Parshablog on “Levels” of Tzniut (Modesty)

Jewish women hyper-tzniut "frumka" weddingThis appeared on Rabbi Josh Waxman’s site, Parshablog:

Mother In Israel on a sign urging modest dress in Petach Tikvah, and why it bothers her. One misguided (IMHO) commenter advises:

“Don’t feel threatened if you feel that you do your best in your modesty level (for the time being). It’s something you need to be comfortable with too or you might throw it out of the window one day when fed up.”

I think that this commenter unwittingly hits upon the very problem with the sign — the assumption that there are “levels” of modesty, and that women dressing in accordance with a certain “level” are not yet reaching the truly best “level” of tznius. This is just not so. For example, shok be’isha erva, and the shok is either the calf or the thigh. For those who maintain it is the thigh, a woman may wear a knee-length skirt and need no stockings covering the lower leg. And this is the community tznius norm, in some communities. Women who conform to this halachically-based tznius norm are not dressing immodestly. And in keeping with the halachot of tzniut as defined by their poskim and their community, they are at tznius.

It is not that they are tznius “at their level”. Just because other communities follow different piskei halacha such that they reach other conclusions, or just because they developed different communal norms does not mean that those other communities are keeping a better, higher level of tznius. Rather, both communities are following halacha and are tznius. It is not that women with less draconian measures of tznius will some day attain a higher spiritual level and accept the “better” levels of tznius, and the only reason that they don’t now is that it is too much for them.

We wouldn’t say that Ashkenazim are keeping a “higher” level of kashrut on Pesach than Sefardim because they don’t eat kitniyot. We don’t say that mitnagdim are keeping a “higher” level of tefillin by wearing it on chol haMoed Sukkot. The same applies, in many cases, to tznius.


tznius: modesty

shok be’isha erva: a woman’s calf (or thigh) is considered nakedness)

halachically: related to Jewish law.

kitniyot: legumes

mitnagdim: ashkenazi Jews who are not chassidic. Chassidim and mitnagdim have different customs regarding wearing tefillin during the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot.


  1. I learned a much different definition of tniut growing up (primarily from Bnei Akiva). The true meaning of tniut is calling attention to one’s self. If you cover up everything, but wear a fancy dress while everyone else is wearing jeans and a T-shirt – that is not tsanuah. If you have an a flashy car while everyone else is driving a family car – that is not tsanuah. It is not just a matter of how long your sleeves are – it is the message you are sending out by your clothing.
    In the same way, if everyone is wearing shirts and skirts and you wear a poncho like the woman in your picture above, thatis calling attention to yourself – it is not tsanuah. People always stare at the women dressed like the one in your picture.
    I also truely believe that women who take on extra tsnius are suffering from a body image problem, probably the result of sexual assault at some point in their lives.

    • Thanks, Ariela, for sharing that. I think that is valuable, the only thing I don’t like about that approach is that it seems to encourage conformity.

      • While Ariela’s idea of tzniut being relative is OK with me, it is not how it is seen by many charedim. It is absolute. You’ve got to cover up. The more, the better. Also, now it is considered not enough in some circles just to cover up so as not to see, but to cover up (as in with a wide cape) and hide, not even suggest what might be underneath.
        I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.

  2. A really good post.

    What, then, of the person whose community does not observe any form of tzniut? Is she drawing attention to herself if she covers her head or only wears skirts if that is not the communal norm??

  3. Nurse Yachne says

    Ditto. Great post. I am amazed at how many people miss Ariela’s simple point–that ????? is about NOT attracting attention to one’s self, especially not by externals. I also think she’s on target about the connection with a body image problem.

    Rivster–With the possible exception of a Las Vegas club or a nudist colony, it’s hard to imagine a community that does not observe SOME form of tzniut. Context does have some relevance, but the basic halachic guidelines give it some substance. Hard to imagine that a headcovering and “just skirts” (assuming the skirt is neither tight nor short, and not provocative)would draw as much attention as a full-body poncho.

    Unless you’re the Caped Crusader.

    • In a Reform community, there is little to no consideration given to Halachic guidelines when it comes to attire. Whatever modesty there is comes from general (read: secular) communal trends.

      I firmly believe that there is a place for tzniut in all corners of Jewish communal life and I am starting to explore what role tznuit can have in the liberal communities.

  4. Um… I don’t know that I agree.

    First throughout Jewish history minhag hamakom has been definition of communal norm. However, in Israel for example where does that leave varying “communities”.

    The intermixing of communities, the newly religious ect… have all brought deviations to the communal norm.

