Why Don’t Orthodox Jewish Women Wear Pants?

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Dear Jew In The City,

Why don’t Orthodox women wear pants even though in today’s world you can tell women’s and men’s clothing apart?

Thanks,

Chelsea

Dear Chelsea,

What you’re hinting at is one of the reasons why most Orthodox women don’t wear pants: kli gever – the prohibition for a woman to dress like a man. (Beged isha is the corresponding prohibition on men dressing like women.) It used to be that pants were only worn by men, in the same way that skirts are only worn by women now, so wearing pants was the equivalent of wearing men’s clothing. But you’re right that there are certainly pants out there today that are specifically made for women, so kli gever can’t be the only reason behind skirting pants.

Besides kli gever, another reason for wearing skirts is modesty. Yes, I know that there are baggy pants out there that are far more modest than skin-tight skirts, to which I will respond that skin-tight skirts do not meet the traditional Jewish definition of modesty either! Now there are some rabbis in the Modern Orthodox community who believe that very baggy pants can meet tznius (modesty) guidelines, though in my personal opinion, the types of pants that women crave are the ones that show off their assets and not the MC Hammer kind.

(As is always the case, I’d just like to remind everyone that I’m not an authority of Jewish law, but rather an observant woman who had many of the questions that make it to this site. So I’ll tell you what was explained to me back when I asked this question and what I discovered on my own as a skirts-only gal. But there are other opinions out there more to the right of me and more to the left. For more specific information and textual sources, please consult your LOR - local Orthodox rabbi.)

While skirts are not mentioned in the Talmud in its discussions of modesty, Jewish women, as a community (at a certain point in time) decided to wear them exclusively in an effort to be more modest. So while a woman could put on very baggy, made-for-women-only pants, there’s still the issue of skirts being a community norm. Although there are a range of styles, fashions, and lengths of skirts that can be worn (to allow for individuality and personal style) there is something to be said for dressing as part of one’s community.

Back in Egypt (we’re talking The Ten Commandments era-Egypt), one of the things that the Jewish people were praised for was for keeping their own style of dress. So while there seems to be a range of opinions as to whether or not skirts are a must from a law-based perspective, there is certainly something positive about them from a community-bonding perspective.

Now on to my personal story: I started wearing only skirts as an experiment right before I got to college. I wasn’t convinced that they were mandatory by all opinions, but I did want to associate myself with other observant Jews (and I didn’t find super-baggy pants particularly appealing), so I gave skirt-wearing a go. I realized, after a while, that wearing skirts in public (I did and still do wear pants in front of other women and family members in private) was a good personal reminder about who I was, what I believed in, and what I wanted to represent to the rest of the world.  

It was actually a non-Jewish dorm neighbor in college, though, that made me realize how nice it was to associate myself with my community in an outward way. It was towards the beginning of my freshman year, and this neighbor shared an interesting story with me and a fellow Orthodox friend. He said that when he first got to campus, he was eager to make friends, so in an attempt to find like-minded people, he put on (and kept wearing) a t-shirt with his favorite band on it. He struck up a conversation with a classmate along the way based on the shirt, but the conversation didn’t end up leading to a friendship since he and the classmate didn’t have much more in common than the band. And then he said to us, “You people, with your yarmulkes and skirts, you can find each other so easily and automatically know that you’ve got so much in common. You’re so lucky to be a part of a community like that.”

I think all too often we Jews see our laws and customs as restrictive and limiting, so it was nice to be reminded, especially by someone from the outside looking in, as to how fortunate we are to have them.

All the best,

Allison

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  1. Dale Legan says:

    Thanks Allison,
    Timely message and something to think about. It is about a community of fellowship.
    3 important lessons in unity and community. And, in not being impulsive in action.

  2. I wear wide-legged pants with lonnnngg tops definitely covering the goods. As an older woman, I have no worry about attracting the wrong kind of attention at this point, and I’ve always disliked skirts unless they’re floor-length.

  3. Very interesting! A question was asked of one of my Orthodox Jewish woman students once “Why don’t you wear jeans?” She stated “You conduct yourself differently depending on what you are wearing.” My Orthodox Jewish woman student turned the question to me: ” Michelle, don’t you think your mannersims in teaching would be different if you were wearing jeans versus dressing professionally (which I always did)?” I have to admit she is right!

  4. mirel tzirel says:

    Very well put…I too feel like you mention that I conduct myself differently, am more self-aware of how I’m presenting myself to the world and who I want to be (all in a good way) when wearing skirts. Along the way I’ve struggled w/how I’m conforming to a certain interpretation of Orthodoxy and that I don’t think nowadays pants are halachically unacceptable…but realized the bottom line is that for me, wearing skirts is a good thing.

