Avodah Zarah

Avodah Zarah 51b: Shaitels from the Temples of India

Avodah Zarah 51b: If one found on the idol’s head money, garments or vessels, they are permitted. Clusters of grapes, crowns made of sheaves, wines, oils and flours, or anything similar to what is brought on the mizbeyach – they are forbidden.

Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 139:3: An offering to an idol becomes forbidden if either: 1) It is a item that is brought on the mizbeyach, like meat, oil, water or salt. 2) An action was done to it that is similar to slaughtering or splattering (זריקה), provided it is done with the object that is normally used in the worship of this idol, even if the slaughtering or splattering is not the normal manner.

For example, if the idol is usually worshipped by waving a stick in front of it, and one broke a stick in front of it, the stick becomes forbidden, because breaking the stick is similar to slaughtering. But if the idol is not worshipped with a stick at all and one broke a stick in front of it, he is not liable to punishment, nor does the stick become forbidden.  

עבודה זרה נא ע”ב: מצא בראשו מעות, כסות או כלים ־ הרי אלו מותרין.ֹ פרכילי ענבים, ועטרות של שבלים, ויינות ושמנים וסלתות, וכל דבר שכיוצא בו קרב ע״ג המזבח ־ אסור.

יורה דעה קלט ס”ג: איזהו נוי ואיזהו תקרובת? נוי כגון שמדליק לפניה נרות או שטח לפניה בגדים וכלים נאים לנוי. ותקרובת כל שכיוצא בו קרב על גבי מזבח כמו כל מיני מאכל כגון בשר שמנים וסלתות מים ומלח אם הניחו לפניה לשם תקרובת נאסר מיד אבל דבר שאין מקריבין ממנו בפנים אינו נאסר אלא א״כ עשה ממנו כעין זביחה או כעין זריקה המשתברת והוא דרך לעובדה באותו דבר אע״פ שאין דרך לעובדה בזה הענין. כיצד אליל שעובדים אותה שמקשקשים לפניה במקל ושיבר מקל לפניה נאסר מפני ששבירת המקל דומה לזביחה, אבל אם אין עובדים אותה במקל כלל ושיבר מקל לפניה אינו חייב ולא נאסר.

In 2004 the Jewish community became aware that some of the hair for shaitels comes from Indian temples, and they feared it might have the status of an offering to an idol, from which it is forbidden to derive benefit. Women were told not to wear human hair shaitels until the matter was investigated and a conclusion reached.

The problem had actually been raised many years earlier in 1990 by Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos v. 2 siman 414). Rav Sternbuch wrote that Hindus believe that hair is holy and forbidden to cut outside of a religious context. If there is some danger in their family and they are saved, they give thanks to the idol by shaving off their hair and bringing it to the priest, who would burn it for the idol. But recently, with the rising demand for hair to make wigs, the priests stopped burning it and instead they sell it to companies and generate income for the temple. This is the source of the Indian hair on the market. The Shulchan Aruch requires an action similar to slaughtering, and the cutting of the hair is exactly that. The masses of villagers in India still believe that the priests burn their hair as an offering, otherwise they would not agree to shave it. That is why the merchants in the hair business or the government of India sometimes deny that the hair comes from the temples. But it is true and clear that it is so. Merchants who went to India to buy hair testified before Rav Sternbuch that they got it from the temples.

In a second teshuva on the subject (v. 3 siman 265), the asker argued that he heard from the priests that the hair cutting is not a service to the idol but simply a removal of the impure hair, so that they can go into the temple without it.

[At this point it will be helpful to split the various issues up and give them numbers, so that we can more easily follow the arguments of the poskim in this story.]

Issue (1): What defines דרך עבודתה, the standard method of worship? The Gemara defines two types of offerings that become forbidden: a) anything that is brought on the mizbeyach b) taking any object that is normal used in the service of that particular idol (e.g. an idol that is served using a stick) and performing an act of shechitah or zerikah on it. Rav Sternbuch wrote that all theory aside, we have to look what the women who actually get their hair cut off are thinking. Even if officially Hinduism says what the priests say, the women see the shaving as showing their dedication to their idol by giving up their beauty, and that is why they do it right near the temple – so that the idol should see their self-sacrifice for him and help them. They want to give the idol pleasure, even if their religion doesn’t require it.

