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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Tzniut, Halakha and the Male Gaze: Lecture and Sources

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on August 10, 2016)
Topics: Gender, Halakha & Modernity

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This lecture was composed in the context of this op-ed in the New York Times. These sources also accompany the Season 2 Episode 7 episode of the Joy of Text podcast.


There is a general sense in the frum community that tzniut is a concept that applies almost exclusively to women and to how they dress.  In some more Haredi communities, young girls are taught that tzniut is there special mitzvah – that they must dress modestly at all times so that men will not look at them and have sexual thoughts.  There is much to critique about this message – first, what it says about women, namely, that they are sex objects – in their very covering of their bodies there is an implicit affirmation that how they are seen – by men, halakha, and ultimately themselves – is as something that provokes sexual thoughts in men, in other words, a sex object.  Second, what it says about men – that they cannot control their eyes or their thoughts, so it becomes the woman’s responsibility to cover herself and not their responsibility to look away (or to not look lustfully).  And third, what it does to a girl’s, and ultimately a woman’s, body image, attitudes towards sex, and sense of themselves as a sexual being.  

A disturbing example of this message and worldview can be seen in the handout from a Beis Yaakov school, below {source ‎1}.

The other major assumption around tzniut – again, specifically in the overly-limited understanding of it as a matter of (women’s) dress – is that there are strict halakhic parameters as to what parts of a woman’s body must be covered (or must not be looked at by men), and that these standards do not change regardless of societal context or current norms of dress.  This approach has led to an excessive focus on quantitative measure in regards to clothing, and a loss of the more general and qualitative issue of “modest appearance”.  It has also led some popular halakhists to an almost obsessive focus on women’s clothes and bodies, one that can seem quite immodest in its own right.  

These assumptions are asserted as incontrovertible fact in the following passage from the Modesty – An Adornment for Life, by Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk{source ‎2}.  This work is in itself a prime example of the over quantification and obsessive focus on these details – it is a work of approximately 800 pages, written by a man, that analyzes all different forms of clothing and how they are placed on a woman’s body.  This is particularly ironic in a book whose stated goal is to prevent men from gazing at women’s bodies.

Below, we look at the sources relating to issues of provocative or exposing dress, and explore what the real message of these sources is. Whose obligation is it – the man’s or the woman’s?  And does the Gemara give absolute, quantitative measures of what parts of a woman’s body need be covered or should not be looked at?  If these matters are not quantified, what guidelines should dictate in this matter.

2. Modesty- An Adornment for Life, Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk (page: 267)

What areas must women and girls cover to dress modestly?

All women and girls, married or unmarried, must cover all parts of their main body (torso) plus parts of their arms and legs when in public or in the presence of individuals outside their immediate family. Under no circumstances may even a small part of these areas be uncovered in the presence of men or boys. These areas naturally provoke attention and must therefore be covered by decree of halacha (Jewish law). Their status as ervah (areas that must be covered) has been established by Chazal (our sages) and is not dependant on the local or prevailing custom. Accordingly, even if most Jewish women would chas v’shalom(G-d forbid) not cover these areas properly, the halacha (law) would still remain the same.



Aggadic Sources

There are a number of stories in the Talmud which would seem – on the face of them – to give credence to the idea that it is the woman’s responsibility to cover up her body from the male gaze.  Closer inspection, however, shows that the point of these stories may be something else completely.

Take a look at the passage from Taanit {source 3}.  Who do you think was to blame for the man’s gazing at R. Yossi of Yokreth’s daughter?  Who does R. Yossi think was to blame?  What do you think is the overall message of this story – did R. Yossi act rightly or wrongly?

3.  Bavli, Taanit (24a)   |    (.בבלי, תענית (כד

אמר ליה: ומאי טעמא שבקיה מר ואתא הכא?

אמר ליה: גברא דעל בריה ועל ברתיה לא חס עלי דידי היכי חייס?…

ברתיה מאי היא? הויא ליה ברתא בעלת יופי. יומא חד חזיא לההוא גברא דהוה כריא בהוצא וקא חזי לה. אמר לו: מאי האי?  

