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Laws of Religion

Laws of Judaism Concerning Women and Men

 

11. Modesty

 

from the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

and the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

 

Modesty

From the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

 

The Torah explains that when the first man and the first women were created, they were naked but were not ashamed.[1] But after the woman and the man ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden them to eat[2], they became ashamed of their nakedness and sewed loincloths for themselves out of fig leaves.[3] Then God made clothing out of skins for the two of them.[4]

 

When a priest enters the Tent of Meeting or comes near the altar (later in the Temple in Jerusalem), he must wear a linen undergarment that covers his nakedness from his hips to his thighs. If his genitals are not so covered, he will die because of his guilt.[5]

 

In one story in the Torah, when Rebekah saw Isaac coming toward her and her maids, she put on a veil and modestly covered herself.[6] In another story, Tamar put on a veil and covered her face and, as a result, Judah thought she was a prostitute.[7]

 

A woman shall not wear men’s clothing and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment. This is an abomination to the Lord.[8]

 

 

Modesty

Jewish Law (Halakha) from the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

(Editor’s note: This page discusses the general topic of modesty. The specific topic of modesty while praying is covered in the section of this website on Ritual Purity.)

 

Contents:

 

Modesty of women

 

Modesty of men

 

Modesty of both women and men

 

 

Modesty of women. A Jewish woman should not walk in the marketplace with her hair uncovered.[9] A wife who goes outside without covering her hair has violated the Laws of Moses and, as a result, forfeits the amount of her ketubah.[10]

 

In some places, such as Europe, it is now (i.e., in the time of Maimonides) the custom of Jewish women to walk about in the marketplace with their faces uncovered. In other places the custom is that Jewish women do not go out in the street or the marketplace at all, or they cover their faces with a veil when they do go out. [11]

 

In places where it is customary for a woman when outside her home not to just wear a cap on her head but to have her whole body covered by a veil that is like a cloak, her husband must provide such a garment for her.[12]

 

 

A woman should not be confined to her home at all times; she should be able to visit her father's house, a house of mourning or a wedding celebration. A husband should prevent his wife from going out of the house more than once or twice a month, as the need arises.[13]

 

A man who prevents his wife from visiting a house of mourning or a wedding celebration has, in effect, locked her in a prison; he must divorce her and pay the amount specified in her ketubah. If he justifies his behavior by saying that there are indecent people at the house of mourning or the wedding and there are such people there, then he is permitted to prevent his wife from attending.[14]

 

A man may prevent his wife from visiting her father, but if he does this for too long (more than one month if the father lives in the same city), then he must divorce her and pay the amount in her ketubah.[15]

 

 

It is a religious commandment for a man to divorce his wife if she has bad character and does not maintain the modest behavior of a virtuous Jewish woman.[16] A woman is to be divorced without receiving any of the amount of her ketubah for violating practices of Judaism concerning female modesty. These violations are: going out in a public street or alley without wearing a veil like all other women, even if her hair is covered by a kerchief; spinning yarn in the market with her arms showing or with a rose or similar ornament on her face like promiscuous heathen women; flirting with young men; and asking for sex from her husband so loudly that neighbors hear her talking about sex; and cursing her father-in-law in front of her husband.[17] This applies only when there are witnesses to her behavior and she was warned by her husband in advance.[18] However, in such cases of a wife violating the Laws of Moses or the practices of Judaism, her husband is not required to divorce her if he chooses not to. Even when he does not divorce her for these actions, she forfeits the full amount of her ketubah.[19]

 

A woman should not ask her husband to have sexual intercourse with her or speak about it. She should always be discreet and not behave in a frivolous or jesting manner in her husband's presence. Also, she should take care when around her husband's family or household members never to act in such a way as to arouse his jealousy.[20]

 

It is forbidden for any woman other than a man's wife to perform personal services for him: washing his face, hands or feet; arranging his bed in his presence; pouring his drink.[21]

 

A widow should not have a dog because it will cause people to suspect that she is having sexual intercourse with the animal.[22] A woman should not acquire a male slave, even a minor, because of suspicion that she will have sexual intercourse with him.[23] Maimonides gives his personal opinion that this applies only to male slaves nine years old or older.[24] (Sexual intercourse with a male less than nine years old does not count as sexual intercourse.[25])

