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A Modest Proposal

Move over, modesty; what tzniyus is all about


When planning this piece, we sent out a call for dilemmas and observations on tzniyus. We got back some good questions, comments — and lots of emotion. This is a topic that cuts close.

Here’s a request: Can you accept tzniyus as a value and deal with the fact that we all have a place where we can grow? If so, we’re ready to talk. Perhaps we’ll even dust off some refrains from high school, and realize that they’re not tired — but we may be.

If you’re already getting mad, then consider filing this for later. If you want to share those feelings, drop me a line, because we all gain from hearing different perspectives.

Looks Good

My mother-in-law thinks she’s being subtle when she complains to me about the emphasis on looks and dress these days — you bet she’s talking about other people. Okay, so I care about what’s in style and wear make-up, nothing crazy or loud, and she doesn’t. What’s wrong with looking nice?

You’re right — There’s no inconsistency between looking nice, and being a woman of substance, focused on essence — and a tzanuah. Jewish women have traditionally excelled at balancing aesthetics and tzniyus.

“You are a locked garden, My sister, My bride,” says G-d, as a compliment to women’s tzniyus (Shir Hashirim 4:11, Rashi). I never heard of an unappealing garden, only lovely ones, and in this case, “locked” means not exposed or in your face. Wider society vacillates between austere rejection of Olam Hazeh, and media celebration of letting it all hang out. The Torah’s balanced approach is a beautiful synergy.

Some are bothered by an appreciation of feminine beauty, seeing it as objectifying, shallow, dismissive of a woman’s intelligence. I once attended a kiddush for the birth of a little girl where a touching prayer was given out to say for the tiny honoree, wishing her success in wisdom, mitzvos, and middos. There was also a line blessing her with beauty. The baby’s mother made sure to point out that it was the spiritual type, but that was a complete distortion of the clear meaning of the prayer. Perhaps she was unaware of the many places in Torah where beauty is favorably recognized.

If a woman is defined by how she looks, that’s sad. On the pasuk, “Charm is belying and beauty is ‘hevel,’ a woman who fears G-d will be praised (Mishlei 31:30),” Metzudas Dovid says, “Charm and beauty don’t have such great merit that a woman is ultimately praised for that; it is appropriate to praise fear of G-d.”

A woman’s beauty, and all of earthly creation along with it, is called “hevel”— literally, vapor or mist — which doesn’t have shape or significance. This doesn’t mean it’s negative. “G-d saw all that He formed and it was very good (Bereishis 1:31)” (Ramban, Koheles). Don’t overrate it — but it’s “very good” when used with circumspection and an eye toward higher purpose.

Making It, Not Faking It

I’ve noticed that the winds have shifted. Once, discussing tzniyus was all about the rules; today, we’re told it’s less about the details, and more about character traits and overall personality. Does that mean it makes sense to bypass externals and just work on internals?

Do we grow outside-in, or inside-out? The answer is: both.

How people choose to present themselves says a lot. I love hearing, “Why should I wear (whatever garb might pigeonhole them in some niche)? Externals are meaningless!” I sometimes want to respond, “Okay, if they’re meaningless, why not just wear (whatever it is).”

Change is not as easy as a costume change, because externals do mean something. Our appearance is our calling card to the world. Not only is it legitimate to note how a person looks when assessing her, it’s unintelligent not to. Slight style shifts can be an early sign of teenage crisis or, hopefully, a sign that she’s getting on track. As we genuinely evolve, it spills over into how we show ourselves to the world. That’s inside affecting outside.

Conversely, when we stretch externally, we can grow into the space we’ve expanded for ourselves, taking on responsibility and discovering new abilities. Judaism is full of mitzvos that create powerful, all-encompassing experiences — think Pesach, Shabbos, etc. — that, “activate a person internally according to how they behave externally” because “his feelings and thoughts are drawn in the direction of how he occupies himself” (Chinuch 16).

It’s not only that flip-flops or a slinky skirt don’t bring out the same side as heels or a business suit; it’s much deeper than that. In a study, young Chinese-American women were interviewed in Chinese, and then the interview was repeated in English. When the language switched, so did the participants’ feelings regarding home, family, and education, transforming from traditional to liberal. This isn’t instability, it’s reality. Reasonably pushing yourself to alter outward components can jumpstart growth, so if you’ve been thinking about toning down headgear or accessories, go for it.

Justice For All

We hear so much about tzniyus, but I don’t get why it’s all about the women, always. Why doesn’t tzniyus also apply to men?

