Given that:

  1. There are two types of Mitzvoth (commandments), 'Aseh and Lo Ta'aseh (positive and negative; ie., "Thou Shalt" and "Thou Shalt Not").
    a. Positive commandments, with some exceptions can be enforced with certain types of rabbinic sanctions but no actual punishments, whereas
    b. negative commandments carry with them specific forms of punishments, delineated in the Torah or derived therefrom.

  2. There are also at least two types of Tzeni'uth (modesty), related to dress and to action*. Within those there are also forms of modesty relating to
    a. how sexually/revealingly one may dress or how sexually provocatively one may act, as well as (and seemingly separate from)
    b. the idea of not drawing too much attention to oneself generally, whether with outlandish clothing (that is not sexually revealing) or with outlandish behavior (that is not sexual in nature).

Question(s): Are all the laws of Tzeni'uth part of the same Mitzvah (or set of Mitzvoth)? Do they all stem from "Kedoshim Tihyu" ("Be 'holy'")? If it's all part of the same Mitzvah or set of Mitzvoth, is it positive or negative?

Bonus: if the different forms of modesty are all ultimately connected to 'Arayoth (dancing in the street in a neon green jumpsuit may somehow attract a sexual mate), does modesty apply to non-Jews, who, per the Shiv'ah Mitzvoth Bnei Noah (the 7 Noahide Laws), are prohibited from committing many, if not all, of the forms of sexual deviations that Jews are prohibited from committing?

*For purposes of this discussion I am including speech in the category of action.

UPDATE 6/24/11:
Fascinating discussion on the subject of hair covering, which expanded to Negi'ah and other areas of Tzeni'uth, and ultimately devolved into "AHHH, WHY ARE WE EVEN DISCUSSING THIS?? Why not just permit EVERYTHING!?" here: http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/coffeeroom/topic/covering-hair-once-married

  • 1
    For some reason I've always thought that modesty in the sexual sense is learned drasha -style from "לא תקרבו לגלות ערוה", but I don't know where this comes from.
    – jake
    Jun 21, 2011 at 18:05
  • If you can find the source for that, I'd like to see it. Maybe I should edit the heading to, "What's the source for modesty, anyway?" If it is derived from there, is all modesty a derivative of that derivative? And is it applicable to non-Jews?
    – Seth J
    Jun 21, 2011 at 18:19
  • @Jake, that's certainly the source of the prohibition on affectionate touching. You could interpret it as "don't even come close", and let common-sense dictate what's a safe zone, but I don't recall seeing that verse listed as a direct prohibition for anything else. RM"C Luzzato writes that Hazal learned from Nazir to apply protective fences around other mitzvas, to prevent slippery-sloping. Similar quotes from Proverbs, e.g. "stay far away from a house of ill-repute", which is codifed by Rambam.
    – Shalom
    Jun 24, 2011 at 13:36
  • @Shalom "slippery slope" is a problem that cuts both ways - see e.g. the story of Adam and Chava, and the issue of touching the tree vs eating from the tree. I think it's a lot less of an issue, when it is clear that this is a fence, and not the mitzva itself. It seems that the lack of that distinction is what is causing a lot of problems in our society today.
    – AviD
    Mar 12, 2012 at 8:20

1 Answer 1


"Modesty" is a broad term, connoting several values; let me try and list them as dos and don'ts.

Don't pray within view of someone exposed

One concept is the prohibition against reciting prayers while someone naked is within view; if I recall correctly, this is tied to the verse (Deuteronomy 23:15) "and no naked/shameful thing shall be seen within you." Hence, one question of modesty is "how covered-up must I be so that people can still pray within view of me?" For instance, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein recommended that synagogues have an opaque, five-foot-tall mechitza; that way if a woman came to synagogue "with uncovered arms and more", those exposed body parts would not be in view from the men's side (assuming the average-height woman), and the men could carry on their prayers. (The women's exposed hair does not pose a problem in most cultures today, according to Rabbi Feinstein.)

Don't stray after your eyes (Numbers 15:39)

Pretty self-explanatory

Married women should cover their hair in public (Numbers 5:18)

There's a debate whether this is a Biblical obligation or a rabbinic one (and hinted by the verse); the verse takes it for granted that a married woman would have her hair covered in public; though the Talmud (Ketubot 72a) says "from here we learn the prohibition of going in public with uncovered hair."

G-d wants us to behave humbly, without the need to grab attention for ourselves (Micah 6:8)

Listed as a positive value; intended for both men and women (and the Talmud seems to focus this one on men); the only place in this whole answer that actually uses a word with the same root as tzniut.

Be "holy" by keeping yourselves far away from arayot (forbidden relations). (Rashi, Leviticus 19:2)

There is also potentially the notion of mutual responsibility, don't make someone else sin, but that gets to the whole mess of "if she wears something flashy and he sins, do we blame her?", so let's not go there.

What about non-Jews?

Job (chapter 31) complains that he's innocent, he didn't look at other married women, not even single women! There's a lot of discussion how exactly to interpret that halachically, but recall that Job is not Jewish. Now we could debate whether he's saying he followed the letter of the law, or he played it safe by staying far away from anything prohibited.

So as far as non-Jews go, my sense is there is an implied value within their prohibition of arayot to take reasonable steps towards a society that values self-control, plus the positive, gender-neutral, Jewishness-neutral value of Micah to walk humbly with G-d. Not sure you can prove chapter-and-verse an exact requirement beyond that. (Though I must note, on the other hand, that prostitution is likely not included in the prohibition of arayot, see Rambam Ishut 1:4).

  • These are all very good sources for the /idea/ of modesty, but I'm trying to understand the nature of the /commandment(s)/. I'm specifically interested in the duties of the person that will be observed, not the person observing someone else. Is "Kedoshim TiHyu" negative? I'll try to tighten up or flesh out my original question a bit more.
    – Seth J
    Jun 21, 2011 at 14:44
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    Actually, upon re-reading your answer, +1. But I would still like to focus more on my specific question of the positive/negative commandment of proper dress and action. If a woman walks outside naked, is she in violation of a prohibition, or only as a stumbling block if a man sees her and later sins? Or is she merely ignoring a positive commandment of dressing properly (Kedoshim)? And what about a man who goes outside naked? And what about the person dancing in the street (fully clothed) - and does it matter if this person is a man or a woman?
    – Seth J
    Jun 21, 2011 at 15:16
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    @SethJ the premise of the question is flawed. The way people talk about modesty today, is not halachic, and the answer shows that some of the mitzvot are negatives "Don't stray", and some are positive, "be holy".. there is no one single mitzvah of Tzinuya, but rather it is a category of mitzvot that people ironically, are very untzinuah about.
    – avi
    Mar 1, 2012 at 6:56
  • We need more tzinuah around the world.
    – gamliela
    Dec 15, 2017 at 15:49

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