The term tzniut (Hebrew: צניעות, tzniut, Sephardi pronunciation, tzeniut(h); Ashkenazi pronunciation, tznius, "modesty", or "privacy") is used within Judaism, and has its greatest influence as a concept within Orthodox Judaism. It is used to describe both the character trait of modesty and humility, as well as a group of Jewish laws pertaining to conduct in general, and especially between the sexes. The term is frequently used with regard to the rules of dress for women.

Hebrew Bible and Talmud

Humility is a paramount ideal within Judaism. Moses is referred to as "exceedingly humble, more than any man in the world" (Book of Numbers 12:3), though the adjective used of Moses is anav (ענו), and not tzana (צָנַע), the cognate of the noun tzniut.[1] The verb tzana "to be humble" occurs in Proverbs 11:2 and, (in the hiphil), "walk humbly" in Micah 6:8.

The Talmud states that humility is one of the characteristic traits of the Jewish people (Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 79a).


Tzniut includes a group of laws concerned with modesty, in both dress and behavior. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Elazar Bar Tzadok connected the injunction at Micah 6:8 to "walk humbly (hatzne'a leches) with your God" as referring to modesty and discretion in dress and in behavior (Tractate Sukkah 49b).

In the legal dimension of Orthodox Rabbinic literature, the issue of Tzniut is discussed in more technical terms: how much skin may a person expose, and so on. Notwithstanding these details, the concept of humility and modesty as a positive character trait, a practice, and a way of life—a "way of walking"—is also taught to be important in Rabbinic literature. This awareness informs the concept and the practice of Tzniut in its rules and details.

Practical applications


The principal guiding point of tzniut in regard to dress is that a Jew should not dress in a way that attracts attention. This does not mean dressing poorly, but that neither men nor women should dress in a way that overly emphasizes their physical appearance or attracts undue attention. There are many different interpretations of what tzniut means, so people from different communities will often dress differently.

Orthodox Judaism requires both men and women to substantially cover their bodies. According to many opinions, this involves covering the elbows and knees.[2][3]

In Haredi communities, men wear long trousers and usually long-sleeved shirts; many[4] will not wear short sleeves at all. Haredi Ashkenazi practice discourages sandals without socks both in and out of the synagogue, whereas Haredi Sefardi communities tend to accept sandals at least outside of synagogue. Dress in a synagogue and, according to many, in public should be comparable to that worn by the community when meeting royalty or government.

Haredi women wear blouses covering the elbow and collarbone, and skirts that cover the knees while standing and sitting. The ideal sleeve and skirt length varies by community. Some women try not to follow fashion, while others wear fashionable but modest clothing. Haredi women avoid skirts with slits, preferring instead kick-pleats. They also avoid overly eye-catching colors, especially bright red, as well as clothing that is tight. Many will only wear closed-toe shoes and always wear stockings, the thickness of which varies by community.

Modern Orthodox women also usually adhere to tzniut and dress in a modest fashion as compared to the general society's ways,[5] but their communal definition does not necessarily include covering their elbows, collarbones, or knees, and may allow for wearing pants.

Modern Orthodox men's dress is usually indistinguishable from their non-Orthodox peers. They will wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts. Sandals without socks, while generally not worn in a synagogue, are usually accepted in Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist communities in Israel for daily dress.

Conservative Judaism formally requires modest dress, although this requirement is often not observed on a day-to-day basis, but is somewhat more observed when attending synagogue. While day-to-day dress often simply reflects the general society, many Conservative synagogues expect somewhat more modest dress (although not necessarily as stringent as in Orthodox Judaism) for synagogue attendance, and may have specific dress requirements to receive synagogue honors (such as being called for a Torah reading).

Reform Judaism has no religious dress requirements.

Style of dress involves cultural considerations distinct from religious requirements. Members of Conservative and Reform synagogues may abide by dress codes generally ranging from business casual to informal. There are many Orthodox synagogues (especially in Israel), where dress, while meeting religious modesty requirements, is quite casual. Many Haredi and Hassidic communities have special customs and styles of dress which serve to identify members of their communities, but regard these special dress features as customs of their communities rather than as general religious requirements expected of all observant Jews.[4]

Hair covering

Three styles of hair covering common among married Orthodox Jewish women. From left to right: snood, fall, and hat.

Jewish law requires married women to cover their hair;[6][7] according to the Talmud, this is a biblical requirement,[8][9] which in this context is called dat Moshe (the law of Moses).[10][11] The most common hair coverings in the Haredi community are the sheitel (wig), the snood, and the mitpachat (Hebrew: scarf) or tichel (Yiddish), as well as hats and berets.

The practice of covering hair with wigs is debated among halakhic authorities. Many authorities, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,[12] permitted it, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe actively encouraged it,[13] while some authorities, especially Sephardi rabbis, forbid it.