Thinking that tzniyus doesn’t apply to men is seriously misinformed. Michah (6:8) distilled the requirements of Judaism into three principles: “Preserve justice between man and G-d, love kind deeds between people, and walk modestly before G-d.”

Note that Michah is instructing all the Jewish People, without exception, that “there is nothing dearer to G-d than modesty, as it says, ‘and walk modestly before G-d’ ” (Midrash Tanchuma). “A person has to conduct himself with modesty and humility before G-d even at night or in private, for isn’t the whole world filled with His honor?” (Mishnah Berurah 2:1)

There are even clothing instructions that include men. “When getting dressed or undressed, be careful not to be exposed… (Kitzur 3)” “Constant care has to be taken, unless specifically needed, to not ever slightly uncover what is regularly covered by clothing...” (see Mishnah Berurah 2:1-2 and Orach Chayim 2:1-2 for details).

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Yoreh Dei’ah 3:47:3) says that these technical directives of dress are levels to aspire to, a “derech chassidus” but not mandatory. Rav Chaim Kanievsky says that although not absolute halachah, everyone is supposed to try and act this way.

It’s clear that men, not only women, are enjoined to refrain from walking around improperly dressed, and the areas of respectable cover for men are very similar to those of women (Mishnah Berurah ibid). In addition, “a Jew can’t wear clothing that is loud or breaks norms… a Jew’s clothing demonstrates deference and modesty…You shouldn’t have expensive clothing because it’s egotistic, nor wear very low quality or dirty clothing so as not to be wretched in the eyes of others, but be in the middle of the road and clean…” (Kitzur 3). That’s for everyone.

Staying separate at parties and events (Orach Chayim 529:4, Mishnah Berurah S”K 22, Biur Halachah 339), yichud, speaking only about appropriate topics, and staying professional rather than friendly at the office, are of equal weight whoever you are, male or female.

But it’s common knowledge that men are more restricted in what they can look at, leaving many vacation venues, shopping premises, and entertainment options off-limits (Mishnah Berurah 75). Men have many additional halachos in the realm of tzniyus and kedushah. So while tzniyus applies to both men and women, the halachos for each are different. And that’s because there are very real physiological variances between men or women, and our Guiding Laws enhance and laud those differences.

The dynamic between men and women is a special creation and the whole world is built off of that energy (see Be’er HaGolah 5/4). When kept private, it’s called “kedushah,” sanctity (Kiddushin, with the same root, means “marriage”). When brought into the public forum, it’s called “zimah — lewdness.”

Compromising these borders undermines the very foundation of Jewish family values even if nothing proceeds beyond being noticed (for women) and noticing (for men) (Mishnah Berurah 75:7) On a metaphysical level we’re all affected by what every other Jew does, but on the whole, your level of prayer and keeping kosher is quite personal. How you appear in public affects others.

A man can’t say prayers, learn Torah, or engage in any other kind of religious speech when a woman is not dressed properly or when she is singing. “Ervah” is a technical Torah classification meaning “something that’s meant to be covered.” These are objective criteria of ervah, which wouldn’t change for one’s wife, other close relatives, for someone completely unattractive, or somewhere where women are lax or uneducated regarding proper dress.

There’s a subjective fluid kind of ervah as well: “minhag hamakom.” In a place in which the community covers up in a certain way, it gets interesting. If the norm for women in Afghanistan is to wear a hijab or chador that drapes the head and shoulders, then as long as a man is in the land of the Taliban, he shouldn’t say a brachah in front of a woman whose neck is uncovered. One more minus of Jewish life in modern-day Kabul.


It feels like whenever tragedy strikes Klal Yisrael — terror, war, sickness — all we hear about is how we need to improve our tzniyus. There are 613 mitzvos. Why is this always the call to arms? And the implication is that it’s women’s fault — I mean, it clearly must be, if this happened because of tzniyus.

We all need more siyata d’Shmaya, Heavenly assistance. “Hashem, your G-d, will walk among you, to save you and deliver enemies before you, when you make your encampment holy; (there shouldn’t be a lack of modesty) through not being clothed, or inappropriate action or speech, so that He does not leave you” ( Devarim 23:15, Sifri, Ibn Ezra).

It seems clear that sanctity (an outgrowth of decency and morality, Vayikra Rabbah 24) and modesty invite the Shechinah closer and bring success alongside it. This is not a female thing. Actually, the pasuk quoted is in context of warfare. It’s equally the responsibility of men — and with the current digital challenges connected to modesty and kedushah, perhaps even more so — to try and up their game in order to keep the protective shield of tzniyus intact.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 800)

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