Swimsuit edition

Friday night, as I arrived at my local synagogue, I saw a notice “for the parents of young children” from our city’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Nagari (we have two here in Maaleh Adumim).

I girded myself for rebuke over noisy children, but no, it was about the apparently inappropriate dress of some preschoolers, urging congregants to maintain “the sacred value of tzeniut (modesty) of dress” for children they bring to services.

This was only one day after the news broke about Rabbi Elyakim Levanon’s natatorial dictates, just in time for summer. In case you’re wondering, fathers can bring their female toddlers to the pool, but swimsuits are OK only up to 36 months. After that, they must be fully dressed, and though they might be allowed in the water up to age 12,

Men feel uncomfortable swimming alongside young girls above the age of four or five, even though they are dressed with tzeniut.

Conclusion: once your toddler reaches 36 months, you can buy another 12 months by putting her in “modest dress,” but that’s it.

"Get thee hence, idle wench!" (from the Happily Domestic blog)
“Get thee hence, idle wench!” (from the Happily Domestic blog)

But it all got started on Memorial Day weekend with an interview with Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen on the Orthodox Union website, in which he is troubled by the fact that Orthodox Jewish girls “feel very warm about the mitzvah of taking challah and very cold about the mitzvah of tzenius.”

Let’s tackle these in reverse order. R. Kelemen speaks of “the mitzvah of tzenius”, or, as one might have spelled it, the mitzva of tzeniut. Actually, one should never use that phrase, because while there is indeed a “mitzvah of taking challah,” one of the famed 613, there is no mitzva of tzeniut. Sure, some count checking if locusts are kosher (Maimonides, Pos. 151) or settling the Land of Israel (Nachmanides, Pos. 4), but no one counts a mitzva of tzeniut. In fact, the root does not even appear in the Torah. We do find the root in the Prophets (Mic. 6:8) and Proverbs (11:2), but there it clearly is a synonym for humility, and R. Kelemen is not addressing the notion of enthusiastic humility.

But what of R. Levanon’s halakhic analysis? Perhaps we need to look at the Mishnaic sources? We find tzenuim five times in the Mishna and five in the Tosefta, and in each case it refers to those who go above and beyond the letter of the law. How, then, can one define halakhic parameters for a concept which is metahalakhic? In fact, R. Levanon himself says that fully dressed girls should be allowed to swim with men up to age 12, but because men feel uncomfortable with preschoolers too, that somehow changes the halakha. We should count ourselves lucky that these men are not attracted to 2-year-olds.

Cover your knees, putana!
Cover your knees, putana! And what’s that monkey wearing, anyway?

That brings us back to our original pashkevil. R. Nagari does not call tzeniut a mitzva or halakha, but rather speaks of “the sacred value of tzeniut of dress.” That phrasing undermines his point, because the term “tzeniut of dress” appears nowhere in pre-modern halakhic sources. Certainly, tzeniut is a sacred value, but it is not solely or mostly limited to dress. Most of the times it appears in the Talmud, it refers, to put it delicately, to covering one’s hindquarters, especially in the bathroom (Berakhot 62b; Shabbat 113b; Eruvin 2b, 100b). On one occasion, we find it in the moral context (Megilla 13b):

In reward for the tzeniut displayed by Rachel, she was granted to number among her descendants Saul; and in reward for the tzeniut displayed by Saul, he was granted to number among his descendants Esther. What was the tzeniut displayed by Rachel… She said: “I have a sister older than I am, and [our father] will not let me marry before her.” So [Jacob] gave her signs. When night came, she said to herself, “Now my sister will be put to shame.” So she handed over the signs to [Leah]. So it is written, “And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah”–are we to infer from this that up to now she was not Leah? What it means is that on account of the signs which Rachel gave to Leah, he did not know until then. Therefore she was rewarded by having Saul among her descendants. What tzeniut did Saul display? As it is written, “But concerning the matter of the kingship, of which Samuel spoke, he told him nothing.” He was therefore rewarded by having Esther among his descendants.

Tzeniut is modesty, but it is also compassion, humility and conscientiousness. The best translation would probably be “decency.” It is not quantifiable or judicable; it is a matter of character, morality which cannot be codified. I leave it to the reader to judge who, in these case, is being indecent.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.