Immodest Modesty: The Emergence of Halakhic Dress Codes
Tsniut (modesty) is a very popular theme in contemporary Jewish religious discourse. But one significant novelty, however, lies in the recent apparition of popular halakhic guides that understand tsniut for the first time as a form of dress code for women. Until a few decades ago, no halakhic authority found it necessary to pen a book describing in painstaking detail the exact rules to which a Jewish observant woman should steadfastly adhere if she wants to dress modestly. However, as of today, tens of such books have been published, mostly in Hebrew and English, but also in other languages—such as French, Spanish, and Yiddish. In effect, we are witnesses, in a span of a few short years, to the creation of nothing short of a new halakhic genre, which so far has been insufficiently addressed by the scholars active in corresponding fields. This paper aims at partially filling this gap in the scholarly literature.
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See Mireille M. Lee, Body, Dress, and Identity in Ancient Greece (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 23–24.
Illustrations about the ways Jewish women used to dress across centuries and cultures may be found in Esther Juhasz, ed., The Jewish Wardrobe—from the Collection of the Israel Museum (Jerusalem, 5 Continent Editions, 2012); and Alfred Rubens, A History of Jewish Costume (New York: Crown Publishers, 1973).
Such as yichud (seclusion of a male with a female), arayot (forbidden sexual relationships), the sepa- ration between the sexes in the public sphere, and others.
Such as se’ar be-isha (female hair), kol be-isha (female voice), and others.
Such as the questions of the military or civil service for Israeli women, women singing in an army choir, women participating in synagogue rituals, and others.
For a valuable treatment of all aspects of tsniut across the ages, see Orah Cohen, Female Modesty in Modern Times [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem, Beth El, 1999).
The best example is in Isaiah 3:16–26. Furthermore, from Genesis 38:14, one can learn that widowed women used to wear special garments reflecting their marital status. See also Ezekiel 16:9 and Exodus 32:2, 35:22.
See Exodus, chaps. 28, 29, and 39.
On the general question of clothing in the Bible, see Encyclopedia Mikrait [in Hebrew], vol. 4, entries“mal- bushim” and “malbushei kehuna,” columns 1032–49, and the references cited there.
See, for instance, Sifrei Devarim 226, Nazir 59a, and parallel sources.
See, for instance, Midrash Tanaim on Deuteronomy 22:5.
All four rulings are from Bavli Berachot 24a.
For a brief presentation of the minority opin- ions who distinguish between Shema and Torah study and permit the latter in the presence of an uncovered nakedness, see Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, Understanding Tzniut (Jerusalem, Urim Publications, 2008), 20–21.
An unclothed male, if he was of age, was certainly considered full-fledged “nakedness” for the purpose of this legal disposition. At times, even one’s own nudity could be the reason for prohibiting the reciting of the Shema: if, for instance, “his heart sees his nakedness,” that is, if there was no proper separation between the upper and lower parts of the body (see Bavli Brakhot 24b).
For example, see Mishnah Challah 2:3.
This idea appears, in one way or another, in a number of Talmudic passages: see Bavli Ketubot 46a, Berachot 24a, Avoda Zara 20a, Nedarim 20a, Berachot 61a.
Whether women may be tempted by hirhur (erotic thoughts) is discussed by Jehiel Michael Epstein, Arukh ha-Shulhan (Ma’aleh Adumim: Mekhon Ma’aliyot, 2007), Orah Hayyim 75:5. The author does not take a side in the discussion but notes that the majority of legal decisors and sources rule out the possibility that women are subject to hirhur.
Bavli Berachot 24a.
Bavli Avoda Zara 20a, Ketubot 46a.
Bavli Ketubot 72a.
This formulation is inspired by the Meiri’s explana- tion of the Mishna; see Menachem ben Solomon ha-Meiri, Beth Ha-Bekhirah ‘al Masekhet Ketubot [in Hebrew] (Zichron Yaakov: ha-Merkaz le-Chinuch Yehudi, 1976), ad loc.
See the Baraita in Bavli Gittin 90a-b; and Tosefta Gittin 5, 9.
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Kri’at Shema 3:16, and Hilkhot Ishut 24:9-11; R. Jacob ben Asher, Arba’a Turim, Orach Chayim chaps. 74 and 75 and Even Ha-Ezer chap. 115; R. Joseph Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim chaps. 74 and 75, and Even Ha-Ezer chap. 115.