Issue (2) The intent of the barbers. The asker also raised the question that perhaps the barber, who is doing the action of cutting, is not doing it for avodah zarah, just to earn a living. To this Rav Sternbuch responded that perhaps that is true, but there is another problem:

Issue (3): Are the women helping the barbers? Just as it says in Makos 20b that if someone turns his head to make it easier for the barber to cut his peyos, he is considered a participant in the sin of cutting peyos, here too, since the woman having her hair shaven helps the barber by sitting in the right place and moving her head, she is taking part in the action. Since her intention is to serve the avodah zarah, the hair is considered an offering.  


However, Rav Elyashiv in Kovetz Teshuvos v. 1 siman 77 ruled that the hair was mutar, and responded to the three issues mentioned above:

Issue (1): As mentioned, something not brought on the mizbeyach is only ossur if it is an object that is normally used in service of this idol. In this case, however, the Hindu idol is not served with hair, since official Hinduism does not consider hair a sacrifice. Therefore even if an individual worshipper did offer up her hair to the idol, and perfomed shechitah (cutting) on it, it would not become forbidden.

Issue (2): Secondly, even if someone were not to accept the above reasoning, the barber is the one doing the cutting. The barber certainly knows that the hair is sold, not offered to the idol.

Issue (3): Rav Sternbuch’s logic of מסייע, based on the Gemara in Makos 20b – that the woman is helping the barber by tilting her head and she intends to offer the hair – is not halachically valid, because the Shach (Nekudos Hakesef on Yoreh Deah 198:20) says that this principle only applies to shaving the peyos, where the Torah says לא תקיפו in the plural. The Taz disagrees and applies the principle of מסייע to a woman having her nails cut by a non-Jew on Shabbos before going to the mikveh. But even the Taz might agree that the “helping” doesn’t work to create the status of an offering to idolatry. In any case, the Sidrei Taharah rules like the Shach.

Issue (4): The cutting of the hair is not done in the temple itself, in front of the idol. The Gemara’s language, “If he broke a stick in front of it” implies that the stick only becomes forbidden when the service is done in front of the idol. The Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch also copy this language.

Rav Elyashiv concludes with a word of caution: his psak was based only on the facts as presented to him, and it would be worthwhile to investigate and find out more.


In 2004 the issue was raised again when a British Jew at the airport on his way home from Canada met some Indians, who were talking about going to the temple to offer up their hair. The Eidah Chareidis and Rav Elyashiv asked Rabbi Ahron Dovid Dunner to investigate. He interviewed a professor of Hinduism, who explained all about their religion. Dayan Dunner asked him how a statue that was just built could help him. He said, “We serve the Creator of the world; these statues are just reminders. And the tonsuring (cutting the hair) is just a way of giving up our ego before going to the temple.” But when he interviewed Hindu laymen, he got varying answers. Some did really believe in the statues. Some said that the hair was a sacrifice to them. They bring their hair either as a request for something from the idol, or as thanks for saving them from danger. He reported back to the poskim in Eretz Yisroel, who encouraged him to go to India, visit the temples themselves and find out the true facts.

Dayan Dunner traveled with his wife and one other rav from the London beis din to visit the temple at Tirupati. They were assisted by a Jew living in India as well as a local translator. (Translation was difficult because there are over a hundred languages spoken in India. The people at the temple spoke Tamil, so the local translator had to translate from Tamil to Hindi, and then the Jew from Bombay translated from Hindi to a mixture of English and Hebrew.)

Issue (1): All the people cutting having their hair cut said that they were giving it to the idol because the idol likes it; it makes him happy. Also, they observed that the women put their hands on their hearts and said prayers during the tonsure. Also, they saw some girls who were not willing to sacrifice all their hair, so they just had a few strands cut off. This seemed to prove that the purpose is not to remove something impure or to break one’s ego and walk out with a bald head. When Dayan Dunner’s group asked some of the women if they minded that their hair was being sold, they said no, why not let the idol make a profit from it?

