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I have heard the idea that the concept of tsnius, or modesty, for women is equivalent to the command of Torah study for men. Once, I overheard this in a conversation between two men, one of whom I recall mentioning a source.

What is the source for this idea? How is it understood?

  • I have heard this idea expressed by Rabbi Yossi Mizrachi in his lectures on Shidduchim (in terms of what to look for in a man v. woman). But I guess you're looking for an earlier source (if not I can provide a link). – yydl Mar 23 '14 at 0:51
  • @yydl any source will do! I also recall this not being what we'd think of as a chazalic idea. I'm also editing question to ask for a bit of explanation. – Baby Seal Mar 23 '14 at 0:53
  • Tzniut sounds a lot more like Tzitzit to me. Constant mitzvot of clothing. – Double AA Mar 23 '14 at 1:26
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Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, shlita, mentions that quotation on page 37 of his essay "Contemporary Tseni'ut" (Tradition Fall 2003), disagreeing with it quite sharply. He says it's found in Rabbi Falk's Oz VeHadar Levusha page 40, but I don't know if Rabbi Falk cites anyone on it. So that's a first step.

(I can't help but mention that the family's biography of Rav Moshe Feinstein prefacing Igros Moshe vol. 8 describes his wife Sima. Today if you described how a rebbetzin dressed, the only word you could use would be "tznius." Instead, it says she "was always dressed meticulously and with excellent taste.")

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  • Thanks and +1! Would you object to editing in the explanation of the concept, which is as I understand it that tznius and torah study are lifelong pursuits for men and women, respectively? That would fully answer the question, in which I did ask for an understanding of the statement. – Baby Seal Mar 23 '14 at 15:25
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There are several Talmudic passages that would seem to imply that this is not the case. The Talmud in Berachot 17a states:

א"ל רב לר' חייא נשים במאי זכיין באקרויי בנייהו לבי כנישתא ובאתנויי גברייהו בי רבנן ונטרין לגברייהו עד דאתו מבי רבנן

Rab said to R. Hiyya: Whereby do women earn merit? By making their children go to the synagogue to learn Scripture and their husbands to the Beth Hamidrash to learn Mishnah, and waiting for their husbands till they return from the Beth Hamidrash.

(Soncino translation)

Here where the Talmud is searching for the thing that would be the source of women's merit, it concludes with supporting the Torah of their husbands and sons. It does not say that the source of their merit is tzniut. If anything, this passage might imply that supporting Torah for women is the equivalent to studying Torah for men.

Similarly, in Sotah 21a we find:

ויש זכות תולה ג' שנים כו': זכות דמאי אילימא זכות דתורה הא אינה מצווה ועושה היא אלא זכות דמצוה זכות דמצוה מי מגנא כולי האי והתניא את זו דרש רבי מנחם בר יוסי כי נר מצוה ותורה אור תלה הכתוב את המצוה בנר ואת התורה באור את המצוה בנר לומר לך מה נר אינה מגינה אלא לפי שעה אף מצוה אינה מגינה אלא לפי שעה ואת התורה באור לומר לך מה אור מגין לעולם אף תורה מגינה לעולם ואומר בהתהלכך תנחה אותך וגו' בהתהלכך תנחה אותך זה העוה"ז בשכבך תשמור עליך זו מיתה והקיצות היא תשיחך לעתיד לבא משל לאדם שהיה מהלך באישון לילה ואפילה ומתיירא מן הקוצים ומן הפחתים ומן הברקנים ומחיה רעה ומן הליסטין ואינו יודע באיזה דרך מהלך נזדמנה לו אבוקה של אור ניצל מן הקוצים ומן הפחתים ומן הברקנים ועדיין מתיירא מחיה רעה ומן הליסטין ואינו יודע באיזה דרך מהלך כיון שעלה עמוד השחר ניצל מחיה רעה ומן הליסטין ועדיין אינו יודע באיזה דרך מהלך הגיע לפרשת דרכים ניצל מכולם ד"א עבירה מכבה מצוה ואין עבירה מכבה תורה שנאמר מים רבים לא יוכלו לכבות את האהבה א"ר יוסף מצוה בעידנא דעסיק בה מגנא ומצלא בעידנא דלא עסיק בה אגוני מגנא אצולי לא מצלא תורה בין בעידנא דעסיק בה ובין בעידנא דלא עסיק בה מגנא ומצלא מתקיף לה רבה אלא מעתה דואג ואחיתופל מי לא עסקי בתורה אמאי לא הגינה עלייהו אלא אמר רבא תורה בעידנא דעסיק בה מגנא ומצלא בעידנא דלא עסיק בה אגוני מגנא אצולי לא מצלא מצוה בין בעידנא דעסיק בה בין בעידנא דלא עסיק בה אגוני מגנא אצולי לא מצלא רבינא אמר לעולם זכות תורה ודקאמרת אינה מצווה ועושה נהי דפקודי לא מפקדא באגרא דמקרין ומתניין בנייהו ונטרן להו לגברייהו עד דאתו מבי מדרשא מי לא פלגאן

AND ANOTHER FOR THREE YEARS etc. What sort of merit? If I answer merit of [studying] Torah, she is [in the category] of one who is not commanded and fulfils! — Rather must it be merit of [performing] a commandment. But does the merit of performing a commandment protect as much as that? — Surely it has been taught: The following did R. Menahem son of R. Jose expound: For the commandment is a lamp and Torah is light — the verse identifies the commandment with a lamp and Torah with light; the commandment with a lamp to tell thee that as a lamp only protects temporarily, so [the fulfilment of] a commandment only protects temporarily; and Torah with light to tell thee that as light protects permanently, so Torah protects permanently; and it states: When thou walkest it shall lead thee etc. — 'when thou walkest it shall lead thee', viz., In this world; 'when, thou sleepest it shall watch over' thee, viz., in death; and when, thou awakest it shall talk with thee, viz., in the Hereafter. Parable of a man who is walking in the middle of the night and darkness, and is afraid of thorns, pits, thistles, wild beasts and robbers, and also does not know the road in which he is going. If a lighted torch is prepared for him, he is saved from thorns, pits and thistles; but he is still afraid of wild beasts and robbers, and does not know the road in which he is going. When, however, dawn breaks, he is saved from wild beasts and robbers, but still does not know the road in which he is going. When, however, he reaches the cross-roads, he is saved from everything. Another explanation is: A transgression nullifies [the merit of] a commandment but not of [study of] Torah; as it is said: Many waters cannot quench love! — Said R. Joseph: A commandment protects and rescues while one is engaged upon it; but when one is no longer engaged upon it, it protects but does not rescue. As for [study of] Torah, whether while one is engaged upon it or not, it protects and rescues. Raba demurred to this: According to this reasoning, did not Doeg and Ahitophel engage upon [study of] Torah; so Why did it not protect them? — But, said Raba, while one is engaged upon [study of] Torah, it protects and rescues, and while one is not engaged upon it, it protects but does not rescue. As for a commandment whether while one is engaged upon it or not, it protects but does not rescue.

Rabina said: It is certainly merit of [the study of] Torah [which causes the water to suspend its effect]; and when you argue that she is in the category of one who is not commanded and fulfils, [it can be answered] granted that women are not so commanded, still when they have their sons taught Scripture and Mishnah and wait for their husbands until they return from the Schools, should they not share [the merit] with them?

(Soncino translation)

Here again, the Talmud is looking for the thing that would protect women, and once again instead of suggesting tzniut it concludes that supporting the Torah of their husbands and children is the thing. Here especially, the equivalency is apparent. The Talmud here specifically says that a (mere) mitzvah would not protect like Torah study does. The fact that supporting Torah study does protect, then, seems to be indicative of it's equivalency to Torah study itself.

It would therefore seem that for women the equivalent of Torah study is, at least as implied in these passages, support of Torah.

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