David Ben Ezra, a Bnei Brak shopkeeper who sells wigs made of real hair, cannot handle all the telephone calls he is receiving from worried customers wanting to know where the hair comes from. Another wig-seller, A., said that her customers are demanding proof of the hair's origins, and are refusing to accept her word. The customers have been in a panic ever since rumors began flying that hair from India - which is where most of the hair used in natural wigs comes from - was originally used in an idol-worshiping rite.

As a result, ultra-Orthodox women - who, according to Jewish law, must cover their own hair once they are married - are suddenly switching to synthetic wigs, or even to hats or kerchiefs (which, though preferred by the religious Zionist camp, are usually shunned by the Haredim).

Teachers in the ultra-Orthodox Beit Ya'akov school system were even told that if they would be fired if they came to school wearing a wig.

After a month of tension, Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv (the leading rabbi of one of the two main branches of ultra-Orthodoxy) finally issued his ruling on Wednesday: Wigs made of human hair from India may not be worn. But that merely fueled the panic.

People began running around preparing lists of permitted and forbidden wig shops; others demanded that the sellers of wigs made from Indian hair be tried in a religious court. In Bnei Brak, some people even started collecting Indian wigs and throwing them to the bonfire.

The storm began four weeks ago, when someone told the rabbis that most natural wigs imported from Europe are actually made of Indian hair. Two years ago, rumors had begun circulating that this hair was bought from Indian priests who gathered it up after the women cut it during a Hindu religious ceremony. This would be a serious problem, since Jewish law forbids the use of objects employed in idol worship (which in Judaism means all polytheistic religions). Apparently many wig-sellers concealed the fact that their wigs, though made in Europe, used Indian hair.

Two different Haredi religious courts opened an investigation into these reports, even sending emissaries to India to make inquiries on the spot. In the meantime, the uncertainty caused the market for natural wigs - which can cost up to $1,000 - to grind to a halt. In its stead, demand for synthetic wigs - which cost only some NIS 200, but are considered much less attractive - soared.

The natural wig sellers hastened to try to prove their bona fides to the rabbis. Ben Ezra, for instance, met with members of one of the rabbinic courts and explained that the hair he uses comes from Ukraine. Baruch Klein of Brooklyn, whose chain of wig shops has a branch in Bnei Brak, published a huge advertisement in the Jewish Press detailing the various types of kosher wigs he sells.

Ben Ezra said Eastern European hair is considered the best quality; Indian hair is the next best and Far Eastern hair, mainly Chinese, is the least wanted.

Some experts on Haredi society argue that the current crisis is a reaction to the weakening of the social control once exerted by the rabbis in the wake of the Haredi world's rapid expansion. The question is whether, once the storm dies down, Haredi women will resume wearing wigs of bright blond hair that falls softly to their shoulders.

"It's too late to return us to the days of our mothers," said A., a Bnei Brak mother of seven.