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Family and Relationships

Modesty & Sexuality

Skirts, Wigs, and Feminine Modesty

Question: Why do religious Jewish women have to wear skirts? Why isn’t a married woman supposed show her hair? Is this connected to a particular Mitzvah (Commandment)?

Answer: There are several aspects to Tznius—modesty in dress and deed. One aspect is the codification of exactly what may and may not be uncovered. There are laws of modesty for both men and women, but I will address only the laws for women right now. For a woman, the minimum standard is that her neckline must not be lower than her collarbone, her sleeves must come past her elbows and her skirt must fall below her knees. For a married woman there is an additional requirement, namely, that her hair must be covered.

You ask if these rules have a connection to Mitzvos. The answer is that the laws of modesty ARE mitzvos and that a woman gains great spiritual heights—and immense reward—for keeping these Mitzvos, the same as any other Mitzvos of the Torah.

The above rules apply mainly when a woman is in public. In the presence of other women, in a private place, a woman does not have to be covered up. So, for example, if she is swimming with other women she can wear a bathing suit. If she is exercising at an all-women’s gym, she can wear shorts. If she has a baby, she can nurse her baby in the presence of other women, and in the presence of her husband and children. For a married woman, her hair does not have to be covered in the presence of her husband and children. In your own home you can wear pajamas, as long as outsiders are not present. These are only a few examples, to give you an idea. For details, you need to study more.

In addition to these codified laws, there is also a concept of Tznius having to do with modesty in taste and deportment. A woman might be completely covered up—fulfilling the letter of the law—and yet she might, for example, be wearing a very tight, brightly colored and eye-catching dress, covered all over with sequins. This would certainly be immodest!

So much has to do with a woman’s innate sense of good taste and dignity, that it is hard to spell out completely exactly what is and what is not modest. It also depends partly on what is accepted in society. For example, if you were living in Victorian England where women wore skirts to the ground, a skirt falling just below the knee would not be modest.

In regard to why a woman must wear a skirt or dress, there are a number of reasons. The most important is that a woman is not allowed to wear men’s clothing (nor is a man allowed to wear women’s clothing). (See Deuteronomy 22:5)

Although nowadays pants are made for women, they were originally men’s clothing and still closely resemble men’s clothing. There is a tendency in society these days for women to try to act like men, and wearing clothing that resembles men’s clothing seems to be part of this trend. We don’t find men wearing dresses and togas.

When a woman is wearing pants, she can walk and sit in a masculine way—e.g., with the ankle of one leg crossed over the knee of the other. We have become so used to this that we don’t perceive it as masculine or immodest, but if you think about what a woman looks like when she sits this way, you will see what I mean.

Besides the prohibition on wearing men’s garments, there is also the fact that pants show the shape of a woman’s body more than does a skirt or dress. Many authorities do permit wearing pants to protect a girl from the cold or to allow her to go hiking—provided that she wears a skirt over the pants. If you live in a place like India where typical women’s clothing is loose, baggy pants worn under a long robe—then that is acceptable.

The Torah idea of modesty, by the way, is NOT that a woman should look ugly and dowdy. Not at all! All of the Matriarchs in the Torah—Sarah, Rivka, Leah and Rochel—are described as beautiful women. Ideally a Jewish woman will wear pretty clothes and will always look well-groomed and tastefully dressed. However, at the same time, we want to de-emphasize sexual attractiveness outside of marriage. Instead we want others to focus on our other qualities, qualities of intelligence, character and so on. A woman should not be available, or look available, to every passing man in the street. Our idea of modesty has a strong component of privacy and dignity. Dressing to arouse sexual desire is only appropriate within the confines of marriage, when it is indeed very positive.

As for hair covering, this is an extra dimension of privacy, dignity and modesty that is required of married women. The source of this Mitzva is the verse in Numbers 5:18 dealing with the case where a woman has been alone with a man under circumstances which arouse her husband’s suspicion that she may have committed adultery. Part of the ceremony she must undergo to test her innocence involves the Kohen (Temple priest) uncovering her hair, to embarrass her, from which the Sages deduced that normally, a married woman’s hair would be covered, and it would be embarrassing for her to be seen in public with her hair uncovered.

Precisely because a married woman is sexually experienced and is more mature and in some ways more alluring than a single girl, precisely for that reason, she has to take extra steps to dress modestly. Hair covering is part of that extra care. It tells people at a glance that she is a married woman and is not available to other men. Many women wear attractive wigs (Sheitels) and some people ask, “If the Sheitel looks so much like her own hair, what’s the difference?” But the fact is, within the religious community, even the most attractive Sheitel can be spotted instantly and gives the message that this woman’s status is different from that of a single girl.

There is a really excellent book that I highly recommend on this subject. It’s called Inside/Outside, by Gila Manolson, and it is very insightful and inspiring.
—Toby Katz

13 Follow-ups »

  1. Question: Correct me if I am wrong. I know the deal with women wearing wigs to fulfill the Mitzvot, but that could not have been what G-d intended. It just seems to me to be artificial and phony, and unbecoming of a Jewish woman. More importantly in my view the wearing of wigs in synagogue and even the separation of women from men in Orthodox synagogues seem to suggest that Jewish men have no control over their hormones or sexual desires. I think that we are better than this as a people. I can say for certain that if I go into a synagogue, (and I go to a reform where wigs are not worn and men and women are not separated), I can honestly say that it in no way detracts from the service and I have never felt lust for a woman in synagogue. We don’t need wigs, we need righteousness. Does anyone agree with this point of view?

