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Why Don't Orthodox Jewish Women Wear Pants?

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. Ziva Shoshana Lauxman : August 19, 2013 at 5:05 am

    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.

    • Deborah BeeHouse : October 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

      I love the way traditional Indian women dress (the saris with light, silky “pants” underneath). I wish we had something like that in the Jewish community!

  2. 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.")

  3. 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.

  4. 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 : February 12, 2014 at 1:00 pm

      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.

  5. “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…”

    Incorrect. Women in Yemen wore pants. Sure, they were specifically designed for women, but they were pants all the same. And I’m thinking that back in Biblical times, there weren’t any pants. Perhaps people wore gown-like garments, like which can be seen across the more traditional scenes of the Middle East. And as far as the cross dressing issue goes, if women “cant” wear pants because they’re “mens’ clothing”, then why can Chassidic men wear hoylbe hoyzen–I think that’s what they’re called, I’m not sure–under their pants? Last I checked, those were tights, and only women wear tights. Does this not fall into the category of Beged Isha?

  6. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : May 30, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Actually, while cross-dressing may be *an* issue, I don’t believe it’s *the* issue. If women were prohibited from wearing pants because of the prohibition against transvestism, they would not be permitted to wear them even in private or under a skirt. Most authorities, I believe, permit this because cross-dressing is not the primary issue. It’s essentially a tzniyus issue, having to do with pisuk raglayim (the split between the legs) and it is discussed in the Talmud based on a verse from Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs).

    I have a whole chapter in “The Tzniyus Book” on this very subject.

  7. I am a Christian who is interested in other religions and believes it is essential to explore other cultures in order to cohabit with them effectively. I understand the reasons for which women of Jewish faith (the ones who choose to adhere) wear skirts at all times, but do believe it is against the right people have to express themselves as they wish to, and that issues like this should not pertain to faith. You can believe what you wish to, but you should not have to dress a certain way because a rule was written a long time ago that showing the split between your legs is indecent. Times change and people do too, that should be considered in all religions, not only this one. I just believe that something like that is personal and so it is unfair to women to have to adhere to a dress code. I dress modestly because it just so happens to be my style, I don’t wear jeans because I don’t like them, does it mean that someone who wears jeans does not look modest? If you say no, I seriously ask you to look at a fashion magazine or a fashion runway and consider the modesty in their attires. My point here is that legs are a body part, a body that was, in fact, thought by and created by God (no matter who your God is, mine being Jesus) and if he believed that the split would cause such problems, he would’ve granted humans or females, in this case, with a tail and not legs (far-fetched example, though the drift can be understood). All this to say that I think everyone should have a choice and not be judged for it, nor be ranked in a class of modesty according to the attire that is chosen. It is important to evolve and the right to be free is present in most developed countries; thus, should be in religions as well. God loves everyone, no matter what you wear.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : June 17, 2014 at 5:37 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The question of “changing with the times” all hinges on whether or not one believe that the rules of one’s religion reflect the will of G-d. The same logic has been used to justify eating pork and shellfish – “modern science and health….” But to us, the issue was never one of trichinosis, it was one of “G-d said not to eat this.” So what we eat, what we wear, where we live, etc. are dictated by what we understand what G-d wants of us, not what’s going on in society.

      If someone disagrees, that is there prerogative. Those who choose to dress a certain way, eat a certain way, and/or live a certain way should not judge those who choose to live otherwise! But G-d loves EVERYBODY! (When the pursuing Egyptian army was drowned in the Red Sea, the angels wanted to sing songs of praise. G-d silenced them by saying, “My children are drowning in the sea and you want to sing?”)

      All this notwithstanding, the rule is “on the books” and we would be remiss not to teach it and explain it, even if people have the option to accept it or reject it in their own lives.

  8. Hi

    Excellent article. This is probably going off on a tangent, but I just findit a bit sad that the guy with the band T shirt did not become friends with the other guy because they did not have much in common. I think friendship should only require you to have a few things in common. I enjoy the most getting to know people who are different to me. If only people were more willing to get to know the ‘other’, there would have been no Holocaust, and no middle eastern conflict.

    By the way, I am someone who is looking to convert to Judaism. Just so that you know who this post is coming from. Best regards.

  9. I was reading all these comments about skirts and modesty and covering the separation between legs. My question is why are women burried in pants? It seems contradictory, so there must be a reason.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : July 28, 2014 at 2:22 pm

      There is a reason: the burial shrouds are based on the garments worn by the kohein gadol (high priest) on Yom Kippur. There are layers above the trousers, so it’s not really a contradiction in any event.