Issue (4): As to the argument that a sacrifice is only forbidden if done right in front of the idol, Dayan Dunner’s group saw thousands upon thousands of people walking up a 20 kilometer mountain barefoot to see this idol, and waiting in line for 24 hours to get in. The only service they do when passing in front of the idol is to recite a few of the idol’s names and put some money or jewelry in the collection box. The rest of the services, including hair tonsuring, are done in separate buildings. The entire mountain is considered holy by them and thus might be considered “in front of the idol.”

Issue (5): What percentage of Indian hair on the market comes from the temples? After this, Dayan Dunner and his group followed the hair out of the temple to Madras, a major city nearby where the human hair trade is a big business. The merchants there explained to them the high quality of temple hair. All over India, they said, women collect and sell their brush hair (hair that falls out during brushing) because they are afraid someone might find it and make witchcraft against them. This brush hair is not high quality, first of all because it is weak hair (the weakest hairs are generally the ones that fall out) and secondly because the roots and tails are not aligned, and when roots are placed next to tails they get caught and tangled like Velcro. Temple hair, which is cut off all at once, is the best.

From there he traveled to Eretz Yisroel and reported to Rav Elyashiv. Rav Elyashiv paskened: “Temple hair is an offering to avodah zarah and is therefore ossur. One may not use any shaitel made of Indian hair. According to current knowledge, most of the shaitels sold in Eretz Yisroel come from India. Therefore one may not buy a shaitel here unless one knows its source. In other places, it depends where the majority come from. If the majority is from other countries, it is permitted based on the rule of כל דפריש. But one is obligated to investigate the source of the hair.” Rabbi Tovia Weiss and the beis din of the Eidah Chareidis heard the facts too and gave the same psak.

[It seems that the new information changed Rav Elyashiv’s mind on issues (1) and (4). On (1), he saw that a significant number of worshippers look at the hair as a gift to the idol, and that was enough to be considered דרך עבודתה. On (4), the whole mountaintop was considered “in front of the idol.” The question is why he changed on issue (2) and (3). This will become clear below in his letter to Rabbi Belsky.]

News of the psak spread around the world in a matter of minutes. Women walked out of weddings and took off their sheitels. Teachers came to school in tichels.


Rabbi Dunner then traveled to America and gave his testimony in front of 60 rabbis. Rabbi Yisroel Belsky consulted with Hindu priests and scholars, including many converts and baalei teshuva, all of whom confirmed the facts established earlier, namely, that official Hinduism teaches that no holiness or sacrificial status is accorded to the hair. On the contrary, hair is a symbol of the ego, is impure, and thus held to be displeasing to their gods.

Issue (1): Rav Belsky took the position that דרך עבודתה is determined by the priests and the official books, no matter how many simple pilgrims believe differently. Besides, perhaps the words Dayan Dunner heard from the worshippers were garbled in the chain of translations. He pointed out that the translator from Tamil to Hindi spoken only broken Hindi, and the translator from Hindi to English was really a native Marathi speaker for whom Hindi was also a second language.

Issue (2): Dayan Dunner testified to Rav Belsky that the barbers told him that they were working because they were paid by the temple. A worker, however ignorant he may be, does his work in accordance with the intentions of the one who hired him and paid him. Therefore, the barbers are cutting the hair based on the priests’ version of Hinduism, not that of the worshippers. And it is only the barbers’ intent that counts since they are the ones doing the act.

Rav Belsky also heard from a baal teshuva who had once been a Hindu, and knew the language well, that the barbers constantly chat and joke with each other while they work, about politics or about their union. When he mentioned this to Dayan Dunner, he agreed, but argued that it’s no different from Jews who talk in shul. Rav Belsky said, “True, and who says they are having kavanah while they talk?”

Issue (5): Rav Belsky heard from experts that most hair exported from India is not from the temples. For example, in 2004 the amount of temple hair processed in India was about 300 tons, while the amount of brush hair was about 4000 tons.

Issue (6): Even if we were to consider it kavua, which makes it like a 50-50 question, the hair from India then gets taken to other countries where it is mixed with other hair. This is a case of two mixtures, which the Rambam permits in the case of avodah zarah (Shach Yoreh Deah 110:52).

Rav Belsky put all of the above arguments in a letter to Rav Elyashiv. 