אמר ליה: רבי, אם ללוקחה לא זכיתי, לראותה לא אזכה?

אמר לה: בתי, קא מצערת להו לברייתא – שובי לעפריך, ואל יכשלו ביך בני אדם. 

[R. Ashi] then asked him: Why did you leave him [R. Yossi of Yokreth] and come here?

He replied: How could the man who showed no mercy to his son and daughter show mercy to me?…

What happened to his daughter? He had a beautiful daughter. One day he saw a man boring a hole in the fence so that he might catch a glimpse of her. He said to the man, “What is [the meaning of] this?”

The man answered: “Master, if I am not worthy enough to marry her, may I not at least be worthy to catch a glimpse of her?”

Thereupon he exclaimed: My daughter, you are a source of trouble to mankind; return to the dust so that men may not sin because of you.



Now look at the story in Berakhot, about the self-sacrifice of earlier generations {source 4}.  Is it clear what was the matter with the karbalata that this woman was wearing?  See Arukh, who explains that this was a piece of immodest attire {source 5}.  In contrast, see Beit Yosef, who explains that Rambam understood that the problem with this garment was that it was kilayim, made of wool and linen {source 6}. According to Arukh, if the problem was that it was an immodest form of dress, would it help to tear it off her?  Regarding imposing religious standards on others – do you feel differently about the idea of men forcefully imposing modesty standards on women than about one person forcefully imposing the observance of the kilayim prohibition on another?  What’s the difference between the two?

Finally, see the passage from the book Chashukei Chemed, a contemporary work written by R. Yitzchak Zilberstein {source 7}.  This passage describes a modern day event which paralleled that of the story in Berakhot (understood to be about imposing modesty standards).  How is this story somewhat less disturbing than the Arukh’s reading of the story in the Talmud?  What do you make of the Admor’s declaration that a person’s (i.e., a man’s) eyes are not fully in his control.  Is there a way in which you think this is true?  What become the broader societal implications of this idea, that we cannot trust men to not look at things that they might find to be sexually provocative.  Whose responsibility does it become to prevent this from happening?  What does this do to the agency of men?  [It should be noted that the story about how Rav Yosef became blind is a legend found in the Geonim; it does not appear in the Gemara.]

4. Bavli, Berakhot (20a)   |    (.בבלי, ברכות (כ

מר ליה רב פפא לאביי: מאי שנא ראשונים דאתרחיש להו ניסא, ומאי שנא אנן דלא מתרחיש לן ניסא?…

אמר ליה: קמאי הוו קא מסרי נפשייהו אקדושת השם, אנן לא מסרינן נפשין אקדושת השם. כי הא דרב אדא בר אהבה חזייה לההיא כותית דהות לבישא כרבלתא בשוקא, סבר דבת ישראל היא, קם קרעיה מינה; אגלאי מילתא דכותית היא, שיימוה בארבע מאה זוזי.

Said R. Papa to Abaye: How is it that for the former generations miracles were performed and for us miracles are not performed?…

He replied: The former generations used to be ready to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of [God’s] name; we do not sacrifice our lives for the sanctity of [God’s] name. There was the case of R. Adda b. Ahava who saw a heathen woman wearing a karbalata in the street, and thinking that she was an Israelite woman, he rose and tore it from her. It turned out that she was a heathen woman, and they fined him four hundred zuz..

5. Arukh, s.v. Karbalata   |   ” ערוך, ערך “כרבלתא

פ’ בגד אדום כגון כרבלתא דתרנגולא שאין דרך בנות ישראל להתכסות בו שהוא פריצות ומביא לדבר עבירה. The word refers to a red garment, like the crown – karbalata – of a rooster, because it is not the way of the daughters of Israel to clothe themselves in such a garment, because it is pritzut, licentiousness, and brings to a matter of sin (forbidden sexual activity).

