Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Modesty - Tznius
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Rav Moshe ben Rav Nechemia Hakohen

Adapted from Netivot Olam

Tzeniut in the light of the Maharal

Tzniut - Restrictions or Protection?


Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Porat

What is tzeniut? Any Jewish woman who realizes her obligations concerning modesty of dress and conducts herself accordingly evidently observes tzeniut in the sphere of feminine attire. But does tzeniut apply solely to dressing in a manner which conforms with halachic requirements? Or does this term have additional connotations?

The Gemara [Yoma 47a] relates the story of the Kimchit who had seven sons, each of whom served as High Priest. When the Chachamim asked her what great deeds she had performed to have merited such great sons, she merely replied that "the beams of her house" had never seen "the plaits of her hair". Whereupon the Chachamim remarked that many other women had conducted themselves in a similar manner, without being so richly rewarded. The obvious question that arises is: Why were those other women denied the glory of the Kimchit? Before attempting an answer to this question we must examine the basic concept of tzeniut.

Rabbi Yochanan states in the Gemara [Eruvin 100b] that, had we not been given the Torah, we might have learned tzeniut from the behaviour of the cat, the prohibition of robbery from the ant, eschewing immorality from the dove, and decency from the cock. What lesson is conveyed by this statement that humans ?might have learned middot from non-human species

The ordinary man maintains that tzeniut is dependent on fashion or convention. According to this theory, the behaviour of society at any time is the sole criterion of tzeniut. It is generally held, for example, that Victorian ideas of modesty were stricter than those of our days. Consequently, had a person then displayed the conduct common today, this would have been regarded as immodest. But – so the ordinary man concludes – times have changed, and, since today’s society approves of looser morals and lessened modesty, standards of tzeniut should likewise reflect the spirit of the times.

To us this view is patently wrong, as it is contrary to the halachah which states that the laws of tzeniut are independent of time and place. Moreover, Rabbi Yohanan teaches us – and this is the meaning of his remarkable assertion – that tzeniut, like other desirable qualities, is an intrinsically good middah, so much so that we find it even in animals to which no human civilization and no human social conventions can be ascribed. Tzeniut is simply a natural middah which was implanted in all living beings at the time of Creation and which has remained above and beyond the trends of society.

Modesty and Wisdom

King Solomon informs us [Mishlei 2, 11] that "chochmah is with those possessed of tzeniut". Chochmah is covert and concealed. Matter, on the other hand, being of lower order, is overt and obvious. He who lacks reticence in his conduct is rooted in the material world and is not suited to chochmah, for the place of chochmah is in the recesses of the heart. Conducting oneself in the ways of tzeniut, then, is the prerequisite for acquiring chochmah.

The Midrash [Yalkut Mishlei 930] relates how Rav Shmuel bar Nachmeni once requested Torah instruction of Rabbi Yonatan ben Eliezer whom he found standing in a street. Rabbi Yonatan replied, "Go to the Beit Hamidrash, the place where Torah is cultivated. There I will teach you, for one does not give Torah instruction in the open, but in the House of Study". By its very nature, chochmah is withdrawn from the surface of things and not readily revealed. And, by the same token, teaching chochmah requires seclusion, not the openness of public

Tzeniut – Burden or Protection?

At times the observance of tzeniut is liable to appear burdensome and restrictive, for our yeitzer hara demands the freedom attainable through lessening the covers of our body. The Gemara [Brachot 62b] records the words of David to Saul who was pursuing him and had fallen instead into David’s hands. He said to Saul: "I was entitled to kill you, for you intended to kill me, and the Torah says, ‘If a man rises to kill you, forestall him by striking him down!’. However, the tzeniut in you protected your life".

How did Saul’s tzeniut manifest itself? According to Scripture (Samuel I: 24, 4), Saul entered a cave to attend to his nature – the very cave where David and his men were hiding from him. The Gemara elaborates on this statement by adding that Saul, in order to be totally removed from human eyes, withdrew to the very depths of the cave. His modesty might have proved fatal to him, for David and his men too, had sought the innermost part of the cave as refuge from their pursuers. Thus Saul was at David’s mercy, but as it was his tzeniut that had led him into a death trap, the very same middah protected him and David felt unable to lay hands on him.