    What was minhag Yisrael for example was well defined until about 40-50yrs ago. Wigs were out, long skirts and long sleeves(down to the wrist in most of those communities), loose fitting clothes, and open toed shoes lacking socks or stockings was the norm for women. Then individuals decided to begin to change that in both directions, to the short sleeves and form fitting cloths of the D”L crowd, to the form fitting and wigs of the Lubavitch crowd, and to the Ponchos of the more extreme sects of Hareidim…

    Ultimately I think we would all like to think that our communal designation is the one that got it right, however the sources(going back 500+ yrs as far as Eretz Yisrael is concerned) are still there black on white staring us in the face. So what does one do with that?

  5. Ariela, I totally agree with what you’re saying. When years ago, the shal was still very new, my husband asked me if I’d want to take it upon myself. I objected because we were living in a chiloni/dati leumi neighborhood and I REALLY would be standing out instead of being modest.

    Thank you Rabbi for quoting me. I’d just like to add a little. Like Hannah said in her blog, I am also not comfortable nor happy that the Eidah HaCharedit is setting the standard, but there certainly are levels in modesty e.g. when we’re not wearing socks, we could start wearing them or adding length to the sleeves or skirt, loose-fitting clothes, no sheitel.

    The custom of the shal was common in Eretz Israel and Sefardic communities especially till over a century ago. Because today’s fashion (also in the Charedi sector) is a lot tighter and tailored, the Rabbis are “encouraging” the women to wear a shal.

    Personally, I don’t care whether or not the Rabbis want us to wear the shalim. When I am READY to wear one, I will consider wearing one. I don’t want to be pushed into doing things because then it can be thrown out of the window as soon as the mood strikes or something…

  6. “but there certainly are levels in modesty e.g. when we’re not wearing socks, we could start wearing them or adding length to the sleeves or skirt, loose-fitting clothes, no sheitel.”

    you’re welcome. but this is not a point i missed.

    why, pray tell, is wearing socks more modest? it certainly covers up more. but more modest? in a place where the custom is to cover the feet, then it is a makom that is usually covered, and there may well be a halachic requirement to cover it. in a place it is not, it is not erva!

    just because there are communities that cover it, and as a result transform it halachically into a place that may *need* to be covered, does not mean that they are functioning on a higher “level” of tznius, such that Hashem is happier with their better fulfillment of the mitzvah.

    sheitel, too, is the subject of a *halachic* debate. some poskim hold it is assur, and some hold it is muttar. and some, such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, held that it is optimal — indeed, “better” than a tichel. just because there are communities that interpret the *halachic* sources such that a sheitel is forbidden does not mean that the communities whose poskim (such as Rav Moshe Feinstein) ruled otherwise are operating at a “lower level”.

    both communities are operating at the appropriate level, by following halacha. i agree that there are practically more stringent and less stringent practices in the different communities, but i would not ascribe “higher” and “lower” levels to them.

    kol tuv,

  7. This reminds me of something I read in National Geographic a few years ago. They did an article on the Chabad communitee in NY. The female photographer was asked to show up wearing “modest clothing”.
    She understood modest clothing to mean: plain loose fitting shirt and pants. She was amazed to find when she arrived at Chabad that the women were wearing fancy, tight clothes and only skirts. Her intutive understanding of modesty was completely diferent from their’s. I agree with the photographer BTW>
    Hannah – not calling attention to yourself does not mean dress like everyone else. It is a hard quantity to define, so that might be why most Jews prefer to go with “midot”. This is a play on word because “midot” in Hebrew means good characteristcs and also measurements. It is much easier for a Rabbi (or rebbitzin) to tel everyone how long their skirt should be, than to teach them midot tovot.

  8. Nurse Yachne says

    “She understood modest clothing to mean: plain loose fitting shirt and pants…. Her intutive understanding of modesty was completely diferent from their’s.”

    Yes, it is counter-intuitive, and that’s putting it nicely.

    Some Xian groups have a strong preference for skirts all or most of the time, especially in church, but that’s not universal.

    Also counter-intuitive are the pro-shal groups that are also anti-jalaab. The long robes many Moslem women wear are also more lightweight and comfortable than thick stockings and multilayered tops. Underneith, with their families, they generally wear slacks.

    They also color and style their hair–no Moslem woman I’ve met greets her husband with a head of cropped graying hair, or worse, stubble.

