Two different approaches to the issue of Tzniut in Halachah.

19 10 2012


Living as frum Jews, in the complex world as many of us do, is not always easy or straightforward. We often have our own values and ideals that we have been educated and brought up with, questioned and challenged by people we meet and interact with. Ironically, despite being a Jewish state, Israel is mainly secular and the majority of people we mix with at work and see on the streets, are not religious or aware of the religious sensitivities of our way of life.

modestyThe issue of tzniut affects many of us, in all areas and aspects of our lives-both personal and public. Below is an overview of what Rav Yoni Rosensweig spoke about, in the series of four shiurim he gave on the topic.

The basic question that underlies this topic, is whether tzniut is: a) objective, prescribed and clearly defined ‘from a book’ or, b) is more subjective, reactionary and dependent on broader contextual and societal factors such as when, where and with whom you live and interact with and what you are used to doing and seeing.

Rav Ariel and Rav Aviner for instance have said, in different contexts, that they believe the halachot and minhagim of tzniut are objective and clearly defined, ‘from a book’. On the other hand, Rav Yoni Rosensweig, often quoting his Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Nachum Rabinovitch from Maaleh Adumim, presented a second, different approach- that standards and customs of tzniut are relative and subjective, dependent on contextual and societal factors. Often, they are reactionary and reflect, the customs of dress at the time and what people have become used to wearing and seeing, rather than objective halachah.

There are objective halachot though, that all agree on. For instance, there is a prohibition of ‘ Ervah’ from the pasuk of ‘Lo Tikrvu Legalot Ervah’, which applies equally to males and females and is no way subjective or relative to ones community and surroundings. But ‘Ervah’ on a D’oraita level, refers only to specific parts of the male and female anatomy, which are always covered. Another, is that married women need to cover at least part of their hair-not because of Ervah, but because of Daat Yehudit (although Rav Benny Lau says that the amount is subjective, as will be discussed).

1) Kol Isha:

Rav Ariel, based on the Gemarah in Brachot (24a) and the Gemarah in Kiddushin (70), says that ‘Kol Bisha Ervah’ is to be understood literally-that the voice of a woman is ‘Ervah’ (nakedness) and that even saying ‘Shalom’ to a woman is ‘Ervah’. In other words not just singing, but hearing her voice is a form of Ervah, because hearing a woman’s voice causes ‘Hirhur’ (immoral and improper thoughts).

However, Rav Yoni pointed out that the Rishonim, do not follow the Gemarah and in fact the Rashba, clearly states, that whether or not a woman’s voice causes ‘Hirhur’ is entirely subjective and depends on what people are used to doing and the culture they have been brought with and live in.

The Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chayim 75:1-3 and the Remah also state, that whether ‘Tefach Megula Bisha’ and ‘Kol Isha’ are ‘Ervah’, is relative to where you live and what you are used to and is not objectively prohibited.

Rav Ovadia Yosef states, in Yabia Omer, that whether or not a woman’s voice causes ‘Hirhur’ and is therefore prohibited is subjective and depends on time, place and who you are talking about, following the Rashba, rather than the Gemarah. The Rif adds that ‘Kol Isha’ only applies, if a man is saying kriat shema and at no other time.

According to most Rishonim, neither ‘Kol Ishah’ or a man saying ‘Shalom’ to a woman, are objectively Ervah, even though the Gemarah says they are.

2) Kisuyi Rosh- Married Women and hair covering:

There is a famous Teshuva of the Maharam Alshaked, that is it only if women are used to covering their hair, that they need to and it entirely depends on the minhag of the community and what people do at the time. It is well known, that Rav Soloveichik’s wife, did not cover her hair all the time in public.

If it is the minhag of the women in a community to cover their hair completely, then a married woman who lives or visits there, should respect the minhag of where she is. Essentially how much married women should cover their hair, is dependent on the minhag of the community, which should be respected.

There are 2 issues with hair covering:

1) Ervah

2) Daat Yehudit.

1) Ervah:

Whether or not a married woman’s hair is a form of ‘Ervah’ is culturally dependent and not objective. If it is normal that women do not have their hair covered, it is not Ervah. Like ‘Kol Isha’, by married woman’s hair too, it is subjective and depends on what people are used to doing and what they feel comfortable with. The phrase ‘Saar Bisha Ervah’ is not a Halachik statement and a married woman’s hair is not Ervah, on a D’oraita level.

