By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
It is unclear why exactly it is happening, but often the stop that immediately follows yeshiva drop-off is . . . the gym. Whether it is a women’s gym, or a private trainer, numerous mothers are leaving for these gyms with barely enough time to get to the yeshivos to drop off their children before going straight into their exercise routines.
Exercising is one of the best ways to maintain health. Indeed, according to numerous poskim, exercising, when done in a private and modest venue, is actually the fulfillment of a Torah commandment—v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem (Devarim 4:15). So, what is the problem?
The problem involves dress—or rather, the lack of appropriate dress. The schools have realized this, and some of them have sent home notes about it. It is a Torah prohibition to go about in improper dress in the streets and thoroughfares of the community.
Actually, there are three prohibitions involved. First is the general prohibition to appear in immodest attire (see Meiri, Kesubos 72a). There are numerous pesukim cited by poskim to this effect.
Second is a violation of ubechukoseihem lo seilechu, “do not walk in their ways.” This is discussed by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt’l (Igros Moshe YD I #81). It is a violation of walking in the ways of the gentiles if one adopts a practice that originated and is practiced by gentiles that involves either idol-worship or immodesty.
Third is the prohibition of v’lifnei iver lo sitein michshol—do not place a stumbling block. This is discussed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, zt’l (Yechaveh Da’as III #67).
The Underlying Problem
The issue under discussion is a particular type of clothing emanating from the gentile world that entered the world of fashion in the 1980s, but came back with a vengeance in the year 2005. They are known as “leggings”—a nylon-lycra blend that is used almost universally in gyms across the country. The problem is that these leggings are often worn under a pencil spandex skirt. Frequently, these skirts do not reach the knee or will invariably rise above the knee—a serious halachic problem according to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l (Minchas Shlomo Vol. III 103:15), Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, and others (cited in Halichos Bas Yisroel page 71). The Kuntrus Malbushei Nashim (page 11) cites numerous poskim to this effect as well, as does the former chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in Assei Lecha Rav (Vol. VII p. 247).
What further complicates the issue is that many women are entirely unaware of the problem. They do not know that it is the nature of a pencil skirt worn with leggings to rise above the knee. Thus, even when the problem is pointed out to them, they will think that they personally are strictly adhering to modest dress.
Even though that part of the body is covered by the leggings, a mere covering is not sufficient for the portion above the knee, since this part is one requiring greater tzniyus—modesty—than the lower extremities (see Responsa Ohel Yissaschar Siman 10 for a full treatment of the issue). The idea is reflected in the derashah found in the Talmud (Moed Katan 16a), “Just as the yerech (thigh) is b’seiser, hidden, so too regarding Torah.” Thus a skirt that entirely conceals the shape and form of the thigh is necessary.
A Time-Tested Halachah
This is not just the view of modern authorities. The same explanation is found in the responsa of the Radbaz and the Shach (YD 340:22) that it is forbidden to be able to detect the shape of the limb through the clothing. Indeed, the Bach (Yoreh Deah 340:10) goes so far as to write that it is equivalent to the bare skin. Other poskim who forbid it entirely are the Chochmas Adam (Klal 152:6), the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (195:3), the Be’er Heitev (340:13), and the Maharsham (Daas Torah 75:1).
Is there any view that permits it? There is one lenient opinion that disagrees with the conclusions of all of the above Acharonim and the views of Rav Elyashiv and Rav Auerbach. It is cited by Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov HaLevi Haber in Et Tznuim Chochmah and holds that if the lower leg above the knee is covered completely, it is not a violation. However, this is clearly a minority view that has been dismissed by the overwhelming majority of halachic authorities. It should also be noted that according to some traditions in Yemen, a baggy type of pant cloth made exclusively for women would be permitted in Yemen, but not elsewhere.
So, according to almost all poskim, wearing a short or pencil skirt over these leggings is not sufficient. Women should change in the gym itself, and not at home before they make other stops. Before leaving the gym, they should change back to regular clothing before venturing out in public.
The Skiing Controversy
Regarding the issue of a woman’s dress during skiing, there is a debate between Dayan Weiss, zt’l, versus Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, and Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt’l. Dayan Weiss forbids skiing entirely, since he rules that a woman may not wear pants under her skirt at all. Dayan Weiss held that all forms of pants are forbidden because they fall under the rubric of male clothing. Rav Elyashiv (Yashiv Moshe p. 170) and Rav Ovadia, on the other hand, permit it with the caveat that the skirt must be long enough to ensure that the knees be obscured at all times. They hold that, despite the prohibition of opposite-gender clothing, ski pants may be worn as long as a skirt is worn above them.
Segulah For Parnassah
It should be noted that bnos Yisrael should dress with the dignity in line with who they are—bnos melech—and even when their clothing technically meets the guidelines of tzniyus, their level of dress should reflect their spiritual grandeur rather than the latest fashion fad . . . but that is a separate issue.
What is perhaps not so well known are the words of Grand Rabbi Mordechai Rokeach, Admor from Bilgoria in Galicia, zt’l, the previous Belzer Rebbe’s brother, on Bereishis 24:65, when Rivkah inquires about Yitzchak, who is approaching her. “And she said unto the servant: ‘What man is this that walks in the field to meet us?’ And the servant said: ‘It is my master.’ And she took her tzaef—her veil—and covered herself.”
The Admor explains that the letters in tzaef stand for Amcha Yisrael Tzrichim Parnassah—Your nation Israel requires sustenance. “In this word,” says the Admor, “lies the secret of the siyatta d’Shmaya, the Divine assistance, that the nation of Israel has in terms of financial success.” It resides in Klal Yisrael’s observance of the trait of modest dress.
Rivkah merited to marry one of the wealthiest princes in the region. We also find that in the merit of Rus HaMoviah’s modest walking (again regarding the thigh), she merited to be the ancestress of Dovid HaMelech. But it was not just Dovid HaMelech who descended from her—it was Shlomo HaMelech too. Shlomo was one of the wealthiest people of all time.
While the true motivation for dressing modestly is the fact that we are the nation of Hashem and the Shechinah rests among us when we do dress appropriately, it is also nice to know that the great masters of Chassidus state that it is a segulah for parnassah, a means of achieving great blessing for wealth.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.