Tzniut arms and legs- What are the sources for covering elbows and knees? - Matan - The Sadie Rennert

Tzniut arms and legs- What are the sources for covering elbows and knees? Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Shevat 5782 | January 2022

Topic : Tzniut .

She'ela

Hi. Please could you help.
My daughter wants to know the source for covering her elbows and knees and where is the source for the length of a skirt or top. Thank you

Teshuva

If there was a straightforward answer to your question I would point you to a verse in the Torah, a page in the gemara, or a paragraph in Shulchan Aruch – perhaps all three – and that would be that. But in this case, it is not so simple; not only are there are no clear-cut early sources, but this is also a loaded topic – one that can often lead to tension in the household, or between a woman and religious tradition.

So, before I answer your question I will preface it with certain remarks. Then I will do my best to provide you with central sources on the subject. I am also happy to answer any follow up questions.

Preface:

As mentioned above, there are few clear sources in the Talmud and Rishonim that describe halacha of woman’s dress. In my humble opinion, there are both philosophical and societal reasons for the scarcity. Laws of personal modesty are heavily related to societal norms of dress and are therefore subject to some change depending on time and place. Conversely, when societal norms are modest there is no need to discuss these norms. When Talmudic sources talk about “tzniut,” our modern word for modesty, they are not discussing hemlines; the word generally refers to modest behavior that applies to both men and women – behaviors that minimize the physical to accentuate the spiritual.

This idea often gets lost as modern rabbinic authorities try to combat Western culture’s crude emphasis and objectification of the physical body – and specifically women’s bodies. While the intention is worthy, the tools are questionable. All too often the focus is on hemlines and fabric cuts, imposing strict rules for women’s dress, frequently without explanation or clear halachic tradition. And while halachic discussions commonly detail size and length and boundaries – the minimum size of sukka, the precise volume of wine, the exact height of an eruv marker – it can feel uncomfortable when these halachic terms are applied to a woman’s body.

Unfortunately, instead of encouraging modest dress these discussions may come off as outdated and anti-feminist, ultimately another form of objectifying women’s bodies. It certainly doesn’t help that there are a plethora of books and articles dictating women’s dress and almost none that focus on that of men.[i] In my time as an educator for young women I have found that emphasizing these aspects of halacha is often done at the expense of other halachot and Jewish values that are easier for modern young adults to connect to, and arguably more central to Torah observance. Focusing on the aspects of halacha that are more foreign may can unfortunately alienate young women from their religious tradition. Similarly, they can drive a wedge between parents and children.

Therefore, this is a subject that must be broached delicately.

It is also important to note that the few laws in the Talmud that apply do not clearly state what a woman MUST keep covered, but rather what a man MAY NOT look at at certain times, or what modest women traditionally cover.

With these notes I will give you some sources and explain what we can learn from them:

“Erva” Nakedness, “Shok” The leg:

Early sources: The prophet Yishaya uses a metaphor that makes a parallel between the “shok”, the leg (upper or lower is unclear) and “erva” – nakedness.[ii]

The main Talmudic source that discusses “erva” – nakedness – is in Brachot 24a. Rav Yitzchak states that even 1 tefach (the size of a handbreath) of a woman’s skin is erva. Rav Sheshet counters that a woman’s body is not problematic, the male gaze is. Therefore, the gemara qualifies Rav Yitzchak’s opinion and limits the title of “erva” to the time a man is reciting kriyat shema. The gemara continues by bringing the verse from Yishayahu above, and rules that a woman’s leg is “erva.”

So is the problem a woman’s body or a man’s gaze, specifically when he is saying shema? Is a woman required to cover her body or is a man required to avert his gaze?

Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 75:1 rules that a man may not say Shema while he can see a tefach of his wife’s body that is normally covered. Once again the problem seems to be the male gaze, and the rabbis did not mandate which parts of her body a woman should keep covered. Again, it’s possible that this omission is due to social norms where it was inconceivable that a woman would walk out in public without most of her body covered.