2) Daat Yehudit:

More of an issue nowadays. A woman needs to show in public that she is married and also covering her hair is a form of modesty and showing she is G-d fearing.

Rav Moshe Feinstein says, the majority of a married woman’s hair must be covered.

Rav Benny Lau (told Rav Yoni at a wedding) however, that he disagrees with Rav Moshe Feinstein and says that the majority of a woman’s hair does not need to be covered. Rav Benny said, she just needs to cover enough to show she is married. The amount that needs to be covered according to Rav Lau, must be large enough though, that people can see she is married, but does not need to be the majority of her hair, as Rav Moshe ruled.

3) Shok Bishah Ervah (higher parts of the leg and arm of a women that must be covered):

There are minimum amounts that must be covered-until the elbow/ knee, but more than that is up to minhag and what people are used to. The Shulchan Aruch rules that covering up certain parts of the body only apply during kriat shema and not the rest of the time.

4) Platonic relationships / Mixing between the sexes.

The Gemarah in Pesachim 26 says, that it is only forbidden to get benefit or enjoyment from something that is forbidden, if you are ‘Mitkaven’-you have intention to gain benefit. If you don’t, it’s permitted.

The Ritva adds, that it’s not just a question of your intentions of getting benefit, but also if you definitely will get benefit, rather than maybe. In a case of maybe, it is not forbidden. The Ritva, uses the concept, from Hilchot Shabbat of ‘Psik Reyshah’-if it’s a ‘Psik Reyshah’-in other words, only if it definitely will happen, that you will benefit and get enjoyment, only then is it forbidde

The Gemarah in Avodah Zarah 46, discusses that if there are two paths for a man to walk down and there is a woman doing laundry on one of them, he should take the path where the woman isn’t standing. If he takes the path where the women is, the Gemarah calls him a ‘Rasha’.

Tosafot qualifies the Gemarah-its only if the 2 paths are of equal length-if the path is shorter where the woman is, he can walk down that path-although he shouldn’t look at her. It is not forbidden to go down that path-only gazing at the women is-and the prohibition is on him, not her. Furthermore, if he does see her but doesn’t have intention to benefit from seeing her, there is no problem.

The Ritva and Aruch Le’ner are strict: if you definitely will get ‘Hanaah’-benefit/enjoyment, even if its not clear that you will actually see her, it is forbidden.

The Pnei Yehoshua and Rashba are lenient: unless you definitely will get benefit/enjoyment, it’s permitted to walk down the path.

Rav Moshe Feinstein, wrote a Teshuvah about whether it’s permitted to go on a subway, if you may brush against women. He said it was permitted for 2 reasons:

1) it is not definitely going to happen that a man and woman will brush against each other, and

2) if there is contact, it is not intentional.

Furthermore, he says if a man does brush or touch a women on the subway- it’s his fault and not hers and the man should have been more careful.

Rav Moshe Feinstein says clearly and absolutely, that platonic relationships and friendships between men and women are forbidden, as he was worried what this would lead to- a ‘Magah Shel Chibah’ (affectionate contact). Rav Moshe says that a ‘Magah Sheano Shel Chibah’ (touching that has no emotion or affection connected) is also forbidden-so mixed sports, for instance, are forbidden according to the halachah, even if there will just be a ‘Magah Sheano Shel Chibah’.

Rav Moshe said it is hard to draw boundaries. It is a grey area and it is therefore forbidden to have friendships with the opposite sex, as it could lead to problems and difficult situations.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger says that the prohibition of ‘Histaklut’-only applies to gazing and staring at a woman and not looking or seeing her. For this reason, many say, mixed seating at smachot is permitted, so as long as you will not gaze at women. Also as an extension, for singles, mixed shabbat meals, shiurim and social events etc. are permitted according to the majority of opinions, if this gives them an opportunity to see and meet each other.

The Gemarah says that, if you stare or gaze even at the finger of a woman, it is like ‘Ervah’, is not to be taken as the Halachah, as it is talking about being ‘Mistakel’-staring or gazing, resulting in ‘Hirhur’, and not just looking or seeing.

So, just to clarify, according to all opinions (not just Rav Moshe Feinstein), actual friendships between male and female singles (like married men and women) are completely forbidden. It is permitted for singles to mix, in the right environment, so as long as they are conscious that their intention is only for marriage purposes (L’shem Shidduchim’-is the phrase that is used) and there is no ‘kalut rosh’ or non-tzanuah dress or behaviour etc.

