The Need to Study the Laws of Modesty
In our previous issue, we spoke at length about the importance of modesty in terms of a woman’s conduct and her clothing. Everyone is thereby obligated to act and dress in accordance with the laws established by our Sages.
In our time, since we live in a decadent, morally-stagnant world in which indecency is placed on a pedestal, it is tremendously difficult for a Jewish woman to protect her honor and dignity.
Given the atmosphere of impurity that fills the outside world, the evil inclination grows more powerful in its attempts to make a Jewish woman sin.
The only way for her to maintain her purity and safely escape this trap – both her and her household, as well as her community – is to strengthen herself and maintain the utmost vigilance and respect for the laws of modesty. This will serve as a shield, protecting her from constant attacks that occur each day.
Yet for a Jewish woman to do this, she has to know the laws of modesty. Otherwise how can she perfect herself with regards to these laws?
First of all, let us recall the main reason why we study the laws of modesty.
The Smak (Sefer Mitzvot Katan, Mitzvah 57) counts modesty as a Torah commandment. We must decent people, as it is written: “Your camp shall be holy” (Deuteronomy 23:15) and, “Walk humbly with your G-d” (Micah 6:8). We must act with discretion, not immodestly, in all things. Acting with discretion is not simply a hiddur mitzvah (adornment of a mitzvah), nor even a chumra (stringency), but an actual positive commandment, one of the most important that the Torah explicitly states. We will be strongly encouraged upon realizing this, for this realization will be a source of spiritual enrichment and genuine satisfaction. Here within our reach is a commandment that allows us to acquire tremendous merit. Each instant in which a woman is dressed modestly and discreetly, she fulfills a positive Torah commandment! In this way a woman (who is liable to feel unfairly treated in the completion of never-ending household tasks) can perform hundreds of mitzvot each month and thousands per year. Here is a source of numerous intercessors on our behalf for present and future generations! All this occurs when a woman wears appropriate and decent clothes each day. Can there be an easier way of acquiring merit than by conforming to the laws of modesty? Other than this great merit, how much more does modesty add to a woman’s grace, beauty, and dignity! As our Sages said, “Nothing is more beautiful than tzniut [modesty].”
Studying in order to understand these laws, and exerting the will to adhere to them, are the two principle ingredients that enable a woman to shine in all her splendor.
The Gemara cites Hashem as saying, “I created the evil inclination, but I created the Torah as its antidote” (Kiddushin 30b). Now we all know that studying Torah is the best way for men to fight their evil inclination. Nevertheless, although it may come as a surprise, we as women must understand that we have a part to play in studying Torah. We have a duty to study all the laws that concern us, namely the laws of kashrut, the laws of niddah, and also the laws of tzniut. Just as men must study Torah in order to fight their evil inclination (the minimum being to study some Torah during the day, and the ideal being to study it day and night), so too must women fight the evil inclination by respecting the laws of modesty, for women are also led astray by the evil inclination. By doing this, it will have no power over them, and they will save themselves from the ravages of the crafty evil inclination. As the Gemara in Sotah states, the Torah protects and rescues a person from the evil inclination and from sin. This is why it is imperative to study Halachah and to learn with rabbis when we have a doubt on the appropriateness of some clothing. Rabbi Falk Shlita notes that in general, women are aware of their lack of knowledge with regards to the laws of Shabbat and kashrut, and whenever they have a question concerning these topics, they immediately go see a rabbi. On the other hand, when they have a question concerning the “kashrut” of some article of clothing (such as the length of a dress), they feel that they themselves are capable of deciding whether it is kosher or not, someone they wouldn’t even think of doing when it comes to the kashrut of food or the laws of Shabbat!
Now doing this is a mistake, for as we said the laws of Shabbat, kashrut, and tzniut have their source in Torah.
Another error that we must completely avoid is to think that because Poskim are spiritually lofty and tzaddikim in relation to us, they are cut off from the material world and completely out of sync with women’s issues. By making this mistake, a woman will think that she is under no obligation to follow their decisions in the realm of modesty (G-d forbid). In fact they completely understand, even better than women themselves, a woman’s need to feel good about herself. In addition to this, they also know what the Torah permits and forbids. What the Poskim say is no less important than the word of Hashem, and refusing to listen to Hashem’s word automatically results in a loss of Divine protection.
Now if we drive the Shechinah away, how will we survive? How can we trivialize the word of Hashem that comes from the great figures of the generation? How can we ignore those who strive to make us understand when something is indecent to wear, when it is abhorrent to Hashem, and when it pushes the Shechinah away?
If someone were to tell a person that some food was poisoned, would he taste it if the poison came with sauce? A minimum degree of common sense would dictate that he wouldn’t even touch it. In fact he should get as far away as possible!
In addition to this, both the material and spiritual situation of the entire Jewish people depends on tzniut. In other words, all our problems (everything from murders to earthquakes) are due in large part to a lack of modesty in our conduct and clothing. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky Zatzal (known as the Steipler) said that in his opinion, “Roads in Israel are dangerous not because drivers are worse than elsewhere, but because the behavior of those who use these roads is completely estranged from the norms of modesty, thereby driving Divine protection away.”
It is precisely this message that the Torah teaches us by stating, “For the L-RD your G-d walks in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you. Therefore your camp shall be holy, so that He will not see an erva [indecent] thing among you and turn away from you” (Deuteronomy 23:15).
In one of her Torah classes, Rebbetzin Bamberger recounted a statement of the Chafetz Chaim based on the above verse. In his time, the Chafetz Chaim could foresee the horrors of the coming Holocaust, and he would constantly repeat: “If Hashem hands us over to our enemies, it is because we have pushed Him away by transgressing the prohibitions regarding indecency.”
Furthermore, in his famous letter (published in Sefer Chafetz Chaim, p. 353), the Chafetz Chaim underlines that this same lack of modesty is at the origin of disease, calamities, wars, and misery.
In order for Hashem to protect the entire Jewish people from suffering, we have to put more effort into demonstrating our love for Him.
Finally, there are many women who really want to progress in the area of modesty, thank G-d. Unfortunately, the fear of what others might say halts their progress and dampens their enthusiasm. This satanic argument often attempts to thwart the good intentions of those who want to draw closer to Hashem.
Such women must first realize that this excuse is nothing but a vicious blow of the evil inclination, which is trying to prevent them from growing spiritually.
We must remember that at least the evil inclination is successfully carrying out the mission that G-d gave it. What reason do we have to listen to it? Haven’t we a mission to carry out on earth as well?
We have to realize that nothing can resist our will, meaning that “where’s there’s a will, there’s a way,” especially when Hashem helps those who want to progress (see Shabbat 104a).
Would anyone refuse a $50 million lottery prize because they were afraid of “what people would say”? On the contrary, lottery winners can barely be restrained from shouting from the rooftop! Similarly, would anyone refuse to enter the World to Come because of what some wretch might say?
Obviously, a person with any common sense would disregard what others might say in such a case. Yet before committing a sin, he should certainly worry about “what people would say,” and he can even imagine that all the greatest Sages are behind him. Then at least he will have put this fear to good use. We should pay attention to what other people say, but only with respect to fulfilling Hashem’s will.
We must take these things to heart and deepen our understanding so as not to transgress or make others transgress. In order to progress in tzniut, a Jewish woman must constantly remind herself of her innate status as the daughter of the King, a status that she must truly feel. Emanating from within her is tremendous dignity and grace, her soul’s reflection of her Father’s glory, as it is written: “The daughter of the king is all glorious within” (Psalms 45:14).
By understanding this, a woman will realize that strengthening her observance of the laws of tzniut will only highlight her noble status.
Furthermore, it is good for women to reflect upon the beneficial consequences of observing the laws of tzniut, both for themselves and their families. Observing these laws is beneficial to women themselves, for a modest woman finds greater favor in the eyes of her husband. Her fear of Heaven increases and her inner beauty shines out.
