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What are the minimum standards of tznius for halachic purposes? By "halachic purposes" I mean Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 75, which forbids praying in the presence of ervah. I am raising the question in light of the discussion begun here, which deals with the fact that different communities can have vastly different standards of tznius.

Which body parts must absolutely be covered from a halachic perspective? If a woman shows, for example, her collarbones, elbows, or hair because her minhag permits it, is she invalidating (or worse) the prayers of those around her with a different minhag? And, tangentially, what would those others be obliged to do in such a situation? I am thinking of kiruv settings, among others.

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Also interested in the extent to which a mechitza makes a difference from a halachic standpoint. I can ask the mechitza part as a separate question if others recommend it. –  SAH May 4 '12 at 9:08
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Probably better separate, yeah. IMO. (+1 on this one, incidentally.) –  msh210 May 4 '12 at 14:32
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this is a matter of dispute among various rishonim, achronim and contemporary authorities. –  Ariel K May 13 '12 at 20:02
    
@ه ه, since you are awarding a bounty, please comment on the answers and tell me which you like. (Or can one award a bounty to any answer, even if it isn't the accepted one? Sorry for my lack of Stackexchange technical knowledge...) –  SAH May 16 '12 at 13:12
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The halacha differs significantly if you are asking about the requirements for the woman herself (e.g., if she is praying alone) or in the presence of other women or other men. Are you talking about all three situations? –  Toras EMES 613 May 17 '12 at 17:53
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Halachic requirements to allow men to pray in the presence of women differ somewhat from modesty requirements incumbent upon the woman when in the presence of others. Appropriate dress (according to the lenient opinions) when praying in the presence of others, is as follows:

The halacha is that "tefach b'isha ervah" - a tefach (about 3.5 inches) uncovered on certain parts of a woman's body is ervah - nakedness. (B'rachos (24a) in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak). The arm must be covered at least to the elbow and the leg must be covered at least to the knee.

If a married woman is dressed with uncovered hair where uncovered hair is common among married women (though in violation of halacha), according to the Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim: 75; 7) who rules leniently, he writes that it is permitted to pray in the presence of these women (quoting the Mordechai who quotes the Raviah).

Rabbi Getsel Ellinson (Woman and the Mitzvot: Volume 2) - Pg. 186, note 37, writes that it is probably okay to pray as long as there's less than a tefach uncovered above the elbows and knee. However, it is certainly absolutely forbidden to pray in the presence of a woman whose skirt does not cover past the knees when she is sitting down, because the skirt will not cover ervah.

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I thought sephardic minhag allowed most of the upper arm to be uncovered? –  SAH May 20 '12 at 23:19
    
This answer could really be improved by citing more sources (eg. about arm covering (the gemara you cite does not say zeroa b'isha erva)) and also dealing with other areas of the body (eg. neckline). –  Double AA Mar 10 at 23:12
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In Rabbi Marc Angel's essay entitled A Modesty Proposal: Rethinking Tseniut, he writes that all the laws of tznius are "inferred from the mandate to be holy—to separate ourselves from sin, including sin of a sexual nature." (Rashi says on the pasuk Kedoshim Tihyu that holiness means separation from forbidden sexual relationships.)

R' Angel goes on to discuss more of the philosophy of tseniut, as well as halakhic technicalities that should be taken into consideration.

Halacha lema'aseh:

Look about 2/3 or 3/4 down the page at the sections called "Confronting Reality" and "Tseniut Today" - that is where one can find the halakha lema'aseh. He writes many things including (quote):

  1. Neither men nor women should dress, speak, or act in a licentious manner that will arouse the sexual attention of others. It is a violation of tseniut to wear skimpy, overly tight, or other clothing that is designed to highlight one’s sexuality.

  2. It is proper for men and women to dress nicely, neatly, and modestly. It is fine to dress fashionably, as long as those fashions do not violate the philosophy of tseniut.

  3. In our society, it is normal for upstanding and proper women to wear pants/pants suits; short sleeved dresses/blouses; clothes with colorful designs. Wearing these things is not a violation of tseniut, as long as these items are not fashioned in such a way as to highlight one’s sexuality.