Rav Elyashiv responded:

Issue (1): According to the testimony of Dayan Dunner, the tonsuring is עבודתה בכך – the normal manner of worshipper this idol. This is similar to the idol Kemosh mentioned in the Torah, of which the Rambam says in Sefer Hamitzvos (negative commandment #6)

שהעובד לאיזה דבר שהוא ממיני עבודה זרה באיזה מין שיהיה ממיני העבודה – הרי זה חייב כרת, בתנאי שיעבד כדרכה, כלומר: בדבר שדרכה להעבד בו, כגון פוער לפעור וזורק אבן למרקוליס, ומעביר שערו לכמוש.

“One who worships avodah zarah is liable to the punishment of kareis, as long as he did it in the normal manner for that idol, for example… if one shaves his hair off to Kemosh.”

Here, during the haircut the women say the name of the idol.

Issue (2): And the barbers said to him [Dayan Dunner] that even though they are working for money, still – they said – they are also Hindus who see this as service to the avodah zarah. In such a case we clearly apply the rule that “we can assume an idol worshipper does things for idolatry” (Chullin 13a), since that is the goal of the women getting their hair cut.

Issue (5): Rav Elyashiv says he was shown a document from the Indian government stating that 75% of the hair exported from India is from the temples. And even if most were not from the temples, it would be considered kavua. The Divrei Chaim (2:57) says that when a Jew orders something from a non-Jewish store and the non-Jew ships it to him, it is as if the Jew himself took from the store, so the rule of כל קבוע כמחצה על מחצה applies and it is a 50-50 question. 

Issue (6): As to Rav Belsky’s argument that there are two mixtures, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 110:8) requires three mixtures and doesn’t mention the Rambam’s leniency about two mixtures to permit avodah zarah. Furthermore, how can one use the mixture of hair from different countries to nullify Indian hair, when there are different qualities and prices for hair from different sources, and they are sold separately?


Subsequently, Rav Belsky met with Rav Elyashiv, did more research and wrote a letter back to him.

Issue (1): Rav Elyashiv quoted the Rambam about shaving one’s hair for the idol Kemosh. The fact that donating one’s hair is the normal manner of service to Kemosh does not prove it is normal for the Hindu idols. The Hindu priests themselves all say that it is not. The only indication that it is normal comes from a few statements that Dayan Dunner heard, through a chain of unreliable translators. Even if the translation was correct, the understanding of simple people does not determine the normal manner of service for halachic purposes.

Besides, even if the Hindu religion were exactly like the worship of Kemosh, the Rambam is only saying that the act of shaving one’s hair for Kemosh is the normal manner of service, and therefore one who does so would be punished. He is not saying that the worshippers actually dedicate their hair to Kemosh, rendering the hair forbidden. Lehavdil, we Jews also have a mitzvah to shave hair for Hashem in certain cases (e.g. a Nazir) but we don’t dedicate the hair itself to hekdesh in any way. Rather, the act of service is performed on the person.

We can prove that the Rambam did not mean that the worshippers dedicate their hair to Kemosh, because if he did, the hair would be like a korban that is slaughtered, and the Rambam would have listed it in his next sentence where he says that one is punishable for worshipping avodah zarah through any of the four standard avodos, of which shechitah is one.

Issue (2): Rav Elyashiv seemed to have heard from Dayan Dunner that the barbers said they saw the haircuts as service to the avodah zarah, but when Rav Belsky and the other American rabbis pressed him to tell them what exactly he had heard from the barbers, it appears that he only heard them say they were working for their pay, and perhaps that they saw their work as holy, but nothing more. In any case, the baal teshuva who knew their language well testified that the barbers chat about politics and other mundane matters as they work, like all barbers. If they have any religious intent, it is that of the priests who pay their salaries.

Issue (5): The “Indian government statement” that 75% of Indian hair is temple hair was made by a low-ranking office worker who took it from a webpage. When the rabbis investigated the webpage, they saw that he had read it backwards and most of the hair was not from the temples. Furthermore, the rabbis spent 8 hours with the owner of a large hair processing firm in India and determined that none of his hair was from the temples. A statement quoted from a rav in Antwerp that supposedly claimed that most of the shaitels come from temple hair was likewise proven to be a misquotation.  

The reason why there is so much non-temple hair is that in India, hair is collected in a different manner from most other countries. In Romania, Hungary, Spain and Russia, women interested in selling their hair grow their hair for up to several years and then cut it all off at one time. The hair must be grown to at least eight inches long in order to be used for a wig. Women in India generally do not cut their hair all at once. Rather, they grow their hair extremely long, not cutting it for years, and whenever they brush their hair they collect the strands that fall out. Every few weeks representatives from hair collection firms visit these women and buy the brush hair in exchange for cash. Indeed, selling brush hair is an important source of income for many poverty-stricken families. It is one of the reasons they do not cut their hair all at once. Were they to do that, the women would only make money once every few years. This way, they can put food on the table each week.

The brush hair is sorted by quality, shade and length in large facilities in India. Then it is shipped to Romania or Ukraine for bleaching and dyeing. From there it is shipped to the wig-weaving factories in China and Korea.

The only time Indian women cut their hair off all at once is in the temples. This is called “Indian Remy hair” in the industry. With Remy hair, there is no need for sorting. Before the hair is cut, the hair is gathered together with two ribbons, one at the end near the tip and another close to the scalp. This keeps all the hair strands root to root and tip to tip. Brush hairs are much longer than the Remy hair, but Remy is by far the better of the two types. There is also European Remy hair, tied and cut in the same way. Whether from India or elsewhere, Remy hair is generally used without processing and in its natural color. It is known for its silky texture and natural luster.  Almost all Indian Remy hair is solid black and comes in four natural shades.

The bleaching and dyeing process is used only for brush hair, but Remy hair is used in its natural color. Wig manufacturers would never subject Remy hair to bleaching and dyeing because it is worth much more in its natural state. Thus only a woman buying a black shaitel need worry about temple hair. Any other color is certainly either Indian brush hair, or European Remy hair.

In any case, even if we were to doubt the above facts, gathered from people in the industry, the hair being exported from India is at worst a mixture of temple and brush hair, with brush hair as the majority. The rule of kavua would not apply because the hair already became mixed beyond recognition while in the hands of the goy, before the Jewish company ordered. Therefore it is not comparable to the case of the Divrei Chaim, where a Jew orders something from a store that sells separate recognizable items.

Issue (6): As to the rule that avodah zarah is never nullified in a mixture, and according to the Shulchan Aruch even two mixtures, that halacha was only stated in Zevachim 74b regarding rings or silver cups which are expensive and valuable. But hair is nullified. In any case, here we have two mixtures and the Rambam permits that, as mentioned. 

Regarding Rav Elyashiv’s argument that hair is recognizable as Indian and therefore is not considered mixed, Rav Belsky replied that of course if it is labeled Indian that is true. Rav Belsky’s two mixtures argument applies in a case where it is labeled Ukrainian or Hungarian, yet we fear that some Indian hair is mixed into it.

[It would seem that the dispute on Issue (1) hinges on how to apply the rule of “normal manner of service.” Everyone would agree that if someone went to the Hindu idol and threw stones, because he believed that was the normal manner of worship, it would not make him liable to the punishment for idolatry, nor would the stones become forbidden, since the official religion does not prescribe that. But here, everyone agrees that Hinduism does encourage having one’s hair cut. The act is certainly “the normal manner of service” and someone doing so would be liable to punishment. The question is only in how to interpret the act. The official religion interprets it as an act of surrendering one’s pride. The simple people see it as giving the hair to the idol. Do we say that these simple people are still within the bounds of “the normal manner” since, after all, their action is the normal action and it is only their thoughts that are deviant?

Furthermore, the Gemara does say, and the Shulchan Aruch does rule, that if an idol is normally served with a stick and one breaks a stick in front of it, even though breaking is not the normal manner of service, the stick becomes forbidden. Thus only the object has to be normal, but the action done with it can be abnormal. Perhaps here as well, Rav Elyashiv would argue that since the object, hair, is normally used for service, only the dedication of the hair is abnormal, that is enough to forbid the hair. Rav Belsky would argue that the hair is not used for service at all; it is just an irrelevant by-product of the service done on the body of the one getting her hair cut.]

Sources: Shulchan Halevi pp. 437-446; Shulchan Halevi – Halachic Responsa from the Desk of Harav Yisroel Belsky, v. 1 p. 155; Rabbi Ahron Dovid Dunner – Lecture available on Kol Halashon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s