Internalizing Tzinus

I was talking to someone the other day about the topic of tznius. She is newly observant and she asked me about the halachas of dressing in a modest fashion – now that the weather was getting warmer, she wanted to know what she could and couldn’t wear, and in observing others, she was a bit confused, because she saw that everyone did something a little different. I gave her a quick overview of the laws – covering elbows, knees and collarbone, wearing skirts and explained that when it comes to the rest of it, different people do different things and the best thing to do is to speak about it with someone you trust.

She then told me a story that blew me away. She told me that for a year, she had an eating disorder. She was obsessed with her body and her weight, and she became extremely thin, to the point where she could no longer find clothes small enough to fit her. Her friends and family were concerned and kept telling her that she was too thin, but she couldn’t see it.

She then learned about tznius and the philosophy behind it. She was taught about how the neshama should be able to shine from within, and that it is what is inside a person that is important. Her eating disorder disappeared as she focused on her internal image rather than her external one.

This woman, before even knowing the laws of tznius, managed to understand and internalize the underlying wisdom within the concept. I was awed by the fact that, instead of focusing on what she was wearing to be modest, she took it a huge step further and let the concept make an incredible difference in how she viewed herself.

Many people get caught up in hemlines, stockings, colors and sandals (and whether or not to wear any of the above). But tznius is so much more. It’s a way of life, of interacting with others, and of viewing oneself. It’s often a challenge to remember to focus on what is inside a person, to see their essence. It takes more effort and time to see someone for who they are rather than what they look like. But that is what tznius is all about – taking away the focus on outward appearance to give others the opportunity to look beyond. This woman has found it within herself. May we all follow her lead.

22 comments on “Internalizing Tzinus

  1. Personally, I found Rabbi Falk’s sefer oppressive. There was another slim one written by Rav Auerbach in Hebrew and translated in Yiddish that had strict views, but presented them in a really refined and tasteful manner that made a difference in swallowing the Halachos.
    We all crave attention, not just those who dress well. Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l used to say, ‘what do you think the girl who is sprouting her dayos’ is doing – it too could be a form of flirting, could be a form of attention getting, etc. It is human nature to want to be noticed. That said, we must be careful before we paint things black and white. In the midbar, makeup was provided. The women’s mirrors from Mitzrayim were used for the Kiyar. A Tanna’s wife would “farputz” herself everyday and go out to meet him on his way home from work. Tzniyus can be translated to the ‘proper measurement’ instead of modesty – which means knowing “vee ahn uhn vee ohs” as they say in Yiddish, which means when and where and why to do things. A beautiful example of this is found in the memoirs of Basya Meislik – -she had to meet a girl who was not sure about Judaism, and Basya writes, (not exact quote) I was dressed well, but not nice enough to do what had to be done in presenting to this girl Judaism in a palatable manner, in making a kiddush Hashem. So, Basya Meislik went home and put great effort in her dress to make sure she looked perfect for that meeting. Internal is important, but external is too. We must wash and wipe our face each morning because we are the “statue of G-d”. My father always told us that our outside is “public property” and that we had to keep it good looking, since others had to see it. Therefore, to just paint the picture of focusing just on internal would not do full justice to what is required of us. We are souls, but G-d put us in these bodies and told us to maintain them, clean them and use them for soul’s advancement.

  2. For those interested in a very contemporary view of Tznius, the writings and books of Wendy Shalit are IMO unique. Ms. Shalit, a BT, who learned in a seminary in EY after graduating from a prestigious college, takes dead aim on the contemporary objectification of women and other issues quite well. R E Gellinson also wrote a series of sefarim on Tznius and women’s issues vis a vis halacha that have superb mareh mkomos and which have been translated into English as well. I highly reccomend these works for anyone of both genders seeking a different perspective on these issues.

  3. Ruth: I can also personally say I do not feel hotter in the summer the way I’ve dressed for the second twenty years of my life than the first twenty years. You are also right that people will put up with all kinds of inconvenience for vanity, uncomfortable fabrics, heels, business suits, etc. There are also many professions where people have to wear very heavy full uniforms year round, in very hot climates. Tznius is our uniform and badge of honor. I have a friend, baalas teshuva, living in Bnei Brak, recently became a grandmother, who wears all kind of headwraps, velour snoods in the hot summer, and honestly insists she feels no hotter and it is by choice. She carries herself regally, never complains and is a role model to all who know her.

