Discretion in appearance and speech is designed to protect our souls from assault by a coarse world.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage (Jonathan David).
Modesty is the foundation of Jewish values and is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the Jewish family. It is popularly thought to apply primarily to women, but it is a desirable quality in men as well. Although the term is generally used for relations between men and women, it is meant to apply to people in all situations.
Tz’ni’ut means modesty, simplicity, a touch of bashfulness, and reserve. But perhaps above these, it signifies privacy. It is the hallmark of Jewish marriage, and the rabbis refer to it as the specific quality to look for in the ideal mate.
The classical symbol of tz’ni’ut is the veil. It bespeaks privacy, a person apart; Isaiah (3:18) calls it tif’eret (“glory”). The Assyrians ruled that a harlot may not wear a veil, to imply that she is on public exhibit (Code of Hammurabi). The veil was instinctively donned by Rebecca as soon as she observed her future husband in the distance (Genesis 24:65). That is one reason why the ceremony immediately prior to the wedding celebration is the bedeken, or the veiling of the bride by the groom, who blesses the bride with the ancient words spoken to Rebecca.
The principle of tz’ni’ut rejects all nudity, not only in public, but also before family members at home. (Thus one must not pray or recite the Sh’ma prayer while one is naked or standing in the presence of a naked person.) The rejection of nudity recalls Adam and Eve who, after committing the first sin, realized they were naked and instinctively felt ashamed and hid (Genesis 2:25). The same attitude reappears when Noah curses Ham, who saw his father exposed (Genesis 9:21-27).
Tz’ni’ut also implies modesty in dress. Traditionally covered parts of the body should not be exposed, although one can dress stylishly. This attitude issues from a very highly refined sense of shame, an emotion often denigrated today in the name of freedom. Not only did the Bible prohibit removing all clothing, it did not permit wearing any garments belonging to the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5), as this might lead to unnatural lusts, lascivious thoughts, and a freer intermingling between the sexes.
Modesty is About More than What One Wears
Tz’ni’ut means discreet habits, quiet speech, and affections privately expressed, and infers the avoidance of grossness, boisterous laughter, raucous behavior, even “loud” ornaments. This is not merely a series of behavioral niceties, a sort of Bible’s guide to etiquette, but a philosophy of life.
This concept of modesty does not imply a rejection of the body. On the contrary, the Jewish people are taught to respect the body. Hillel [an early rabbinic sage] did not bathe solely for hygienic reasons, but to care for the body–the most magnificent creation of God (Leviticus Rabba 34:3). Rabban Gamaliel [a second century sage], on seeing a beautiful person, praised God (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 9:1). One consequence of this concept is the emphasis on the need for marriage and on healthy sexual relations between husband and wife.
Tz’ni’ut was intended to preserve the sanctity of the inner human being from assault by the coarseness of daily life. The Bible (Psalm 45:14) says kol k’vudah bat melekh p’nimah (“the whole glory of the daughter of the king is within”–some translate it playfully as “the whole glory of the daughter is the royalty within”). Dignity comes not from exposure and indecent exhibition, but from discretion and the assurance that the human being will be considered a private, sensitive being, not merely a body.
The antonym of tz’ni’ut is hefkerut, abandon, looseness, the absence of restraint and inhibition. In its extreme, it is gross immorality, gilui arayot (the uncovering of nakedness). Tz’ni’ut is covering, vulgarity is uncovering. Vulgarity that is repeated ceases to astonish us or to shock our moral sensibilities. Thus the canons of taste have degenerated as immorality has increased. Those who would rather be clothed than exposed are considered square and puritanical, victims of the centuries-old repression of healthy instincts.
Privacy, in contemporary parlance, refers primarily to property. Sarah Handelman observed that “privacy refers to ‘property,’ not to ‘person.’ Our homes are our inviolate castles: ‘Private Property-No Trespassing.’ Our gems, stocks and bonds are hidden away in vaults. But our bodies, and the precious inner jewels of our personalities, are open to all comers. Nothing is inviolable there. God forbid that someone should know your bank balance, but a casual meeting with a stranger at a bar is warrant for immediate sexual intimacy” (Sheina Sarah Handelman, “The Paradoxes of Privacy,” Sh’ma, November 10, 1978).
The [Babylonian] Talmud (Bava Batra 57b) has an interesting comment on privacy as it relates to persons and property: Privacy was required for women who did their laundering in a brook, because they had to uncover their legs. The Talmud ruled that private property rights had to be violated to protect the privacy of persons, “because Jewish women cannot be expected to humiliate themselves at the laundering brook.” Because of such legal decisions, moral principles are still relevant to Jews. It is said (in BT Yevamot 107a) that ein b’not yisrael hefker, (the daughters of Israel are not in a state of abandonment, available for every public use). The vulgarities of society can be symbolized by the biblical phrase nezem zahav b’af hazir (“a gold ring in the swine’s snout”). That which is pure gold, the God-given ability to reproduce, is so often used for wading through the public mud.
“A man should always be watchful of the possibility of moral abandonment … for it will cause all he owns to go to waste … as a worm in a sesame plant who eats everything within, without anyone noticing it, and all that is left is the shell” (BT Sotah 3b). The gradual abandonment of tz’ni’ut has proceeded virtually unobstructed and undetected, until all that remains is only an outer shell of morality.