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A chat about modesty


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Mrs. Shaffer: Hello, Janet, how can I help you? :)

Janet: Could you tell me please why there are so many laws about modesty for Jewish women?

Mrs. Shaffer: I'd be happy to ...:)

Mrs. Shaffer: First of all, realize that 'modesty' is not really what the laws are about

Mrs. Shaffer: They're the laws of 'tzniut'...unfortunately there's no really good translation for that word

Mrs. Shaffer: What it means, literally, is 'hidden' or 'discreet'

Janet: Hidden? Hidden from what?

Mrs. Shaffer: And what's wrong with a woman's body that it has to be hidden??

Janet: I don't understand why the body has to be hidden. Could you talk about the concept? And then I want to know about the laws.

Mrs. Shaffer: 'hidden' means that which is internal

Mrs. Shaffer: it means we have an internal self...that self's core is the Neshamah, the Jewish soul

Mrs. Shaffer: our body is the housing for our soul...that is why we treat it with respect and dignity

Mrs. Shaffer: covering, recognizing that there is that which is 'hidden' or 'internal' projects the absolute value of what's behind, or inside of, the covering

Mrs. Shaffer: a Sefer Torah, for example, is the most precious object in Jewish life...yet it's never displayed in the middle of the synagogue, uncovered, unrolled...

Mrs. Shaffer: it's always covered, with a beautiful covering to be sure...and then placed inside an ark...and then that's covered as well....all these 'coverings' denote respect ...awe and respect for the holiness of this object

Janet: ok. I remember u said s/t about the reason for modesty is b/c of dignity. Why does covering ur elbows or knees make u dignified?

Mrs. Shaffer: ok...dignity...:)

Mrs. Shaffer: human beings are infused, naturally, with a sense of self. This sense of self is, in an emotionally healthy person, in someone who's developed a wholesome sense of self...this sense of self is also connected to a sense of dignity...self-dignity

Mrs. Shaffer: historically, when someone wanted to humiliate another human slave/master situations,...prisons...most recently, most horrifically when the Nazis were rounding up Jews to exterminate them....the first thing they did in the process of killing them, was to strip them of self dignity

Mrs. Shaffer: they undressed the Jews

Mrs. Shaffer: they made the Jews stand around in public, naked

Mrs. Shaffer: and this nakedness very much stripped them, as well, of the ability to think about possible alternatives (not that there were any at all...but my point is the sense of helplessness that was so strongly reinforced by the nakedness... they were now bodies, mannequins... not people.)

Mrs. Shaffer: because the dignity of selfhood is projected to others by our clothes...we clothe the external self in a way that projects,...or at least ought to project...the inner self.

Mrs. Shaffer: at times we dress with the intent to impress, but we always dress with intent to express. We have an image of self in mind, and that is how we want others to see us. So we dress accordingly.

Mrs. Shaffer: to dress elegant and modest is to express that I am a beautiful person from without, but I have much more beauty within. My appearance is attractive, but my personality is striking.

Mrs. Shaffer: when the body is emphasized it takes away attention from the "person" in the body. Clothing that doesn’t flaunt the body says "you might notice my looks, but please look at my character".

Mrs. Shaffer: so the beginning of the deterioration of an inner self-dignity is the stripping of the person of any external statement of inner person...

Mrs. Shaffer: in order to have a sense of self that is dignified, we have to clothe our body

Mrs. Shaffer: we have to clothe the external in a fashion that allows the expression of the internal

Mrs. Shaffer: ok...let me give you another for instance....imagine you're just coming out of the shower...and you're still in your robe... and you haven't yet made your appointments for the day

Mrs. Shaffer: what you've got on your mind is a date with some very handsome dude, a job interview at a law firm, meeting your brother's fiancé and prospective in-laws...and a dinner/opera event with the president of UJA

All names, places, and identifying information have been changed or deleted in order to protect the privacy of the questioners. In order to preserve authenticity, the chat sessions have been posted with a minimum of editing. Please excuse typographical errors, missing punctuation, and/or grammatical mistakes which naturally occur in the course of informal chat sessions.


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Posted by: Anonymous, Manhattan, NY on Jul 29, 2005

i think you made some great points about tzniut. however, i believe that whenever one talks about tzniut, it is imperative to mention that tzniut does not just refer to clothes. dressing modestly is only one of the important concepts and it happens to be the more external. a person must act in a tzniut manner as well. i know many girls who are dressed completely tzanua, but their actions are the exact opposite of tzniut and i know many girls who are not following the laws of dressing modestly 100% at this point, but have much more respect and dignity for their bodies than the ones externally dressed tzanua. i am not saying one type is better than the other- it is two different levels, two different mitzvot. however, i do believe that if one is working on tzniut, internalize the concept first by acting in a tzanua way and eventually when you work your way up to externally showing the world you are a tzanua girl, it will not be a hypocrisy this way and cause a chilul hashem, G-d Forbid.

Editor's Comment

It is important to be Tzanua (modest) from without and from within. And since clothing set a tone (as Mrs. Shaffer explains in the chat), dressing modestly from without can help you reach modesty within. Acts of external modesty will help you internalize the concept quicker.


Women & Judaism » Modesty
Daily Life » Clothing » Modesty

Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Modesty of dress and conduct.
The soul of a Jew. This soul belongs to anyone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted according to the dictates of Jewish Law. The soul is a spark of G-d Himself.