For donations Click Here

Tznius – Definitions and Misconceptions


In this week’s article we will try to define tznius. Although commonly translated as modesty, it is something entirely different. Is tznius a feminine topic? What is the connection between tznius and Rachel’s sacrifice in giving her sister the secret signs Yaakov had taught her? What is the literal meaning of “tznius” and its source in the Torah? How are tznius and Fear of Heaven connected? And where does clothing come in? Why can’t a Sefer Torah be uncovered? How can we express our soul’s voice? Of this and more in the coming article.

Source of the Mitzva

In this week’s parasha we read about the Isha Sota, the only trial by ordeal in the Torah intended to determine a woman’s status after being suspected of unfaithfulness. What is the meaning of “sota”? סוטה is the Hebrew for diverting. Rashi explains that the Isha Sota has, quite simply, diverted herself from tznius. While this explanation would lead us to translating tznius as modesty, the word sota here appears in the Torah, not with the expected Samech (ס), but with the letter Sin (שׂ) instead! With a sin, the word is שׂטה, which has the same root as שטות – madness or insanity. This, explain Chazal, teaches us another lesson: one would never come to this sin unless overcome by madness.

This week’s article will discuss tznius, what diverting from its ways means, and why doing so is plain madness.

Tznius and Women

A common misconception ascribes tznius to women, or specifically to a lady’s dress code. In truth, the Torah requires tznius from both men and women alike. Similarly, the greater concept of tznius is only slightly related to clothing or outer appearances.

While it’s true that one’s attribute of tznius can be apparent through his clothing and modest dress can assist in acquiring this lofty attribute, clothing and dress codes do not even scratch the surface of this precious mitzva.

This can be understood through a parable – a merchant e decided to open a store. His mentor impressed upon him the importance of an attractive storefront, and the prospective storeowner invested all his money in making his the most attractive window on the block. While his window display contained all the latest models, the store behind it remained glaringly empty. Similarly, when tznius is only about clothing one has put on a wonderful window display but nothing inside to sell.

Rachel Imenu

The Gemara (Megillah 13b) hints to the real meaning of tznius in the following account: before his marriage, Yaakov Avinu was (rightfully) afraid Lavan would switch Leah for Rachel. To prevent it, Yaakov formulated special codes, or signs, with which he could recognize Rachel from her sister Leah. When Rachel realized her father was indeed planning on exchanging them, she taught her sister the signs to save her from shame. In merit of her selfless deed, described by the Gemara as tznius, her son, Yosef earned firstborn rights, and Shaul and Esther – Rachel’s descendants — were noteworthy for their tznius.

Why is that noble act defined as tznius?

Rachel gave up her present life and entire future just to prevent her sister from suffering a few moments of embarrassment. While we might have described this act as altruistic, the Gemara calls it tznius. How is tznius connected here? Isn’t tznius the wrong word to describe revealing secrets, especially if the result was a marrital mix-up?

To appreciate why Rachel’s action is described as the epitome of tznius we must study this precious mitzva more closely.

Tznius – Literal Explanation

The Rambam (Pirush Hamishna Dmai, 3:3) explains that the word להצניע means to store, to putting away for later. It appears in the pasuk: “What does G-d ask from you? But to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to הצנע לכת with your G-d” (Micha 6:8). Tznius, according to the Rambam means hiding or storing away something precious in a treasured safe. What needs to be hidden away in our relationship with G-d?

Rashi on this pasuk quotes the Targum Yehonoson who explains that tznius is fear of G-d. The Radak adds that הצנע לכת refers to things that depend upon intentions of the heart. Rashi adds that while one who embarrassed another publicly demands him to apologize in front of those who were witnessed his shame, G-d only demands private repentance, regardless of the number of people who witnessed the sin.

Elsewhere (Bereshis 2:25), Rashi explains that tznius is the capability of differentiating between good and evil. This is why before eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Chava were naked and unembarrassed. How is tznius linked to differentiating good from evil, and where does clothing come in?