  5. I am still going through my life stages. Going from Coed Flag Football, Wrestling, and Roller Derby to Conservative then Orthodox Judaism is like leaping over a mountain. I don’t like wearing skirts all of the time. I actually hate it. My Orthodox Rabbi laughed a little when I told him that was the single hardest part my Orthodox Conversion. So keeping Kosher, Not working on Shabbat, living in the Eruv, Separate seating, More Torah Study, and more… not a Problem. No pants, problem!

    I don’t agree with wearing pants to Shul. I think that in Shul (Especially on Shabbat) people should dress their best. But in my everyday life (outside of work and Shul)
    I despise skirts, short or long.

    You can’t do cartwheels in a skirt! Plus you look a little like a floozy on a bike or roller skates. If you fall and a breeze hits the world sees your goods!

    I don’t wear tight jeans or pants. I think that looks disgusting and shows men of all faiths that you are easy. I think a comfortable pair of pants with a shirt/blouse/sweater large enough to cover your tush if fine to me. I like covering up.

    In an effort to be a more observant Jew I bought 2 skirts. I don’t like them, but I bought them. I feel like ridiculous in them.

    Ironically, on the other had I feel like females in yarmulkes in Shul are cross dressers. TETO.

    • Thanks for your comment, Shelly. You can get around the “showing everything off when you play sports” issue by wearing a pair of pants under the skirt. They even make skirts with pants underneath them http://miraclothes.com/exerskirt.aspx !

      It’s true that baggy pants with a long shirt over them will keep you looking modest, but the skirt has become a Jewish woman’s uniform, so the majority of Orthodox rabbis feel that even if baggy pants are available wearing a skirt (even over pants) is fulfilling something beyond modesty.

  6. Bas Melech says:

    According to either Das Moshe or Das Yehudis, the bottom half of the torso has to be hidden, not simply covered, hidden and skirts are the only way of hiding this part of the body. Pants reveal the shape of your legs, hence do not qualify as a modest garment to hide your lower half of your torso.

  7. @Bas Melech: Your torso ends at your waist, so I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    Unless you’re wearing a hoop skirt, some part of the form of your leg is going to show when the fabric of your skirt is up against your legs. It’s the same in baggy pants. Where the pant legs meet is generally not directly covering where your legs meet, and the outline of your leg is only partially seen when the fabric of the pants is up against your leg (like a skirt).

    Personally, I’ve seen plenty of women in jeans and sweaters looking way more modest than some women in their pencil skirts and skin-tight tops, stilettos and a sheital down to their waist.

    The rules of tzniut are vague because the point is the spirit of the law. It also changes with general society(!) In the 60′s and 70′s there were plenty of frum Beis Yaakov girls that wore skirts above their knees, just not the tiny micro-minis that were in at the time.

    The Modern Orthodox rabbis who have given their stamp of approval for women wearing pants understand that the rules aren’t “4 inches below the knee” and “elbows covered with all activity.” It’s “Look in the mirror, and think about what a normal, healthy male might think when he sees you.” If it’s “Hubba hubba,” you might want to rethink your outfit. If it’s, “Oh, there goes a perfectly normal looking member of society,” you’re on the right track. It’s the difference between looking attract*ive* and attract*ing*. You don’t have to hide your figure in a potato sack. You can wear make-up, and pretty colors. Your collarbone might show, but keep the cleavage under wraps. You can be in pants or skirts, as long as you’re not giving the guy behind you a show as you walk down the street. High-heels, flats, sheital, scarf, your own hair, short sleeves, long sleeves…whatever it is, just keep it classy and not trashy. That’s the bottom line.

    Why do Orthodox women only wear skirts? My personal opinion is that when society made that transition from women only wearing skirts to women wearing slacks in public, the Orthodox rabbis of the time had to make a decision about what side of the argument they fall on (and since it was scandalous at the time for women to be seen in pants, but of course there were those women who gave society the finger and did it anyway, opening the door for the rest of the women) they chose the more conservative side. And there it stayed.

    Just FYI, if you would like to see a good example of women in pants looking modest, watch the Israeli TV show “Srugim.”

  8. Thanks for your comments Bas Melech and Bat Yam. I believe what Bas Melech meant to say is that according to das yehudis the *separation* between the legs must be hidden. This is not mentioned in the Gemara, but something extra women took on later as an extra measure of modesty.

