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The Parameters Of Modest Dress

Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

It is an unpleasant fact to discover that there is a practice going on in some neighborhoods in Jerusalem known as “bleaching.” In essence, some “zealous people” have taken it upon themselves to place bleach in garden sprayers and spray the clothing of whomever these people deem to be wearing immodest dress in their neighborhood. Needless to say, it is not exactly a practice that will gain tourist dollars for these locales.

But what exactly are these parameters of immodesty? Where do they come from? Which ones are actual halachah and which ones are an extension? It is also important to note that modesty is an area that applies to all aspects of life—including deportment, celebrations, and purchases too.

The Talmud Kesubos (72a and 72b) cites a discussion of two important categories of the Jewish law that deal with modest dress and behavior. These categories are called Das Moshe, the Law of Moses, and Das Yehudis, commonly translated as Jewish custom or rabbinic law.

The Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer Chapter 115) quantifies these laws in a discussion of which women have forfeited their kesubah. In subparagraph one, the Shulchan Aruch discusses women who feed their husbands non-kosher food or who cause them to stumble in other ways. These are among the violations of Das Moshe.

In subparagraph four, the Shulchan Aruch discusses the violations of Das Yehudis. If the wife goes about with partially uncovered hair, or if she knits in the marketplace (seated inappropriately), or if she wears the improper clothing generally associated with loose idol-worshipping women, or if she reveals her arms to other people.

It is clear that this list is not comprehensive, of course, as the Shulchan Aruch is only dealing with modest dress as a tangential issue as it relates to the loss of the kesubah. The Gemara (Berachos 24a) also records the opinion of Rav Chisda who rules that the “shok” in a woman is considered ervah, a part that must be covered. It is not clear, however, whether the “shok” refers to the area below the knee or above it.

Contemporary poskim (and many of the schools) have delineated specific areas in which they interpret that the laws of modest dress extend. These poskim discuss areas that are beyond the limited discussion found in this chapter of the Shulchan Aruch. (In all of these matters, of course, one should consult one’s own rav and poseik.) It is of interest that there are few sources that discuss the parameters in specific detail that date back more than the past 30 years. Perhaps the lack of written material reflects the idea that it may not be so tzniyus to discuss tzniyus.

The areas under discussion are: (1) The identification of the word “shok”; (2) the length of the skirt; (3) the thickness of stockings below the knee; (4) the length of sleeves; (5) where the neckline begins; (6) what the back is considered; (7) inappropriate or loud colors; (8) thickness of clothing; (9) tightness and cut of the clothing; and (10) appropriate head covering.

There is also another concept that is reflected in the famous sign one sees when entering Meah Shearim. It is the notion that in specific geographic locations, where certain stringencies have been adopted, one should follow local custom. What comes to mind, of course, is Meah Shearim, Kiryas Yoel, New Square, etc.

Before we enter into a discussion of the aforementioned ten topics, it seems from the Acharonim and from the contemporary sources that discuss these issues that there are different ways in which the term “Das Yehudis” can be understood. The first is a clearly defined Das Yehudis the details of which are included in that page in Kesubos.

There is a second understanding of Das Yehudis that is dependent upon what observant Jews are practicing in terms of modesty. This second understanding of Das Yehudis may be the root source of the differing views about the aforementioned ten areas. More on this later.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer Vol I #69) provides us with a fascination working definition of Das Yehudis Type B.

Essentially, Rav Feinstein, zt’l, writes: Based upon the Gemara in Kesubos 72a, we find that, in addition to the obligation of following Jewish law, there is an additional prohibition against dressing in a manner that is pritzus—upsets the socio-religious norm. If everyone else, however, is dressing in this fashion, then it cannot be construed as a violation of the socio-religious norm. Rather, it is considered the righteous and proper manner of modesty, and she will receive a blessing for adhering to the higher level of conduct.

There is also the issue of at what age all of this begins. The Mishnah Berurah in his Biur Halachah takes a stringent view (Siman 75 “Tefach”) of age three. The Chazon Ish, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shlomo Zalman, and Rav Elyashiv, zichron tzaddikim livracha, all took a more lenient approach. Whether the more lenient view is 5, 6, 7, or even above that—one should consult one’s own rav.

But let’s get to the ten areas under discussion:

The shok. What is the shok? The Mishnah Berurah (75:2) identifies the shok as the thigh until the knee. This is also the view of the Pri Megadim and Chayei Adam. If, however, one lives in a neighborhood where most of the women also cover the area below the knee with a stocking or such, then that area needs to be covered as well—even according to these opinions. Other poskim are more stringent and disagree with the Mishnah Berurah. The signs in Meah She’arim, the custom of many of the Bais Yaakovs in America and seminaries in Israel, and the custom among the Chassidish world disagree with the Mishnah Berurah and identify the shok with the calf. Rav Elyashiv (Kovetz Teshuvos 1:13) does strongly defend the Mishnah Berurah’s position, even though he discusses both sides of the debate. The Chazon Ish (O.C. 16:8) is inconclusive about the issue but recommends being stringent.

It is, of course, axiomatic that bleaching with a squirt gun is something abhorrent to Judaism and should never be done—but more on that in future articles. v

(To be continued)

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.

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Posted by on February 14, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.