Does a widow have to cover her hair according to Halakha and Minhag?
Rabbanit Rachel Weinstein
She'elaIs a widow required to wear a head covering in shule and in general - according to halacha and minhag?
The obligation of a woman to cover her hair appears in the Mishna in Ketubot 72a.
The Mishna lists the situations in which a woman יוצאת בלא כתובה, has lost the rights given to her in her Ketuba. One of the cases is a woman who goes out with her hair פרוע. Literally this means wild or uncovered. The Gemara goes on to discuss whether head covering is necessary Mideorita or Miderabanan, and other details regarding the extent and nature of the head covering and the spaces in which head covering is necessary - public places, private domain, and all that lies in between. Although the Gemara does not specify whether these laws are relevant to married women only or to all Jewish women the context is clearly one of marriage and the discussion is in the context of the rights of the Ketuba.
According to the Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 21b) Jewish women should not be seen in public with their hair "Parua". The Shulchan Aruch here clearly specifies that he is referring to both married and unmarried women. This seems to contradict the Shulchan Aruch's own ruling in Hilchot Kriat Shema (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim75b) where he clearly states that a man should not recite the Shema in the presence of a married woman whose hair is uncovered but he may recite the Kriat Shema in the presence of an unmarried woman whose hair is uncovered since unmarried women did not cover their hair in practice.
The commentaries reconcile this seeming contradiction by explaining that the Shulchan Aruch in Even Haezer, when stating that unmarried women must cover their hair, refers to women who have been married in the past (Beit Shmuel and Chelkat Mechokek on Shulchan Aruch Even Haezer ibid).This is based on the use of the word בתולות in the Hilchot Kriat Shema, which could be understood to mean unmarried but literally means virgins and therefore refers only to those who have never been married.
It seems that the obligation for married women to cover their hair is equivalent to the obligation of a divorcee or a widow.
Reb Moshe Feinstein was asked (Igrot Moshe Even Haezer 1:57) about a woman who was widowed and must work to feed her children. The woman is struggling to find a job because she covers her hair. In his teshuva Reb Moshe ultimately allows this woman to go to work with her hair uncovered. He explains that although a widow is obligated to cover her hair the obligation is of a lesser severity than that of a woman who is currently married. This is not to say of course that the obligation is not important, only that in extreme cases as the one Reb Moshe was discussing there is room for leniency. Although a widow or a divorcee is obligated to cover her hair, not doing so is not considered a transgression. Reb Moshe explains that this being the case there is room for discussion when there is a risk of הפסד מרובה, great financial loss.
There are also poskim who give divorced or widowed women a personal heter not to cover their hair if they are actively looking to remarry. Although these cases are not cases of financial loss, there is a lot at stake and the term הפסד מרובה seems to be applicable here too. As stated previously these heterim are given on a personal basis.
In short, although it seems that by the letter of the law widows and divorcees must cover their hair, cases differ from one another. If there are extenuating circumstances this would affect the discussion.
Regarding the question of covering hair in shul only, halakhically hair covering applies outside of shul and in thus the obligation of hair covering is not halakhically dependent on being in shul. However, covering one's head in shul, whether it be a man or a woman, is a sign of respect, an expression of recognizing shul as a holy place. It seems therefore that even if a woman does not cover her hair outside of shul, ideally she should cover her hair in shul. There are also opinions that a woman must cover her hair when she davens (based on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 91:3 for further discussion of this topic: https://www.matan.org.il/en/
I hope this answers your question, please feel free to pursue this question further if you feel the need to and of course to ask other questions in the future.