Beit Midrash

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

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Yaakov Ben Behora

The Laws of Modesty

The trait of modesty, so imbedded in the Nation of Israel, has served as the foundation for all the giant spiritual advances achieved by the Jews throughout history. This is why the Torah laid so strong an emphasis on maintaining modesty and sanctity.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1. "You Must Be Holy"
2. The Pillars of the Prohibition Against Sexual License
3. The Place of Local Custom

"You Must Be Holy"
Before embarking upon a clarification of the laws of modesty (which find expression in, amongst other things, modest dress), let us preface by noting that modesty is, without a doubt, one of the foundations of Judaism.

Rashi interprets the Torah's general exhortation "You must be holy" in the following manner:
[This means,] keep aloof from forbidden sexual relations and from sinful thoughts, for wherever you find [in the Torah] a command to fence yourself in against such relations, you also find mention of "holiness" (Leviticus 19:1).

In addition, regarding the prohibition against forbidden sexual relations it is written: "Do not let yourselves be defiled by any of these acts. It was as a result of them that the nations that I am driving away before you became defiled (ibid. 18:24).

There is a link between Israel's adherence to the laws of modesty and their spiritual-intellectual distinction throughout history. Even while enslaved by the Egyptians, regarding whom the Sages teach that there was no other nation so addicted to sexual appetite and sexual immorality as they, the Children of Israel were not swept up in the current of their practices. We adhered to our modest ways, and, by virtue of our chastity, we merited standing before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from Heaven.

Sexual license underscores the physical-material side of man, while modesty serves to emphasize man's spiritual source. It may seem that, in the short term, sexual license serves to aid in the expression of one's driving inner forces, yet, if one looks more deeply and views things in light of the long term effects, one will reach the clear conclusion that modesty allows man's true driving force - sanctity - its full expression. Consequently, the material aspects of life too become sanctified and are elevated.

We are not opposed to the physical-material side of life; to the contrary, every realm of life has a time and place. But one who does not adhere to the laws of modesty sins, even if he does not intend to, by emphasizing the physical over the spiritual, and the body over the spirit. This is due to the fact that the spirit is, by its very nature, hidden. In order, then, to unravel the spirit's true character, the body must be put in its proper place, instead of being given the center stage and being made into a main attraction.

Only after the spirit has been given preference is it possible to consider, modestly, the physical aspects of our life, to derive from them full driving life force, without negatively effecting the spirit. The trait of modesty, so imbedded in the Nation of Israel, has served as the foundation for all the giant spiritual advances achieved by the Jews throughout history. This is why the Torah laid so strong an emphasis on maintaining modesty and sanctity.

The Pillars of the Prohibition Against Sexual License
There are three basic prohibitions which serve as the foundation of the laws of modesty. In other words, three fundamental Torah principles call upon the Jews to adhere to the laws of modesty:

First, sexual license is a sin on the personal level. It is a sin to place emphasis on the man's external side over his inner side, underscoring the material over the spiritual. Before the Original Sin, Adam and Eve walked naked in the Garden of Eden because the evil inclination had not yet entered them and there was nothing wrong with such behavior. After the evil inclination had taken hold of man, man became limited, and any exaggerated exposition of the body constituted a blow to his spiritual foundation, for it spelled a preference for the physical over the spiritual. And it goes without saying that any assault upon man's primary content, i.e., his soul, results in an all-encompassing abrasion of man's vitality, a act which finds expression in, among other things, a lack of ability to delve into spiritual matters or to harbor full affection for another person. Just look at the licentious movie stars who are unable to maintain a relationship for any extended period of time. This, as we have seen, results from the fact that they do not manage to enter the deeper inner chambers of love.

Second, licentiousness damages family harmony. Extreme license will generally destroy the family. Yet, one should be aware that any time modesty is lacking, even slightly, it effects the family. Affection must be directed toward the partner alone, for only with one's partner is love permitted find full expression. Any time the power of affection is wasted on the inappropriate people it comes at the expense of the healthy development of love within the home. Such a situation not only makes its impact felt upon the partner and the children, it also effects the children's education.

Third, sexual modesty safeguards our unique national character. The Torah prohibition, Do not follow their (the nations') laws" (Leviticus 18:3), implies that Jews must refrain from following the customs of the nations, and the principle difference between Israel and the nations always finds expression in the fulfillment of the laws of modesty. In other words, licentiousness blurs the unique traits and qualities of the Jew.

The Place Local Custom
One of the central questions regarding the laws of modesty is: Are there fixed laws of modesty which are entirely independent of local custom, or are all such laws relative and dependent upon the community's behavior?

This question becomes pertinent, for example, in a place where women are accustomed to wearing sleeveless shirts and short skirts in the summer months. Are we permitted to assert that, because this is the accepted local custom, such apparel is deemed acceptable and modest and does not draw any special attention, and that only one who wears clothes which reveal more than the accepted norm should be seen as having violated the laws of modesty? Or, do we say that there are fixed and absolute halakhic boarders delineating the laws of modesty which are independent of time and place?
Answer: Although there is an opinion among the halakhic authorities which rules that the laws of modesty are fixed according to time and place (Divrei Chamudot LeRosh, Berakhot ch. 3, 137), nevertheless all other authorities disagree, ruling that according to Halakha there are parts of the woman's body which must be covered, and that even if all of the women in a particular locale were to begin walk the streets unclothed, all of them would be considered licentious. The reason for this is that our sages, in their profound wisdom, discerned that there are parts of the body that deserve being covered and safeguarded in purity for the sake of the couple's complete mutual affection, and there are other areas which may be revealed. And even though it is possible that if all women were to begin wearing sleeveless blouses, such a sight would completely cease to arouse the sexual appetite of men, it would nevertheless continue to be unacceptable in the eyes of the Jewish law; to the contrary, it is important to protect man's healthy natural sensitivity to such, for its purpose is to deepen emotions and strengthen affection between husband and wife.

Let us return to the Halakha. There are parts of the woman's body which must be covered, and local custom has no bearing upon them; and there are areas of the body which, though according to the law a woman is not obligated to cover them, if all woman in a certain place are accustomed to covering them, such a custom becomes binding upon all women in that community. For example, according to Jewish law, the arm must be covered beyond the elbow, and even if all of the women in a certain locality became accustomed to wearing short sleeved shirts, Jewish law deems such a custom unsuitable, and it is completely forbidden to follow it. But, when it comes to the area from the elbow down to the wrist, the law depends on the local custom: Strictly speaking, there is nothing which obliges a woman to cover that area, but if all of the women in a particular community accustom themselves to wearing long sleeves, such a practice becomes halakhically binding, and any woman who violates this custom is seen as not adhering to the laws of modesty.

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