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Uncovering the Mystery of Modesty

Uncovering the Mystery of Modesty


A few years ago, my family and I spent our summer vacation up north in Tzfat, leaving our home in Central Israel for a few days. We were located smack in the heart of Tzfat's Old City, right next to the Artist Quarter. We thought it would be a great place to take in the holiness of ancient times and for our children to have the freedom to run around in a small, quiet, almost village-like setting.

What we didn't know was that every day hundreds of young American college students would be pouring through, right outside our door, as they made their way from the Artist's Quarter to the other parts of the Old City. My husband and I decided to take the opportunity to reach out to these young men and women.

I breathed deeply and did my best to explain So I went over to one of the women and asked, "Hi, I see you are touring Israel. I was wondering if you have any questions that you'd like to ask a fellow English speaker." She looked a little surprised, but after a couple of seconds, she asked, "Yeah, I was actually wondering about something. Why do the women cover themselves up so much?"

I only had a few minutes, as they were standing outside an ancient synagogue, waiting for their turn to go in. I breathed deeply and did my best to explain one of the most misunderstood aspects of Judaism.

A quick glance at an Orthodox community raises questions in the mind of one brought up in western culture. Why do they cover themselves up so much? Isn't it hot? What are they hiding? Where do they come from? Get with the times!

One of the most misunderstood Hebrew words is tzniut, often translated as modesty. Tzniut is a concept highly valued in traditional Judaism, not only as an ideal for women to strive for, but for men as well. It is lauded as a most noble virtue, as proven by the Rabbinic statement, "There is nothing more beautiful than modesty."

This idea hits western culture straight in the nose. In a world of "If you got it, flaunt it," modesty is a trait to be avoided, something primitive, reminding us of images of some ancient family photo of a stiff great-grandmother from Europe. We've outgrown that concept, haven't we?

But Judaism is an eternal religion. There's no such thing as a Jewish law being outdated. Jews have been living within in the guidelines of the Torah for thousands of years, and they will continue to do so. Since the Torah does not demand from us what is archaic or not fair, perhaps our concept of tzniut needs to be re-examined.

One of the first mentions of tzniuts is in Midrash Tanchuma on Parshat Ki Sisah, which discusses the giving of the first Tablets (two stones on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments) to the Jewish people. This took place with elaborate fanfare, which the whole world knew about. The end result was the golden calf and a broken set of tablets. Our Creator then decided to give us the second tablets in a more private manner—a small, quiet event, between G‑d and the Jewish people. That was when G‑d said: "There is nothing more beautiful than tzniut," a word which would more accurately be translated as privacy.

When something is secret, it's specialPrivacy. Not quite as annoying a word as "modesty." After all, who doesn't value privacy? Children throughout the world enjoy secret clubhouses or private codes. And adults cherish private letters that they stash away at the back of their drawer, or call their spouses and children nicknames that only family members know the true meaning of. When something is secret, it's special.

When something is private, it shows that we admire and appreciate it. Disclosing it to the public would degrade it and take away some of the exclusivity of whatever it is that we want to keep private.

But what exactly are we trying to hide? After all, Americans pride themselves on their openness and genuineness. By covering myself up, am I not simply putting on a front?

Let's put that question on the back burner for a moment. Let's talk about people. That is, what makes people who they are? If I were to describe my friend, I might say she is thin, dark haired and short. But is that who she really is? That could describe tens of people at any gathering (especially if it's a Jewish function). Even if I would give a very detailed physical description, does that give a true portrait of my friend? Hopefully not. Hopefully, my friend has much deeper characteristics—such as thoughtfulness, generosity and patience. Or perhaps she is analytical and fair.

If someone had to describe you, would you want them to solely focus on how you look? Would someone want their epitaph to say, "He was blonde, tall, and a little heavy."? Most thinking people hope that after they pass on, they will be remembered for their inner noble qualities. Because they know that these are the qualities that really count, the traits that made their life worth living.

Now let's go back to our question. What is the purpose of tzniut? What are we covering up when we follow the Torah's guidelines of proper dress?

More important than what we are covering is what we are exposing. The most prominent parts of the body that are allowed to be seen are the face and the hands. These two body parts express the inner self. The face reveals who we are: the smile, the eyes (which are windows to the soul), facial expressions, etc. Our hands represent what we do, our endeavors in life. Here we have it: the face and the hands, people's inner content and their accomplishments. In other words, the part of ourselves that we may share with others is the spiritual self.

She is exposing her real self When people dress in accordance with the laws of tzniut, they are achieving two goals. Firstly, they are keeping private what should be private, thus enhancing the special intimacy between husband and wife. Additionally, they are allowing the outside world to get a true glimpse of who they really are.

