Dear Jew in the City,
Are there any laws that tell people not to talk about their intimate lives? What are the exceptions?
There are indeed such laws, and you’ve probably heard of them. Collectively, such laws are referred to as “tzniyus.”
“Hey!” I hear you say. “Tzniyus refers to the laws of modesty! It’s all about what a woman wears!”
Well, that’s where you’re wrong. Tzniyus isn’t just for women and it’s not only about what people wear. Tzniyus is for both men and women, and it’s about how we dress, how we act, and yes, how we speak.
Many lessons on this topic are discussed in the Talmud in tractate Pesachim, on pages 3a-3b. There, the gemara discusses why the Mishna euphemizes a certain term. It then discusses the length to which the Torah goes to euphemize unpleasant language. For example, Genesis 7:8 refers to “the animals that are not clean,” utilizing an extra eight letters in Hebrew in order to avoid saying, “the animals that are unclean.” Other verses cited by the Talmud as doing this include Deuteronomy 23:11, which adds ten letters to avoid using an unpleasant expression, and I Samuel 20:26, which adds 16 letters.
The Talmud asks the obvious question: Doesn’t the Torah use the word “unclean” in many places? If it’s so important to euphemize unpleasant things, why doesn’t the Torah euphemize those as well? It’s because euphemizing is important, but so is speaking clearly. Rav Huna taught in the name of Rav that when teaching students, one should speak plainly and not complicate things.
(Many years ago, I wrote a book on tzniyus – appropriately titled The Tzniyus Book – in which I use absolutely scandalous terms like “bra.” Euphemisms like “undergarments,” which are employed by many other works, are certainly more genteel, but there’s a concern that the intention might not always be completely clear to readers from communities where people don’t euphemize such things.)
The gemara gives a number of other examples. In one of these, three kohanim were discussing the meager portions of showbread that they received. One compared his portion to a bean, the second compared his to an olive, and the third compared his to a lizard’s tail. The use of such an unseemly analogy raised suspicions, so they looked into his background and it turned out that the third kohein actually had disqualifying factors in his lineage. (If this seems an overreaction, consider a more contemporary example. Imagine you own a furniture store. Someone who looks like a Satmar chasid walks in and requests “a throw pillow the size of a pig’s butt.” Wouldn’t you think something was off about that? Well, adjusted for time and context, that’s the gemara’s story about the kohein.)
In another example, two students were sitting before Hillel and they both asked the same question, but one used euphemistic language and the other was unnecessarily blunt. Hillel rightly predicted that the first student – Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai – would go on to be an important Torah authority.
Now I hear what some of you may be thinking. “The question was about discussing intimate details, but you’ve been talking about not using crass terms – those are different things!” That’s true, but tzniyus in speech refers to a number of different things, including what we discuss (i.e., not discussing private matters), the words we use (i.e., not crass ones) and how we speak (i.e., modestly, rather than being boisterous or showy).
Some other examples from the gemara involve conjuring imagery that would be considered immodest. For example, the Torah discusses the case of the zav and the zavah (a man and a woman who experience particular genital discharges). Regarding the man, the Torah discusses the purity of an item on which he rides (Lev. 15:9), but when it comes to a woman, it discusses an item on which she sits (ibid., verse 22). This is because it’s considered immodest to discuss women riding, which involves spreading the legs in an un-tzniyusdik fashion.
Once again, the gemara asks the obvious question: Doesn’t the Torah discuss women riding in other places? And once again, the answer is that there are compelling reasons for those cases. For example, Genesis chapter 24 discusses Rivka riding on a camel. The reason for that, we are told, is because a woman couldn’t sit side-saddle on a camel, because doing so would be dangerous. The lesson is that tzniyus is important, but safety trumps modesty. (Again, a modern example: the shoulder harness of a seatbelt might be more form-fitting than some would like, but it’s not safe to ride without it.)
An even more overt example comes from tractate Shabbos (33a). There, the Talmud cites a verse from Isaiah (9:16) that “Hashem will not rejoice over youths and He won’t have mercy on orphans and widows, because all of them are hypocrites and evildoers, and every mouth speaks obscenity….” The gemara concludes that harsh decrees are enacted, young people die, and the helpless are not answered, all as a result of vulgar speech. It gives a particular example: Everyone knows what newlyweds do on their wedding night, but if someone talks about their private business, then even a Divine decree for seventy years of goodness will be reversed.
That right there is a pretty good indicator not to speak about intimate matters.
The gemara in these two places cites a number of verses beyond the one from Isaiah on the subject of lashon naki (clean speech) and nivul peh (speaking obscenity). I’ll just share two. Job 15:5 tells us, “Your sin (i.e., the yetzer hara – evil inclination) informs your mouth, but you should have chosen the language of the clever.” Proverbs 22:14 teaches, “The mouth of obscenity is a deep pit; one who is abhorred by Hashem will fall into it.” The gemara in Shabbos interprets the first part of this verse to mean that Hell is deepened for those who speak vulgarity; the second part includes one who hears such speech without objecting to it.”
So, even if you wanted to justify discussing your own intimate details, which is already immodest, you couldn’t justify causing the other person to hear them.
Bottom line, I’d recommend saving intimate details for your doctor and your therapist when necessary.
Your friends don’t need to hear them.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube