Modesty (Tz'ni'ut)

Discretion in appearance and speech is designed to protect our souls from assault by a coarse world.

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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.

Modesty's Opposite

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.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.