Tzniyus is generally translated as “modesty” and, for our purposes, that’s as good a translation as any. But that doesn’t give us any real idea as to what it means.
Literally, tzniyus means “hidden.” The meaning is that certain things are private. Not dirty or shameful, but private. Privacy is a good thing and an important thing.
In most families, the children do not know how much their parents make, but the parents each know what the other makes. That’s because it’s private between husband and wife. It’s irrelevant whether one’s father pulls down $15,000 a year or a cool million; his salary is private.
Another example: a school should not announce or post grades without permission. Whether one has a perfect 1600 SAT or a somewhat less than perfect 650, their grades are private.
Similarly, the fact that certain body parts are private does not mean that they are bad. They are, in fact, altogether good. But they are not necessarily meant for public consumption. Sometimes they’re just for you. Sometimes they can be shared with other members of your gender. One can share them with a doctor if need be. And you may share them with that special someone after your wedding. Like your grades and your salary, there are some people who are privy to your private matters.
While “privacy” may be a better word than “modesty,” it still doesn’t give us the full scope of what we mean when we say “tzniyus.”
The Rambam addresses the concept of problems in translation. Sometimes, he says, you need many words in one language to properly convey the meaning of a single word from another language. Just try translating “muktza” or “shatnez.” Respectively, they refer to items that may not be used (or even handled) on Shabbos and garments made of the forbidden mixture of wool and linen. These are concepts that are succinctly expressed in Hebrew, but require greater explanation in English. Even such a basic concept as “kashrus” may be simply translated as “dietary laws.” But anyone familiar with kashrus knows that that phrase is insufficient to adequately convey the depth of the concept.
Similarly, tzniyus means more than just the secular concepts of modesty and privacy. There are major aspects of modesty and privacy to be sure, but tzniyus also includes an aspect of humility and an aspect of dignity. Tzniyus refers not only to dress, but also to speech, actions and comportment.
Tzniyus is not just about measuring how much of a girl’s skin is showing. Sure, if too much skin is revealed, it’s immodest, but that’s only part of the picture.
Tzniyus is also not only about covering women’s bodies so that men don’t get “turned on” by the sight of them. Tzniyus isn’t even just in front of boys. There is tzniyus in front of girls and even tzniyus when you’re all alone. Sure, if a woman is immodestly dressed and a man does get excited by the sight, it’s a problem. But, again, that’s not the reason.
The reason for tzniyus, in my humble opinion, is that it empowers women.
Think about that for a second.
Tzniyus is not intended to repress girls or to make them subservient to men or to protect them from the imagined animal instincts of the supposedly-depraved male gender. It’s to give them the power and dignity they deserve.
Form a mental image of any recent First Lady of the United States or the Queen of England. What are they wearing? Probably something very refined and modest. Dignified women wear dignified clothes. Hold that thought; we’ll come back to it.
Consider these two actual (albeit dated) examples: (1) President and Mrs. Clinton were on vacation when a photographer snapped them on the beach in their bathing suits. (2) Princess Diana was photographed working out in a health club wearing a leotard. Both of these pictures were widely distributed (and in both instances, the media was criticized for publishing them).
What’s the news story? The President and First Lady go swimming? Princess Di worked out? These are not particularly shocking revelations. No Pulitzers will be given for these breaking reports. And while the Clintons made for a handsome couple, they were not especially fetching in their swimsuits.
So why do people want to see these photos or even just read about them?
The reason the public likes to see celebrities in less than their proper attire is because, psychologically, it takes the mighty down a peg. What does the cliché say you should do if you’re nervous while public speaking? Picture the audience in their underwear. Why should that make you feel better? Because you’ve lowered their esteem in your eyes. Nobody suggests picturing them as your hardest teacher, your meanest boss, or some equally intimidating authority figure; that would have the opposite effect. By mentally undressing them, you have de-powered them. That works in real life, too.
Sometimes women delude themselves into thinking that by wearing short skirts or skimpy bathing suits they are empowering themselves. “I’m independent,” they think. “I dress how I like.” Or even, “When I look sexy, I can get boys to do what I want.”
I hate to break it to you, but no man or boy ever looked at a scantily-clad female and thought, “Now there’s a powerful and independent woman! I’d like to vote for her!” (I don’t think I need to tell you what they are thinking!) But when a girl dresses in a dignified manner as befits a daughter of Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham), she commands the same attention one would give a First Lady or a Queen.
So far we’ve been discussing tzniyus as it pertains to girls, but one should not be misled into thinking that tzniyus is a “girls’ halacha.” Tzniyus is an important midah (character trait) for boys to develop, as well. The details are different, but the concepts are equally important.
It may be less problematic for a boy to appear in public in a tank top and shorts than it is for a girl, but that doesn’t mean there is no boys’ tzniyus. A swaggering manner, all machismo and testosterone, is an immodest way for a male to behave. Certain jokes and bawdy locker room talk is not tzniyusdik for a boy, either. They may be permitted to bare more skin than a girl, but that doesn’t mean that they have carte blanche to speak, act or dress however they wish.
The “tank top and shorts” look may be permitted for a boy, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate in every situation. Not in school. Certainly not in shul. In fact, the only place it really is appropriate is on the basketball court.
Just because boys can occasionally get away with dressing more casually than their sisters, it doesn’t mean that all males do. You’ll never go to see a great Rabbi and find him wearing jeans and a T-shirt. It would be as beneath his dignity as wearing a bikini in public would be beneath a girl’s.
All Jews have assigned uniforms. We cannot wear clothes that contain shaatnez, the aforementioned mixture of wool and linen in the same garment. A boy’s uniform includes a yarmulke and tzitzis. A girl’s uniform is clothing which we would refer to as “tzniyusdik.” In common usage, when we speak of tzniyus we may often be referring to the standard of dress for a Jewish girl. This doesn’t mean that tzniyus is only about dress or that it’s only for girls. You will often, in fact usually, see the word treated as if that’s exclusively what it means, but you should be aware that it encompasses so much more.
Excerpted from The Tzniyus Book, by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of four books, including The Tzniyus Book, available on Amazon. His fifth book, The Taryag Companion, is anticipated for summer 2012.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.