  9. It would be interesting if a store opened up offering attractive long skirts, long sleeved blouses, in the style mentioned by mr mekubal. If they were billed as a refreshing alternative, cooling and unrestricting to the body as it goes about it’s daily chores, perhaps those women desirous of loose nonbonding clothing, the choice to go w/out hosiery, with a sense of feminine freedom ……………. Maybe just maybe the value of such flowing material would become a new fashion.

    One need not look like the early 19th C.!

  10. hannah, this is, as always, a fascinating informative discussion. you do such an amazing job of framing conversations where people of many walks feel comfortable and engage. thanks, lady!

  11. Nurse Yachne says

    Nechama–Try Rainbow Gypsy on Yaffo, if you’re in J-lem. They have some really neat ideas, lots of long flowy stuff in pretty colors. I’m less than thrilled with the sewing on some of them–not enough finishing, hemming, or surging for my taste, and not enough pockets. But my late mother was a professional seamstress, and nearly everything I buy leaves me disappointed, though not enough to do my own sewing.

    My daughter definitely has her own look, which includes sharwallim (wide pants) and long tops plus many scarves, and looks both colorfula and modest, although not haredi.

    If I really had my druthers, and an American credit card, I’d go LLBean, which was always basically modest.

    But as I’ve said, I have little visual imagination and tend to rely on that of others. Lack of style is not the same thing as modesty, but one is less tempted to be immodest.

    Regarding “levels of tzniut”, how would some of you factor in, say, Rebbitzen Esther Jungreis, someone with both classic taste and impeccable yichus and middot; a real Hungarian frum lady who knows how to wear clothes and never looks sloppy? SHE doesn’t wear a burkha, and she has more ehrliche middos in her little finger than most of those bag ladies have in their entire cloth-enveloped radius.

  12. Years ago when I mentioned to someone that I was satisfied with my level of tznius in dress, she responded that “we all need to keep growing”, or something like that. Why? Why do people have to keep growing in tznius? Do we have to keep growing in kashrus? (Until recently there was no chumra creep in kashrus). If we abide by acceptable halachic standards, why do we have to keep “growing” by taking on a more stringent set of standards?

    Why don’t people talk more about “growth” in terms of how we treat our fellow human beings instead of “growth” in tznius?

    • tesyaa,

      excellent question. Some segments of orthodoxy equate spiritual growth with taking on extra chumrot. Many chabadnik BT add on many extra chumrot every pesach that they (or their families) never kept. Such as not eating garlic, etc.

      You view spiritual growth and chumrot in different equations, I do too. So to grow you would try to daven more or better, learn more, have more kavanna, etc. Many people don’t view it like this, this is part of the reason why taking on extra chumrot is so popular.

  13. TESYAA:

    some people focus on tznius because

    1) it’s a very easy mitzvah
    2) it’s a very public mitzvah (it literally lets you wear your frumkeit on your sleeve)

    • LOZ/Abba: can you elaborate what you mean by “it’s a very easy mitzvah”? At the very least, it means spending extra time and money shopping for clothes that meet the required standards.

      • If it were so easy, the rabbis would not waste so much time talking about it. But Abba has a point–baalot teshuva (returnees to Jewish observance) often take on tzniut before taking on other basics.

      • It is much easier than honoring your parents or lashon hara. Anything with strict and tangible boundries is easy in the sense that a person knows exactly what to do.

  14. Nurse Yachne says

    Also, since society in general has gotten farther away from modesty, people trust their gut instinct less, especially BTs. Which is why people with blue-chip yichus like Rebbitzen Jungreis don’t confuse frum with frumpy; they know very well which one is which.

    I think it was Rabbi Rakeffet who pointed out that even the goyim used to be frum. Check out the scene in Little Women when Meg lets the other girls dress her up for the social and ends up with something “lo matim”.

  15. I found the post and comments fascinating, Hannah. I totally agree with the premise that they are not HIGHER OR LOWER “levels” of tzniut. This reminds of a conversation I had with a chareidi colleague at work. She had told me that she was a “chozeret b’tsuva” (became religious”. She then later told me that she came from a dati leumi family and became a chozeret b’tshuva when she became a chareidi. I very honestly told her that this was offensive to me–and she graciously apologized.

    Really, who is to judge which one of us is more religious and less? And who is on a higher, or lower level? As some of your commenters pointed out, Tzniut is an outward, public thing. How you behave when noone is looking counts for something to.

    And I really do like Ariela’s take on tzniut (good ol’ Bnei Akiva).

  16. It’s more a matter of opinions according to Jewish Law rather than levels. Some people can’t accept that there’s more than one “right way.”