Is Tznius A Woman's Most Important Mitzvah?

Is Tznius A Woman’s Most Important Mitzvah?


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Dear Jew in the City,

I hear people in the Orthodox community sometimes talk about tznius (modesty) for a woman like it is her MOST important mitzvah. Like what she exists for. While I’m a fan of tznius, this perspective on it does not sit well with me – that our greatest goal in life as women is to disappear. Am I right? Are the sources in my favor?

Sincerely,

Michal

Dear Michal –

Thanks for your question. There is a point of view, sometimes espoused by the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, to the extent that what Torah does for men, tzniyus does for women. I know this because a certain fairly controversial book on modesty actually has a section titled “What Torah Does for Men, Tznius Does for Women.” The intention of this statement is as follows: the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) teaches us that the mitzvah of Torah study protects men from the yetzer hara (evil inclination). This position states that since women do not have an obligation to study Torah comparable to that of men, tzniyus fulfills the same function. But what is the source for such an assertion?

I am not aware of any Biblical verse or Talmudic dictum in support of this concept. The only real support the author brings is a statement of the Vilna Gaon. The Gaon, who was traveling, sent a letter home to his family with words of encouragement against all sorts of negative traits and behaviors – all except for his mother, whom he excluded because of her great modesty. The inference is that her adherence to the standards of tzniyus protects her from temptation. The author notes that “some versions” of the Gaon’s letter spell this point out explicitly. Even so, and with greatest deference to the Vilna Gaon, an unsourced opinion expressed in 18th-century personal correspondence does not carry the same force of law as the Talmud, the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah or the Shulchan Aruch..

It’s actually impossible to answer “what is the most important mitzvah?” We intuitively “feel” that mitzvos like Shabbos and keeping kosher are more important than most and we don’t spend as much time thinking about things like shaatnez (not wearing garments of mixed wool and linen), taking challah from our dough or not charging interest. In fact, the mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:1) tells us to be as careful in what we perceive to be “small” mitzvos as we are in what we consider to be “big” mitzvos specifically because we don’t know the relative importance of mitzvos.

Along these lines, we see two mitzvos that promise a “long life” (in Olam Haba) for their fulfillment: honoring one’s parents (Exodus 20:12) and sending a mother bird away before taking the young or eggs from her nest (Deuteronomy 22:7). Honoring one’s parents is very difficult – it takes decades of constant vigilance! Shooing a bird away takes but a moment of one’s time. It’s very telling that the Torah promises the same reward for these two very different mitzvos!

Now, tzniyus is not just a “women’s mitzvah” and it’s not just about what we wear. Tzniyus is for everyone and it’s ultimately about how we act. Micah 6:8 tells us, “It has been told to you, humanity, what is good and what God asks of you: only that you act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (The word “humbly” in this verse is hatzneia, same as the word tzniyus.) So do people overemphasize the women’s clothing aspect of this mitzvah? Some do, especially when they try to impose standards that exceed what halacha actually expects.

Since we can’t say definitively what the most important mitzvah is, there are people who dedicate their lives to a wide array of mitzvos. Some people fight lashon hara (gossip and slander). Some encourage hachnosas orchim (hospitality). Some educate people about family purity while others work to arrange proper burials for the deceased. The list goes on and on. And yes, some people feel that the area of tzniyus is one where the community needs education and they work in that area, to various degrees of success. We need that, just like we need the others. There are those, however, who promote expectations beyond what’s actually called for by tzniyus. That’s where the problem lies.

So can I tell you that tzniyus is the most important mitzvah for women? Absolutely not. I also can’t tell you that it isn’t. This information is specifically withheld from us so that we should take all the mitzvos seriously! But just as we don’t tell people to refrain from all speech in order to avoid lashon hara, or to spend all day in bed on Shabbos in order to avoid performing forbidden activities, we should ensure that the things we promote in the name of tzniyus are actually appropriate for achieving the goal and not counterproductive or unnecessarily burdensome on the community.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

JITC Educational Correspondent

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is the author of seven books including The Tzniyus Book.