Modern Orthodox Jewish women usually use hats, berets, baseball caps, bandanas, or scarves tied in a number of ways to accomplish the goal, depending on how casually they are dressed. Some modern Orthodox women cover their hair with wigs. A style of half wig known as a "fall" has become increasingly common in some segments of Modern and Haredi Orthodox communities. It is worn with either a hat or a headband.

In Yemen, unmarried girls covered their hair also, like the Muslims there;[14] however, upon their emigration to Israel and other places, this custom has been abandoned. While Rebbe Aharon Roth, founder of Shomer Emunim, praised this custom, no Ashkenazi community, including the most strict Haredi circles, have ever practiced such a custom.[15]

According to tradition, Jewish men, married or not, must cover their heads. The most common head covering is the kippah (Hebrew: skull cap), known as yarmulke in Yiddish. Orthodox men wear something on their heads at almost all times, while non-Orthodox men may cover their heads only when performing some religious act, or when eating. Few cover the entire head. Almost all will bathe with the head uncovered, but sleeping varies by community or family practice. The exact nature of this practice, and how binding it is, is a matter of dispute among halakhic authorities.[16] Wearing a hat is not required by Jewish law, and those who wear a hat generally wear a kippah underneath; however, there are some rabbis, especially in Hasidic Judaism, who require a double head covering - of kippah and hat or tallis - during prayer.

Conservative and Reform Judaism do not generally require women to wear head coverings. Some more traditional Conservative synagogues may ask that married women cover their heads during services. However, some more liberal Conservative synagogues suggest that women, married or not, wear head-coverings similar to those worn by men, and some require it (or require it only for women receiving honors or leading services from the bimah), not for modesty, but as a feminist gesture of egalitarianism. Almost all Conservative synagogues require men to wear a head covering (usually a kippah), but in Reform synagogues, there is often no requirement. However, kippot may be provided to anybody who wishes to wear them.

Female singing voice

Orthodox Judaism

In Orthodox Judaism, men are generally not allowed to hear women sing, a prohibition called kol isha.[17] The Talmud classifies this as ervah (literally "nakedness"). The majority view of halachic authorities[18] is that this prohibition applies at all times, and forbids a man to pray or study Torah in the presence of a woman who is singing, similar to other prohibitions classified as ervah.[19][20] A minority view[21] holds that the prohibition of praying or studying in the presence of kol isha applies only while reciting the Shema Yisrael prayer.[20][22]

There is debate between poskim whether the prohibition applies to a recorded voice, where the singer cannot be seen, where the woman is not known to the man who is listening and where he has never seen her or a picture of her.

There are also opinions,[19] following Samson Raphael Hirsch and Azriel Hildesheimer, that exclude singing in mixed groups from this prohibition, such as synagogue prayer or dinner-table Zemirot, based on the idea that the female voice is not distinctly heard as separate from the group in these cases (“Trei Kali Lo Mishtamai,” two voices cannot be heard simultaneously Megila 21b).

Other denominations

Conservative Judaism interprets the relevant passage of the Talmud as expressing a rabbi's opinion rather than imposing a requirement.

Reform Judaism fundamentally rethought the status of women within Judaism in a series of synods from 1837 onward in both Europe and the United States, formally abolishing most distinctions between men and women in the observance of Jewish life, particularly concerning dress and public participation. It no longer regards this traditional law as applicable to modern times.[23]


Main article: Negiah

In Orthodox Judaism, men and women who are not married and are not closely related are generally not allowed to touch each other. Many Orthodox married couples will also not touch one another in public. A person who refrains from touching the opposite sex is said to be shomer negiah. Shmirath negiah applies to touching which is b' derech chiba (in an affectionate manner). According to some authorities, mainly of Modern Orthodox background, a quick handshake, particularly in the context of earning a living in a business setting, does not fall under this category. However, people who are stringently shomer negiah will avoid shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex, even in a business context. This is almost universally observed within the Haredi community, and somewhat observed within the Modern Orthodox community where the term originated in recent decades. Conservative and Reform Judaism do not follow these laws.

Examples of relatives that one may touch include parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, and a husband and wife if the woman is not niddah (ritually impure during and after menstruation). This prohibition is colloquially called shmirath negiah (observance of the laws of touching) or shomer negiah. Whether or not children adopted at a young age are included in this prohibition is a matter of dispute and case-by-case decision.


Main article: Yichud

In Orthodox Judaism, men and women who are not married to each other and are not immediate blood relatives are not allowed to enter into a secluded situation ("yichud") in a room or in an area that is private. This measure is taken to prevent the possibility of sexual relations which is prohibited outside of marriage. According to some authorities, this applies even between adoptive parents and adoptive children over the age of maturity, while others are more lenient with children adopted from a young age. Simply being in a room together alone does not necessarily constitute seclusion. The situation must be private, where no one else is expected to enter. Originally, this prohibition applied only to married women secluded with men other than their husbands, but it was extended to include single women. According to the Talmud, this extension occurred in the time of King David, when his son Amnon raped Absalom's sister, Tamar. On the issue of elevators, opinions vary; some allow yichud in an elevator for a time of no more than 30 seconds, while others forbid it under all circumstances, partly due to the possibility of an elevator getting stuck.