    Bat Yam, you are correct that not every skirt that covers the knee is a modest one. Loose, baggy pants are certainly more modest than a skin tight skirt. The idea, however is to wear a modest skirt (though it can show some shape and not be a potato skirt). Also – as I mentioned, skirts have become a type of uniform to observant Jewish women and without wearing one, it’s often hard to pick another frum woman out.

  9. Justaguy says:

    Allison, while covering the ‘pissuk raglaim’ of a woman is not mentioned in the context of das yehudis or das moshe, (that is, things that could cause forfeiture of a kesubah, if i’m not mistaken), The gemarah in the beginning of Pesachim touches on this topic, according to the opinions of both Rashi and Rabbeinu Chananel. I have not looked in to it, but it doesn’t seem as though anyone argues with them.

    I’m doing this from memory, so forgive me if I’m not 100% spot on with the step by step. The conclusion is clear however, as I’ve learnt it.The Gemarah uses a biblical sources to prove that it is important to use a loshon nekiyah, or clean speech. It brings down the portion dealing with a Zav and a Zava. Anything that either of these people ride or sit on is considered ritually impure. Merkav, the act of riding as well as moshav, sitting is mentioned by a Zav. By a Zavah, however, Merkav is omitted. The Gemarah asks a few questions on this, citing verses from both Rivkah and Avigail, and answers them, before moving on.

    Rashi and Rabbeinu Chananel both say that the reason the language of Merkav is omitted by the Zavah is because: “Pisuk Raglayim l’gabei Isha davar m’guneh”, or the separation of the legs when mentioned in the context of a woman is an improper thing.

    As an aside, I spoke with my sister about tsnius a while back. I was always bothered by it omewhat, as I didn’t understand how it was important for the woman. I thought that its sole purpose was based in our responsibility for one another, and in giving men a fighting chance at dealing with our superficial sexual tendencies. This seemed to me overbearing, as men will always find something about women attractive. Tanayim even insisted that unmarried women not cover their hair. There must be more to it.

    My sister said two things to me.
    1. Women have within them a general tendency to want to appear pretty and attractive. (Obviously there are exceptions to this rules, as there are to all rules, but Halacha is not based on the individual as much as it is on the whole, loh plug). Like any instinct or tendency, indulged, it can get out of hand. I’m sure you have seen examples of this, even unfortunately in hte Jewish community ): Tsnius combats this. Men have time-designated mitzvos for the same reason. The best way to control a man’s desires are to consistently occupy oneself with mitzvos and learning torah. Is why we are obligated to daven 3 times a day, wear tsitsis (our own personal witnesses), and learn whenever we can.

    2. This reason really speaks to all jews, male or female. It made me more conscious of my dress. We are the bechor, guys. We are the big brothers and sisters of the world. We are royalty: Princes and princesses among men. Not because we are superior, necessarily, but because of Whom we represent in this world. A time will come when perhaps we will take a more active role in this regard. Until then, we should lead by example. In this culture that objectifies the human body, and idolizes sexual prowess among other worldly feats, let us hold strong to our belief in what truly matters: the spiritual body of mankind.
    Personally, I find that when I take a moment to inspect my outfit before I leave my house in the morning, it truly changes the way I interact with the world. There are certain things I just won’t do in a hat and jacket that I might entertain in jeans and a tank top.

  10. The Gemara in Moed Katan 16A discusses why the thigh has to be hidden, based on the pasuk in Shir Hashirim 7:2.

  11. So if I’m understanding you correctly, other than tight pants, wearing skirts rather than pants is a societal thing rather than a halacha thing. OK. That is fine.
    Thank you for emphasizing in your article that the issue is about appearing as part of a certain community.

    • Allison Allison says:

      Thanks for your question, YS. It’s not just “tight pants” that are problematic according to most opinions – it’s pants that show the separation between a women’s legs. So MC Hammer or harem pants would get around that issue, and yes, then it would be about being part of a community.

  12. So my question then is – what about wearing pants with a long tunic style top? It’s not as long as a skirt, nor does it reveal the gusset area . . .

    Just as an FYI – I’m not Orthodox (nor a Jew, technically, for that matter), but I do try to observe modesty in my dress – and wear skirts more often than not. (I only wear pants or shorts to work out and to go hiking because I haven’t found another viable alternative – but that’s it)

  13. Allison Allison says:

    Thanks for the question, Amy. A long tunic style top paired with baggy pants is certainly modest. Non-Jewish women have no requirement to wear skirts only. When I go hiking or work out, I wear a knee length skirt that’s flared with leggings.