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  1. According to what I learnt, & I don’t know exact sources- you’ll know that- is that when Hashem created Chava from the ‘hidden’ rib bone from Adam, by every limb he restated: “t’hei tzniah”= and you should be a tzniah. Sounds like it makes tznius one of the most important mitzvahs a woman should aspire to do & be.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : August 28, 2017 at 10:18 am

      Thanks for your comment, Rose, but I don’t know what source this is and while it may be a “nice idea” it certainly has no actual authority over what the most important mitzvah is. As Rabbi Abramowitz stated, we specifically aren’t supposed to say what the most important mitzvah is.

      • You have a point. Thanks for responding.

      • The source is Bereishis Rabbah – it’s one of the first Midrashim, I think under the word “ויבן”.

        • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : November 11, 2017 at 10:06 pm

          Thanks for your comment, and thanks to the person on whom you’re commenting, whose comment I just saw for the first time. I am well-acquainted with that Midrash (which is hardly “one of the first Midrashim” – it’s in chapter 18 of Bereishis Rabbah) and I have to disagree with the assessment for a number of reasons.

          First and foremost is the fact that it’s a Midrash. We don’t poskin halachos from Midrashim, period. We never have and we never do. At most, it’s a moral lesson. But even then, it’s cherry-picking one line out of a fairly long block of text. Let’s look at what it says:

          According to the Midrash cited, God was trying to decide from which part of man to create woman. He rejected the head because that would make her haughty, the eye because that would make her flirtatious, the ear because that would make her an eavesdropper, the mouth because that would make her talk too much, the heart because that would make her jealous, the hand because that would make her a thief, and the leg because that would make her run around. He decided to create Chava from the rib, a place that is covered by the arm, so that she should be modest.

          If the Midrash stopped there, it still wouldn’t prove that modesty is the most important mitzvah for a woman (which was the question addressed by the article), just that modesty is a good trait to have. (Which it is! No one is disputing that!) But that’s not even the point of the Midrash – it’s just the middle! It continues:

          Despite God’s intentions, human nature didn’t listen to His good advice because women still possess all of those negative traits, and the Midrash brings a pasuk to prove each one. We see that women are haughty and flirtatious from Yeshaya’s reprimand in Isaiah 3:16. We see they eavesdrop as Sarah did outside Avraham’s tent. Rachel was jealous of Leah, and she also stole her father’s idols; Dina went out, etc. The only negative trait for which the Midrash doesn’t bring a proof text is that they talk too much. (I once asked a rebbe why the Midrash doesn’t bring a support for this one and he basically said that we don’t need a verse to prove something we can easily observe. Hey, don’t blame me for that – I only asked the question!)

          Now, one can be cynical and say that this Midrash is misogynistic but that’s actually missing the point. The point of this Midrash is that God gives us good counsel – literally by giving us the Torah, metaphorically by building Chava from a particular body part – but people are weak. We don’t listen to God’s directives, which are for our benefit, preferring to pursue the things He advises us to avoid. The implied lesson is “listen to God!”

          One last point to consider: this Midrash is talking about Chava (Eve), the mother of all mankind. Tzniyus is not one of the sheva mitzvos b’nei Noach, i.e., non-Jews are not obligated in the matter. So how can a Midrash about the creation of Chava, if taken literally rather than allegorically, be a statement on the obligation of Jews but not that of non-Jews? Clearly the story is intended as a metaphor and not a history! (See more about the literalness of Midrashim here: https://www.ou.org/life/inspiration/midrashim-dont-literal/ )

          So, yes, I am familiar with that Midrash (I did write a book on tzniyus!) but it’s not saying what one might like it to say and, even if it did, it still wouldn’t have any halachic import.

  2. Excellent article on tzniut. I just want to add that I believe tzniut is a middah which can sometimes be reflected in Halacha. Many books of mussar devote words of wisdom to encourage and implament this middah as part of the Jewish persona. As Jews we try to be lovers of peace and kindness and implement
    those qualities in our children and communities , I believe tzniut is part of the beautiful package as it has been for generations.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book.