Jewish concepts of צניעות, tzniut, modesty.
Ashkenazi Orthodox Judaism has developed detailed rules for how women should dress, talk and act, both in private and public. Entire books are written about the subject with laws, customs, measurements, in exacting details.
Here is an example of an Ashkenazi right-wing Orthodox prescription for women:
(I am using these qualifiers precisely, for good reason: Such controls on women’s clothing did not develop in the Mizrachi, Sephardic, or Modern Orthodox community, although now these communities are being influenced by right-wing Orthodox.)
Orthodox authors assure the reader that these are traditional and inarguable, and come from Torah mitzvot that are elucidated in the Mishnah and Talmud. Perhaps the main problem with their rules about צניעות, tzniut, modesty, is that until the 1920’s, most of these rules didn’t even exist!
These rules on tzniut were invented recently, accompanied by a deliberate censorship & historical revisionism campaign, to make it appear as if they had always been there. This is a recurring pattern in fundamentalist religious communities.
But are there in fact traditional, Jewish, halakhic rules on modesty? Yes. There indeed are some guidelines in traditional rabbinical literature on modesty that we can learn from, we just should learn about these rules in their historical context. Some great resources include:
The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, Ed. Martin S. Cohen, especially the chapyer “Public Appearance and Behavior” by Rabbi Gordon Tucker.
This quote, without specifics on clothing, gives a Jewish perspective to the idea of modesty:
Kedusha is one of the most important aspects of tz‟niut; “privacy,” “modesty” are not expressions of contempt for the body, the physical, but on the contrary, expressions of their kedusha (holiness). A Torah scroll, for example, is covered, because of its high degree of kedusha. A woman‟s body – as well as a man‟s – is covered, because it is kadosh. The most intimate physical relation between man and woman is reserved, private, not for public display, and not for anytime, anywhere, with anyone – because it is kadosh, special, apart.
As Zalman Posner points out, tz‟niut “is not a question of a bit of cloth, it is a life-mode, perhaps the bedrock of Judaism.” It has not to do with just hemlines or head coverings, but with thought, speech, sexual relations – our sense of who and what we basically are, a sense that our personhood is kadosh, inviolate. The body is not a piece of property, an object to be disposed of casually; it, too, is an integral part of the sanctity of personhood, the kedusha of the Jew.
– Shaina Handelman, “The Paradoxes of Privacy,” Sh‟ma, November 1978
Another great resource is this CJLS responsa “Modesty Inside and Out: A Contemporary Guide to Tzniut”, by Rabbis David Booth, Ashira Konigsburg, and Baruch Frydman-Kohl
The choice of clothing is one key area of modest practice. Halakhic literature offers several broad descriptions of appropriate dress, but nowhere in rabbinic literature prior to the 20th century can one find specific and complete dress codes as we find today.
While the Talmud, Rishonim, and Aharonim describe and require certain ritual attire or distinctively Jewish dress, they do not describe any requirements more specific than that married women must cover their hair. Much of the literature focuses on situations and clothing that arouse sexual feelings, what is appropriate in public settings versus private settings, and the response of the viewer.
Although rabbinic sources describe many actions as exposing ervah,22 the minimum requirement of modesty is to cover genitalia and anus. This limit depends on two Torah passages, Deuteronomy 23:13-15 and Leviticus 18-20. The Torah prohibits the uncovering of nakedness, or ervah.
The holiness code of Leviticus similarly prohibits לגלות ערוה , often translated as “to uncover nakedness” of someone.
וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִקַח אֶת־אֲחֹתוֹ בַת־אָבִיו אוֹ בַת־אִמוֹ וְרָאָה אֶת־עֶרְוָתָהּ וְהִיא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־עֶ רוָתוֹ חֶסֶד הוּא
וְנִכְרְתוּ לְ עי ני בְ ני עַמָם עֶרְוַת אֲחֹתוֹ גִלָה עֲוֹנוֹ יִשָא…
וְעֶרְוַת אֲחוֹת אִמְך וַאֲחוֹת אָבִיך לאֹ תְגַ לה כִי אֶת־שְׁ ארוֹ הֶעֱרָה עֲוֹנָם יִשָאוּ:
If a man takes his sister and sees her ervah, and she sees his ervah, it is a disgrace….23 He has uncovered his sister’s ervah, he bears his guilt. … You shall not uncover the ervah of your mother’s sister or of your father’s sister, for that is to expose one’s own flesh; they bear their guilt…. (Leviticus 20:17-19)
Reading the two sources together suggests that ervah means specifically the genitals. The punishment in Leviticus is for one who exposes their reproductive organs. Similarly, the organs for urination and defecation must remain covered while in the camp. Brown, Driver, Briggs in their biblical lexicon define ervah as “pudenda,” meaning genitalia.24
According to Rabbis Karo and Isserles, there is no specific body part that needs to be clothed. Rather, it is dependent on context and how people usually behave or dress. 29
As a result, cultural norms have halakhic significance for determining appropriate dress. In a context where it is normal to go swimming in a bathing suit, for example, such behavior is permissible. A man wearing a bathing suit in a business environment is problematic because it is so different to the typical office attire and so will draw the eye. Flapper dresses in the 1920s were initially quite shocking; as society became accustomed to the style, the dresses began to be seen as appropriate.
Shorts or sleeveless tops for men or women may be inappropriate, depending on the context, because they raise similar issues of context and modesty. That is, a tank top might be appropriate at the beach but not in shul, in part, because it surprises. The change in people’s expectations affects their perception of modesty and appropriate attire. By the same token, a person has a responsibility to others and should choose clothing suitable to the context.
One might assume that as women’s breasts in our culture are often hyper-sexualized they must certainly constitute ervah. But this assumption is mistaken. For example, because of the commonplace occurrence of breastfeeding, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (known as Ben Ish Hai, 1835 – 1909) considered the exposed breasts of a nursing mother as any other normally exposed body part.
י”א כיון דהאשה דרכה לגלות דדיה בזמן היניקה הרי הדדים נחשבים אותו זמן כמו כפות
הידים והפנים :
There are those who say that since it is her practice to uncover her breasts while nursing, a woman’s breasts in at the time of nursing are just as though they were the palms of her hand or her face. 30 For the Ben Ish Hai, a nursing woman’s breasts are without sexual connotation.
(Footnote 29) Within much of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox sources, the covering of thighs and shoulders is asserted as a biblical ordained halakhah. Please note, however, that Rabbi Avrahom Karelitz (Hazon Ish) in the 1920s is the first person to suggest that thighs and shoulders must be covered to be modest outside of a prayer context.
– Modesty Inside and Out: A Contemporary Guide to Tzniut
Rabbis David Booth, Ashira Konigsburg, and Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Modern Orthodox responses
Rabbi Josh Yuter – Jan 9, 2012
The topic of “tzniut” or “modesty” has recently become a prominent point of discussion in the Jewish community… the common theme… is almost exclusively framing the issue in the context of women. In particular, modesty is most frequently defined in terms of how women ought to dress, how a woman is supposed to behave, and in some general instances the appropriate role of women in Jewish if not secular society. With this focus on women, it is not surprising that tzniut/modesty is almost exclusively construed as a sexual ethic.
In this shiur I challenge this assumption by approaching the topic of modesty not from the socially defined understanding of tzniut, but rather how and when the root “צנע” is used in the Talmud. While the term is certainly used in the context of female sexuality or displays of femininity (B. Ketuvot 3b, B. Berachot 8b, B. Shabbat 113b, B. Sotah 49b), the Rabbinic tradition also applies tzniut to men as it pertains to his relationship with his wife (B. Shabbat 53b) and his mode of dress (B. Menachot 43a).
Furthermore, the ethic of tzniut is asserted in the contexts of going to the bathroom (B. Berachot 8b, 62a), eating (B. Berachot 8b), not displaying one’s wealth (B. Pesachim 113a), and even religious observance (M. Ma’aser Sheni 5:1, B. Sukkah 49b/B. Makkot 24a).
Given the contextual range of the root צנע, I suggest that tzniut in the Rabbinic tradition may best be described not as a sexual ethic at all (let alone a female one), but a general attitude of behavior of which sexual behavior is only one component. In other words, the true Jewish ethos of modesty does not exclusively pertain to sexuality, but rather reflects a universal ethic, one which is equally applicable to men and women in all facets of life.