Mishna Berura (ibid) also does not dictate strict laws to what a woman must cover, nevertheless he calls women who uncover their upper leg in public, from the knee above, “prutzot,” which has a similar meaning to “morally loose.” Chazon Ish explains that “shok” should probably refer to the entire leg, since it should be obvious the thigh is a sensual place. Nevertheless, as Mishna Berura defines shok as the thigh he allows for societal norms to dictate if only the thigh should be covered, or the entire leg. As to the knee itself, one of the more lenient opinions can be found in Pri Megadim (ibid) who rules that the shok begins above the knee, so if this is the societal norm the knee does not need to be covered.

“Z’roa” The arm:

Laws concerning the arm are even more difficult to conclusively decide – I have included several sources, beginning with the gemara in Ketubot 72b – which states a husband may divorce his wife without paying her ketuba if she spins thread in the shuk. The interpretation is that this would show parts of her arm that are normally covered.

What parts of the arm should be covered? Rav Yehudah Henkin offers an excellent summary of the different sources, which I have attached. He explains that there is a definite halachic problem with showing the armpit, as it is a part of the torso it should be covered – so sleeveless and cap sleeves are off limits. The rest of the arm is a combination of communal norms and how one reads the sources. While most halachic sources mention covering up to or below the elbow (most of the whole arm), one could argue the halachic legitimacy of covering midway between the shoulder and elbow (most of the upper arm), a tefach above the elbow (the entire upper arm minus a tefach).

Conclusion:

Halachic summary:

There is a common thread running from Gemara through Acharonim such as Mishna Berura, Chazon Ish, and contemporary authorities such as Rav Henkin – all sources are clear certain parts of the body should be covered in public, but the exact demarcations are blurry and depend on societal norms and the specific situation. As you asked for sources, I have attached sources, but I will also speak to halachic consensus and guidelines.

The area from the torso (including the armpit) to the thighs should be covered in public. Rav Henkin explains that as these areas are adjacent to makom erva, the private parts of the body, there is an obligation to cover them. From the knee down depends on communal norms, as Mishna Berura and Pri Megadim explain. Additionally, the entire arm should not be exposed. Mainstream sources speak of covering the elbow or up to a tefach above the elbow.

There are more lenient ways of reading the sources, that permit sleeves that cover only part or half of the upper arm, or allow for a tefach above the knee – since the knee itself is allowed by Pri Megadim and, as we explained above, the term erva can be limited to when an entire tefach is showing. These are not mainstream halachic opinions. They do, however, reflect norms in certain Orthodox communities.

Conclusion:

In my humble opinion, while it is both halachically preferable and “more modest” to dress in accordance with the mainstream halachic opinions, there are times when it is important to legitimize these more lenient readings. We live in a society that judges books by covers, women by how they dress, and general halachic observance by hemlines. Girls and women are rejected from Orthodox schools and communities because of the way they dress and not the content of their character. When women and girls receive the message that they are rejected from Orthodox communities and institutions because of something they deem as “superficial” it may cause them to question the priorities of Orthodox Judaism and seek spiritual fulfillment elsewhere. Is this the “litmus test” we want for halacha observance? I wonder if these women were to “start small” and try to abide by the more lenient opinions they may find a way to incorporate this aspect of halacha into their lives.

Nowadays western culture has lost all sense of proportion as to what body parts and actions should be kept private. I can’t imagine there has ever been a time when women’s bodies, and bodies in general, were more objectified.

Yet while these laws and norms may seem more important than ever to some, they are also one of the greatest sources of tension with the greater society and culture that surrounds us. Cultures that police women’s dress are seen as backward, oppressive, and often abusive. And many of them are. When we learn these traditions and impart them to the next generation it is important that we find the beauty and value within them. It is vital to remember that these laws do not have to be the minimum that one must observe to be part of the halacha observant community; instead they can be something to strive for as we grown in Torah and try to fulfill what the prophet Micha tells us what is good and what God demands, “Do justice, love kindness, and (hatzne’a lechet) walk modestly with your God.” In the end everyone must decide for themselves how best to continue the Jewish laws and traditions of modesty, how to present themselves in this world in a way they feel comfortable and preserves their dignity.

Sources:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף כד ע”א

א”ר יצחק: טפח באשה ערוה.

למאי?

אילימא לאסתכולי בה- והא א”ר ששת: למה מנה הכתוב תכשיטין שבחוץ עם תכשיטין שבפנים? לומר לך כל המסתכל באצבע קטנה של אשה כאילו מסתכל במקום התורף.

אלא באשתו ולק”ש.

אמר רב חסדא: שוק באשה ערוה שנאמר (ישעיה מז) ‘גלי שוק עברי נהרות’ וכתיב (שם) ‘תגל ערותך וגם תראה חרפתך’.

Rav Yitzchak said: “An [uncovered] tefach (handbreath) in a woman is ervah (nakedness).”

Regarding what [did Rav Yitzchak say this]?

If it was in regard to looking [at women], did not Rav Sheshet say: “Anyone who gazes at a woman’s little finger is as if he gazes at her private parts”?

Rather [Rav Yitzchak] said it in regards to one’s own wife, and reading the Shema.

Rav Chisda said: “A woman’s leg [shok] is ervah, as it is written (Isaiah 47:2), ‘Reveal your leg [shok], pass over rivers,’ and it is also written (v. 3) ‘Your ervah will be uncovered and your shame will also be revealed.”

רש”י שם

גלי שוק. וכתיב בתריה ‘תגל ערותך’:

Reveal your leg: And afterward it is written ‘your ervah will be uncovered’ (meaning the verse equates the leg with ervah).

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים סימן עה סעיף א

טפח מגולה באשה במקום שדרכה לכסותו, אפילו היא אשתו, אסור לקרוא קריאת שמע כנגדה.

In the presence of a woman exposing a tefach that she normally keeps covered, even in one’s own wife, one may not recite the Shema.

משנה ברורה סימן עה

(א) לכסותו – אבל פניה וידיה כפי המנהג שדרך להיות מגולה באותו מקום בפרסות רגל עד השוק [והוא עד המקום שנקרא קניא בל”א] במקום שדרכן לילך יחף מותר לקרות כנגדו שכיון שרגיל בהן אינו בא לידי הרהור ובמקום שדרכן לכסות שיעורן טפח כמו שאר גוף האשה אבל זרועותיה ושוקה אפילו רגילין לילך מגולה כדרך הפרוצות אסור:

That she normally keeps covered: but her hands and face are according to the custom, for they are normally uncovered in that place.  From her feet to the shok [which is until the place that is called knee] where it is their practice to walk barefoot one may read Shema before it, because he is accustomed to them and it will not bring him to hirhur [improper thoughts].  And in a place where it is the custom that these are covered then their measure is a tefach, as in the rest of a woman’s body.  But it is prohibited (to read the Shema when) her arms and shok [thigh] (are uncovered), even if they regularly go uncovered as the prutzot.

משנה ברורה סימן עה

(ז) פחות מטפח – ואם השוק מגולה י”א דאפילו באשתו ופחות מטפח אסור לקרות נגדה שהוא מקום הרהור יותר משאר איברים. וכ”ז לא איירי אלא לענין איסור ק”ש דהאיסור הוא להרבה פוסקים לקרות נגד המגולה אפילו בלא מכוין לאיסתכולי אבל לענין איסור הסתכלות לכו”ע המסתכל באשה אפילו באצבע קטנה כיון שמסתכל בה להנות עובר בלאו דלא תתורו אחרי עיניכם.

Less than a tefach- If the leg is uncovered some say that even when it is his wife and it is less than a tefach one may not read the Shema in front of it because it is a place of greater hirhur, more so than other body parts.  And all this only refers to the prohibition of reading the Shema, because many poskim prohibit reading the Shema before an uncovered (thigh) even when he does not intend to look at it.  But as for the prohibition of looking (at it) everyone agrees that anyone who looks at a woman, even at a little finger, if he is looking to enjoy himself he transgresses the negative commandment of ‘do not be seduced by your eyes’.

פרי מגדים או”ח ע”ה, משבצות זהב אות א ומשנה ברורה אות ב

שוק היא מארכובה, נמצא כל כף הרגל עד “הקניא” (הברך) אין חשש, במקום שהולכים מגולה.

The shok extends from the knee upward, hence below the knee poses no problem wherever women customarily leave it exposed.