6. Beit Yosef, Yoreh Deah, 303   |    בית יוסף, יורה דעה ס’ ש”ג

כתב הרמב”ם הרואה כלאים של תורה על חבירו אפילו הוא בשוק קורעו מעליו… ומשמע ליה דפושטו על ידי קריעה קאמר מההוא עובדא דאיתא התם (כ.) דרב אדא בר אהבה חזיא לההיא איתתא דהות לבישא כרבלתא בשוקא קם קרעיה מינהRambam writes “One who sees Biblical kilayim [a garment of wool and linen] on his friend, even if the friend is in the market place, he should rip it off of him”… Rambam understands that one the Gemara says that you must remove it from him, it means by ripping it off of him.  This is based on the story that is brought there (Brakhot 20a) of Rav Ada bar Ahava who saw a certain woman who was wearing a karbalata in the market place, and he arose and tore it off her.

7. Chasukei Chemed, Brakoht 20a   |    (.חשוקי חמד, ברכות (כ

Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein was born in Poland in 1934 and emigrated to the Holy Land while a child..  He married Aliza Shoshana Elyashiv, daughter of R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.  He is Rosh Kollel of Beit David in Hollon, and the rabbi of the Ramat Elchanan neighborhood of Bnei Brak.

ענין אקמאי הוו קא מסרי נפשייהו אקדושת השם – האדמו”ר מסטרופקוב זצ”ל מותיר רושם עז אצל הנוסעים

שאלה. כשאדם נוסע באוטובוס ציבורי, ומוצא שם תמונת תועבה, האם חייב להורידה, למרות שעלול להסתבך עם החוק?

… לפני שנים רבות הזדמן לי פעם לנסוע באוטובוס מתל אביב לירושלים, וזכיתי שהאדמו”ר מסטרופקוב זצ”ל ישב לידי. והנה, הרים לפתע הצדיק את עיניו הקדושות והבחין שבאוטובוס תלויה כרזת פרסומת עם תמונה מאוד לא צנועה.

ניגש האדמו”ר לנהג ודרש בתוקף להסיר את התמונה, באומרו: “אני משלם על הנסיעה בכסף מלא, ואין כל הצדקה לכך שאיאלץ לטמא את עיני בתמונה זו”. הנהג סירב, וגם לאחר שהרבי דרש פעם שניה ושלישית, עמד בסירובו והתעקש שלא להוריד את התמונה המכוערת. מה שקרה לאחר מכן גרם לסערה רבה באוטובוס.

לתדהמת כל הנוסעים ניגש האדמו”ר אל מקום התמונה, תלשה מן הקיר וקרעה לגזרים!

הדבר עורר את זעמו של הנהג ושל חלק מהנוסעים, עד שהנהג הכריז שהוא נוסע מיד לתחנת המשטרה הקרובה על מנת שיעצרו את הרבי בגין מעשהו. רק שמע הצדיק את דברי הנהג והכריז בקול גדול: “נו, לזה אני מחכה… אני מחכה שתיסע למשטרה כדי שאוכל לקדש שם שמים ברבים. אני מחכה שתיסע למשטרה על מנת שאוכל לעשות מה שעשה פנחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן. אני אסביר לשוטרים את מניעיי לקריעת התמונה, ואדרוש שיתירו לי גם להבא לעמוד על זכויותי לנסוע בכספי המלא באטובוס נקי”……

זכורני שכמה מן הנוסעים ניגשו לאחר מכן אל האדמו”ר ושאלוהו לאמר: מי אמר לך להסתכל בתמונה?… והרבי, בחכמתו, השיב להם: כל אחד עם היצר הרע שלו. לכם יש יצר הרע קטן, ולי יש יצר הרע גדול… תוך שהוא לוחש באוזני את מאמר חז”ל (סוכה, דף נ”ב עמוד א’) “כל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול הימנו”.

אחר כך מצאתי ברי”ף (במסכת קידושין, דף יג בדפי הרי”ף) הכותב שאדם יכול לשלוט על כל איבריו, לבד מעיניו, שאינם ברשותו. וכך גם כותב הר”ן (נדרים דף לב ע”ב) “שבתחילה המליכו הקב”ה על איבריו שהם ברשותו ליזהר מעבירה, אבל עיניו ואזניו של אדם אינם ברשותו, שהרי על כרחו יראה בעיניו ובאזניו ישמע”, וכו’. וכן הוא ברא”ש שם.