  4. For those who do fairly well in Ivrit, I would like to suggest an important sefer, if it can still be found.

    Around ’80, a fine (then young) talmid chacham named Shmuel Katz at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav published a carefully written and annotated book called K’doshim T’hiyu. It is a halachic compendium originally written for the young men and women in religious youth movements, yeshivot, and ulpanot in Israel. It quickly became recognized as a resource for rabbanim as well as for students and young adults.

    Everything is carefully footnoted. Haskamot (approbations) are from people like Rav Tzvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Rav Mordechai (Ben) Eliyahu, Rav Simha Hacohen Kook, Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriya. In addition to the chapters dealing with dress, social interactions of different sorts, davvening, yihud, etc.; there are letters at the back, t’shuvot from poskim in Israel about particular issues and how to approach them. Rabbanim who wrote them specifically for the sefer include people such as Rav Shlomo Aviner, Rav Shlomo Min Hahar, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, Rav Shlomo Goren, etc. Topics in the t’shuvot cover everything from mixed singing to mixed youth movement activity to behaviour at simhas to acting as a lifeguard.

    This is not only a very valuable sefer, it is a resource which broadens and deepens the scope for anyone who wants to learn the topic thoroughly and well.

  5. Different seminaries and their teachers on Tznius, especially in EY, have a decidedly mixed view of R Falk’s book. Some view it as wholly unacceptable for themselves and their talmidos while others consider it akin to the Mishnah Brurah on this understandably sensitive issue.

  6. Jaded,
    Tznius clothing does not necessarily have to be hotter in the summer than non-tsnius clothing. A loose silk blouse, even with long sleeves, can be very comfortable on a hot day. A pair of tight jeans (which I notice many girls wearing even on the hottest days) can be uncomfortable. Many women will be uncomfortable to by stylish. I feel I can be slightly uncomfortable to be tsniusdik. And if I really can’t take it, there’s always air conditioning.

  7. Jaded Topaz said,
    “For others however getting hung up the nuances of whats accepted material (dress)is discomforting ,breeds spiritual and inherent discomfort…”

    ” Its the getting hung up on the minor details and and even more minor chumrah’s that is the greatest impediment…”

    Women (and men, too) who grew up in the American counterculture have a harder task than most in being BT’s. The counterculture has always exalted spontaneity and autonomy while distrusting and mocking the establishment’s rules and authority figures. (These attitudes in a less extreme form have become part of the general American outlook).

    To anyone starting to enter Orthodox Judaism from that background, our reliance on poskim must look totally unnatural. It takes some positive effort to accept halachic authority—especially in areas like tznius that go against the American grain.

  8. Shoshana: You are so right, forgotten major point. Attitude and smile are number one.

    Chana: I learned Rabbi Falk’s sefer in depth as well with a dear friend/chavrusa a few years ago for about two years steadily. She then made aliyah. I still refer to it often. Those two years of learning changed my life, and that was after about 15 years of already being frum. The deep insights to tznius, including dress, manner and speech took me to a whole other level and I feel very fortunate to have been touched in that way. My personal integrity and confidence, my marriage, my children and family life, my business life and relationships, have all been enhanced by that growth.

    I also feel that men can have great sensitivity and depth regarding tznius as well. Not only their own, as they too must behave in a tzniusdik manner, but regarding women as well. The Rabbis also have wives, daughters and they had mothers, grandmothers, what they teach is not all from a male viewpoint. Everything is affected from their whole life experience and learning as well, and their Rebbes who taught them had wives, mothers etc. In fact, since they are not emotionally involved personally per se in certain female tsnius issues, they may have a more sensible approach. I found it ideal to learn Rabbi Falk’s sefer with a female chavrusa who could be brutally honest with me and herself about the very important issues being raised, especially given our baalas teshuva backgrounds and our need for clarity with regards to raising our daughters especially.

    Yoel: I have always felt that the need to “stand out” publicly comes from a lack somewhere internally. When I was a teenager I was informed by a friend that one must “show off their assets”. She then proceeded to demonstrate, and before I knew it, I quickly learned that certain ways of dress generated quite alot of attention. I could see how someone could depend on that kind of attention. Luckily, even before becoming frum, I came to my senses about that, as I knew I was worth more than my exterior persona. Your wife and children sound lucky to have you with your healthy approach and viewpoints to guide them to what is truly important in this world and the next.