Not only are the laws of tzniut not sexist, they actually serve to curb sexism. A woman who follows the laws of tzniut is ensuring that others see her for who she really is, not just for how she looks. When a woman covers up her body, she is not hiding her true identity. To the contrary, she is exposing her real self.

The greatly misunderstood concept of tzniut is actually a beautiful idea, integral to a spiritual life. Jewish philosophy speaks of many great rewards for those who follow these laws carefully, such as protection from physical harm , fertility and particularly bearing children who love Torah. But besides the payment promised, men and women who make tzniut a part of their lives will see benefits in improved relationships with others and a better sense of self.

So who is tzniut for anyway? Yes, it is to help others guard their eyes from what they should not see. But tzniut also tremendously enriches those who make the effort to incorporate it into their lives.

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Katie Cheyenne January 2, 2017

Modesty Lovely, the author understands the heart and soul, know Big that we need to be so much more than our bodies. Since my Husband asked me to wear the tichel (and I said OF COURSE!!), my whole personality has changed. My Daughter says I am stronger and more confident. Men look at me in my eyes and call me Ma'am. I am receiving respect from people who usually don't show any. There is a strong spiritual change in those who adopt modesty. I wear makeup and beautiful earrings, I don't feel mousy or dull. My eyes shine with love and respect for myself. I wear beautiful long skirts (that I often make) and silky shirts that match. My husband thinks I'm the loveliest Lady that he's ever seen. He is the only one that sees my hair in the bedroom at night and it gives him a sense of longing for me that he didn't have before. That his Wife is private and special and modest. All I can say Ladies is TRY IT. See how strong your marriage gets without saying a word. Reply

Anonymous October 13, 2015

What if your face has been altered medically due to a medical accident and you look very different , how does this show your inner self? That you have a damaged inner self? Reply

Anonymous Essex UK February 25, 2015

I still believe that, even in this modern world with few boundaries, it is far more seductive for a woman to wear clothing that covers the body. Cleavage is far too over rated, as is, showing too much flesh from the waist down. this is of course, the fashion, however, this may attract the wrong kind of man. If a man is truly interested , he will be attracted (of course) by something in our appearance, however, with or without makeup, he will be attracted by something deeper in us, and the only way I can explain this is to say that the souls of two people , equally attracted, will connect in a sort of invisible game that almost feels like your soul has elevated. This kind of love, would not disappear, if the outward appearances were no longer vibrant, and there would be a loyalty for all time, even if for some reason, the two were separated by circumstances. This is when two souls have become joined, some would call it ( kindrid spirits) Reply

Anonymous Texarkana, Ar. USA October 18, 2012

Tzniyut This is a beautiful article. I was once a "United Pentecostal." That is to say, in relation to this article, I didn't wear pants, tight clothes, make-up, or jewelery. It was called "holliness standards" or "modesty." I felt dowdy, ugly, homely. I believe you can dress modestly and still wear make-up and feel good about yourself. What I take from this article is that not dressing in a sexy manner is holiness, you can still be modern and beautiful, but be modest. Thank you for sharing this, I will read it over and over. Reply

Anonymous los angeles, CA April 22, 2012

sources please could you give sources for benefits of tznuit according to the jewish philosophy that you mentioned. Also, I would like to look up the midrash tanchuma with my learning partner as this is a topic we aim to address in our learning. Reply

jan oxnard November 6, 2011

not immodest i do not believe that wearing jeans or pants is immodest (i would not ever go out in sweats...too much like pajamas...). i am completely covered, nothing of my legs is showing. what is immodest about that? i don't like skirts and have not worn one since retiring from work (8 years ago). i have earned the right to be comfortable while remaining stylist and looking nice. i can be very dressy in nice pants or jeans with very nice (modest) tops. i cannot let others determine for me what i can and cannot wear; it feels too much like a uniform and not a choice. i respect your choices, but please respect mine. Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, ny October 31, 2011

redefining modesty amazing!!!!! this article really puts modesty in a new more meaningful light. with such an ezplination why wouldn't any woman not want to dress modestly ;) Reply

Lisa Donovan Clarksville, MD/USA September 4, 2011

Uncovering the Mystery of Modesty I love this article and have shared it with many people - Gentile Christians - we have much to learn from the Jews! You are a very gifted and insightful writer. Reply

Anonymous Taguig City, Philippines April 26, 2011

"What a revelation!" This article has touched me in many levels.

It opened my eyes, when my vision was getting clouded with wrong thoughts.. against myself, against another person and against the situation I got myself into. I was able to see my current state in a whole new way. Totally refreshing. It made me cry and smile at the same time.

Thank you so much for writing this.

