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When the concept of tzniut is discussed it is defined as 'modesty' and used overwhelmingly in regard to sexuality. However we know there are other uses for the term such as from the gemarah (Megillah 13b) which discusses the merit accrued to Rachel, Shaul and Esther because of their tzniut; none of which involve modesty in relation to clothing or sexuality. Similarly there is a stress on tzniut in the bathroom (brachos 62a/b) even when no one else is around.

Is there a source for a conceptual definition of tzniut that would encompass all the various uses for the term?

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2 Answers 2

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This would have to begin with Micah 6:8: והצנע לכת עם א-להיך, "be tzanua in walking with your G-d" (this is one of only two instances of this root in Tanach, the other being in Prov. 11:2, ואת צנועים חכמה).

The Gemara (Sukkah 49b and Rashi there) explain this as referring to mitzvos done in public, like funerals and weddings; even these need to be done with tznius, "and how much more so things that are supposed to be done in private" (Rashi gives tzedakah as an example). Rashi explains "tznius" in either of two ways: (a) keeping one's emotions within appropriate bounds (e.g., not being over-mournful at a funeral, or giddy at a wedding); (b) not drawing attention to what one is spending.

It would seem that both of these come down to the same idea: keeping private what should be private. This would fit with what we find about the three personages mentioned in the Gemara you quoted: each of them knew how to keep a secret. It therefore also yields the common definition of tznius - keeping to oneself (and one's spouse) certain areas and aspects of one's body, behavior and emotions.

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And related: "I am still me, and what I do is still what I do, even if everyone doesn't notice it." –  Shalom Feb 24 '12 at 15:54

The mishna in demai (6:6) describes the "tzanuey" of Beis Hillel acting in accordance with the rule of Beis Shammai. The gemarah goes on to explain that the word can imply someone who is particularly vigilante or meticulous about the law. Similarly the term is found in Niddah 12a with the same implication.

One can certainly "be tznius" ie conform to the letter of the law without being tznius, meaning without conforming to the spirit of the law.

The only example of tznius Rashi quotes in the gemarah you cite is that Rachel kept the fact that she and Yaakov had signs private. This would be in keeping with the rule that if someone tells you something in confidence or private you are obligated to keep it as such.

So, to answer your question, I believe that tznius is understanding and complying with the implied intent of the law (to the best of your understanding).

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So (to clarify) you're saying that if I'm very meticulous about kashrus, including the spirit of the law, that's an example of tz'nius? –  msh210 Feb 19 '13 at 19:06

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