  4. Married women need not cover their hair, as long as their hair is maintained in a modest style. The wearing of wigs does not constitute a proper hair-covering for those married women who wish to cover their hair. Rather, such women should wear hats or other head coverings that actually cover their hair.

  5. Men and women may sing in the presence of those of the other gender, as long as the songs are of a religious nature, or of a general cultural nature (e.g. opera, folk songs, lullabies). People should neither sing nor listen to songs that have vulgar language or erotic content that will lead to improper thoughts or behavior.

  6. If a person dresses, speaks, and acts in a proper, dignified manner, it is not his/her responsibility if others are sexually aroused by him/her. That is their problem. It is their responsibility to control their thoughts and emotions, and/or to remove themselves from situations that they find to be sexually provocative.

  7. Normal interactions between men and women are a feature of our societies. Women may serve in positions of authority over men, just as men may serve in positions of authority over women. The key point is this: holiness and tseniut should characterize all contexts where men and women mingle and work together. Co-ed youth groups and schools are permitted, but must be maintained with high standards of tseniut.

Finally, he concludes...

Conclusion:

Rabbi Avraham Shammah, who teaches at the Herzog Teachers’ College in Israel, stated: “Women and men should behave in a manner that reflects great respect for one another; they should not consider one another in a crude manner such as sexual objects; they should not dress provocatively, nor should their body language be provocative….” This is a fine formulation of the guidelines of tseniut. It makes little sense to pretend that our living conditions today are identical to those of antiquity and the middle ages. Women’s roles in society have changed radically. The interrelationships of men and women today are far more common and far more frequent than in former times. Fashions have changed dramatically. Definitions of brazenness and immodesty are far different today than they were in olden days. Recognizing these changes is essential to formulating a proper application of tseniut rules. It must also be recognized, though, that modern-day fashions often reflect very non-tseniut standards. Clothing that is designed to be sexually provocative—low cut in front or back, dresses or skirts above knee-length, clothing that is too tight, men’s pants that are worn below the belt line, and so forth—are clearly in violation of the philosophy and rules of tseniut. Our goal as thinking halakhic Jews is to be clear on our responsibility to be holy, and to treat ourselves and others as fellow human beings—not as sexual objects. When we live as tseniut human beings, we enhance our own dignity and the dignity we show to others. This is not an inconsiderable accomplishment.

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What are the halachic sources for what Rabbis Angel and Shammah write? When providing a halachic response, it is imperative to include halachic responsa that is based in halacha. If the above is truly "Halacha l'ma'aseh", including statements such as a married woman's hair not being considered ervah and that a woman singing (religious songs) in front of men is not forbidden to listen to on account of kol isha, where is the halachic basis? These statements seem to be revolutionary and certainly require halachic sources (simply quoting these rabbis is not considered bringing a halachic source). –  Toras EMES 613 May 17 '12 at 18:13
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@TorasEMES613 AdamMosheh provided a link to an article which has sources at the bottom to many other articles as well. It is not his obligation to quote every source along the way. He gave you a way to get to the halachik responsa and the literature that this Rabbi based his rule on. Tzei Ulmad! –  Double AA May 17 '12 at 20:30
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@DoubleAA I saw that article before I responded. With respect to married women not having to cover their hair, kol isha, and some of the other points, the article takes positions that are non-normative and outside of mainstream p'sak. In particular, the ruling permitting kol isha in general was derived from a quasi-Orthodox source, and that position is halachicly unacceptable. Also, the answer did not directly address the question, which was asking about tznius in the context of tefillah. –  Toras EMES 613 May 17 '12 at 21:17
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@AdamMosheh, (1.) There may be cases when we choose a lenient p'sak, if reasonable and well supported, rather than push someone away from observance altogether (see Taz, YD 334). (2.) Distorting sources to arrive at a predetermined, desired p'sak - that's what's outside of the mainstream about it. That approach undermines the integrity of the halachic process. –  Toras EMES 613 May 18 '12 at 4:55
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@TorasEMES613 - So how do you explain the lenient minhagim that were practiced way before this essay was published? And wasn't the Aruch Hashulchan famous for often trying to justify existing customs that seem to contradict halacha instead of saying that they are all nonsensical? –  Adam Mosheh May 18 '12 at 23:00
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