    Answer: Hello, I have been known to express similar feelings about the value of wigs: their sense of luxury and glamor do indeed seem to distract from some of the themes underlying an Orthodox Jewish woman’s obligation to cover her hair. And that’s ignoring the crippling cost of the kinds of wigs contemporary orthodox “standards” now seem to require. On this point, I’m sure we’re not alone!

    On the other hand though, Torah law itself simply requires that women’s heads be covered. Is that to protect neighboring men from inappropriate thoughts? Perhaps. But it’s not always possible for us to confidently speculate as to the reasons behind Mitzvos. Perhaps again head coverings serve as personal reminders that there is a private aspect to a married woman’s life for which her public activities must always leave space – not too unlike the kind of conscious affect a Yarmulka can have for a man.

    Separate seating in the synagogue, however, is clearly meant to combat distractions during prayer.

    So here’s a thought: the vast majority of the average person’s prayers are woefully superficial and ineffective. Still, it’s worth going through the motions even 100 times in a row for the one really spectacular session in which the heart opens up and there’s some real emotional connection. It’s thus in our interest to keep “in the game” – ensuring that the conditions for a really fine prayer are always there. Now it’s true that some – or even most – men can control their thoughts while praying in the presence of women (and that righteousness – as you put it – is indeed a constant and pressing goal). Nevertheless, there will always be a significant part of any population that isn’t on that level yet. And even for those who are, there is likely to be the odd unexpected slip in even the most ordered life.

    Wouldn’t it be a shame for a great moment of prayer to be lost because it happens to come up against a brief dip in “righteousness”? I hope you find some value in these thoughts.

    With best wishes,
    Rabbi Boruch Clinton

    Comment by ATR — July 29, 2009 @ 11:50 am

  2. Question: Thanks for your kind and well thought-out response and I agree with most if not all of what you said. I will only say that our goal should be righteousness and absence of lust. But I do believe we can do it and I remain opposed to wigs and separation in synagogue for the simple reason it sends the message that we are weak minded and if we believe that in our minds we will be weak minded. The focus should be on constraining our Yetzer-Hara (negative inclination) and not hiding from it under wigs and on top of balconies. Thanks again.

    “The focus should be on constraining our Yetzer-Hara and not hiding from it under wigs and on top of balconies”

    Answer: Ideally you are correct and self-discipline is certainly a prime goal. However, the Torah was given to human beings, all of whom will sometimes need help. In fact, according to the commentary of Rashi, the Torah’s injunction to “be holy” (Levit. 19:1) is a call to create precautionary “walls” to protect against sexual immorality. “Wherever you find such precautions (lit. walls)” wrote Rashi, “You find holiness”

    With my best wishes,
    BC

    Comment by ATR — July 29, 2009 @ 11:54 am

  3. Question: Does a divorced woman still need to cover her hair, and if so, why?

    Answer: A divorced woman in most cases does have to cover her hair, but it pays to ask a rabbi on a case by case basis.

    There are several reasons for this rule, among them:

    1. Once you have gone to a higher standard of modesty, you don’t go backwards and fall to a lower standard. When you married you went to the higher standard required of a married woman and when the marriage ended, you don’t go back to the lower standard required of a single girl.

    2. One of the reasons a married woman covers her hair is to make it obvious that she is no longer on the market, not available to other men. A divorced woman is back on the market but she is still not available to everyone—because a Kohen cannot marry a divorcee. Therefore it is not appropriate for a divorced woman to have the appearance of a single girl who is available to any man. Admittedly this does make it harder to meet available men, but the easiest and most common way to meet men is by introduction, through rabbis, friends and relatives. (Nowadays many people meet on the internet also, via Jewish dating sites.) Just walking around and “looking single” is not a good way for a woman to meet a man in any case.

    3. A woman who has already been married is experienced in a certain way that a never-married woman is not, and in most cases she should marry a man who is similarly experienced. Gila Manolson, in her wonderful book “Outside/Inside,” discusses another aspect of feminine modesty or Tznius. She points out that once a woman is married and is sexually experienced, she carries herself differently and has a different, more seductive, more alluring air about her than that of an inexperienced young girl. For this very reason, a married woman needs extra protection and an extra layer of dignity to guard her modesty. My thought on this is that when a marriage ends (and the end of a marriage is always a tragedy, even if sometimes necessary), the former wife remains an experienced woman and does not revert to being an artless young girl. And she therefore needs that same extra level of protection and dignity that she needed while married.

    4. A divorced woman who has children needs to be aware of their feelings. If all their friends’ mothers cover their hair, they will feel strange if their own mother does not have her hair covered. It gives the impression that she was never married and that she had children out of wedlock, which is embarrassing to the children. In reality the status of a woman who did marry and did have a husband is quite different from that of a “loose” woman who had children without ever bothering to get married.

    Having said all that, I will add that a divorced woman, or a married woman for that matter, is certainly permitted to wear a head covering that is pretty and becoming, be it a sheitel (wig), hat or scarf. The requirement of an extra level of modesty and formality is most certainly not a requirement to look dowdy and unattractive.
    —Toby Katz

    Comment by ATR — August 4, 2009 @ 3:12 am

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