Those who lack tzeniut, being closer to the stark material world, are evidently more exposed to the perils lurking all around them. By contrast, those who live by the precepts of tzeniut are more removed from the realm of the material and thereby are protected from its vicissitudes.

The Gemara (Bava Kama 38b) emphasizes that Hashem will never deprive anyone of the reward due him, even if it were earned for nothing more than expressing himself in pleasant language. The elder daughter of Lot called her son Moab, hinting by his name that he had been sired by her own father. When, centuries later, Hashem commanded Moses not to provoke Moab to war, He yet allowed him to subjugate the Moabite nation. Lot’s younger daughter called her child Ben-Ami, Son of my Nation, without alluding to his parental origin. Regarding Ammon, the nation which sprang from him, Moses was later commanded not to provoke them in any manner, not even to make them

subservient to Israel. The younger daughter had exercised tzeniut in the naming of her son by not hinting at the union through which he had been conceived. For this reason, the Ammonite nation which had derived from him and had inherited a spark of tzeniut, deserved to be protected and exempt from even the slightest molestation at the hands of Israel.

Our mother Rachel, who was distinguished by tzeniut (Megillah 13b) was rewarded with her firstborn son, Joseph, who received the blessing of remaining "above the eye" – immunity from the threat of the Evil Eye. Similarly, he was assured that his children would be "as fish in their multitude in the midst of their land." Just as the fish of the sea are not menaced by the Evil Eye, so the descendants of Joseph will be shielded from it. This protection from the Evil Eye was the direct outcome of the tzeniut which was Rachel’s characteristic middah.

Woman, by nature, is inclined to be "forthcoming" [Bereishit Rabbah 8, 14]. The Gemara [Kiddushin 49b] states that ten measures of talk descended into the world, nine of which were taken by women. Speaking is the action of bringing into the open that which is concealed in man. Effusive speech, then, indicates a person’s tendency to revealing hidden things. By her very nature, and in accordance with her task and purpose, woman inclines toward the material, wherefore she is in greater need of protection provided by tzeniut. The yeitzer hara tries to convince women that by revealing parts of their body which are usually covered, they will become attractive and command attention. The truth, however, is that by following such a course they will neither become esteemed by men nor endeared to them, but will exercise a merely physical attraction which lowers interrelations to a near-animalistic level. Keeping her body covered, far from being a yoke upon woman, is in fact a protection of her nobility and refinement of her personality. The most pure, most elevated things appear in the world enveloped in many coverings and wrapped in many garments so that they might remain hidden from sight. Woman’s holy purpose on the world is to transmit the souls which are destined for her children – a pure, elevated task assigned to her although her femininity appears to represent the more earthly aspect of mankind. Yet by diminishing through tzeniut the merely physical element in her, woman provides herself with the protection needed for the accomplishment of her sacred assignment, and guards against the debasement inherent in the unrestrained presentation of her own self.

The Sacred Language and Modesty

The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim [part 3, chapter 8] explains that the language of the Torah is called The Holy Tongue because it does not contain words denoting the organs and the act of human procreaton. Any reference to them is couched in terms taken from other spheres of life. The Maharal adds that from this fact we can learn the importance of guarding against using objectionable language [see Gemara Pesachim 3a].

However, the Maharal differs principally from the Rambam as to the significance of the term Leshon Hakodesh. He maintains that what Rambam regards as the cause is in reality the effect of the holiness of the language; the absence from the Torah vocabulary of unrefined expressions is consequent upon, not causing, the holiness of the language. Since, by its very concept the Torah tongue is the vehicle of sanctity, its purity of expression is patently the result of this fact.

Whereas Rambam, by basing his explanation on the absence of unrestrained expressions, accords the term Leshon Hakodesh merely a negative meaning, Maharal gives it a positive significance by postulating its sanctity.

The Maharal, inquiring more deeply into the matter, states that language is referred to in the Tanach [Isaiah 57, 19] as the "fruit of the lips". The soul of man is thus compared to a tree whose fruit is speech. Just as the trees of the field differ from one another through their fruits, so each nation has its own language which expresses its very soul. Leshon Hakodesh is the expression of Kedushah, wherefore it is the language of the angels and the Torah.