  10. It doesn’t say a woman should not wear a man’s clothes (beged ish), the words actually are kli gever (a mans tools) while a man is told not to wear a womans clothes (beged isha) a woman is told not to carry a mans tools. Yes I understand there’s an “oral torah” and I believe in one but I have a hard time trusting the modern day opinions of rabbi’s who 1) broke the torah by writing down the written torah and 2) who litter their houses with superstitious hamsas that come from arabic -even the word is arabic. Having a hamsa in your house is worse than a woman who chooses to wear pants who does not violate a biblical law as a hamsa violates the biblical law of not to practice witchcraft.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : January 28, 2015 at 2:46 pm

      Kli is a more comprehensive term than beged; kli can include both clothes and other things.

      I assume you mean “writing down the Oral Torah.” This is a famous discussion (Talmud Gittin 60b.) The permission to do so is based on Psalms 119:126: sometimes one has to violate the law for the sake of the big picture. This is not unlike violating Shabbos in order to save a life. Yes, the Sabbath desecration involved is a step back, but the life saved makes it a large net gain.

      Finally, the Hamsa is a Middle Eastern symbol. Lots of people are not fans of it, as it has no basis in Judaism, but it’s just a decoration. Even if someone is superstitious about it (which most people aren’t), that doesn’t make it witchcraft by any stretch of the imagination.

      • I take your facts with a grain of salt if you think an idolotrous/supersitious thing like a hamsa is not problematic. It’s more problematic for anyone, male or female to wear a hamsa than it is to violate a minhag by wearing pants. One is a biblical prohibition (no witchcraft, no charms etc) while the other is a rabbinic prohibition (pants). There was a time also in Jewish history where Jews also thought worshiping other gods like ashera alongsite Hashem was not problematic. It might seem trivial to you. Oh it’s just a necklace, it’s just a bracelet but it’s not trivial. If you spend so much time thinking about clothing, you really should think about the clothing that links to the worship of other gods. It originated in egypt and just because some jewish site claims it is okay doesn’t make it so. They also claimed the golden calf was okay. It was never okay to wear a hamsa.

        • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : February 17, 2015 at 5:49 am

          “Just because some Jewish site claims it is okay doesn’t make it so.”

          Conversely, just commenting on a site that it’s “witchcraft” doesn’t make it so. You make the claim but you have not substantiated it. Where are your sources for this assertion? I acknowledged that not everybody is a fan of the hamsa but if you want to completely change the focus of the community’s priorities vis-a-vis women wearing pants vs. the hamsa necklace, then the burden of proof is on you. (Halachic sources, please. Don’t send me a link to a web page because you have already established that just because a web page says something doesn’t make it so.)

  11. *meant broke the law by writing down the “oral torah” not the “written torah” (I understand this comment will probably not get posted as it differs with the authors viewpoint who’s an orthodox woman) I feel we should respect each other as Jews and that means for all Jews not to cast judgement on each other for doing things a little differently or violating what they view as a social norm or even halacha. The way orthodox look down on MO who wear pants is just as bad as secular who look down on Orthodox for not using electricity on shabbat.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this. I am not from the Jewish faith, but always wondered why Jewish women never wore pants. I think it’s always good to respect diversity even if you don’t understand why people do certain things in their culture or religion. If you don’t understand why certain religions have certain traditions, it’s important to research the meaning before giving judgement.

  13. I love wearing skirts and dresses as I feel feminine in them, however transitioning from a staple clothing “diet” of comfortably worn in skinny jeans, shorts and singlets is a bit of a challenge sometimes!

    I am Messianic, so that means that I follow Yeshua, and I obey the Torah to the best of my ability. Part of that is modesty and dressing according to my gender, considering others in everything I do, not just myself.