See Menachem Elon, Jewish Law, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997), 957–64 for a brief presenta- tion of the main monographic books written by the Geonim. For the monographs written between the Mishnah Torah and the Arba’a Turim, see ibid, 1023 ff; and for those written after the Shulchan Aruch, see ibid., 1203 ff.
Ganzfried, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, chap. 150.
R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk, Oz veHadar Levusha— Modesty, an Adornment for Life (Jerusalem and New York, Feldheim Publishers, 1998). In his preface (pp. 3 and 9), the author refers to a previous, smaller edi- tion of the same work, published in 1993 (R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk, Halachos and Attitudes Concerning the Dress of Women and Girls [Gateshead: self-pub., 1993]).
See, for instance, R. Elyakim Elinson, Hatsne’a Lechet (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1977), espe- cially 129–60; R. Moshe Wiener, Kevudah Bat Melech [in Hebrew] (New York: Wiener, 1980; R. Yitzchak Yaakov Fuchs, Halikhot Bat Israel [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem, self-pub., 1983), especially chaps. 4 to 7; an English translation of the last book was pub- lished in 1985 by Feldheim Publishers (A Woman’s Guide to Jewish Observance); R. Shmuel ha-Levi Shisha, Tsniut ba-Halakha [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem: n.p., 1988); Yitzchak Yosef, Sefer Otsar Dinim le-Isha oule-Bat [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Chason Ovadia Yosef, 1989).
Such as the Ben Ish Chai’s Qânûn-un-Nisâ’ (نوناق ءاسنلا), originally written in the early twentieth century but only recently translated into English by Moshe Schapiro (Joseph Hayyim ben Elijah al-Hakam, Laws for Women, trans. Moshe Schapiro [Jerusalem, Salem Books, 2011]); and, even earlier, the Chafetz Chaim’s little work, Geder ‘Olam: Israel Meir ha-Kohen (Chafetz Chaim, Sefer Geder ‘Olam [in Hebrew] [Brooklyn: n.p., 2002]).
See, for instance, http://www.shemayisrael.com/ ozvhadur/ . In the same vein, Feldheim also pub- lished in 2006 a handbook with educational dia- grams, and in 2011 a new edition of the book, arranged for daily study—see R. Pesach Eliyahu Falk, The Tznius Handbook: Educational Diagrams for Women and Girls (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 2006), and Falk, Modesty: An Adornment for Life: Day by Day (New York: Feldheim Publishers, 2011).
The Garment of the Torah [in Hebrew], Tiferet Rivkah, Jerusalem, 2007.
See, for instance, the first (to my knowledge) halakhic dress code in Yiddish: R. Daniel Frish, The Crown of Tzniut [in Yiddish] (Jerusalem, self-pub., 2000).
See, for instance, R. Yehuda Henkin, Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies inthe Jewish Community (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2008). This book is a collection of earlier articles, reprinted with minor modifications, originally published in the Orthodox journal Tradition. Rochelle L. Millen’s review of both R. Falk’s and R. Henkin’s books is even more critical of the first book (“Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community,” Nashim no. 18 [Fall 5770/2009], 234–42). See also the series of critical posts published by R. Josh Waxman on his website Parsha by using the key word “Falk” in the search index: http://parsha.blogspot.com/ search?q=falk.
See Henkin, Understanding Tzniut, 38–39, 50, and 70–71.
For a similar point, see the article from Nadav Shenrav, “Is there a Halakhic Basis for a Dress Code” [Heb.] Akdamot 29 (2014): 37–51. However, Shenrav’s analysis is lacking in one key aspect: he did not pay sufficient attention to the sources and jumped to the conclusion that he intuitively knew to be true. His respondent in the same issue, R. Shmuel Ariel (“Between a Woman and her Creator” [Heb.], 53–68), unmercifully raked him over the coals for overreaching in his main points. According to R. Shmuel, if there is a difference in the modern halakhic treatment of tsniut, it is one of quantity and not quality: all the basic interdictions were already in place in Talmudic times but never needed to be fully developed until the current depraved era and its regrettable relaxation of social standards in matters of dress. I disagree with Ariel’s conclusions and agree with those of Shenrav but, as can be intuited from this presentation, for different reasons altogether.
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