Man is the ultimate of Hashem’s creations, and it is through him that the world is led to its perfection. Man’s own perfection is attained through his possession of the power of speech which sets him above all other creatures. Man’s speech, in its turn, reaches its perfection in Leshon Hakodesh through which the kedushah in him finds its expression. Thus Leshon Hakodesh elevates speech, speech elevates man, and man elevates the world. This is the meaning of the statement by the Chachamim that the world was created through the medium of Leshon

Concluding his inquiry, the Maharal states that by his emphasis on the inherent holiness of our language, no less than according to Rambam’s explanation, it becomes evident that whoever partakes of kedushah must beware of lapses into lowness in all his utterances.

Modesty and its Rewards

Just as the reward for other mitzvot lies in the spiritual accomplishment of mitzvah performance per se, so the reward for observing tzeniut is to be seen in the attainment of the elevated middah of tzeniut. However, there are other rewards which may become evident only in later generations. There is impressive evidence of the tzeniut of forebears resulting later in sons and daughters possessed of similar characteristics. Thus, the Gemara [Megillah 13b] states that in consequence of our mother Rachel’s tzeniut she merited Saul as a descendant. And as a reward for Saul’s tzeniut, Esther was descended from him.

What was the event in which Rachel’s tzeniut manifested itself? The Gemara relates that Laban was suspected by Jacob of trickery when the day of his marriage to Rachel was drawing near. He and Rachel therefore agreed on secret signs by which he could ascertain that it was she, not her sister Leah, who was with him during the wedding night. However, as the evening of the wedding arrived, Rachel, who knew that her sister would be substituted for her, realized to what cruel shame Leah would be exposed when Jacob would ask her to reveal the agreed secret signs. Therefore Rachel divulged them to Leah, thus sparing her the deepest embarrassment, for Jacob did not realize his new wife’s identity till the light of morning. What greater act of tzeniut could there be than Rachel’s abnegating concern for her sister’s honour! [According to Rashi, Rachel’s tzeniut consisted of her insistence that the fact of the secret agreement between Jacob and herself should never become known.]

Saul’s observance of tzeniut has been mentioned above. But the Gemara also draws attention to the modesty of his conduct even before he became king. He had set out at his father’s behest to find the she-asses which had strayed from his father’s homestead. In the course of his search, he chanced to come upon Samuel the Seer who was able to inform him that the missing animals

had meanwhile been found. Samuel used the divinely arranged opportunity to anoint Saul as king over Israel before sending him off. When, after his return home, Saul was asked by his uncle what he had experienced while on his way, he replied simply that he had met Samuel and had been told by him that the lost she-asses had been found. But he remained silent about his kingship. His silence emanated from the deep, pure tzeniut, which was a decisive trait of his character. Centuries later his descendant Esther, through her tzeniut saved the Jewish nation when she would not reveal her origins and thereby was placed in the position to bring about the undoing of Haman and all the enemies of the Jews. In fact, her middah of keeping silent at the right time is implied by her name, Esther, which is derived from the Hebrew root meaning "to conceal" [see Ohr Chadash on Megillat Esther by the Maharal].

Tzeniut, then, appears clearly as a form of conduct which is not limited to female

modesty but which expresses itself in many spheres, in deeds as well as words. But the roots of tzeniut are deeply struck in the heart. The Kimchit possessed true tzeniut, for she did not reveal to her questioners more than bare facts of her outward behaviour. Her deep inner tzeniut remained her secret. Many other women conducted themselves in similar fashion but they lacked the deep, pure desire of the heart to attain true modesty and reticence which was the secret of the Kimchit’s tzeniut. Only such determination for keeping her real self hidden could result in seven sons who, as High Priests, would enter that most secret place, the Holy of Holies of the Beit Hamikdash


This article was first published in the magazine Jewish Woman’s Outlook Volume II, Number 2, November - December 1981. It was written in Hebrew by Eliezer Ben-Porat and translated into English by the late Chaim Rosenthal z"l, of Gateshead, England. In respect to the translator and his dedicated work, the original style and language have been maintained .

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