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Privacy and Modesty

Privacy and Modesty


Near the beginning of the prayerbook there is a passage from this week’s Torah reading. The Torah tells how Balaam, a non-Jew with spiritual power, tried to curse the Jewish people. Each time, G‑d forced him to give a blessing instead.

This happened twice. The third time was different. Balaam, standing on a hilltop overlooking the camp of the Jews, underwent a temporary change of heart. He himself was moved to give them a blessing: “How good are your tents, Jacob . . . they are like gardens by the river, like fragrant herbs planted by G‑d . . .”1

Rashi’s commentary tells us why Balaam was so moved by the sight of the tents of the Jewish people. From the way they were pitched, he could sense an atmosphere of modesty and privacy. From the entrance of one tent you could not peep inside the entrance of any other. It was clear to Balaam that in this nation, the Jewish people, there was great respect for the integrity of family life and for the sanctity of the person.

The opening words of Balaam’s blessing entered the prayerbook, and have been repeated daily for thousands of years by Jews all over the world.2 The values expressed in these words have contributed, together with many other aspects of Judaism, to the comparatively high level of stability in Jewish family life.

The ideal of modesty applies to both men and women. It relates to clothes, behavior, speech and thought. Why is modesty considered so important in Jewish life?

A basic human perception is the idea that something holy is also something special, kept apart, reserved, even hidden. For example, due to the holiness of the Temple, one could not always go there, and certain areas were restricted to kohanim, the priests. The Holy of Holies could be entered only once a year, on Yom Kippur, and then only by the high priest.

Similarly, a Torah scroll is generally kept hidden. It is kept wrapped in its mantle or silver case in the ark, unless it is actually being read in the synagogue. If for some reason it has to be taken from one location to another, it is usually wrapped in a tallit. These images suggest ways in which one might respect the sanctity of the human body, created in the divine image, with the task to make the world a dwelling for the divine.

By contrast, today we live in an epoch of communication. This is a very positive aspect of our society. Yet communication needs to have limits. The idea that one can reveal everything and say anything can be of great value in appropriate situations. Yet, used unwisely, it can also be harmful to the basic sanctity of the human being and the world.

It is a simple fact of life that modesty is particularly at risk when one is in a “tent,” when traveling, on holiday, in a relaxed and less guarded mode. Yet it was the modesty expressed by the Tents of Jacob which impressed Balaam, and transformed his desire to curse into the desire to give a blessing.3

Our role as Jews is to be an example. The Torah describes us, thousands of years ago, as expressing the virtues of modesty and privacy. Through affirming these values now, we can help make a world in which every detail of life is illuminated by the radiance of the divine.


The “Tents of Jacob” also represent the synagogue and study house—see Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b.


See the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Likkutei Sichot, vol. 13, pp. 83–84.

Dr. Tali Loewenthal is Lecturer in Jewish Spirituality at University College London, director of the Chabad Research Unit, author of Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School and a frequent contributor to the weekly Torah reading section.
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Anonymous via July 2, 2015

Being Blessed! Of course Bilam was impressed. That is the simple meaning of the verse. See Rashi! Reply

Anonymous July 2, 2015

Well put! Thanks for posting! Reply

David Minooka, IL July 1, 2015

Tents placement I'm curious about the placement of tents in Israel. Is there an extra-biblical source for this concept? I don't see this idea in the Scripture that is referenced. I have read the Torah at least 45 times in my life, and I've never come across this concept about the placement of tent openings. Reply

Anonymous London July 1, 2014

These For Friday Night articles need to be published so they can sit happily on my Shabbos table ! :) Reply

Anonymous wisc July 9, 2011

The donkey You made no mention of the donkey in the story. It was the donkey who saw the angels the first two times. It is the donkey who spoke to Bilaam not to strike his obedient servant.

Is the moral of the story that we should be modest like the donkey ? Bilaam wasn't the modest one was he ? Bilaam seemed to be clued out until the donkey made him see the light.

I do follow all your other words about modesty and holiness. But even there i have a question. How would you expect a Sefer Torah to be maintained. Is it holiness which is obvious , but how about just common sense protection. A Sefer Torah is a monumental task and expensive. We normally keep our best things well protected. The tallis exemplifies what i see as holiness. Mixing holiness with modesty is fine, but common sense is also fine. protect your sacred and precious belongings. Reply

K.B. cohen Corpus Christi, Tx July 8, 2011

sabbath service Thanks for the readings, I can not always make it to services on Friday evenings! Reply

Peter J. of Minneapolis Minneapolis, MN July 3, 2009

Balaam and Modesty Nu, Balaam advised his principal to subvert the Children of Israel by sexual subversion. The strategy almost worked, until Pinchas drove the point of tznius (modesty) home on the tip of his spear through Zimri and Cozbi.

Let the point be this -- unless someone has never experienced modesty -- such as someone whose boundaries have been breached by untreated sexual abuse at an early age -- no one can force us to act immodestly, and that no one can overcome a G-d fearing people from without. Only by the exercise of free will can a well-adjusted person act immodestly, and only by internal failure can a G-d fearing people be overcome. Reply

Rosina Panama, Panama June 29, 2009

privacy and Modesty Thank you Yaacov, I did not want to credit Balaam for anything!! Not even for the honest feelings of been Impressed by G-D'S People. I find him detestable and I am not Impressed by him in the least! However you are correct. Thanks. Reply

Yaakov June 29, 2009

To Rosina G-d's warnings were to no avail - he consistently went against them and planned to curse, until G-d personally transformed his words into blessings.
However, our Sages teach that the extreme modesty of the Israelites so astounded Balaam that for the moment, even he was honestly impressed (see Rashi, Numbers 24:2) - resulting in the blessing found in Numbers 24:5.
He remained evil though - and later devised ways to circumvent their modesty in his advice to Balak. Reply

Louise Ocala, FL December 21, 2008

MODESTY AND PRIVACY Shouldn't we look different from the rest of the world ? Shouldn't we dress with modesty and privacy in mind instead of fashion, sensuality, and trying to look younger ? Reply

Rosina Panama July 11, 2008

Privacy and Modesty
With all due respect, Balaam did not Blessed the people because he was that Impressed he was warned severely that he could not curse the people!!!
Yet, later he told Balack how to cause the children of Israel to Sin against G-D by tempting them with their women, and caused them to
worship baal-peor their god. Reply