The Mahari Korkus points out that chasidim of old, elsewhere described as tznuim (who have acquired the attribute of tznius), are those pious individuals whose every action is only for G-d, not for any other reason or external pressure.

Explanation Review

The above explanations lead us to the following true definition of tznius:

Human action is prompted by one of two motivators. One motivator is external influences – that’s what everyone is doing, appreciates, praises, or for some kind of gain — be it a simple physical pleasure or everlasting spiritual reward. Actions prompted by these influences are not defined as tznius. Tznius is only those actions that stem from internal conviction. They are an expression of true free will, not external pressures or motivations. Those pious people whose actions are born only of their purity of heart are called tznuim, and their actions are described as tznius. These, and only these, are actions that count towards one’s private treasure, and are stored for eternity.

Fear of Heaven and Tznius

Rashi quotes the Targum Yehonoson who links tznius with yiras Shomayim, Fear of Heaven. One who lives with yiras Shomayim truly feels G-d’s constant presence. This state of living allows one to shut out the external influences that cause  us to do things for other reasons, and allows him to only act because that is (what he understands as) G-d’s Will. This kind of action, done only for G-d and for no other reason, is called tznius.

Safe Deposit Box

To gain deeper understanding of this concept we must examine another pasuk: “And the faith of your times shall be the strength of salvations, wisdom and knowledge; fear of the Lord, that is his treasure” (Yeshayahu 33:6). The Gemara explains this pasuk refers to the six orders of Mishna: Faith – zraim (seeds); times – moed (festivals); strength – nashim (women); salvations – nezikin (damages); wisdom – kodshim (holiness); knowledge – taharos (purities). However the pasuk ends with the treasure: “fear of the Lord, that is his treasure”. Only those actions that can be categorized as “Fear of heaven” allow one access to the treasure of eternal life.

According to another explanation, this pasuk refers to the six questions one is asked upon appearing in the Heavenly Tribunal for judgement after death:

  • Faith — did you do business with honesty and integrity?
  • Times — did you fix set times for studying Torah?
  • Strength — did you participate in the commandment to be fruitful and multiply?
  • Salvations — did you eagerly hope the redemption?
  • Wisdom — did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom?
  • Knowledge – did you deduce something from something else?

In the end, even one who answers every question in the affirmative must still answer the final question: was fear of Heaven your treasure? Only one who can answer positively to this question merits entering Gan Eden.

That treasure house where we keep our good deeds only holds those done from pure fear of G-d; actions totally disengaged from all external noise that the world creates to distract us. Only those actions born of our true inner selves, from the heart’s longing to do only what G-d wants are kept there.

Every positive action brings one closer to the ultimate goal, to actions done for Hashem’s sake. Chazal tell us one should forever engage in activities even due to external motivators, because by doing so, one can reach the next level — doing them for their Hashem’s sake.

Rabbi Chanina Ben Tradyon

The Gemara (Avoda Zara 18a) recounts how Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon (one of the Asara Harugei Malchus we read about in the Yom Kippur Mussaf prayers) went to visit Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma. Rabbi Yosi was ill, and they discussed the obligation to study Torah during the terrible Roman ban that outlawed it. Were they obligated to risk their lives and publicly teach Torah like Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon (who was eventually burned to death for doing so) had done, or was it preferable to go underground until the storm blew over and the ban was lifted? In the middle of the conversation, Rabbi Chanina asked Rabbi Yosi: “Will I merit life in the Next World?”

Why was Rabbi Chanina worried about it? Hadn’t he been risking his life to teach Torah? But Rabbi Yosi’s answer is even stranger.

“Did you do a good deed to merit it?”

Of course Rabbi Chanina had done many good deeds. He had kept all the mitzvos his entire life! He risked his life to teach Torah! But that wasn’t his answer.

“I once, by mistake, due to mixing Zedakah money with my own money I gave a poor man the money I had set aside for the Purim feast. Upon realizing my mistake I went on and gave also the charity money to tzedakah.”

“In that case,” answered Rabbi Yosi, “may my portion be with yours, and my lot be cast with your lot.”

