When Avraham’s servant Eliezer asked Rivka to bring him some water, he wasn’t only checking to see if she passed the test of kindness. The Torah commentary, the “Emek Davar” reveals that Eliezer wanted to discern if Rivka had the all-important attribute of modesty, needed to build the holy Nation of Israel. He wanted to see if she would bend down to gather the water from the spring in an uncouth manner, like all the other local woman, revealing her body, or if she would squat down modestly, without highlighting her form.
Since modesty is such an important foundation of our holy nation, vital to our spiritual and physical wellbeing, we are presenting an essay by the Gaon, Rabbi Daniel Frish, of blessed memory, from his book, “The Crown of Modesty.”
ALONG WITH THE BLESSING that G-d bestows on a man when He sends him a wife and children, comes the mitzvah and responsibility to teach his family the proper ways of behavior in all areas of life. Regarding the ways of modesty, the Rambam states: “Any husband who is not strict with his wife and children, warning them and making sure they always follow the proper path, and making certain that they are free of any sin or transgression, behold, he is a sinner (Rambam, Laws of Sotah, 19).
The Gemara states that women acquire great merit by waiting for their husbands to return from the halls of Torah study (Berachot 17A). One can ask, why is there such a great merit in this? The “Divrei Yoel” explains (Bereshit, Pg 33) that a woman has great merit when she waits for her husband to come home from his study in order to ask him all of the questions she has concerning the house, regarding the halachah and proper ways of conduct. When the husband comes home, he informs her of the laws of the Torah, and until she hears what the Torah has to say, she doesn’t do a thing based on her own private feelings or opinions. A wife like this is assured great reward in the World to Come and righteous children in this world.
Concerning how one’s family dresses, our holy books warn husbands to oversee that their wife and children dress in a modest fashion, avoiding all immodest styles. In his book, “Geder Olam,” the Chofetz Chaim, of blessed memory, dedicates a chapter concerning the great obligation upon every man to guard the modesty of his household. He writes:
“A man should not think, ‘Haven’t I already warned them already two or three times that they are obligated to walk in the paths of modesty, and they haven’t listened to me – what good will it do to speak again about these matters?’ Rather, a man should think to himself what he would do if his wife constantly spoiled the merchandise that he sold – would he also say to himself, ‘I’ve already told her two or three times not to ruin my merchandise, and she doesn’t listen - what more can I do?’ Surely, he would scold her in no uncertain terms, ‘What are you doing!! You are ruining our livelihood!!! Your foolishness will bring us to poverty!!’ Certainly, he would try to figure out every possible strategy to show her the mistakenness of her ways, sometimes with gentle persuasion, and sometimes with a stern tone of voice, until she would come to realize the lunacy of her actions.
“So too, regarding modesty. A husband must constantly reprimand his wife if she disregards the rules of modest behavior, warning her that it will come to no good, for her and the family. He must explain to her over and over if necessary until she agrees to act in a modest fashion.”
In order to explain the proper method of teaching and influencing one’s household, so that the husband’s words will be accepted, it is necessary to elaborate a bit.
First of all, a man must take the time to fully explain to one’s wife the great privilege and blessing of motherhood, along with its great reward, and how righteous Jewish women throughout the ages behaved in the paths of modesty, winning them, along with modest daughters who follow their example, the highest station in the World to Come, a Divine happiness in the Garden of Eden that all of the temporary delights of this world cannot come close to approaching. For, sooner than one thinks, a person is called to make an accounting before the Heavenly Court for all the deeds of his or her life, and a woman stands in judgment whether she lived her life according to the modest ways of a proper daughter of Israel. If so, she is escorted straight to Garden of Eden. But if, G-d forbid, the opposite were true, an evil angel takes her to Gehinom (hell), and there nothing can help her. Therefore, the time to do t’shuva (the mending of one’s ways) is now, and not when it’s too late. By explaining things in this manner patiently, without raising one’s hands in despair if one’s words don’t bear immediate fruits, with the grace of G-d, success will not be long in coming.
After the man of the house has succeeding in kindling the holy Jewish flame in the hearts of his wife and daughters, he then must teach them the practical laws of modesty, for example, the proper lengths of garments, and the prohibition against wearing tight-fitting clothes, and the like. In this manner, a man can be assured that he will raise his children and the generations that follow in the straight and blessed path.
Just as everyone understands that if one doesn’t learn the laws of Shabbat or Pesach, it is impossible to know what is allowed and what is forbidden, similarly, the laws of modesty must be learned. Many sorry mistakes could have been avoided if the man of the house had taught his family the proper ways of modesty before all sorts of modern fashions found their way into his home. Never take it for granted that your wife or daughters know the laws of modesty on their own. Many times, these matters are left unexplained in all of their detail and importance, therefore it is the duty of every new husband to teach these holy foundations to his wife at the very beginning of their marriage, and to the children at a very early age, as soon as they can understand.
It is certainly worthwhile for women to form groups, under the guidance of a Torah scholar, where they can discuss these matters and determine what fashions are acceptable and which are to be shunned. This is important, because not every husband is expert in these laws, and doesn’t always know what fashions are considered customs of the gentiles, which should be avoided, and thus, out of his ignorance, he comes to allow his wife and daughters to behave in an improper way, unwittingly allowing them to sin.
The obligation of safeguarding the ways of modesty also falls on rabbis, school principals, and teachers. Additionally, anyone who has an opportunity to influence the people in his surroundings, like an employer with his workers, or a person with his friends, he too has the obligation to do so.
It is told that, in his later years, when the Chofetz Chaim saw the breaches of immodesty that spread so widely in his generation, he said how very sorry he was that he hadn’t written a book about the laws of modesty and the terrible consequences of its neglect, as he had regarding the laws of proper speech in his books, “Shmirat HaLashon” and “Chofetz Chaim.”
The more we guard the laws of modesty, we will bring our redemption closer, as it is written, “The generations are not redeemed except for the righteous women of the time” (Yalkut, Ruth, Ch.4:606).
In order to stem the tide of the disintegrating standards of modesty and the promiscuity in our time, we must act with every alacrity, before the fire spreads through the religious world as well, as Rashi says (Vayikra, 25:35), “When the load on the donkey begins to fall, a man can return it to its place; but when it already fell on the ground, even five men working together have a difficult time to lift it.”
Therefore, the man of the house must take an active interest in the clothes that his wife and daughters purchase. In the all important matter of modesty, a person should follow the rule that every Jew is responsible for his fellow, and do whatever he or she can to influence others, schools, workplaces, festive celebrations, and the like. A person should not think that only the local rabbi is authorized to deal with these matters, and that a simple person from the ranks shouldn’t interfere with the spiritual doings of the community. This is what the Chofetz Chaim wrote about the obligation on every Jew to assist the community in every religious matter (“Chomat HaDat,” Ch.6:10-11):
“In times past, the local rabbi could deal alone with correcting whatever needed to be fixed. However, in our time, because of our many sins, the situation in many places is that the rabbi simply cannot deal on his own with all of the matters needing correction. Thus, the ordinary, G-d fearing householders are obligated to lend a hand in assisting the rabbis in every religious matter, following their counsel and guidance in all of their doings, and attributed their achievements in the rabbi’s name, and thereby they will succeed. Even if someone should try to shame them, saying they are ‘amateur rabbis,’ they should strive to be “like those who are offended without offending back in return (Yoma 23A), and they will merit great reward in the World to Come.”
In the matter of rebuking others, it is written in the Torah, “Thus you shall speak to the Beit Yaacov” (Shemot, 19:3) The outstanding Torah scholar, Rabbi Benyamin Rabinowitz, explained that these are the women of the congregation, who are to be addressed first regarding matters of modesty. The Gemara teaches (Shabbat 55A) that at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, the righteous Tzaddikim were also punished because they did not protest against the behavior of their generation. The Gemara states this to teach the lesson that it is an obligation to rebuke, to point out the mistakes of a person’s ways, and to explain, in a gentle voice, how the matter can be corrected.
There are people who claim that rebuking other is against their nature, and that it is very difficult for them, but we see in the case of the splitting of the Red Sea that Nachshon ben Amidav leaped into the water, and this is called sacrificing oneself against the natural ways of the world, and this is what led to the miracle of the sea’s dividing, which was also against the laws of nature, measure for measure. Similarly, when we take it upon ourselves to rebuke others in a gentle manner, we will also merit success in a manner against the normal laws of nature.
The Gemara states (Tamid 28A): As long as there are those who rebuke wrongdoers in the world, a spirit of pleasantness comes to the world, and evil flees from the world. It is said regarding those who rebuke others for the sake of Heaven, that they merit to enter the courtyard of the Holy One Blessed Be He. And upon those who take it upon themselves to rebuke and awaken others comes the blessing, “Blessed are those who establish the words of this Torah.”
In the merit of those who protest against immorality, and inspire others to stand firm against all breaches in the walls of modesty, we will merit to be quickly redeemed from the long exile, as is written, “The generations are not redeemed except for the righteous women of the time.”
For those readers who benefitted from this essay, another important essay for women by Rabbi Frish, about the dangers of wearing tight-fitting garments, is posted on the jewishsexuality.com website.