  14. Just a quick note to BatYam: Your notion of the torso ending at the waist is incorrect. The torso is the whole body, minus limbs (arms and legs), neck, and head.

  15. it’s a relly intresting q’.the answer is that it sais in the bible that u cannot crossdress,and pants are considerd a males clothing,of course it varies depending on what type of jew you are…

    • Allison Allison says:

      Thanks for your comment, y.k., but in this day and age, there are pants made specifically for women. Not all rabbis agree that cross dressing is the sole reason for women not wearing pants these days.

  16. allison, is it just frum/orthodox married women who can’t wear pants what about found orthodox girls: i.e.: a 10 yr old orthodox jewish girl. can she not wear pants either?? what about in sports??

    • Allison Allison says:

      Thanks for your question, Anickh – it depends on the community. A child is responsible for mitzvos starting at their bar mitzvah (13 for a boy) or bat mitzvah (12 for a girl), so while technically a girl wouldn’t be obligated in this mitzvah until 12, many communities start younger as a form of education/getting them used to it. Not just for this mitzvah, but for every mitzvah. How early? Generally, the more RW, the earlier.

      In terms of sports – if it’s all women, then most people (though not everyone) would be ok with that. If there are men there, then how baggy are the pants? There are some more lenient opinions you’ll find with sports, but still there are girls wearing skirts playing sports.

  17. I never understood the importance of wearing skirts. I would see women with long skirts and tight tops, and always thought sure these women are hidding their thighs and showing off their boobs. Until one day. I was walking to work which was in a shady neighborhood, and suddenly it hit me. I felt just a little bit safer wearing a modest skirt than I did pants. I felt as though the sexuality that men gawk at was hidden more so in the skirt than pants. Seven years later, today I wear mostly skirts and some pants. But I have to admit, many women look quite obscene from behind. Sometimes even baggy pants show things that don’t need to be seen. I seriously think the women have no idea what they are showing. I thin it’s would be too embarrassing if they did.

  18. I’ve been doing a lot of bible research lately. It seems that the word for man used in the Deut. verse that this tradition is based on is gever, which means soldier or warrior, and pertaineth is kilev, meaning armor or weapons. Therefore, this verse appears to really be about a woman not putting on a warriors armor or going into battle and a warrior not dressing up as a woman and to have nothing to do with everyday clothes worn by a man. Perhaps a better way to translate the verse would be “the woman shall not take upon herself the armor or weapons of a warrior, neither shall a warrior put on a woman’s garment”.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sara. You’re correct that the verse in Deuteronomy is talking about a warrior in battle but the thing about Jewish law is that Torah verses are often much more complex than you’d understand them to be from a simple reading. The Torah is like the “Cliff Notes” to the Oral Law (which was written down 1500 years ago and is now referred to as the Talmud). So determining Jewish law based on “Bible research” is simply not going to yield a complete picture as to how Jewish law works b/c the real law is within the Talmud. The Torah is just a very condensed book giving hints to bigger discussions.

    • Does this mean a woman is not to wear anything made for a man or only that a woman is not to wear styles that are exclusively for men. For example I have a pair of men’s sneakers, because it was easier for me to find a man’s size 7 then a woman’s size 9 1/2. My actions had nothing to do with wanting to look like a man and in fact women wear this same style of shoe. Furthermore there’s really no noticeable difference between the man’s version and the woman’s version of that shoe. I don’t feel that I would want to wear something that was only worn by men anyway.

      • I’m not an authority on Jewish law, but my understanding is that the issue is an attempt to cross dress, so unisex sneakers don’t seem like they’d be a problem.

  19. Thanks. It sounds like this would be more of an issue for men these days, since we know there are a lot more things that women wear that men don’t wear then the other way around.

  20. Brittany Murray says:

    Hi all. I am hoping someone can help me with a question I have been having. I am a dental hygienist and as you can probably guess it is impossible to wear a skirt to work. They are extremely baggy and not attractive at all. Is this permissable? If it is not, I am not sure how I could resolve the issue seeing as skirts are simply not allowed to be worn.

    Thanks!
    Brittany Murray

    • Thanks for your question, Brittany, but it’s probably best to speak to a rabbi about a question of practical Jewish law.

  21. I am considering working at an Orthodox school, as a consultant for a student with some behavior issues. I am not Jewish, but seem to be required to wear a skirt to work. I dislike skirts in general, dislike the idea that clothes “define” my femininity or womanhood, and dislike that men and women can be so defined and separated by clothes. I fully respect the modesty issue, and would dress appropriately and respectfully for the school community, but can I ask to NOT wear a skirt without offending anyone?

