Hair . . . Relatives and Razors . . . Parents and Pigtails."
The next week (March 28, 1890) printed a reply to Klein by Imber. Imber now accuses Klein of mistranslating the Talmudic phrase דת משה ויהודית as "Mosaic and Jewish law," when it really means "the custom (not law) of Jewish women."
Imber then mentions the bane/ inspiration of Bais Yaakov students everywhere, Kimchis. He sees her example as proof that covering the hair was considered an exceptional mark of piety only. He then closes with a defense of his assertion that the Talmud was opposed to sheitels, and concludes that "the sages of the Talmud were more chivalrous, and had better taste than the Jews of the orthodox countries of Galicia and Russia, where the custom prevails of cutting off the bride's hair on her nuptial day, thereby compelling her to adopt a wig as a head covering."
Dr. Klein and someone called Isaac Crystal respond in the April 4, 1890 issue. Klein writes that he had no intention of replying to Student's assertion that he mistranslates פאה נכרית, however as Imber is a Hebraist he wishes to reply to the poet's assertion that he mistranslated a Hebrew term. Klein simply says that he himself does not offer original interpretations since he is a physician and doesn't have too much time to devote to learning. Instead, he gives the interpretations received from the traditional teachers, and therefore Imber takes issue with their translation of peah nachris as meaning a wig. Furthermore, Imber asserts that grammatically das yehudis means "custom of Jewish women," since yehudis is a feminine term. Klein asserts that Imber is twice mistaken. Das only means law, never custom, and as the word das is itself feminine, why shouldn't yehudis be feminine as well? Next Klein tackles Kimchis, and calls Imber out on his distortion of that text. Finally, Klein agrees that wigs may well be "an object of disgust," but that's not germane to the requirement to cover the hair, which no halachic authority can dispense with. Isaac Crystal makes much the same points as Dr. Klein.
Next (April 10, 1890) Imber replied to these two letters. He writes that the Talmud's declaration that a woman's hair is ervah (curiously translated by Imber as "sin") is no unambiguous requirement for all women to cover their hair, for the same term (ervah) is used for a woman's voice, and surely we need not "put a padlock on her mouth." Rather, these statements in the Talmud mean only that a woman's hair and voice are the mediums which affect men "with a sense of female beauty." Then he responds to Klein's assertion that Imber's own statement that the feminine form of yehudis means "[the custom] of women." Imber explains that the reason he interprets it as he does is because the term used here - "das Moshe ve-yehudis" - is most unusual, where the normal formula is das Moshe ve-yisrael. Therefore it cannot mean "the law of Moses and Jews." As mentioned before, Imber understood this to mean "the law of Moses and the custom of Jewish women." He then remarks that once he mentioned to Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler the following interpretation: that yehudis actually refers to Judith of the Apocrypha! Thus, the statement might mean "the law of Moses and the custom of Judith," that is, a special pious custom instituted by this quasi-Biblical heroine. To this, what did Rabbi Adler say? He said that Imber's "hypothesis may be correct."
Then Imber makes a strong point, which is that words often retain contrary meanings. So why should it not be possible for das to mean both law and custom, depending upon context? Then Imber points out four examples that the Talmud gives for das yehudis, and asks rhetorically, are they laws or customs? Then Imber asserts that Kimchis only strengthens his point, for she was not only pious, but actually a fanatic. Finally, he disputes the way Klein and Crystal translated a certain word to mean "head covering," while Imber holds that it means a thing like a hair pin or a comb, and suggests that it is Klein and Crystal who don't know how to read the Talmud correctly, and that Rashi supports him.
April was only half over, so the next issue (April 18, 1890) included Klein and Crystal's reply. Klein begins his salvo with a surmise, that I tend to assume is correct, that Chief Rabbi Adler was basically politely nodding, rather than agreeing: "Mr. Imber shows us what we know already, that the late lamented Chief Rabbi was a very sensible man, who preferred to yield to Mr. Imber's opinion rather than discuss with him." Next Klein says that if he mistranslates the Talmud, he is in the glad company of Rashi, the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, etc. as all Posekim agree that covering the hair is required by the Torah.
Klein then admits that he kind of enjoys the opportunity of schooling a Hebrew poet in Hebrew grammar. He sensibly notes that if das yehudis means "a Jewish woman's custom," then doesn't melach sedomis mean "a Sodomite woman's salt?" Next, he noted four separate places in rabbinic literature where Kimchis is praised by the rabbis, so indicating that in their opinion she was no fanatic.
Then Klein asserts that in language a word cannot have at the same time two different meanings. Thus, das Moshe ve-yehudi is not the same as das Moshe and das yehudis. How can das Moshe ve-yehudis mean "the law of Moses and the custom of yehudis"? Since we know that Moses only gave laws, then the entire statement can only mean law for both.
Then Klein attacks Imber's statement that Rashi supports him by stating that a certain element of the hair covering issue is a minhag (custom). Klein says that Rashi means to say that this law comes from a Minhag, because "the customs adopted by the Jews are laws." Therefore we are dealing here with a law derived from a custom, namely that it is forbidden to cover the hair with a קלתה, since that was forbidden by custom.
Isaac Crystal replies with a "jargon proverb" (i.e., Yiddish). Crystal's reply isn't worth paraphrasing so much, but it is interesting that he says that he asked a "renowned Continental Rabbi" to give an opinion on the subject, and he is awaiting this rabbi's reply to make it known. He is certain that the reader's will accord it at least as much weight as Imber's. Unfortunately, he does not name the rabbi and by the time Crystal received his responsum (if indeed he received one) the paper had ended the correspondence. All threads must come to an end.
In the April 25 issue Dr. Klein sent in some rather crucial corrections to printer errors in his previous letter. He also takes the opportunity to clarify that Imber falsified a Talmud quote - he makes a pretty good case, too.
On May 2 Imber's reply appears, where he explains that the אהחע letters are "mutually exchangeable, as every schoolboy knows" (wanna bet, says I?). Therefore his misspelling is not a falsification at all. Naturally he is indignant. At this point the editor steps in and says that the back and forth ends here.
One contemporary critic writes that Imber "had made a complete fool of himself."