Tzniut (Hebrew: tzniut, Sephardi: tzeniut(h), Ashkenazi: tznius; "modesty" or "privacy"; Yiddish: basheydnkeyt) describes both the character trait of modesty and discretion, as well as a group of Jewish laws pertaining to conduct. The concept is most important within Orthodox Judaism.
Tzniut includes a group of Jewish laws concerned with modesty of both dress and behavior. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Elazar Bar Tzadok interprets the injunction at Micah 6:8 to "go discreetly with your God" as referring to discretion in conducting funerals and weddings. The Talmud then extends his interpretation: "If in matters that are generally performed in public, such as funerals and weddings, the Torah instructed us to go discreetly, matters that by their very nature should be performed discreetly, such as giving charity to a poor person, how much more so must one take care to do them discreetly, without publicity and fanfare".
In the legal dimension of Orthodox Judaism, the issue of tzniut is discussed in more technical terms: how much skin may a person expose, and so on. These details underscore the concept of tzniut as a code of conduct, character, and awareness, which in practice is more noticeable among women than men.
The principal guiding point of tzniut in regard to dress is that a Jew should not dress in a way that attracts undue attention. This does not mean dressing poorly, but that neither men nor women should dress in a way that overly emphasizes their physical appearance or attracts undue attention. There are many different interpretations of what tzniut means, so people from different communities will dress differently.
In Haredi communities, men wear long trousers and usually long-sleeved shirts; most will not wear short sleeves at all. Haredi Ashkenazi practice discourages sandals without socks both in and out of the synagogue, whereas Haredi Sefardi communities tend to accept sandals at least outside of synagogue. Dress in a synagogue and, according to many, in public should be comparable to that worn by the community when meeting royalty or government.
Haredi women wear blouses covering the elbow and collarbone, and skirts that cover the knees while standing and sitting. The ideal sleeve and skirt length varies by community. Some women try not to follow fashion, while others wear fashionable, but modest, clothing. Haredi women avoid skirts with slits, preferring instead kick pleats. They also avoid overly eye-catching colors, especially bright red, as well as clothing that is tight. Many will only wear closed-toe shoes, and always wear stockings, the thickness of which varies by community.
Modern Orthodox women also usually adhere to tzniut and dress in a modest fashion (as compared to the general society), but their communal definition does not necessarily include covering their elbows, collarbones, or knees, and may allow for wearing pants, although some Modern Orthodox women will, when in front of men or in public, wear skirts that cover their knees, preferably loose ones, and cover their elbows and cleavage.
Modern Orthodox men's dress is often indistinguishable from their non-Orthodox peers, apart from them wearing a skullcap. They may wear short-sleeved shirts, and even shorts. Sandals without socks, while generally not worn in a synagogue, are usually accepted in Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist communities in Israel for daily dress, for both men and women.
Conservative Judaism formally encourages modest dress. While day-to-day dress often simply reflects the general society, many Conservative synagogues expect somewhat more modest dress (although not necessarily as stringent as in Orthodox Judaism) for synagogue attendance, and may have specific dress requirements to receive synagogue honors (such as being called for a Torah reading).
Reform Judaism has no religious dress requirements.
Style of dress involves cultural considerations distinct from religious requirements. Members of Conservative and Reform synagogues may abide by dress codes generally ranging from business casual to informal. There are many Orthodox synagogues (especially in Israel), where dress, while meeting religious modesty requirements, is quite casual. Many Haredi and Hasidic communities have special customs and styles of dress that serve to identify members of their communities, but regard these special dress features as customs of their communities, rather than as general religious requirements expected of all observant Jews.
Further cultural considerations include increasing use of modest dress as an act of female empowerment and self-actualization, not directly related to religious observance.
Jewish law governing tzniut requires married women to cover their hair; according to the Talmud, this is a biblical requirement, which in this context is called dat Moshe (the law of Moses). The most common hair coverings in the Haredi community are the sheitel (wig), the snood, and the mitpachat (Hebrew for "kerchief") or tichel (Yiddish), as well as hats and berets.
The practice of covering hair with wigs is debated among halakhic authorities. Many authorities, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, permitted it, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe actively encouraged it, while many other authorities, especially Sephardi rabbis, forbid it.
Modern Orthodox Jewish women usually use hats, berets, baseball caps, bandanas, or scarves tied in a number of ways to accomplish the goal, depending on how casually they are dressed. Some modern Orthodox women cover their hair with wigs. A style of half wig known as a "fall" has become increasingly common in some segments of Modern and Haredi Orthodox communities. It is worn with either a hat or a headband.
In Yemen, unmarried girls covered their hair also, like the Muslims there; however, upon Yemeni Jews' emigration to Israel and other places, this custom has been abandoned. While Rebbe Aharon Roth, founder of Shomer Emunim, praised this custom, no Ashkenazi community - including the most strict Haredi circles - has ever practiced such a custom.
Conservative and Reform Judaism do not generally require women to wear head coverings. Some more traditional Conservative synagogues may ask that married women cover their heads during services. However, some more liberal Conservative synagogues suggest that women, married or not, wear head-coverings similar to those worn by men (the kippah/yarmulke); and some require it (or require it only for women receiving honors or leading services from the bimah) - not for modesty, but as a feminist gesture of egalitarianism. Almost all Conservative synagogues require men to wear a head covering (usually a kippah), but in Reform synagogues, there is no requirement. However, kippot may be provided to anybody who wishes to wear them.
In Orthodox Judaism, men are generally not allowed to hear women sing, a prohibition called kol isha (literally "a woman's voice"). The Talmud classifies this as ervah (literally "nakedness"). The majority view of halakhic authorities is that this prohibition applies at all times, and forbids a man to pray or study Torah in the presence of a woman who is singing, similar to other prohibitions classified as ervah. A minority view holds that the prohibition of praying or studying in the presence of kol isha applies only while reciting the Shema Yisrael prayer.
There is a debate between poskim whether the prohibition applies to a recorded female voice, where the singer cannot be seen, where the woman is not known to the man who is listening, and where he has never seen her or a picture of her.
There are also opinions, following Samson Raphael Hirsch and Azriel Hildesheimer, that exclude singing in mixed groups from this prohibition, such as synagogue prayer or dinner-table zemirot, based on the idea that the female voice is not distinctly heard as separate from the group in these cases.
Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg and Rabbi David Bigman of Yeshivat Ma'ale Gilboa hold that the kol isha prohibition does not apply to women singing zemirot, songs to children, and lamentations for the dead, because in these contexts, men do not derive sexual pleasure from the woman's voice.
Conservative Judaism interprets the relevant passage of the Talmud as expressing a rabbi's opinion, rather than imposing a requirement.
Reform Judaism fundamentally rethought the status of women within Judaism in a series of synods from 1837 onward in both Europe and the United States, formally abolishing most distinctions between men and women in the observance of Jewish life, particularly concerning dress and public participation. It no longer regards this law as applicable to modern times.
In Orthodox Judaism, men and women who are not married and are not closely related are generally not allowed to touch each other sensually. A person who refrains from touching the opposite sex is said to be shomer negiah. Only touching in an affectionate manner ("b'derech chiba") is prohibited. Opinions are divided regarding a quick handshake in a business setting: some authorities (mainly of Modern Orthodox background) permit it, while other people (nearly all Haredim, and many other Orthodox Jews) prohibit it. The question is 'What is sensual?' One may, however, touch certain relatives (parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren) whom one is presumed not to be sexually attracted to. Whether or not children adopted at a young age are included in this prohibition is a matter of dispute and case-by-case decision. One may touch one's spouse, outside the niddah period, although many married couples will also not touch one another in public.
Conservative and Reform Judaism do not follow these laws.
In Orthodox Judaism, men and women who are not married to each other and are not immediate blood relatives are not allowed to enter into a secluded situation (yichud) in a room or in an area that is locked and private. This measure is taken to prevent the possibility of sexual relations, which is prohibited outside of marriage. According to some authorities, this applies even between adoptive parents and adoptive children over the age of maturity, while others are more lenient with children adopted from a young age. Seclusion does not consist of merely being in a room together alone; only if the situation is private, with no one else expected to enter, does the restriction apply. Originally, this prohibition applied only to married women secluded with men other than their husbands, but it was extended to include single women. According to the Talmud, this extension occurred in the time of King David, when his son Amnon raped Absalom's sister, Tamar. On the issue of elevators, opinions vary; some allow yichud in an elevator for a time of no more than 30 seconds, while others forbid it under all circumstances, partly due to the possibility of an elevator getting stuck. The Laws of the Yichud are complicated and detailed, and especially so for women in the modern context, promoting the suggestion to reread them as a nonspecific mandate for personal space at a time when society can generally acknowledge the darkest aspects of the human sexual psyche in today's social interactions.
Conservative and Reform Judaism do not regard these rules as applicable.
In Orthodox Judaism, men and women are not allowed to mingle during prayer services, and Orthodox synagogues generally include a divider, called a mechitza, creating separate men's and women's sections. This idea comes from the old Jewish practice during the times of the temple in Jerusalem when there was a women's balcony in the Ezrat Nashim to separate the male and female spectators at the special Sukkot celebrations. There is also a prophecy in Zechariah (Zechariah 12:12) that talks about men and women mourning separately. The Talmud took this account and inferred that if men and women should be separate in times of mourning, then they certainly should be separate in times of happiness.
Mechitzot are usually seen in Orthodox synagogues to separate the men and women. In Reform synagogues, they are never seen. The original German Reform synagogues had balconies, although in modified form. Although in the past, many Conservative synagogues had women's balconies or separate seating, most Conservative synagogues moved to "family seating" (mixed seating) in the 1960s. Today, the Conservative movement puts a strong emphasis on egalitarianism, so that men and women have equal roles in the prayer service. However, non-egalitarian services, separate seating, and the use of a mechitza are still considered valid options for Conservative congregations.
Orthodox Jews following the laws on negiah do not participate in mixed dancing, as this entails sensual touch and may also considered immodest in cases where there isn't any physical contact.
In 2013, the Rabbinical Court of the Ashkenazi Community in the Haredi city of Beitar Illit ruled against Zumba (a type of dance fitness) classes, although they were held with a female instructor and all-female participants. The Court said, in part: "Both in form and manner, the activity [Zumba] is entirely at odds with both the ways of the Torah and the holiness of Israel, as are the songs associated with it."
There are several levels to the observance of physical and personal modesty (tzniut) according to Orthodox Judaism, as derived from various sources in halakha. Observance of these rules varies from aspirational to mandatory to routine across the spectrum of Orthodox stricture and observance.
Traditional Judaism has long maintained that the onus of protection from inappropriate and damaging relations between men and women was on women; that the laws of tzniut landed heavier on them. [Yet] I have always taught that such an understanding is misleading, shortsighted, and wrong... Men are no less responsible - perhaps more so! - for all that tzniut is. We often associate it with women more because its practice is more obvious with women.