 

 

Modesty of men. A man should avoid levity, intoxication and sexually suggestive conversation because these are likely to lead to forbidden sexual intercourse. A man should not live without a wife because marriage leads to great purity. The Sages said that a man should always be focused on the Torah and increasing his knowledge in wisdom because thoughts of forbidden sexual relations occur only in a heart that is lacking in wisdom.[26]

 

A man who derives lustful pleasure from physical contact with a female relative who is forbidden to him by the Torah (Leviticus 18) is subject to a flogging, even though sexual intercourse did not occur but only hugging or kissing.[27] It is forbidden for a man to act frivolously with such a forbidden woman such as winking or making suggestive motions with his hands or legs. He may not smell her perfume or gaze at her beauty. Such actions make him liable to flogging for disobedience. He is forbidden from hearing her sing or looking at her hair. If he looks at even just her little finger for the purpose of deriving pleasure from it, it is as serious a transgression as if he had looked at her genitals.[28] When a man transgresses by gazing at a woman who is forbidden to him, he is unlikely to repent because he will generally consider it to be of no consequence though, in fact, it is a great sin because it can lead to forbidden sexual intercourse.[29] 

 

A man is forbidden to look at a woman while she is washing clothes. He is also forbidden to look at the brightly colored garments of a woman whom he knows, for this may result in unchaste sexual thoughts coming into his mind.[30] A man must not walk behind a woman he sees in the street, but must catch up with her and walk beside her or in front of her. He must stay at least four cubits away from the door of a harlot.[31] Unless it is his job to breed animals, a man is not to look at animals copulating.[32]

 

It is, however, completely appropriate for a man to look at an unmarried woman to judge if she is attractive to him so that he might marry her.[33] Also, a man may gaze at his wife when she is forbidden to him because of her menstrual period. But he should not joke or act frivolously with her, lest this lead to forbidden contact.[34]

 

A man is not to inquire about a woman's well-being, even if the inquiry is made through an intermediary messenger.[35]

 

Only married men should teach young children. If an unmarried man is a teacher, the mothers of his students will come to the school for their children and he may be aroused by them. Similarly, if a woman is teaching, the fathers of her students will come and she may find herself alone with one of them.[36]

 

To guard against unseemly sexual thoughts, a man should not go to a bathhouse with his father, his sister's husband, his student[37] or his father-in-law.[38] In some locations, custom also prevents two brothers from going to the bathhouse together.[39]

 

A married man is permitted to hold his penis with his hand when urinating. An unmarried man is forbidden from touching his genitals at any time, including while urinating, since this may lead to sexual thoughts; for the same reason he should never even put his hand below his navel.[40]

 

A man is forbidden from causing himself to have an erection or to intentionally have sexual thoughts. If his thoughts do turn to sex, he is to focus his attention on the Torah instead. He is not to sleep on his back, facing upward, since his penis may become erect as a result.[41] A man who intentionally causes himself to have an erection is to be placed under a ban of ostracism.[42]

 

Releasing sperm wastefully is forbidden. Therefore, a man who uses his hand to cause ejaculation of semen has committed a great transgression and is to be placed under a ban of ostracism from the community of Jews; such masturbation is as serious as killing a person.[43]

 

 

Modesty of both women and men. If a man makes a vow that requires his wife to repeat to others any of the joking and frivolous things that he and his wife have said to each other concerning their acts of sexual intercourse, then he is required to divorce her and pay the amount of her ketubah. This is because it is not acceptable for a woman to speak so brazenly to others about such lascivious matters.[44]

 

During festivals, the Jewish court is to appoint officers to make sure that men and women do not gather together in gardens, orchards or river banks eating and drinking, which can result in immoral activities. These officers are also to warn men and women not to gather together in homes when celebrating, and not to drink too much wine, since immoral behavior can result.[45]

________________

 

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Abbreviations used in footnotes:

Gen: The Biblical book of Genesis.

Exod: The Biblical book of Exodus.

Lev: The Biblical book of Leviticus.

Num: The Biblical Book of Numbers.

Deut: The Biblical Book of Deuteronomy.

 

MT:  The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Code of Maimonides). The names of the specific books and treatises within each book are given according to the Yale University Press translation and also the Moznaim/Touger Hebrew transliterations to facilitate locating the texts posted here.

F:  indicates page numbers in the Feldheim Publishers, Ltd., translation of Book 1 of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the Book of Knowledge.

M:  indicates page numbers in the relevant volume of the Moznaim Publishing Corporation’s Touger translation. (Some of the books of Mishneh Torah are published in several volumes by Moznaim, so the Moznaim volume numbers do not correspond to the Book numbers of Maimonides’ work.)

Y:  indicates page numbers in the translation of the Yale University Press Judaica Series.

 

●  The sources cited are described on the page Source Texts Used for Laws of Judaism.

 



[1] Gen 2:25

[2] Gen 2:16-17

[3] Gen 3:6-7

[4] Gen 3:21

[5] Ex 28:42-43

[6] Gen 24:65

[7] Gen 38:13-15

[8] Deut 22:5

[9] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 17 (pages 262M 137Y)

[10] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 24, sec 11 (pages 314M 153-154Y)

[11] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 25, sec 2 (pages 324-326M 158-159Y)

[12] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 13, sec 11 (pages 162-164M 83Y)

[13] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 13, sec 11 (pages 162-164M 83Y)

[14] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 13, sec 13 (pages 164M 84Y)

[15] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 13, sec 12 (pages 164M 84Y)

[16] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 2 on Divorce, Gerushin; Chapter 10, sec 22 (pages 188M 238Y)

[17] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 24, sec 12 (pages 314-316M 154Y)

[18] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 24, sec 14 (pages 316M 154-155Y)

[19] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 24, sec 16 (pages 318M 155Y)

[20] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 15, sec 18 (pages 194-196M 97-98Y)

[21] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 5 (pages 256M 134Y)

[22] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 22, sec 16 (pages 276M 144Y)

[23] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 22, sec 16 (pages 276M 144Y)

[24] MT Book 12, The Book of Acquisition, Sefer Kinyan; Treatise 5 on Slaves, Avadim; Chapter 9, sec 6 (pages 722-724M 280-281Y)

[25] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 11, sec 3 (pages 132M 68Y)

[26] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 22, sec 21 (pages 278M 145-146Y)

[27] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 1 (pages 254M 133Y)

[28] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 2 (pages 254-256M 133Y)

[29] MT Book 1, The Book of Knowledge, Sefer Madda; Treatise 5 Repentance, Teshuva, Chapter 4, sec 4, (pages 86a-86bF 106-110M)

[30] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 21 (pages 264M 138Y)

[31] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 22 (pages 264M 138Y)

[32] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 20 (pages 264M 138Y)

[33] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 3 (pages 256M 133-134Y)

[34] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 4 (pages 256M 134Y)

[35] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 5 (pages 256M 134Y)

[36] MT Book 1, The Book of Knowledge, Sefer Madda; Treatise 3 Talmud Torah Study of the Torah, Chapter 2, sec 4 (pages 58bF 182M). MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 22, sec 13 (pages 274M 143-144Y)

[37] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 16 (pages 262M 137Y)

[38] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 15 (pages 262M 137Y)

[39] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 16 (pages 262M 137Y)

[40] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 23 (pages 264M 138Y)

[41] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 19 (pages 264M 137-138Y)

[42] MT Book 1, The Book of Knowledge, Sefer Madda; Treatise 3 Talmud Torah Study of the Torah, Chapter 6, sec 14 (pages 64aF 268-272M)

[43] MT Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 1 on Forbidden Intercourse, Issurei Bi'ah; Chapter 21, sec 18 (pages 262-264M 137Y)

[44] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 14, sec 5 (pages 172M 88Y)

[45] MT Book 3, The Book of Seasons, Sefer Zemanim, Treatise 4 on Repose on a Festival, Shabbat, Chapter 6, sec 21 (pages 268-270M 304Y)