חזון איש או”ח סימן טז אות ח

שוק נראה שהיא פרק התחתון מארכובה עד כף העקב, אבל מן הארכובה למעלה לא היה צורך להשמיע. הרי כתב הראב”ד שבאיש דרכו להיות מגולה, וזה אינו אלא פרק התחתון.  שוק המוזכר באדם היינו פרק התחתון, וכל טפח מגולה אסור.  אולם משנה ברורה הקל בפרק התחתון… וכן נראה שאם באנו לאסור גם פרק הקנה, אם כן אף מקצתו אסור וכן במקום שהולכות יחפות, ודאי מגלה קצת פרק התחתון, ומזה היה נראה ששוק המוזכר כאן, היינו שוק שאצל הירך ולפי זה לא היה מתבאר בגמרא דין פרק התחתון ותלוי במנהג, כמו שכתב הפרי מגדים. וקשה להכריע בדבר.

גם יש לעיין ביד, אם פרק התחתון שבין הזרוע והכף בכלל האיסור, ואם מועיל בו מנהג.

Shok, at least in reference to human beings, might connote from the knee down, above the knee being obviously forbidden.  After all, Ra’avad wrote that men normally expose the shok, and this is only true of the leg below the knee.  Hence even a single exposed tefach below the knee would be forbidden.

At the same time the Mishnah Berurah was lenient regarding below the knee… and this seems correct, too.  If we forbade below the knee, it would apply even to the foot.  Yet, in some places women customarily go barefoot, and some part of their foot surely remains exposed.

Hence the shok of Berachot 24a must connote the thigh.  The Talmud would then not be dealing with below the knee, and its laws would hinge upon custom, as Pri Megadim wrote.  It is difficult to rule conclusively.

We should also investigate whether the prohibition covers below the elbow, or if local custom serves to make it permissible.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף עב ע”ב

וטווה בשוק: אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל במראה זרועותיה לבני אדם. רב חסדא אמר אבימי בטווה ורד כנגד פניה:

She spins in the market:

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: The case is, she reveals her arms to men.

Rav Chisda said: She spins with a thread dangling by her lower ‘face’.

תוספות מנחות דף לז ע”א

ואור”ת דהוא גובה הבשר שבזרוע שבין בית השחי למרפק שקורין קודא (ואור”ת) לא כדברי המפרשים גובה בשר שבאותו עצם שבין היד למרפק

Rabbeinu Tam said this is the length of the flesh from the arm (zro’a) between the armpit and the elbow, not like those who explain that it is the length of flesh on the bone from the hand to the elbow.

משנה ברורה סימן עה

א לכסותו – אבל פניה וידיה כפי המנהג שדרך להיות מגולה באותו מקום בפרסות רגל עד השוק [והוא עד המקום שנקרא קניא בל”א] במקום שדרכן לילך יחף מותר לקרות כנגדו שכיון שרגיל בהן אינו בא לידי הרהור ובמקום שדרכן לכסות שיעורן טפח כמו שאר גוף האשה אבל זרועותיה ושוקה אפילו רגילין לילך מגולה כדרך הפרוצות אסור:

That she normally keeps covered: but her hands and face are according to the custom, for they are normally uncovered in that place.  From her feet to the shok [which is until the place that is called knee] where it is their practice to walk barefoot one may read Shema before it, because he is accustomed to them and it will not bring him to hirhur [improper thoughts].  And in a place where it is the custom that these are covered then their measure is a tefach, as in the rest of a woman’s body.  But it is prohibited (to read the Shema when) her arms and shok [thigh] (are uncovered), even if they regularly go uncovered as the prutzot.

ספר רוקח הלכות תפילה פרק שכד

ושער בין של אשתו בין של אשה אחרת או שוקה או טפח בבשר או בזרועותיה מגולות אסור.

Hair, whether of his wife or another woman, or her shok, or a tefach of her skin, or when her [upper] arms are uncovered- he is forbidden [to recite Shema or pray facing her].

Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community, Understanding Tzniut, Rav Yehudah Henkin, pg, 23

            Acharonim derived from this (the Rokeach) that zeroa has the same halakhic status as shok.  I am surprised at this, for close examination of the Rokeach yields a different conclusion.  Note that he changed the order of the Gemara and begins with hair and shok, followed by tefach, rather than listing tefach first; the implication is that tefach, mentioned only afterwards, does not apply either to shok or hair.  But he also did not write ‘a tefach of her skin or her upper arms’, but rather ‘a tefach of her skin or when her upper arms are uncovered’.  We are constrained to interpret this as being le-kula, as referring to uncovering most of the limb, for if more than fifty percent of the upper arm is covered it certainly cannot be considered “uncovered.”