האדם מצווה אמנם שלא להביט בדברים רעים, אך הקב”ה ברא את האדם כך שלא תהיה לו שליטה מליאה על העיניים. זאת ניתן ללמוד מתוך מה שמסופר שם בגמרא שרב יוסף עשה עצמו סומא, משום “דלא מצי קאי דלא לאיסתכולי בר מד’ אמות דיליה”.

האירוע כולו, והדברים חוצבי הלהבות שיצאו מפיו של האדמו”ר מסטרופקוב, גרמו לקידוש שם שמים עצום, עד שבטוחני שכל מי שהיה באוטובוס באותה נסיעה מתל אביב לירושלים, לא שכח את דברי הרבי לעולמים.

On the matter that “the former generations would be prepared to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of God’s name – the Admor of Stropkov, ztz”l, leaves a deep impression on the travelers.

Question: When a person travels on a public bus, and he finds there pictures (i.e., advertisements) which are an abomination, is he obligated to take it down, in spite of the fact that he is likely to get in trouble with the law?

… Many years ago, it happened that I was once riding in a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and I merited to be sitting next to the Admor of Stropkov, ztz”l. And behold, the tzaddik suddenly raised his holy eyes and perceived that in the bus there  was an advertisement poster with a picture that was very immodest.

The Admor approached the bus driver, and forcefully demanded that he remove the picture, saying: “I am paying for this trip with full fare, and there is no justification that I should be forced to impurity my eyes with this picture.”  The driver refused, and even after the Rebbe demanded a second and third time, he continued to reject his request and obstinately refused to take down the disgusting picture.  What occurred afterwards caused great commotion on the bus.

To the astonishment of all the travelers, the Admor went up to the picture and tore it down from the wall, and ripped it into shreds!

This raised the ire of the bus driver and a number of the passengers, to the point where the bus driver announced that he was going to drive directly to the nearest police station so that they would arrest the Rebbe for his actions.  As soon as the tzaddik heard the words of the bus driver he announced in a loud voice: “Nu, this is what I am waiting for… I am waiting for you to drive to the police so that I can sanctify the name of Heaven in public.  I am waiting for you to drive to the police so that I can do what Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon HaKohen did.  I will explain to the officers my motivations for tearing the picture, and I will demand that they will permit me even in the future to stand on my rights to travel with paying full fare in a clean bus…”

I remember that afterwards a number of the passengers approached the Admor and asked him, saying: “Who told you to look at the picture?”…  The Rebbe, in his wisdom, responded to them: “Each person has to deal with his own evil inclination.  You have a small evil inclination, and I have a large one.”… he said this while he was whispering in my ear the statement of the Rabbis: “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his evil inclination is greater” (Succah 52a).

Afterwards, I found that Rif writes (Kiddushin 13a, in Rif pages) that a person can have mastery over all his limbs, except for his eyes which are not under his domain.  Similarly, Ran writes: “Originally God gave Avraham mastery over the limbs that are under a person’s control, so that he may avoid sin, but his eyes and his ears are not under his control, for a person, even against his will, will see things with his eyes and hear things with his ears.” (Nedarim 32b), and the same appears in Rosh there.

In truth, a person is commanded to not look at evil things.  But God created man in such a way that he would never have full control over his eyes.  This can be learned from what is related in the Gemara there that Rav Yosef made himself blind, “for he could not prevent himself from looking outside his four cubits.” [ – this is not in the Gemara, but a Geonic tradition quoted by Ramban Kiddushin 31a].

The entire event, and the words that pierce the heart that came from the lips of the Admor of Stropkov, led to an enormous sanctification of the name of Heaven, so much so that I am confident that whoever was on the bus during that trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, did not forget the words of the Rebbe for ever and ever.




When we look at halakha, we find that the halakhot in this realm are addressed to men, and not to women.  Take a look at the passage from Avoda Zara {source 8}.  Does this source tell women how they must dress or tell men how they may or may not look at women?  Why do you think it is forbidden to even look at animals which are copulating?  What is the Talmud afraid might happen as a result?