  9. Chana, I don’t think the issue with R Falk’s book is that it’s machmir (although it is). I think the issue is that there are objective norms of tzniut, but many things are subjective and depend on local practice as a matter of halacha, and on these subjective matters, R Falk lists objective guidelines as though there was some requirement to change local practice to fit a platonic ideal of tzniut. As one example, R Falk has the idea that a married woman has to dress in a way that marks her off as married – she can look younger than her age, but not “so young as to be single” – this is an idea he derives from the requirement for headcovering but has no substantive basis in halacha. This is substitution of his personal notion of spirit of the law for halacha – an attitude that can be destructive.
    I think spirit of the law of tzniut is best left to women, frankly.

  10. Sarah –
    I have always had a hard time with the make-up on Shabbos issue myself. I always found it odd to don my best clothing but feel like my face was being ignored. Additionally, seeing other people who aren’t to the stage where they don’t put make-up on was difficult to see in comparison. However, I have moved beyond this feeling (and gotten better make-up) to the point where I realize that I can put my best face forward no matter what is on it, as long as my attitude is positive. A smile, with or without lipstick, goes a long way.

    Jaded –
    You make a good point. First of all, I think it’s important to note that abiding by strict halacha doesn’t leave one quite as sweltering as what you are portraying. I think it’s important for women to find their comfort with tznius. I wear skirts that cover my knees, shirts that cover my elbows and collarbone, but I am not strict on wearing stockings or closed-toed shoes or anything else, because I know my discomfort would cause me to resent it. There is a huge difference in what the halacha is and what many choose to hold by.

    Yoel –
    I do think there is basis for your assertion that women who emphasize outer appearance lack self-esteem in general. And I think that this often stems from years of others placing the external above the internal, getting comments over the years about appearance, rather than focus on what is inside. However I think, especially in American society, but all over the world as well, it’s difficult, particularly for women, to separate their inner value from their outer value. And for many of those whose outer appearance becomes more important than their inner self, because of this conflict and inability to separate, it’s probably extremely difficult to have good self-esteem, as there is always a “prettier” person around. It’s important for these women to be able to view themselves as more than just a body, but it’s sometimes a difficult level to achieve.

    Chana –
    I am familiar with, and have learned from, Rabbi Falk’s book. I definitely saw it as offering tznius from a very stringent view, and I think it’s important for someone learning from it to have a rabbi or someone they trust from a halachic standpoint to give them a reality check before accepting blindly what is written in it, and taking on stringencies that are not required and can cause resentment in the future.

    Michael –
    Thank you for your thoughts. I agree that it’s important for the outside to reflect the inner dignity of a person, and I think dressing in such a manner helps others give that respect for a person’s dignity as well.

  11. To shoshana and addressing ayelet’s point.

    I believe it is deeper than that.
    The Messilas Yesharim explains that materiality is here to help us (and others at the same time) achieve Dveykut in Hashem. The way you dress and the make up are tools to use in order to help us internalyse the 6 constant Mitzvos, or in brief the psalm : Shivisi Hashem Lenegdi Tamid…I place Hashem in front of me always.
    I have to use them in order to increase my awareness that Hashem is here in front of me.
    If I go to the Rosh Yeshiva or the president of the US I will make shure to be dressed up accordingly.
    This is the first idea

    The second idea is that my inside should reflect my outside : inside I ama Neshama Tehora, a Chelek Elokay Mimaal, a daughter/sun of the King , therefore people who see me should think : she is from the royal family, she is jewish. There should be a sense of Awe and respect when they see me, they should feel that if my outside has so much dignity then inside must be wonderful also.
    We see therefor ethan the inside is as important as the outside and we should learn how to make it real .

  12. I have been learning from “Oz Vehadar Levusha – Modesty, an Adornment for Life” by Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk for the last year. This thick sefer has proven to be a valuable handbook on halachos, minhagim and chumras of tznius which is very welcome for the BT (and FFB) who has been struggling to understand all the pieces of this puzzle.

    I have been told that Rabbi Falk is machmir on this subject, and the sefer certainly reflects that. I have found myself bristling at some of the statements in the book; but I persist because on some level I feel it is necessary to understand this issue from the most stringent perspective, and then adapt what I can. I feel it is less important to defend myself against what I may see as arrogance, than to try to understand the tradition and its reasoning.

