I have received numerous inquiries about the subject of the potential prohibition of the wearing of Indian hair wigs by Jewish women. I am not Jewish, so the laws of Judaism are generally pretty foreign to me. While I, by no means, claim to know everything about it, in an effort to try to understand more about it myself, I have done some research of my own, and I hope I can shed some light on the issue for you. This is a complicated and often confusing issue, and I will do my best to explain the problem as I understand it.
WHY IS INDIAN HAIR PREFERABLE TO OTHER TYPES OF HAIR USED IN MAKING WIGS?
There are three types of hair generally used in making human hair wigs: Asian, Indian, and European. European hair is the least plentiful, and therefore it is very expensive to the point where the price can be prohibitive to the average wig wearer. Asian hair is the most plentiful and least expensive, but it can be of coarse texture. This texture is mostly suitable for wear by women of Asian or African descent, as it is generally similar in texture to their own.
It should be noted here that not all Asian hair is coarse. Sometimes a texturizing process is performed on the hair to reduce the diameter of each hair to make it more resemble European texture. However, this involves a high degree of processing, decreasing the life of the wig.
Indian hair has long been used by manufacturers who make better quality human hair wigs because of its similarity in texture to European hair. European hair is very soft and silky, and is preferred by many Caucasian women because it resembles the texture of their own hair. However, in some cases, European hair can be too fine and limp to hold a style. While Indian hair is similar to European in texture on its own, without having to undergo the extra processing, it has more body and therefore is a better choice for making wigs. As an added benefit, Indian hair is much less expensive than European, and so this hair is very desirable by those who prefer a more silky textured human hair wig, without the high price of European.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will limit further commentary on the subject to Indian hair.
HOW IS INDIAN HAIR OBTAINED?
In order to answer that question, one must first be aware of the religious overtones surrounding the cutting of the hair. In the East Indian religion of Hinduism, deities are represented by images and idols symbolizing divine powers. Worshippers tithe money and may make other various material offerings of value such as jewelry or food to these gods at the temple. Women may even offer their hair as something that is valuable to them, as an act of humility or surrender of ego. The women's hair is cut, and often their heads are shaved. This may or may not be done by another Hindu, and may or may not be done at the site of the temple. Much of this hair is then gathered and sold to wig makers, and the money is allegedly used to maintain the house of worship, as well as charities and other good works sponsored by the temple.
IS THERE ANY WAY TO TELL HOW THE HAIR WAS OBTAINED?
Large amounts of cut hair arrive at a factory at one time, and while it may be labeled as Indian, Asian, European, etc., there is no practical way to determine whether the hair was cut in a religious ritual or obtained by other means.
WHY DO JEWISH WOMEN WEAR WIGS WHEN THEY HAVE HAIR OF THEIR OWN?
For thousands of Orthodox Jewish women, one of the most fundamental practices of daily life is adhering to the code of modesty that prohibits a public display of their own hair after marriage. Some of these women prefer to cover their heads with scarves, hats, snoods, etc., however, as a matter of fashion and a desire to blend in, most of them choose to wear wigs. When a wig is worn by a Jewish woman for religious reasons, it is called a "sheitel" or "shaitel" (pronounced shayt'l). Many women prefer to wear human hair sheitels because they look and feel more natural than synthetic ones. Because of the silky texture and affordability of Indian hair wigs, up until now, these have been the wigs of choice for many of these women.
WHY IS THERE AN ISSUE CONCERNING THE WEARING OF INDIAN HAIR WIGS BY JEWISH WOMEN?
Judaism takes idolatry very seriously. Not only are Jews prohibited from worshipping idols, but any object or material used in a religious ceremony that involves the worship of idols is prohibited. Because of the use of statues, paintings, and other images, the practice of Hinduism is considered by Jewish law to be idolatry. In other words, Orthodox Jews are not permitted to use or benefit by any item that has been donated or sacrificed to what they consider to be an idol.
It has been an ongoing controversy among rabbis (rabbi means teacher and is the name given to Jewish religious leaders) in the Orthodox community as to whether Indian hair is fit to be worn by Orthodox women, due to the possible religious overtones in the way it may have been obtained. This issue started about 40 years ago, and has cropped up a couple of times since then. Up to now, no consensus has actually been reached among all rabbis as to whether this hair should be prohibited or not. There is ongoing study into the matter, but right now the whole thing is up in the air and remains a perplexing controversy in the Jewish community.
Because of concern over violating the laws of their religion, some Orthodox women are reacting to the potential ban on the wigs in advance, just in case of a negative ruling sometime in the future. They simply aren't buying or wearing any wig that may contain Indian hair, and some have even gone so far as to burn their human hair wigs because of the knowledge or suspicion that they may contain Indian hair. The fear has gone so far as to include wigs allegedly made of Asian or European hair, because of concern that they may contain even small amounts of Indian hair.
It is suspected that some manufacturers mix small amounts of Indian hair into European hair wigs to add body to the otherwise too fine and limp hair. Indian hair is also added to Asian hair wigs to acheive just the opposite effect--to add a smoother, more silky texture. In fact, Indian hair has been so much in demand by the wig business that it is often exported to other countries for use by wig makers there. A wig may be made in Korea, China, or even Italy, but one may not be completely sure of the origin of any hair that is in a wig. We would hope to receive accurate information from the manufacturer, but unfortunately, because of marketing issues, that is not always the case.
HOW CAN I BE SURE IF A WIG CONTAINS INDIAN HAIR OR NOT?
The hair could be sent to a laboratory that tests human hair. There is one such lab that I know of in Southern California. From what I understand from the owner of the lab, it is possible to determine the origin of the hair, however, this procedure is expensive and time-consuming, and not very practical.
The only recourse Jewish women have is to follow the guidance of their own rabbis, but all rabbis do not agree on this issue. One well-known and respected rabbi has researched several wig companies, and has provided a list of wigs that he has approved as being free of Indian hair and therefore may be worn without a problem. Rabbi Blumenkrantz's list contains many wig brands, but naturally, the only ones we are concerned with are the ones we handle. These include Jacquelyn Custom European (CEFT) wigs and also the Georgie wigs on this list.
As we add new human hair collections to our website, we will provide information in the descriptions of each wig regarding which ones contain Indian hair.
Well, I have tried to cover the main issues here. If you want to read an in-depth forum discussion of the subject, go to this sheitel discussion. Now I must warn you that this is a 16-page on-line discussion, and there are numerous typos and Yiddish terms and phrases that may make it diffucult reading at times for the non-Jew, but you should be able to get some good information on the subject. These people seem to know what they're talking about and if you have the time and patience, you will learn a lot about the wig business.
I hope this has been of help to anyone interested in this subject.