:-) Reply

joanna London, Englan January 18, 2011

tzniut This thought has really impressed me. Privacy, dignity. It is right Reply

shoshana Missoula, MT/USA October 13, 2010

Making the best of what you have modestly speaking I have found that thrift stores are tremendously helpful, finding skirts and they usually have a good assortment. Blessings to you... Reply

Anonymous July 20, 2010

Semantics? I think we need to stop calling it modest dressing and say "dignified" dressing. Modest sounds prudish, stuck up, a lack of pride in restraining from being happy. Reply

Viola Hepburn Freeport, Grand Bahama July 19, 2010

I am from the Bahamas This is alos a dicsussion in our churches, PANTS AND HAT/COVERINGsome say it takes nothing away from them if they wearpants, then you have some who would not wear it in church, if they do you cant ask them to participate becaue theywill say NO!


Sara Leah Delray Beach, FL via January 23, 2010

Tzniyut I very much enjoyed your article. As the years have passed by, I find myself even more & more observant in the laws of the Torah. One of which has been Tzniyut, Modesty. In my working career, which is a secular enviornment, I find that most women wear pants. When I became Tzniyut I voided my wardrobe of all pants, pant suits, shorts, etc. I now only wear skirts. I'm more comfortable in all aspects and everyone knows in my working environment that that is my signature. However, in being modest, there is only one thing I have trouble with and that is covering my head. Shatels (sp?) (wigs) are so expensive and a scarf would be difficult for me. When I am with my Torah observant friends, I feel that this keeps me somewhat apart from them. I understand the laws of covering a women's own hair, especially if she is married, but does that make me less of a frum woman? I am open minded and have not totally given up on the idea of covering my head, but need help. Reply

Siggy Stone Bet Shemesh, IL September 3, 2009

TZNIYUT Shalom Blima - Loved your column! The truth of the matter is that, quite contrary to western society and belief, the whole concept of being modest actually enhances the husband-wife relationship. Especially when he realizes that his spouses' beauty is reserved for his eyes only. Please keep writing... Reply

Melissa Exeter, NH August 22, 2009

Learning Modesty I was so happy to read this article. I have recently decided to wear dresses and skirts that cover my knees exclusively. I do wear jeans or sweats at home, but not pants or shorts in public. It sometimes feels strange, and sometimes I would love to just throw on a pair of sweats to go to the grocery store, but as I continue with this decision, it is becoming habitual. I love the way I feel wearing a skirt or dress; I also find that the people around me act differently, too--more respectfully, almost. My students love seeing their teachers "dressed up," which is so neat, because I can provide for them the sense that I care what they think about my appearance, too--that they are "worth" dressing up for. Not that I wasn't respected in pants, but...there's something different about it. I feel like I'm taking better care of myself, almost--it's hard to explain. It feels right for me, and I am very happy that I've stuck with this decision. Reply

Karen Bryn Mawr , PA August 18, 2009

Shopping choices for modesty Here are some sites I have used:

I have shopped from all of these and been satisfied. Eshakti will custom make things for very reasonable prices, and they're great.

Here's a great source of links:

Hope this helps!

P.S. I'm not affiliated with anyone mentioned above; I'm just a happy shopper. Reply

jan Oxnard, CA August 12, 2009

modesty of the body and head i can understand being modest in dress but why does our hair have to be covered? and if we wear a wig we still have 'hair' showing, so what's the point? people look at my face when i talk to them, not at my short hair. i really don't understand what covering the hair has to do with modesty or tzniut. Reply

Debbie Marianna, FL,USA August 11, 2009

Modesty This was a beautifully written article. I had a conservative conversion 11 years ago, and I have been yearing for more. I'm trying to find an orthodox rabbi who I can study with., but I live in a small Florida town that has many churches, I think we are the only jewish people in the town. It's hard, but Im determined to see it through.
I have been wearing pants for so long, I'm having trouble giving up the pants. Does any one have any ideas that they could help me with? When I have worn long skirts to school, I get a lot of nice compliments from my students, and I have actually had men hold doors open for me. I
I would love to know where people shop for modesty clothes, everything that is in stores here is very revealing. thank you again for a great article. Reply

Rachel Garber Phila, PA USA August 11, 2009

There should be some emphasis on male modesty I live in a large city and am a substitute teacher, and I constantly see young (and not so young)men wearing pants that they can barerly walk in, because the pants are practically hanging around their knees., I don't know why anyone thinks people want to see their underwear. As for female modesty, the amount of "skin" that women show is truly amazing, and frankly offensive. I have also seen a woman in my synagogue telling women with short sleeve blouses to cover their arms, yet there are some women who wear clothing with very low cut necklines, and nothing is said to them. I'm not sure why it is more offensive to see part of a woman's arm, than to see her bosom. Very strange. I started wearing not only skirts, but full length skirts and dresses few yrs ago and now I feel most comfortable, yes even in summer, dressing that way. Reply

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