The Importance of Modesty

ערכה של צניעות – למקור העברי

Perplexed

“I am 14 years old and learn in Ulpana… Concerning the issue of wearing stockings, Rabbi, I would like to know what the halacha says in connection to my situation, and also, is it advisable to be more stringent than the halacha in order to become stronger religiously?

  • 1. My mother and her family wear stockings (they are ‘Yekkim’).
  • 2. In my Ulpana generally, and in my grade specifically, only a few girls wear stockings. Until now I have worn stockings without a problem, because my good friends also wore stockings.
  • 3. Many teachers in the Ulpana don’t wear stockings, but do wear long skirts, saying that this is accordance with halacha.
  • 4. Recently, one teacher said in class that according to practical halacha, it is permitted to wear a long skirt without stockings. Since then, all my good friends stopped wearing stockings. It is very difficult for me to be the only one, alone and different from everyone else, continuing wearing stockings.
  • 5. Lately, the whole issue of wearing stockings has turned me off, and moreover, I also suffer more than usual from heat in the spring and summer.
  • 6. Can I wear sandals without stockings, but wear a long skirt instead?
  • 7. If so, does the skirt have to reach only to the bottom of my legs (and not cover my feet), or does the skirt have to reach the floor, thereby covering my feet? (I am willing to do this).
  • 8. If, according to halacha, it is permissible to wear a long skirt without stockings – given my situation, from the aspect of honoring one’s parents, and “Do not forsake the Torah of your mother”, am I obligated to wear stockings?
  • 9. If in practice it is permissible, according to halacha, to wear a long skirt without stockings, is there a further desirable reason to wear stockings – because, spiritually, it will add to my piety, training me to be more modest, or leading me to other good traits?

I would be very appreciative, Rabbi, to receive a written answer with sources, so that I can show it to my friends, and help them out in this issue.

Halacha Concerning Stockings

The Sages said (Talmud Berachot 24a): “The ‘shok’ (thigh) of a woman is considered ‘erva’ (nudity).” In other words, the thigh is one of the intimate parts of the body, and revealing it in front of strangers is considered promiscuity. Accordingly, it is forbidden to speak words of ‘kedusha’ (holiness) while facing it.

In the opinion of most ‘poskim’ (Jewish law arbiters), the ‘shok’ is the part of the leg from the knee to the ankle. Yet, there is a difference in stringency between the ‘shok’ and the thigh – the thigh must be covered in a way that its shape not be evident – either by a skirt or dress – while the ‘shok’ can be covered by tights or stockings. The covering of the feet depends upon the ‘minhag ha’makom’ (custom of the place) – in a place where the custom is to cover the foot, one must cover it, and in a place where it is not customary to cover the feet, there is no need to.

On the other hand, in the opinion of ‘Pri Migadim’ and ‘Mishna Berura’ (75:2), although in general, the part of the body below the knee is called ‘shok’, there are cases, including this law, where the ‘shok’ is considered the thigh, and it alone must be completely covered. But, in regards to the part of the leg below the knee, the halacha depends on the custom of the place: if it is the custom to cover it, it must be covered. If not, it need not be covered. In practice, since the majority of ‘poskim’ are stringent, it is preferable to act in this way. A woman who chooses to be lenient is permitted, for she has reputable sources to rely on. This is exactly how our rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook ztz”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of “Merkaz HaRav” instructed – that it is proper to cover the ‘shok’, however, one should not castigate a woman who is lenient in this matter, for she has reputable sources to rely on. On a number of occasions, Rabbi Kook expressed remorse that the author of the ‘Mishna Berura’ was lenient on this issue.

According to the stringent custom, a long skirt cannot replace stockings, for it does not always cover the ‘shok’, and because the readiness to always wear long skirts that reach the ground does not meet the test of time. Additionally, in many places in Ashkenaz, the custom was to also cover the feet, and the stringent authorities simply continued their ‘minhag’, to the point where today in Eretz Yisrael, there are places, communities, and families for whom this is almost obligatory as the ‘minhag ha’makom’.

The Teacher was Mistaken

Therefore, the teacher who caused some of the girls to stop wearing stockings did not act properly, for she should have encouraged all of them to follow the majority of the ‘poskim’, or at the very least, to praise and encourage the girls who did. Instead, she emphasized the minority opinion, causing girls who performed the mitzvah in an exemplary way to feel uncomfortable and eventually stop. The teacher apparently also caused grief to the parents of the girls who educated them in this path, and now, with the encouragement of the teacher, they’ve changed their ‘minhag’. It is advisable for the teacher to change her mind, clarify her statements, and encourage the girls to continue in their positive ‘minhag’.

Generally speaking, the responsibility of the Ulpana is to strengthen the status of the girls who fulfill the mitzvoth in an exemplary way, and encourage the rest of the girls to follow in their path, and certainly, not to create a situation where those who do perform the mitzvoth ideally, according to the opinion of the majority of ‘poskim’ and the ‘minhag’ of their families, feel uncomfortable amongst their friends.

In Practice

In practice, a girl who lives with her parents, and their outlook is to wear stockings, must act strictly in this matter. Beyond this being the opinion of the majority of ‘poskim’, there are two additional reasons: 1) Included in the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is treating them with respect and listening to them – at the very least while still living in their house. True, when parents tell their children to act against the halacha, it is forbidden to listen to them (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 240:15). But when the parents ask their children to act according to the majority of ‘poskim’, one is obligated to listen to them. 2) We have already mentioned that even according to the lenient opinion, in a place where the custom is to cover the ‘shok’ and feet – it is obligatory to do so. And it can be said that a girl who lives in a family where the daughters are strict in covering their legs with stockings, is considered as one who lives in a place where the custom is to cover, and therefore, she must do so. And although it is appropriate for a girl to continue her ‘minhag’ after she marries as well, nevertheless, if she wishes to be lenient, she is permitted, for she has reputable sources to rely upon.

The Custom of the ‘Yekkim’

With the development of the Enlightenment and modernity, traditional Judaism faced a difficult test. The majority of the Jews who pursued the positive sides of the Enlightenment movement abandoned Torah Judaism, and assimilated. In order to prevent this, there were those who erected a towering wall of alienation in opposition to the positive and valuable sides of science and modernity. This, however, only helped partially, for many of the youth felt that traditional Judaism deprived them of the positive aspects of secular knowledge.

The method of ‘Torah and derech eretz’ (Torah and work) designed by the great Rabbi’s of Ashkenaz, attempted to acquire the good within secular knowledge, without being dragged into its negative sides. They were stringent concerning matters that strengthened Jewish identity, and precisely because of this, were able to engage in secular topics, while protecting themselves from foreign influences. Incidentally, my great grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Yehudah Weil, may God avenge his blood, was educated and taught in this way.

The more successful we are in guarding characteristics which express complete loyalty to halacha, the more room there is to freely choose professions and diverse work places. The compromise on being strict about one’s attire is liable, on the one hand, to cause the danger of distancing from traditional Judaism, and on the other hand, a reaction of excessive isolation, preventing religious Jews from expressing their full capabilities.

The Purpose of Modesty

Many people think, superficially, that the goal of dressing modestly is to prevent men from having passing thoughts; however, the matter is more complex and profound. For to prevent all passing thoughts is impossible, as the Sages have already stated (Talmud Ketubot 13b): “There is no guardian for incest”. In other words, no one is guaranteed of complete protection in this area. If the goal was to prevent passing thoughts, much stricter rules would have had to been set – prohibiting wearing nicely-cut clothes or clothing with special color combinations, or decreeing that it is forbidden for women who are considered especially pretty to leave their houses, and in fact, to obligate all women to dress like the Taliban. But we have not found in halacha any requirement for a woman to make herself look ugly. On the contrary, we have found in the Tanach (Bible) and Chazal, praises for good-looking women.

Rather, the main requirement of modest dress is intended to give expression to the significance of the soul and spirit, and therefore, outer beauty must appear with restraint and concealment. For if not, due to man’s nature, the outer beauty will become the most important thing.

This purpose also obligates men; however, since women are considered better-looking, the rules of modesty are a slightly more stringent for them. And thus, the proper distance between men and women is created, with modesty distancing man from the sin of illicit sexual relations.

Do Not Follow the Customs of the Nations

In summary, the most important foundation in wearing modest clothing is the statement of principle that we are loyal to traditional Judaism which fixes a respectable separation between men and single women, thereby establishing the appropriate relation between the soul and the body. This is not merely an educational line of reasoning, but it is a mitzvah from the Torah, as it is written: “Do not follow [any] of their customs” (Vayikra 18:3). The meaning of this mitzvah is not to copy the non-Jews’ immodest clothing and customs connected to superstitions.

There are some girls who, on the one hand, wish to be precise about the details of halacha, but on the other hand, don’t want to appear too religious. The best thing is for them to want to express their Jewish identity through their clothes, and as a result, strengthen themselves in Torah and ‘yirat Shamayim’ (fear of Heaven), and not to be embarrassed at all by those who make fun of them. In this way, they will merit great reward in both this world, and the World to Come, and thus, greatly improve their chances of finding a good match and establishing a splendid family.

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