In addition to this, a woman’s tzniut makes her worthy of having children who will become talmidei chachamim (illustrious Torah scholars). Her children will possess great insight and be known for their good deeds, as it is written: “Your children will be like olive shoots” (Psalms 128:3; see Bamidbar Rabba 8:9).
The Psalmist states, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine in the inner chambers of your home” (ibid.), for a woman must find her place within the home. What happens when she does? “Your children will be like olive shoots surrounding your table.” Why are her children described as olive shoots? It is because an olive tree never loses its leaves, not even in winter. Therefore just as it is superior to other trees throughout the year, so too will her children be superior to other people.
What’s more is that the husband of such a woman will be blessed in all things, above and below, in children, grandchildren, and wealth. The psalm goes on to state, “Behold, in this way will the man who fears the L-RD be blessed: The L-RD will bless you from Zion, and you shall see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life. You shall see your children’s children and peace upon Israel” (Psalms 128:4-6).
For some women, changing the kind of clothes they normally wear seems hypocritical, even though they really want to act in accordance with Halachah. Such women think that dressing in a way that is “above” their level will make them feel uncomfortable, not really themselves. What good is it to dress like the ideal Jewish women, they argue, if a person really isn’t?
True, Rabbi Falk explains, the intention of these women is understandable. However their actions are incorrect. In fact they are completely erroneous.
Actually, any hypocrisy in this situation would consist of a woman who intentionally claims to be tzaddeket through her external conduct, though she has absolutely no intention of truly being one. Such a woman will only act in this way around other people, pretending to be someone who is good in public, while at home she is the complete opposite.
On the other hand, a woman who yearns to appear modest, according to the norms of Halachah, must realize that this desire is not hypocritical in any way. This applies even if she is far from perfect. The important thing is her desire to progress, not just to play the role of some fictional tzaddeket.
Furthermore, if she chooses do dress modestly (again, in accordance with the norms of Halachah), then the feeling that she is not acting like herself – that she is acting hypocritically – will progressively fade away and eventually disappear.
The same applies to any woman who does not really feel like progressing in tzniut: She should put an effort into acting and dressing with greater modesty, and then her actions will change her own desires. Such a woman will eventually do everything for the sake of Heaven, meaning by the sanctification of G-d’s Name.
On June 5, 2005, Rabbi Falk Shlita hosted a conference on the subject of strengthening the observance of tzniut. During this conference, Rebbetzin Toledano cited Rabbi Matityahu Salomon’s four golden teachings on how to fight against and be protected from worldly influences that slowly eat away at the holiness of the Jewish people.
First of all, as we mentioned earlier, a person needs a guide, meaning a rabbi to whom he or she can consult whenever questions arise. A person’s friends can also serve as guides in determining which actions to take. However a person must know how to choose true friends, meaning the right kind of company to keep. These are people from whom one can take and give advice, those who can mutually help one another and spiritually advance.
[NOTE: We must be careful not to reject people who are at a lower spiritual level than ourselves, for nothing fuels a person’s ego more or destroys all hope of progressing. On the contrary, we must demonstrate kindness to everyone, to each of our brothers and sisters (males helping males, and females helping females, needless to say). We must encourage and help them to learn what they do not know, for this is all included in the concept of “you shall love your fellow as yourself.” Nevertheless, our closest relationships should be with people at a high spiritual level in order for us to progress.]
Another suggestion, which is a segula for protection from the impurity of the outside world, is the mezuzah. When passing a mezuzah, we shouldn’t forget to kiss it and say E-L Sh-dai yevarech uti ushmore oti veyitn li rahamin (“May Hashem grant me His blessing, His protection, and His compassion”). The fact of pondering the danger of impurity in our era, as well as praying for protection from such danger, in itself provides us with great protection. Therefore before returning home, or leaving one’s home, we should not hesitate to ask Hashem to hear our prayers and make us immune to impurity.