What was so great in having given both sums to charity?

Rav Shach poses these questions, and his answer sheds light on the topic of tznius as we have just explained: In his question, Rabbi Yosi was asking if Rabbi Chanina could ascertain he had done at least one deed for no external reason, a pure act born of pure fear of Heaven, a result of his own free will and choice. Rabbi Chanina found that one deed. And that deed merited him his portion in the World-to-Come.

Rachel’s Modesty

In light of this explanation we can now understand Rachel’s tznius in disclosing the signs to her sister. Her act was one born of her inner compass that indicated that that was G-d’s Will at that moment. She knew with full certainty that it would never be recognized, and on the contrary – she would pay a steep price for it, both in this and the Next World. But she did so wholeheartedly, with true fear of Heaven, for no ulterior motive. This is the lofty level of tznius whose fruit she and her descendants enjoy forever.

Tznius and Clothing

This understanding of the concept of tznius and expression of the deepest recess of our free will leaves one question – how is the concept related to clothing?

Ever since the first man’s primordial sin, expression of our spiritual side, our souls, has become harder and harder. As the world descended into the morass of material advancement the voice of the soul has become gradually more and more muted. This is a gradual process humanity has been experiencing over the world’s six millennia, until now, nearly six thousand years later, the voice of the soul is almost no longer audible at all.

In the material sense, that same process has been happening on the reverse – the physical aspect of humanity is becoming more and more pronounced, gradually taking over the entire world stage. By now the world is so entrenched in this worldview that we almost believe that that is all there is. While our physical senses fight to stamp out the final sparks of spirituality that remain and almost succeeding in convincing us that only what we see is what there is, the Torah – voice of the spiritual — reminds us of the truth: that our souls are the reality, and our bodies are but transient vessels made by Hashem to assist the soul to fulfill its mission.

Clothing that covers the body remind the wearer that he is more than what meets the eye – his true essence is spiritual and invisible. Revealing clothing does the opposite — they lead us to believe this world’s persistent message – what you see is what there is, and nothing more.

Covering the Torah

The Eliyah Raba mentions a halacha (139:8) related to this topic: a Sefer Torah must not be uncovered unnecessarily. Only to be read from can it be uncovered, and as soon as the reading is over, the scroll must be re-covered. Why is leaving the scroll uncovered a disgrace to the Torah?

When it is covered we internalize the message that the Torah scroll is not only parchment and ink, but a spiritual essence beyond what we can see and feel with our senses.

Scribes who have a hands-on approach to creating Sifrei Torah, choosing the hide and processing it themselves, develop a callousness towards the scroll’s sanctity. This well-known phenomena illustrates the above concept — the more involved one is in the physical process of producing a Sefer Torah, that much more callous he becomes to its spiritual aspect. The more one focuses on the physical, that much less sensitive he is to the spiritual aspect.

In order to preserve that sense of awe we have the halachos of a Sefer Torah – it cannot be removed from the ark for another purpose other than reading from it; it cannot be touched with bare hands; and reading from it must be done with a sense of awe and trepidation, as it was given at Sinai. Additionally, the Torah must never be left uncovered unnecessarily, and even between aliyos while the Brachos are being recited it is covered. This drives home the message that a Torah scroll is not only processed ink on animal hide – it has a spiritual life of its own.


Chazal tell us that diverting from tznius is an expression of madness. Ever since Adam Harishon’s first sin, expressing our rich spiritual life, hearing our soul’s whispering, and doing G-d’s Will is all a struggle. Our adversary is our physical senses that lead us to think only our bodies and its pleasures are reality, and nothing else exists.

With free choice we can express G-d’s Will in our lives and do actions that are purely for the sake of Heaven. These will earn us eternal merit which will stand by us and remain in our spiritual treasure chest.

One of our main tools for winning this battle is clothing and behavior that do not attract attention to our physical bodies. This projects the message and reminds us that we are not just physical bodies, but on the contrary — our essence is spiritual.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *