איבעיא להו האי מזיא מלתחת רבי או מלעיל למאי?... ת"ש מהא אינבא חיה דקאים בעיקבא דבינתא ואי סלקא דעתך מלתחת רבי ברישא דבינתא בעי למיקם. לעולם מלתחת רבי ואגב חיותא נחית ואזיל אינבא
ת"ש אינבא מתה ברישא דבינתא ואי סלקא דעתך מלעיל רבי בעיקבא דבינתא בעי למיקם התם נמי משום דלית בה חילא שרוגי שריגא ואזיל...
A question was asked: Does hair grow from the roots or the tips?...Let us suggest an answer from the live nit [or louse - meaning is not certain] which is found at the root of a strand [of hair]. Now if the hair grew from the root, shouldn't the nit be found at the tip? [The Talmud rejects this suggestion:] The growth may well be from the tip, but the nit, being alive, continually moves down [towards the root].
Let us suggest an answer from the case of a dead nit [or louse, that is found] at the end of a strand [of hair]. If the hair grows from the end, shouldn't the dead nit be found near the root? [The Talmud rejects this suggestion too:] Perhaps the dead nit has no power [to grasp the hair] and so as the hair grows from the root, the nit slides.
Pediculosis Humanus Capitas
Pediculosis Humanus capitas is the long scientific name of the tiny head louse. The female, less than 3mm long, lives for about a month, and in that time lays over three hundred eggs. The eggs are laid on a shaft of hair close to the scalp, where, warmed by the skin of their itchy host, they incubate for two weeks before hatching. The new lice emerge, grow for about 12 days, mate, and lay their eggs, and the cycle continues. Humans are the only known host of these lice, and somewhere in this cycle you as a parent may get a call to come and take your child out of school because they have been found to have head lice, or nits, the name given to their eggs. About 15% of school age children in the UK have head lice, while in the US estimates range from 6-12 million infestations per year. In the US, the cost to treat those millions of infestations is more than $350 million.
True story: Many years ago while working in an emergency department in Boston, I received a call from the (warm and loving Jewish) preschool my children then attended. My daughter had nits, and could not attend class. Despite my explaining that I could not leave my shift in the ED to come and get her for as trivial a reason as head lice, the school was adamant. She remained outside the classroom until arrangements to pick here up were made. I do hope the psychological damage was minimal.
Fortunately, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report on head lice in 2002, and though it came too late for me, their advice supported my decision. Here's what they suggested:
Because a child with an active head lice infestation has likely had the infestation for a month or more by the time it is discovered, poses little risk to others, and does not have a resulting health problem, he or she should remain in class but be discouraged from close direct head contact with others. If a child is assessed as having head lice, confidentiality must be maintained so the child is not embarrassed. The child’s parent or guardian should be notified that day by telephone or a note sent home with the child at the end of the school day stating that prompt, proper treatment of this condition is in the best interest of the child and his or her classmates.
Head Lice in Antiquity
Head lice have been with us for a long, long time, as evidenced by the Talmud's clear acquaintance with them. Amazingly though, remains of a head louse have been identified on a louse comb from the Roman period that was discovered near the Dead Sea. (Even older remains have been found on the hair from Egyptian mummies, and nine-thousand year old lice eggs were found on human remains in Nahal Hemar near the Dead Sea.) "The comb was most probably used by inhabitants of the village of En Gedi, who were preparing a place of refuge in the cave, which would have been well equipped with food in baskets, storage jars and a large water pool before the end of the Bar Kokba Revolt in 135 CE."
Head Lice More Recently
The House of Twenty Thousand Books, by Sasha Abramsky, was just published by the New York Review of Books (and was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal last week.) It is wonderful read about the life, and library, of Chimen Abramsky (1916-2010) who was the son of the great Dayan Yechezkiel Abramsky, (1886-1976) head of the London Bet Din. Chimen (pronounced Shimon) who eventually became a professor of Jewish Studies at University College London, was an expert on Jewish books and built a significant collection of his own, which is detailed in the book. He also served as an advisor to Sotheby's and to Jack Lunzer, who built the greatest privately owned Jewish library in the world. Anyway, I came across this passage in the book, reminding us that presence of head lice was not just an annoyance - it was a way of life:
Infant and childhood mortality soared in these years [of the First World War] in part because of the prevalence of diseases such as typhus - which presumably explains why, in early photographs, the heads of Chimen and his brothers are shorn, to county the typhus-carrying lice. Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was a few years older than Chimen, and like Chimen was brought up in a devout household...recalled having his sidelocks and head hair shaved off for this reason during the First World War...he wrote in his essay "The Book"..."I saw my red sidelocks fall and I knew this was the end of them. I wanted to get rid of them for a long time." (Sasha Abramsky. The House of Twenty Thousand Books. NYRB 2015. 57-58.)
For the Nazir, hair is a central part of his religious identity, and once that identity is no-longer needed, the hair is shaved off. Which is exactly what Isaac Bashevis Singer felt too.