Zero’otha megulot is the same regarding keriat shema as it is regarding dat Yehudit, the binding customs of modest Jewish women.  Thus in Ketubbot 72b, “R. Yehuda said that Shmuel said, ‘[dat Yehudit is violated] if she displays her upper arms to people.'”  And in Gittin 90a:

This is characteristic of a bad person: He sees his wife going out with uncovered head, and she knits in the market place and [her dress is] open (ופרומה) on both sides… [and he does not remonstrate with her].

תלמוד בבלי מסכת גיטין דף צ ע”א-ע”ב

זו היא מדת אדם רע שרואה את אשתו יוצאה וראשה פרוע וטווה בשוק ופרומה משני צדדיה … זו מצוה מן התורה לגרשה שנאמר (דברים כד) כי מצא בה ערות וגו’ ושלחה מביתו

This is characteristic of a bad person: He sees his wife going out with uncovered head, and she knits in the market place and [her dress is] open (ופרומה) on both sides…[and he does not remonstrate with her].

There is a Torah commandment to divorce her as it says ‘he found a thing of ervah in her… and he sent her from his home…’

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת גיטין פרק ט הלכה יא

והא תני ב”ש אומרים אין לי אלא היוצא משום ערוה בלבד.  ומניין היוצאה וראשה פרוע צדדיה פרומין וזרועותיה חלוצות?  תלמוד לומר כי מצא בה ערות דבר.

Beit Shammai taught she can only be divorced for reasons of ervah.  From where do we learn that one who goes out and her head is uncovered and her dress is open and her arms are revealed (may be divorced)?  The Torah says ‘He found a thing of ervah in her’.

קרבן העידה ירושלמי גיטין פרק ט הלכה יא

מ’בגדיה קרועין’ אע״פ שאין בשרה נראית, אי נמי בשבשרה נראית איירי וזרועותיה בעינן שיהו חלוצות לגמרי אבל אם זרועות בגדיה קרועות אע״פ שבשר זרועותיה נראה אין זה פריצות:

This refers to when her flesh is visible, and her upper arms have to be completely exposed.  But if her sleeves are merely torn, although the flesh of her upper arms is visible, this is not immodest (פריצות).

Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community, Understanding Tzniut, Rav Yehudah Henkin, pg, 24

It thus emerges from Rashi, Yerushalmi and Korban ha-Edah that pritzut exposure of the upper arms comes not from the arms themselves but from the body being visible via the arms. (Note: … This makes perfect sense, for why should the faraway upper arms have the same stringency as thighs that are adjacent to actual ervah?)

A typology can be established, according to this, as follows:

Sleeveless dresses- forbidden by all opinions, as the body can be seen.
short sleeves, loose- forbidden if the body can be seen.
short sleeves, tight- body cannot be seen, but prohibited if most of the upper arm is uncovered (rubo k’kulo).
sleeves halfaway to elbow- proscribed because of tefach meguleh; room for limmud zechut.
sleeves within a tefachof the elbow- minimum permitted.
sleeves to the elbow- recommended.
sleeves to below elbow- first level chumra.
sleeves to wrist- second level chumra.

The above does not supplant any communal or familial minhag.

Footnotes

[i] I think one way to avoid many of these problems is for Modern/Centrist Orthodox leaders, schools, and communities to come up with a non-gendered dress code – everyone can and should cover certain portions of arms, legs, and torsos. Modesty is a communal issue, not just a women’s issue.

[ii] ישעיהו פרק מז

ב קְחִי רֵחַיִם, וְטַחֲנִי קָמַח; גַּלִּי צַמָּתֵךְ חֶשְׂפִּי-שֹׁבֶל גַּלִּי-שׁוֹק, עִבְרִי נְהָרוֹת.  ג תִּגָּל, עֶרְוָתֵךְ–גַּם תֵּרָאֶה, חֶרְפָּתֵךְ…

Take millstones and grind flour; reveal your plait, expose [your] hem, reveal [your] shok, cross rivers.  Your ervah will be revealed and your disgrace will be visible…

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.

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