    I just wanted to ask if you can help me a bit. I hope my faith is not offensive to you. I want to know about wearing tzit tzit. From what I can find out, women have generally been permitted to wear tzit tzit in Jewish Halakah until more recent times, but I want to know if women as well as men wore four cornered garments ( tallit gadol) when the deliverance from Mitsrayim happened and Torah was given, because then I will know if the original instruction to wear tzit tzit was given to both men and women (Ben Yisrael in other contexts refers to both males and females) or was understood to mean only males even then. I don’t see why this wouldn’t be an important mitzvah for women as well as men, to be a reminder to obey Torah. However, perhaps I am missing a deeper significance on the role of men.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : May 5, 2015 at 2:17 pm

      Thanks for your question. There are a number of mitzvos in which women are not obligated. Generally speaking, this means positive commandments (“thou shalts,” as opposed to “thou shalt nots”) that must be performed at a certain time. Women may not eat on Yom Kippur or perform acts of labor on the Sabbath because those are negative commandments (“thou shalt nots”). Women must give charity and have a mezuzah because those are not time-bound (they apply all the time). But women need not wave the four species on Succos because that is a positive, time-bound mitzvah.

      Now, “not obligated” is different from “prohibited.” This is where things get dicey. Historically, women voluntarily accepted certain mitzvos, like eating in a succah. They did not accept others, like wearing tzitzis or tefillin. So it evolved that the accepted practice became for women to do some and not to do others. When a woman wants to act counter to the accepted practice, it raises all sorts of issues. Largely, the issue is egalitarianism, i.e., “men are doing it so why can’t we?” This is problematic because someone is then letting current cultural trends dictate their religious practice, which is a matter altogether separate from the mitzvah itself. (I’m not advocating one way or the other here, I’m just explaining the state of the landscape in this matter.)

      So, long story short, normative Orthodox practice is for women not to wear tzitzis, tallis, or tefillin. “Accepted practice not to” doesn’t mean “not allowed” but acting counter to the norm raises other issues and then things start to get political and messy.

      • I’ve heard certain colours are assur like strong red like a zonah might wear. For someone who takes that very seriously, is there a comprehensive guide anywhere on this?
        I’ve heard from archeologically discoveries in Israel the wealthy class had purples and pinks.
        I don’t want to buy any forbidden clothing for my house, so I appreciate all replies to this.

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : July 18, 2019 at 10:42 am

          No, there is not. There are just community norms, but this is not an actual law. It’s just what’s done in certain places.

  14. dinelleh Yehudah : June 23, 2015 at 4:50 am

    i read all your saying and opinions about tznius, and i think i have something little to add and tell you all, i live in israel, in the center of our country. i’m not that old, but what’s happening now is something that just never be in our jewish nation. there is so much mess and people dont understand how important tznius is. when i was a child in bais yakov, not that long ago, we had rules and red lines we never crossed, there was no way a girl would wear a skirt that shows her knee. just not!!!! (and this is just one little example) and today i teach in the same school and the same teachers but when i look at girls today you would think our world just got crazy. and its so sad. once when i was a young maiden in high school me and my friend used to come to the see with light dresses or a night gown, when i heard of the “בגד ים צנוע ” as we call it hear a modest swim suit i was so happy, i bought myself one and hoped peeople women would wear it. and im not talking about a swimming pool when theres usually a female life-guard . i’m taking about a sea where there’s usually 4\5 males that are considered as staff, girls and women just walk there with thier mininal clothings, or without them, and nothing happens and i’m the crazy one to come with my long sleeves and skirt.
    so, a woman ought to have an inner feeling about it, but now, when there is not i think we all have to know this is whar go-d asks from us- his beloved daughters, just to be act and dress like princess. and we must know the “sachar” that waits for us in Heavens!!!
    so, i love you all my jewish sisters and wish you this Nisayon wouldn’t be so hard for you!
    (i hope i’m clear in english and my message is clear)

    • Dinelle, your enthusiasm for tznius and tznius bathing suits is totally contagious. I also used to wear nightgowns to the beach before swimdresses and two-pieces were invented. Baruch Hashem for tzniusdik bathing suits!!
      Regarding what a Bais Yaakov girl would or would not do, you unfortunately have quite a bit of research to do. Look up the UNDOCTORED versions of the photos of the old Bais Yaakov(s) in Europe (and while you’re at it, check out youtube, too) and read the biography of Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan by Reb. Danielle Leibowitz, for a start. Things have bh gotten better, not worse.

  15. Hi there,

    Was just wondering why we don’t cover the neck at all? I hope it fits into this discussion…funny enough when I was looking this up online I found this page..
    I have heard from some that covering neck is Halacha, but…I don’t see anyone do it…how come?

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : August 9, 2016 at 8:41 am

      the rabbis never considered that to be “ervah” – nakedness. we don’t cover face or hands either. the most basic halacha is upper arms, upper legs and the space in between.

  16. I have far more in common with people who like the same bands than with people who were born into the same religion.

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