Discretion in appearance and speech is designed to protect our souls from assault by a coarse world.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage (Jonathan David).
Modesty is the foundation of Jewish values and is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the Jewish family. It is popularly thought to apply primarily to women, but it is a desirable quality in men as well. Although the term is generally used for relations between men and women, it is meant to apply to people in all situations.
Tz'ni'ut means modesty, simplicity, a touch of bashfulness, and reserve. But perhaps above these, it signifies privacy. It is the hallmark of Jewish marriage, and the rabbis refer to it as the specific quality to look for in the ideal mate.
The classical symbol of tz'ni'ut is the veil. It bespeaks privacy, a person apart; Isaiah (3:18) calls it tif'eret ("glory"). The Assyrians ruled that a harlot may not wear a veil, to imply that she is on public exhibit (Code of Hammurabi). The veil was instinctively donned by Rebecca as soon as she observed her future husband in the distance (Genesis 24:65). That is one reason why the ceremony immediately prior to the wedding celebration is the bedeken, or the veiling of the bride by the groom, who blesses the bride with the ancient words spoken to Rebecca.
The principle of tz'ni'ut rejects all nudity, not only in public, but also before family members at home. (Thus one must not pray or recite the Sh'ma prayer while one is naked or standing in the presence of a naked person.) The rejection of nudity recalls Adam and Eve who, after committing the first sin, realized they were naked and instinctively felt ashamed and hid (Genesis 2:25). The same attitude reappears when Noah curses Ham, who saw his father exposed (Genesis 9:21-27).
Tz'ni'ut also implies modesty in dress. Traditionally covered parts of the body should not be exposed, although one can dress stylishly. This attitude issues from a very highly refined sense of shame, an emotion often denigrated today in the name of freedom. Not only did the Bible prohibit removing all clothing, it did not permit wearing any garments belonging to the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5), as this might lead to unnatural lusts, lascivious thoughts, and a freer intermingling between the sexes.
Modesty is About More than What One Wears
Tz'ni'ut means discreet habits, quiet speech, and affections privately expressed, and infers the avoidance of grossness, boisterous laughter, raucous behavior, even "loud" ornaments. This is not merely a series of behavioral niceties, a sort of Bible's guide to etiquette, but a philosophy of life.
This concept of modesty does not imply a rejection of the body. On the contrary, the Jewish people are taught to respect the body. Hillel [an early rabbinic sage] did not bathe solely for hygienic reasons, but to care for the body--the most magnificent creation of God (Leviticus Rabba 34:3). Rabban Gamaliel [a second century sage], on seeing a beautiful person, praised God (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 9:1). One consequence of this concept is the emphasis on the need for marriage and on healthy sexual relations between husband and wife.