Now look at how Rambam rules regarding a man looking sexually at a woman {source 9}.  Whose responsibility is it according to Rambam?  What seems to be the concern for Rambam – what might such looking lead to?

8. Bavli, Avoda Zara (20a-b)   |     (:בבלי, עבודה זרה (כ.-כ

ולאסתכולי מי שרי? מיתיבי ונשמרת מכל דבר רע – שלא יסתכל אדם באשה נאה ואפילו פנויה, באשת איש ואפי’ מכוערת, ולא בבגדי צבע [של] אשה, ולא בחמור ולא בחמורה ולא בחזיר ולא בחזירה ולא בעופות בזמן שנזקקין זה לזה…

ולא בבגדי צבע [של] אשה. א”ר יהודה אמר שמואל: אפילו שטוחין על גבי כותל. א”ר פפא: ובמכיר בעליהן…

ת”ר: ונשמרת מכל דבר רע – שלא יהרהר אדם ביום ויבוא לידי טומאה בלילה

But is even gazing permitted? The following can surely be raised as an objection: ‘You shalt guard yourself from every evil thing” [this teaches] that one should not look intently at a beautiful woman, even if she be unmarried, or at a married woman even if she be ugly, nor at a woman’s colorful garments, nor at male and female donkeys, or a pig and a sow, or at fowls when they are mating;…

‘Nor at a woman’s colorful garments!’ Said R. Yehudah ben Shmuel: Even when these are spread on a wall. Whereon R. Papa remarked: That is if he knows their owner…

Our Rabbis taught: “You shall protect yourself against any evil thing” (Dev. 23:10) – that a person should not have sexual thoughts in the day lest he come to impurity in the night.

9. Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations, 21:2   |     רמב”ם איסורי ביאה, כ”א:ב

אסור לאדם לקרוץ בידיו וברגליו או לרמוז בעיניו לאחת מן העריות או לשחוק עמה או להקל ראש ואפילו להריח בשמים שעליה או להביט ביפיה אסור, ומכין למתכוין לדבר זה מכת מרדות

והמסתכל אפילו באצבע קטנה של אשה ונתכוון להנות כמי שנסתכל במקום התורף ואפילו לשמוע קול הערוה או לראות שערה אסור.

It is forbidden for a person to beckon with his hands or feet or to signal with his eyes to one of the arayot (i.e., a woman with whom he is forbidden to have sexual relations).  He is similarly forbidden to be jocular with her or to interact with her in a way of levity.  It is even forbidden to smell the perfume that she is wearing or to gaze at her beauty, and a person who intends to do so is given lashes.

One who gazes at even a small finger of a woman and intends to derive sexual pleasure, it is as if he has gazed at her genital area.  And even to hear to voice of an erva or to see her hair is forbidden.

Without a doubt, one of the reasons that the Talmud focuses on the man is because in general the Talmud is androcentric – it is written by men speaking to men, and thus even in matters that relate to both sexes, the Talmud’s assumed audience will be men.  It is thus not surprising that the demand here – that a man should not look – is directed to the man.  In addition, it is clear from the above passage that at least one of the Talmud’s concerns is that sexual thoughts will lead to improper ejaculation of semen (zerah li’vatalah, wasted seed).  This, of course, is a concern only regarding men.  Rambam’s rulings indicate a different concern – that a man looking at a woman sexually or engaging in certain interactions may lead to a forbidden act of sex.  Here too it is not surprising that the Talmud would focus on men, as the Talmud tended to see men as the primary initiators of sexual activity.  Regardless of the reason, it is clear that the obligation is on the men and not on the women.




The Talmudic passage most often cited as a source for a religious dress code for women is the passage in Berakhot regarding what parts of a woman’s body are considered an ‘ervah, nakedness {source ‎10}.  Clearly, the basic implication of something being an ervah according to this Gemara is that it may cause improper sexual thoughts in a man.  Who then becomes responsible to do something about it?  Does the Gemara discuss a woman’s dress code or what behavior is expected from the man?  