    I am not new to the laws of tznius, as I have been BT for over a decade, but there are many new concepts I have gained understanding of through prolonged study of this sefer. For example, last night I learned the section on, under which circumstances brachos, tefilla, or divrei Torah may not be said in the presence of women who are not properly covered. This was part of one of the larger themes running through the book on how women who dress/behave in a pritzusdik manner may cause men to stumble.

    As I said, this is a strictly conservative approach and those with strong feminist stirrings may not take to it kindly. But perhaps a truthful understanding of our mesora requires us to put the feminist struggle on a back burner…..

  13. I might be out-of-line here … I loved the story, thank you for sharing. As for makeup, I’m one of those husbands. It was NEVER an issue in our family cause my wife never used makeup (well maybe three or four times during our 33 year marriage!). With our daughters I try to encourage them to see clothes/makeup (i.e. externals) as a way to emphasize the beauty that is within, not hide it!

    On another level I’ve always thought that women who placed an enormous emphasis on externals suffered from a deep lack of self esteeem … is there any basis for my assumption?

    Yoel Ben-Avraham
    Shilo, Benyamin

  14. Ayelet: You are right, in fact there are opinions about the use of or rather, the proper use of make-up at all. We are supposed to improve our dress for Shabbos and YomTov, even if we are totally alone on those days. We need to distinguish between kodesh and chol for ourselves, not the public. Too many focus on the “fussing” for the public eye. I like that term by the way, and the rest from it on Shabbos. Besides improving our dress for holy days, we should also “dress up” for our husbands. That is individual of course, as different husbands may prefer different things. Some like natural, some like embellishment, but this again is a private matter, not for the public eye.

  15. The flip side of accruing spiritual brownie points with the literal/external modesty program is that its exceedingly difficult to focus on figuretive/internal modesty when the external/ literal/material modesty is causing extreme discomfort. Ever try celebrating “be nice to random stranger day” on a hot sweltering summer day with three headcoverings/ extra neck covering and buttoning and durable legwear … this is the kind of stuff that could only be described as the mother of irritablity and the father of excess heat .( slight exaggeration for crystal clear point making only).For some individuals on a higher spiritual level these material discomforts are not impediments but are actual step ladders rungs for climbing the future for a brighter more modest tomorrow . For others however getting hung up the nuances of whats accepted material (dress)is discomforting ,breeds spiritual and inherent discomfort and may lead to imbibing large quantities of peach flavored absolute vodka to override the heat . It definitely is possible to focus on the internals work on a spiritual level to better one’s self and channel wayward emotions and impulses for a spiritual equilibrium.. without dressing in a full habit .I woud definitely be an advocate for the FFPS (Female Frum in Pants Society ) of greater New York and New Jersey . Its the getting hung up on the minor details and and even more minor chumrah’s that is the greatest impediment in achieving a brighter more unified jewish tomorrow ………

  16. If that’s so, then why ever apply makeup, why not let inner beauty shine when one attends a wedding, etc, as well as on shabbos/yom tov? One is, in principle, supposed to dress up for shabbos/yom tov, so the idea of focusing on how one can enjoy shabbos/yom tov anyway, and focusing on “inner beauty,” doesn’t work too well for me for these days. I feel it’s closer to the true meaning to focus on the notion that this is a day of rest, and these days are a break from fussing.

  17. Well said Shoshana. Thanks for writing about such an important topic. Why is it so hard to focus on the inner essence? My 14 year old daughter asked me yesterday why some guests at a Pesach program we attended were in her eyes “overly made-up” or wearing attention-seeking outfits. Now this was a three day YomTov, so no matter how much make-up one put on before Yom Tov, it couldn’t have lasted. She asked me whether some put on the make-up on Yom Tov or Shabbos, knowing this is not allowed. I told her I certainly hope not, but it began a whole discussion about beauty: inner and outer, and our true selves as the post describes. It is sad to me to think that a Jewish woman, a daughter of H”, royalty, could not bear to be her natural self during Yom Tov or Shabbos. I asked Bracha that if they had made themselves up on Shabbos, does she think they had a better Yom Tov than we all enjoyed? She thought about it, thought the suggestion funny, and said of course not. We are who we are. Yom Tov and Shabbos are holy days, along with menucha and peacefulness comes an extra “shine” to us anyhow. We had a wonderful Yom Tov, attended shiurim, got to know people, all without the fresh makeup we were not allowed to apply.

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