We must also adopt the policy of constantly and aggressively countering the negative influences of the outside world. That is, we must wage a war against its ideas, against the erroneous way of looking at things from the perspective of the outside world. By doing this, tumah (impurity) will not affect us. Our Sages explain that this principle is related to the Halachah which states that a body that rejects something treif cannot simultaneously absorb something treif. Thus if we act in such a way as to reject tumah (which is nothing other than spiritual treif) by distancing ourselves from all potential pitfalls, we will be unable to absorb or be influenced by the impurity of this depraved, consumer-driven society and its corrupt values.
One last piece of advice, which is among the most important, is that we must pray for help, just as King David said in his psalms. Each of us should pray for protection from the impurity that reigns outside – as well as from the pressures exerted by the evil inclination – so as not to transgress or make others transgress. A woman can also pray to be granted a desire to progress in tzniut.
Once again, this desire will only be granted to a woman if she infuses herself with an understanding of modesty’s importance, and this she can only do by studying its laws.
Other than a Jewish woman’s duty to respect the laws of modesty, we note that she must also ensure that her friends share her views, for the deeds of each Jew, male or female, have an influence on the entire Jewish people.
This is why a Jewish woman must speak gently, respectfully, and pleasantly to others as she tries to explain and encourage them to avoid the traps that are placed before them. If she succeeds in helping others, there is no way to describe her splendor and reward! However if she is unable to help others through her advice, she will at least have done everything she could.
No woman should say, “Let everyone do what they think is best, because I have my own way of dressing” or, “Men won’t look at me if I dress modestly.” Such a woman is like a person on a lifeboat who starts boring a hole under his seat. The panic-stricken people around him will ask what he’s doing, and in his “great wisdom” he will say that it doesn’t concern them, since he’s making a hole under his seat, not theirs.
Everyone on the lifeboat will then scream at him, “You fool! You’re putting us all in danger. A hole under your seat will cause the entire lifeboat to sink!”
Similarly, when a breach occurs in the walls of modesty, should a Jewish woman remain silent? When she sees a friend boring a hole in the lifeboat of the Jewish people, should she say nothing?
Thank G-d, today we have everything we need to study Torah. The famous book of Rabbi Falk Shlita, the great Posek, is studded with the words of our Sages and examples that we can all learn from. Rabbi Falk makes the concept of tzniut appealing, offering practical solutions and advice for all kinds of problems, as well as words of encouragement and blessing. What could be better? This is precisely what we need.
Furthermore, classes are regularly given to girls on this subject. Women go to the many schools of the Jewish community of Paris and its suburbs in order to transmit this message, guiding young women in matters of tzniut and sanctifying Hashem’s Name. We have everything we need, and all that remains is for everyone to add their own finishing touch. Without a woman’s will to follow the laws of modesty, nothing can endure. In fact the Vilna Gaon explains that the six letters composing the word Bereshith (the first word in the Torah) are the initials of the six basic requirements for the acquisition of Torah: Bitachon (faith in G-d), Ratzon (will), Ahava (love for others), Shtika (not speaking in vain), Yirah (fear of G-d), and Torah (the study of Torah).
This supports our view that a woman’s desire to progress is essential for her to internalize her knowledge and better herself in matters of tzniut.
This desire is also connected to Bitachon, for by annulling her own will, she will be able to fulfill Hashem’s. We learn this principle in the Mishnah, where it is stated: “Annul your will before His, so that He may annul the will of others before yours” (Perkei Avoth 2:4).
Since the evil inclination can also be included in the category of “others,” we may interpret this Mishnah in the following way: Because of our desire to fulfill G-d’s will (i.e., to conduct ourselves with modesty), we will benefit from immense Divine help in order to overcome obstacles that the evil inclination places before us in this area.
Hashem will also gladly shower us with blessings from Heaven in our time, blessings such as long life and success, both in the spiritual and material realm. Thus by the merit of tzniut, the Jewish people will be blessed with the arrival of Mashiach, our righteous redeemer. Amen.