Note that this text is often used to determine exactly what part of the body needs to be covered, and this leads to detailed discussion as to what constitutes the shok, what type of voice is referred to (speaking or singing) and what type of hair is referred to (of all women or only of married women).

10.  Berakhot (24a)   |    (.בבלי, ברכות (כד

מר רבי יצחק: טפח באשה ערוה.

למאי? אילימא לאסתכולי בה – והא אמר רב ששת: למה מנה הכתוב תכשיטין שבחוץ עם תכשיטין שבפנים – לומר לך: כל המסתכל באצבע קטנה של אשה כאילו מסתכל במקום התורף

אלא באשתו, ולקריאת שמע.

אמר רב חסדא: שוק באשה ערוה, שנאמר גלי שוק עברי נהרות, וכתיב תגל ערותך וגם תראה חרפתך.

אמר שמואל: קול באשה ערוה, שנאמר כי קולך ערב ומראך נאוה.

אמר רב ששת: שער באשה ערוה, שנאמר שערך כעדר העזים.

R. Yitzchak said: A handbreadth [exposed] in a woman is nakedness (‘ervah).   

In what way? Shall I say, if one gazes at it? But has not R. Shesheth [already] said: Why did Scripture enumerate the ornaments worn outside the clothes with those worn inside? To tell you that if one gazes at the little finger of a woman, it is as if he gazed at her secret place!

No, It means, in one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema

R. Hisda said: A woman’s shok is nakedness, as it says: “Uncover your leg, pass through the rivers,” and it says afterwards, “Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen.”

Shmuel said: A woman’s voice is nakedness, as it says, “For sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely.”

R. Shesheth said: A woman’s hair is nakedness, as it says, “Thy hair is as a flock of goats.”



Shulkhan Arukh records these halakhot in the context of reciting Shema – reading Shema in such a context is forbidden as it could lead to improper thoughts {source 11} (In Even Ha’Ezer 21 he focuses on the concern of possible sexual impropriety and quotes Rambam’s rulings {source 9}).  What basic qualifier appears in the rulings of both Shulkhan Arukh and Rema?  Based on this, do you think that societal context should be a significant factor in determining the parameters of ervah?  Should there be any limits?  Would some parts of the body always be ervah in societies where they are usually exposed?

11. Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, 75     |     שו”ע או”ח ס’ ע”ה

[א] טפח מגולה באשה במקום שדרכה לכסותו, אפי’ היא אשתו אסור לקרות ק”ש כנגדה 

[ב] שער של אשה שדרכה לכסותו, אסור לקרות כנגדו, אבל בתולות שדרכן לילך פרועות הראש, מותר

הגה: וה”ה השערות של נשים, שרגילין לצאת מחוץ לצמתן

[ג] יש ליזהר משמיעת קול זמר אשה בשעת קריאת שמע

[1] An uncovered handbreadth on a woman, on a place which it is her practice to cover it, even if she is his wife, it is forbidden to read Shema opposite it.

[2] Hair of a woman which it is her practice to cover, it is forbidden to read Shema opposite it.  But unmarried women, whose way it is to go with an uncovered head, it is permissible.

Rema: And the same applies to the hair of [married] women which normally comes out of [is not normally covered by] their hairnet.

[3] One should avoid hearing the singing voice of a woman when he is reading Shema.



It is clear that the parameters of ervah had changed between the time of the Gemara and the time of the Rishonim.  This is most obvious in the case of a woman’s voice.  Notice that the Gemara in Berakhot {source 10} just said “voice.”  The simple indication is even a woman’s speaking voice.  This is also borne out in the story of Kiddushin where Rav Yehudah refused to talk to Rav Nachman’s wife because of the ruling that a woman’s voice is an ervah {source 12}.  

Rishonim explain this discrepancy by stating that in their day it was common to speak with women, and in their context a woman’s talking voice was no longer an ervah, no longer a source of sexual excitement.  This became generalized to the other ervahs in Berakhot – hence the rulings of the Shulkhan Arukh {source 11} that the ervah status only applies to those parts of the hair and skin that are not usually exposed.