The Gemarah at the end of Mesechet Taanit says that it is permitted for men and women to see/ look (not ‘Lehistakel’-gaze or stare which is forbidden) at each other, for shidduch purposes. Also the Gemarah in Kiddushin, says it is forbidden to marry a woman until you have actually seen her, to make sure you are attracted to her.

I heard Rav Riskin once comment, that even if a couple want to have separate seating at their wedding, they should make sure their single friends have an opportunity of meeting each other afterwards. If they do not, Rav Riskin said, they have serious problems with their Jewish values.

The issue of ‘Hirhur’-having immoral thoughts etc. is subjective as we have said earlier. In other words if men and women normally mix, there would be no problem of ‘Hirhur’, in normal circumstances.

Rav Nachum Rabinovich, in Shut Siach Nachum, says that in a society where men and women mix, you can be more flexible-in other words the issue of mixing between the sexes depends on place, time, society and what the people are used to doing. If men and women are used to mixing, there will not be ‘Hirhur’ and it will not lead to a ‘Magah Shel Chibah’. So, Rav Rabinovitch takes a slightly more lenient position, with regards to mixing (not actual friendships).

Rav Ovadia Yosef says, in Yabia Omer, that nowadays men do talk to women at work etc. and we are not so measured in the words we say, so men and women can talk more freely, as long as there is no ‘Kalut Rosh’. Furthermore, there is no need for men to avoid women or avoid eye contact.

The Maharam Shik says, that for a man to say ‘Shalom L’ishah’-literally saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ to a woman, will not lead to ‘Hirhur’.

The Levush says, that there was a minhag, that they did not say ‘She’Hasimcha Be’manao’ at Sheva Brachot if men and women were sitting next to each other-this is not the minhag nowadays, and you can say it when there is mixed seating.

With regard to family relationships. The Rambam, in Hilchot Issurei Bier (chapter 21), speaks very harshly about any type of physical contact between relatives, apart from ones parents or grandparents. The Halachah is that over the age of 9-the age of chinuch, for instance, an aunt cannot touch her nephew-even if it not ‘Derech Chibur’.


In all these four areas of tzniut, the Halachah is grey-it’s not clear and black and white. There are contextual and situational factors that also come into account:

In general, Rav Shlomo Aviner and Rav Yaacov Ariel present an approach that is objective and prescribed-’from a book’, but that is only one way of looking at the issues.

Rav Yoni, presented a second, more contextual, reactionary and subjective approach, which is dependent on who you are dealing with and what they are used to seeing and doing. This approach is in line with most of the Rishonim. Rav Nachum Rabinovich follows this approach and wrote Teshuvot about it, in Shut Siach Nachum.

My final thought:

Rav Amital often said that we need to be human and real, using our common sense, as well as being ‘frum’. In our generation, many are very frum, but as a result, often miss the point and live an unbalanced and unhealthy Judaism. For instance:

1) Separate seating at smachot, maybe a more machmir approach-but at the expense, is families sitting together and giving singles the opportunity to meet and network.

2) Demanding, that women cover all their hair is nice, if that it is minhag of the community, but what about the feelings of the women who don’t have that minhag or aren’t comfortable completely covering all their hair? How are they supposed to feel? Is it right to make them feel looked down upon and guilty?

3) Only admitting children into schools, if their parents adher to the strictest rules of tzniut and dress, maybe admirable-but is it really fair to penalise children and exclude them socially, because their parents don’t take on the most strict opinions and dress code?

4) Is it the right decision, not to be willing to date a girl, who dosen’t want to completely cover her hair? Surely marrying and having a family, is far more important?

5) Not even making eye contact with married women who dosen’t cover her hair or dress in the most tzanuah way, maybe nice, but what about kavod le’briyot and basic derech eretz? What about the Chilul Hashem this may cause, if the women are not religious?

Rav Amital often used to say, ‘The Torah was not given to angels’-‘Lo Nitna Ha’torah La’malachai Hasharet’. Being strict and machmir on issues relating to tzniut, is a central Jewish value. But, there are other equally important values, such as: the unity of the family, wanting to include less frum people and make them feel respected, kavod le’briyot, derech eretz, helping singles meet, avoiding Chilul Hashem and not making the Orthodox way of life seem beyond ones reach.