Conservative and Reform Judaism do not regard these rules as applicable.

Synagogue services

In Orthodox Judaism, men and women are not allowed to mingle during prayer services, and Orthodox synagogues generally include a divider, called a Mechitza, creating separate men's and women's sections. This idea comes from the old Jewish practice during the times of the temple in Jerusalem when there was a women's balcony in the Ezrat Nashim to separate the male and female spectators at the special Succot celebrations. There is also a prophecy in Zechariah (Zechariah 12:12) which talks about men and women mourning separately. The Talmud took this account and inferred that if men and women should be separate in times of mourning, then they certainly should be separate in times of happiness.

Mechitzot are usually seen in Orthodox synagogues to separate the men and women. In Reform synagogues, they are never seen. The original German Reform synagogues had balconies, although in modified form.[24] Although in the past, many Conservative synagogues had women's balconies or separate seating, most Conservative synagogues moved to "family seating" (mixed seating) in the 1960s. Today, the Conservative movement puts a strong emphasis on egalitarianism, so that men and women have equal roles in the prayer service. However, non-egalitarian services, separate seating, and the use of a mechitza are still considered valid options for Conservative congregations.[25]


There are several levels to the observance of physical and personal modesty (tzniut) according to Orthodox Judaism as derived from various sources in halakha. Observance of these rules varies from aspirational to mandatory to routine across the spectrum of Orthodox stricture and observance.

See also


  1. Paul Eidelberg Judaic man: toward a reconstruction of Western civilization 1996 p193 ""Now the man Moses was very humble (anav), above all the men that were on the face of the earth." Strange that the Torah uses no other adjective to characterize a man so extraordinary as Moses. After all, though supremely humble.. "
  3. "Ask the Rabbi, » Skirts, Wigs, and Feminine Modesty". Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  4. 1 2 Modesty: Not Just For Women, Patheos
  5. Sherman, Joseph. "Sisters Revolutionize Fashion". FYI Magazine. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  6. Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha'ezer 115, 4; Orach Chayim 75,2; Even Ha'ezer 21, 2
  7. Schiller, Mayer (1995). "The Obligation of Married Women to Cover Their Hair" (PDF). JHCS. 30: 81–108. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-04-07.
  8. Ketubot 72a, bottom of the page
  9. Yakov Yitzchak Fuks (1989). Halichot Bat Yisrael (in Hebrew). Jerusalem.
  10. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah Ishut 24:9
  11. Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha'ezer 115, 4 in Beit Shmu'el
  12. Rav Moshe Feinstein. Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer chelek 2, siman 12.
  13. All over his published correspondence
  14. "Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe", An exhibition focusing on this collection was presented at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem March 11, 2014-October 18, 2014
  15. Sefer Shomer Emunim, Rav Aharon Roth zt"l
  16. See Shulchan Aruch OC 2, and the various commentaries. For a detailed discussion see these notes and references prepared by the Melbourne Yeshivah Kollel.
  17. Berakhot 24a
  18. Or Zarua 1, hilkot taharat keriat shema utefilah, no. 133; Rashba; Hiddushei ha-Rashba, Berachot ibid.; Rosh Berachot 3:37, Tur-Shulkhan Arukh Even ha-Ezer 21:2 following Rambam/Maimonides, Hilhot Issurei Biah 21:2
  19. 1 2 "The Parameters of Kol Isha". Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  20. 1 2 Rabbi David Bigman, "A New Analysis of 'Kol B'Isha Erva'"
  21. Rav Hai Gaon, Rabbenu Hananel, and Halachot Gedolot as cited in Mordechai Berakhot chapter Mi sheMeito 247:80). This opinion is also followed by the Ra'avya and the Ritva in his Hiddushim to Berachot. However, Rashba, quoting Rabbenu Hananel, says that this leniency applies only to one's own wife's voice, not to that of another woman.
  22. Cherney, Ben. "Kol Isha". JHCS 10, pp. 57–75.
  23. Nadell, Women Who Would Be Rabbis pp. 14-22
  24. Jewish Encyclopedia, Reform Judaism from the Viewpoint of the Reform Jew, web version, originally published between 1901-1906
  25. See also Modern Problems in American Religious History, Patrick Allitt, Editor, 2000, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston/New York, Chapter 10, Section 2, where Jacob Sonderling, who had earlier been the rabbi of the Hamburg Temple, states that this Reform Temple had men and women separated "until the last moment".
  26. Mishna in Yevamoth 34, and the Rambam


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