Making Sense of the Sheitel Industry
Are sheitels more expensive than necessary or do prices simply reflect real-world markets?
We (and by "we" I mean husbands) all love to complain about how much we're forced to spend on sheitels. And some of us do enjoy the occasional conspiracy theory involving hidden forces quietly grabbing our wealth and concentrating it in the hands of a few greedy and selfish individuals.
But understanding the sheitel industry well enough to know if there's something actually wrong with the system won't be simple. At the very least, you'll need to answer these questions:
Are historical sheitel price increases actually unexpected and unreasonable?
Are sheitel retailers overcharging according to halacha?
Is there collusion or price fixing in the industry?
Could someone manufacture and sell sheitels for less money and still earn a profit?
Let's see what what we do know.
Measuring sheitel prices over time
On the surface, it should be easy to figure out whether price increases are reasonable or not: just take the average cost of an item, say, 25 years ago and compare it with today's cost for the same item. If the increase more or less matches the inflation rate, then you can be confident that the change is reasonable. If the increase is double or triple the inflation rate, then something else is going on.
But getting reliable and useful numbers for sheitels isn't going to be easy. For one thing, how are we supposed to define "average"? Whichever manufacturer, style, and merchant we might select as our example from the past, there probably won't be anything exactly comparable that'll map to it today. And even if we can find some apples-to-apples comparison, getting numbers that represent a true market average is impossible: do we mean the average selling price in New York, Lakewood, London, Israel, or online? Are we talking about domestic or imported sheitels? "European" or Asian hair? Retail or "bargain basement sale" rates?
So in the absence of perfect data, we'll have no choice but to estimate to the best of our abilities. We can always update our calculations should better numbers come in.
My research involved accessing archived snapshot versions of websites like sheitel.com going back to the late 1990s, and polling friends and relatives for their memories. Based on that, I will suggest that a moderately priced, short to mid-length human hair sheitel in 1997 would commonly cost around $700 (USD). A similar mid-range sheitel today might cost $1,900.
US government consumer price index data tells us that $700 in 1997 dollars would be worth around $1,150 today. If those numbers are broadly correct, it would mean that the cost of an "average" sheitel has increased some 40% above and beyond the inflation rate.
Is that a big deal? Let's compare it to parallel changes in the price of mezuzos. The $25 you would have paid for a mezuza in the year 1990 would today be worth around $52.23 in year-2021 dollars. Today's actual cost for that same mezuza has risen to only around $50. That’s actually around 4% less than the inflation rate.
Similarly, an average pair of tefilin would have cost you around $500 back in 1990. Today, factoring for the inflation rate, that would now be worth around $1,044. A similar pair of tefilin today would sell for around $1,200 (following a price jump from 2020 that could possibly be COVID-related). Depending on how you calculate it, that’s an increase of 14%.
To understand whether the gap between the 40% additional increase for sheitels and the smaller changes seen with mezuzos and tefilin is significant, we'd need to know more about the industry itself.
Want to read more investigative journalism articles from B'chol Darchecha? Subscribe for free to receive email updates.
Could sheitels be cheaper?
The first thing to consider is that manufacturing and retail conditions sometimes change in ways that have nothing to do with inflation. Consider, for example, the cost of paying your employees. Making a sheitel, by all accounts, involves a lot of manual labor. So while a mostly automated industrial process might not be impacted all that much by a tight labor market, businesses like this one could be different.
In fact, over the past 20 years labor costs have grown around 42% in the US. That's faster than the consumer prices used to track inflation. That's got to have in impact on the retail price of sheitels. Although, by the same token, it should have had a similar impact on the price of mezuzas whose creation also involves a lot of labor.
Other economic changes could have impacted costs. Commercial real estate rents have exploded through most of the West. Sheitel machers who rent their space have to cover that extra cost. And disruptions in the traditional sources for raw human hair - including controversies over the use of temple hair from India and illegally-acquired hair from Asia - might also have played a role.
There's something else that might be complicating the issue. Precisely which layer of the sheitel industry is pocketing the largest slice of the income? Is it the raw hair suppliers? Importers? Stylists? Retailers? Visibility across such complex supply chains is always going to be imperfect.
The bottom line: I don't know whether it's possible to manufacture an inexpensive sheital of comparable quality to what's being sold now. But I wouldn't be shocked if the answer was "no".
Overcharging and halacha
Let's assume for the moment that many sheitel businesses are charging their customers more than necessary. Is that a problem? With a few exceptions, players in a free market economy are able to charge whatever they want for their products, just as customers have the right to refuse to buy. But the Torah, through the laws of Ona'ah, does limit profits to around 16% above the going rate (see: שולחן ערוך חושן משפט רל”ב).
The problem is that defining the "going rate" won't be easy (how should overheads and investment risk be calculated, for instance). And there are many limitations to where the law is applicable. I doubt you'll find a serious bais din that's willing to pursue such an investigation.
One area where there could be real trouble is price fixing. There have been (unconfirmed) rumors that sheitel manufacturers have quietly worked to ensure that their products are never sold below a certain price in order to control their profit margins. (Once, many years ago, I came face-to-face with such a business model when attempting to lower the local cost of kosher meat by starting a buyers' co-op.)
The trouble with fighting such market manipulation is that it's notoriously difficult to prove wrongdoing. And, even if you can, successfully prosecuting violations of the US Sherman Antitrust Act is next to impossible.
But if I'd engaged in price fixing at the expense of a vulnerable population of consumers, I wouldn't want to have to explain myself on arriving in the next world. The Talmud (Megila 17b) wasn't charitable towards מפקיעי שערים. See Rashi (שבור זרוע רשע).
Some historical context
Since we're talking about sheitels, it might be worth exploring some general background. As I've written elsewhere, married women who cover their hair with a sheital rather than some kind of tichel are enthusiastically portrayed in much of the frum world as following the ideal approach. It can be argued that there are some perfectly sound reasons for permitting the practice, but it’s much harder to claim that, in halachic terms, it’s actually preferred.
There is certainly no shortage of serious halachic authorities who consider a sheital to be an adequate hair covering (ובכללם הרמ“א אורח חיים שג:ו והמגן אברהם אורח חיים עה:ה). But there’s also quite a lineup on the other side. Among the powerful voices who feel that a woman wearing a wig is equivalent to one who exposes her hair in public are the Be’er Sheva (סי’ יח), Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (קנאת סופרים – דף כד ע”ב תשובה עב), the Chasam Sofer (בהגהותיו על שו“ע סימן ע”ה) and, in more recent generations, the Klausenberger Rebbe (שו“ת דברי יציב יו”ד ח“א סימן נו), and Rabbi Ovadya Yosef (יביע אומר ח”ה אה”ע סי’ ה).
One should note that the חזון איש is reported to have preferred the sheital because it will often do a better job covering even loose or stray hairs. However, that won’t help for the stricter opinions, because they believe a woman wearing a sheital has already effectively exposed all of her hair.
So one can’t say it’s categorically wrong for a woman to wear a sheital. But you also can’t say that it reflects the highest halachic values.
If you’ve got your own inside information that could help us understand what’s really driving sheitel prices, please be in touch. We never identify sources without their explicit consent.
And please share this article with your friends and connections: the more people who see it, the easier it will be to reach intelligent conclusions.
Thanks for reading B'chol Darchecha! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.