12. Bavli, Kiddushin (70a)   |    (.בבלי, קידושין (ע

שדר ליה מר שלמא לילתא

א”ל, הכי אמר שמואל: קול באשה ערוה. 

‘Will you send a greeting to [my wife] Yaltha,’ he (Rav Nachman) asked.

He (Rav Yehudah) replied: “Thus said Samuel: ‘a woman’s voice is nakedness.’”


When it comes to the shok, it is clear from the mishna in Ohalot {source 13}, as well as many other Talmudic sources, that it refers to the shin.  Nevertheless many contemporary halakhic works, including Mishne Brurah {source 14}, define it as the “thigh”.  Why do you think Mishne Brurah adopted this definition?  

13.  Mishna Ohalot 1:8   |    משנה אוהלת, א:ח

מאתים וארבעים ושמונה אברים באדם שלשים בפיסת הרגל ששה בכל אצבע עשרה בקורסל שנים בשוק חמשה בארכובה אחד בירךThere are two hundred and forty-eight bones in a human body: thirty in the foot, [that is] six to every toe, ten in the ankle, two in the shin (shok), five in the knee, one in the thigh, three in the hip

14. Mishna Brurah 75:2  |    משנה ברורה, ס’ ע”ה ס”ק ב

וכן בפרסות רגל עד השוק [והוא עד המקום שנקרא קניא בל”א] במקום שדרכן לילך יחף מותר לקרות כנגדו שכיון שרגיל בהן אינו בא לידי הרהור ובמקום שדרכן לכסות שיעורן טפח כמו שאר גוף האשה

אבל זרועותיה ושוקה אפילו רגילין לילך מגולה כדרך הפרוצות אסור:

Similarly, [if a woman has exposed] from her bottom of her feet until the shok [which is until the place called the “knee”], in a society where it is the practice to go barefoot, it is permissible to read the Shema in such circumstances, since a person is accustomed to it, it will not lead him to have sexual thoughts.  And in a place where it [the area below the knee] is usually covered, the size is a tefach [when a tefach is exposed, a man cannot recite the Shema] , like the rest of the body.

But her upper arms and her shok [here being translated as “thigh”], even in places where the practice is to go out with them exposed, as is the way of immodest women, it is forbidden [to recite the Shema in such circumstances].

Mishne Brurah defined shok as “thigh” to explain why it was acceptable for women in his day to not cover their shins.  For him, the status of shok as ervah could not be modified based on societal norms, so he was forced to explain that it meant something else – the thigh rather than the shin. What else, according to Mishne Brurah, has a status of ervah regardless of societal context?

Of course, the simpler explanation is that shok is not an absolute ervah.  We have seen that hair and voice are not considered ervah in societies (where men are exposed to women’s talking voice, or an unmarried women’s hair) or amounts (hair that is left outside the bonnet) in which they are normally not covered.  The same is true for shok.  The definition of ervah should heavily depend on what, in the contemporary society, would likely lead to sexual thoughts in a man.

Some thought questions:

  • Would there be any parts of the body – other than the genital area, of course – that should always be an ervah regardless of context?
  • How would we define societal norms – based on secular society or the observant Jewish community?  And if the latter, which part of the observant community?
  • Would context matter – for example, would there be different definitions in Summer camp?  During sporting events?


Two important conclusions emerge from the sources:

  1. The halakhic responsibilities in this area related to men, not women.  The dictate that a man cannot look sexually at the body of a woman who is not his wife, and that a man cannot recite the Shema in the presence of ervah.  There is no rule about how women must dress.
  2. The definitions of ervah are not absolute, and are shaped by the norms of society.


We are now left with one key question – if the definitions of ervah are not so objective and quantifiable, and if anyway the obligation is not on women than on men, does this mean that anything goes? In other words, what standards should guide women (and men) in terms of dress?