    • I think it comes down to a dress code for work. This is a private school and what they consider appropriate, so even if you don’t agree with all the things attached to the dress code you can a) choose to work there and conform to it (in practice, if not in belief) b) choose to work elsewhere… Good luck either way!

  22. Sarah Thomas says:

    I love your Law, i want to wear modest cloths and convert, thanks i love your articles too, so smart to be Jewish.

  23. Sarah Zeldman says:

    While becoming observant, I went to Israel to learn. I asked the Rabbi at the program “What’s the deal with women and pants” He replied, “Loose pants that are made for women are Halachically not a problem — but if you want to live in a community where they take Torah seriously — women don’t wear pants.” I always appreciated his honest answer.

  24. Rebecca says:

    Hi ,
    I believe that the issue of wearing pants or not ,is not really the issue here.
    If we really want a meaningful relationship with the one we are truly trying to please, which is God, or should be . Then the word ,” shamefacedness”. Should be on our minds as we choose our clothes.
    Pants ,baggy or not still reveal too much. Pants make women think they have more freedom , so what do they do… They sit with their legs open, they bend over and the whole caboose is outlined by their underwear . If there were no men ummm maybe . Who cares what the other girl is wearing, focus on you pleasing God and respecting yourself. Bless you all

  25. Hi Jew in the City,
    Thank you so much for creating this website and all of your wonderful educational videos. I personally love the tradition of wearing skirts. I think they are beautiful and feel distinctly feminine. There are few things stranger in my mind than walking down the street and being unable to tell if the person next to you is a man or a woman. We were created differently for a reason and I think modest, and tasteful but attractive dress is a wonderful way to celebrate those differences. I have also found that dressing modestly will often cause those that interact with you, both men and women, to become more appropriate in their behavior and/or their language.

  26. Ziva Shoshana Lauxman says:

    Another point to consider is clothing cultural norms for observant Jews vary from country to country. The modest skirt has become the uniform for the observant Jewish woman in Western Europe and the USA but there are Jews in other countries whose regional dress is very different. In parts of India the Salwar Kameez ( baggy trousers with knee length over dress ) is worn and perfectly acceptable and in Asian and Eastern countries there are similar women’s trousers with long over layers. There are men who wear “non bi furcated” garments, meaning they do not have separate trouser legs but might be something that wraps like a skirt or complete like a dress which are perfectly normal for them. My husband is Scottish, we live in Scotland and he wears a kilt.
    Torah period men generally did not wear bifurcated garments which led to the commandment that the priests wear undergarments when they were in the temple for modesty.
    So times and clothing technologies change and I think the real issue is of modesty and cultural identity and inclusion. As you say the modest skirt has become the “uniform” just as the Hassidic men have created an identifiable uniform as well which has little to do with any halachic law.

  27. Janet Clare says:

    I'm an Orthodox Israeli grandmother, born in Berkeley, CA. Everytime I visit CA, all the women I see on the street are wearing pants, so I tend to stand out. Once in a shopping center parking lot, while wearing a long beige scarf with white trim and a long beige & white dress, a gentleman called out to me, "What order are you with, Sister?" : ) (I replied, "The Jewish one.")

  28. Janet Clare says:

    In rural Israel, specifically in Yesha, where I live, Orthodox women tend to dress more in Biblical style, in long, flowing, multi-layered fabrics. While "rebuilding our ancient communities", we often wear pants/leggings under our dresses for purposes of modesty in case of pratfalls, wind or cold weather. One can often see the lacy trim of color-coordinated pants peaking out under the skirts of our lovely teens.

  29. I am FFB and have always dressed tsniusdik. I didn’t always enjoy the restrictions in wardrobe choices, but always felt it was the right thing to do. One summer day at a local park with my husband, it hit me. What on earth is the point of me dressing modestly? Frum men walk the streets every day where half naked women are everywhere, and many of them even work alongside immodestly dressed women. How is it going to make a difference if I walk around with my collarbone, elbows and knees covered?I have started resenting modesty rules so much, it is literally suffocating. I even feel that because there is so much immodesty around our men, us wives should be able to look at least as attractive as everyone else, and not just in private.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Pearl. I understand that it can be difficult at times and frustrating to see other women half naked. What you’re doing is keeping your body private and special for just your husband. What he SHOULD be doing is keeping his eyes (no matter how other women dress) just for your body.

      I think women SHOULD look attractive as everyone else. But you can look attractive AND classy.

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