To answer this, let us ask another question – is it really true that there the Talmud says nothing about how a woman should dress?  There are, in actuality, one or two Talmudic passages that do relate to how women are to dress.  In Ketuvot, the Mishna lists the norms of how married women must dress and act {source 15}.  The issue at stake here is not another man’s sexual thoughts, but the unwanted attention of men who are not this woman’s husband, or – said another way – the way in which a woman’s actions may create tension within the marriage.  What is significant is that the norms here relate more generally to a disposition and way of acting – a notion much closer to the true meaning of the idea of tzniut.

Likewise, in an aggadic passage in Shabbat {source 16}, the Talmud speaks about the sin of women who would dress and walk and act in way to catch the eye of men, and incite men to sin.  This, also, is not about the exact amounts or parts of the body that are covered, but a general way of acting.  Dressing and acting in a way to be sexually provocative.  This is a clear violation of tzniut, and a requirement for men and women alike.
15. Bavli, Ketuvot (72b)   |   (.בבלי, כתובות (עב

מתנ’. ואלו יוצאות שלא בכתובה: העוברת על דת משה ויהודית… ואיזוהי דת יהודית? יוצאה וראשה פרוע, וטווה בשוק, ומדברת עם כל אדם. אבא שאול אומר: אף המקללת יולדיו בפניו. רבי טרפון אומר: אף הקולנית. ואיזוהי קולנית? לכשהיא מדברת בתוך ביתה ושכיניה שומעין קולה. Mishnah. These are to be divorced without receiving their ketuvah: a wife who transgresses the law of Moses or Jewish practice… and what is Jewish practice? Going out with uncovered head, spinning in the street or conversing with every man. Abba Shaul said: [such transgressions include] also that of a wife who curses her husband’s parents in his presence. R. Tarfon said: also one who screams. And who is regarded a screamer? A woman whose voice can be heard by her neighbors when she speaks inside her house.

16. Bavli, Shabbat (62b)   |     (:בבלי, שבת (סב

דרש רבא בריה דרב עילאי: מאי דכתיב ויאמר ה’ יען כי גבהו בנות ציון – שהיו מהלכות בקומה זקופה, ותלכנה נטויות גרון – שהיו מהלכות עקב בצד גודל, ומשקרות עינים – דהוה מלאן כוחלא לעינייהו ומרמזן, הלוך וטפוף – שהיו מהלכות ארוכה בצד קצרה,וברגליהן תעכסנה, אמר רב יצחק דבי רבי אמי מלמד שמטילות מור ואפרסמון במנעליהן, ומהלכות בשוקי ירושלים, וכיון שמגיעות אצל בחורי ישראל, בועטות בקרקע ומתיזות עליהם ומכניסות בהן יצר הרע כארס בכעוס. Raba son of R. Ilai lectured: What is meant by, “Moreover the Lord said, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty?” That means that they walked with haughty bearing. “And walk with outstretched necks” — they walked heel by toe. “And wanton [mesakrothh] eyes” – they filled their eyes with eye shadow and beckoned… “And making a tinkling [te’akasnah] with their feet” –  R. Isaac of the School of R. Ammi said: This teaches that they placed myrrh and balsam in their shoes and walked through the market-places of Jerusalem , and on coming near to the young men of Israel, they kicked their feet and spurted it on them, thus instilling them with passionate desire like with serpent’s poison.



We have seen that the Talmud and halakha’s concern is primarily with the man’s actions, and does not dictate how women must dress.  Nevertheless, later poskim state that this becomes the woman’s primary obligation – to not cause men to sin, since men cannot be trusted to not look sexually at women (see for example, Yechave Da’at 3:67).  This infantilizes men, shifts the burden to the wrong party, and reinforces the view of women as sex object.  We must restore halakha to its original meaning and the obligation to the proper party.

Moreover, the quantification of body parts and clothing length is clearly misplaced.  Definition of what constitutes ervah is, according to halakha, shaped by societal norms, which would point to a dress code that is qualitative and not quantitative.  To the degree that the Talmud does address how women should dress, it is also more qualitative and not limited to dress alone – women (and men), must dress and act in such a way that is not sexually provocative to others.  This goes back to the truer meaning of tzniut – to act in a way that is modest, that does not put oneself on stage and as the center of attention.  It is our job to see if we as a society can return to the true halakha and the true meaning of tzniut.