Colloquially, tznius is associated with sexual restraint and more specifically dress. When pressed, however, most people will admit tznius goes deeper than that. Tznius is, admittedly, something that should affect the character of the person beneath the physical limitations established; it should keep people from showing off where, and in front of whom, it is inappropriate to do so. While this attributes to tznius jurisdiction over more than just specific activities, it does not extend greatly the number of activities associated with tznius. This approach expands the reach of tznius by applying an already set definition of tznious to different levels of existence. But it is possible to extend the range of physical activities associated with tznius by expanding the definition of tznius itself.

  • See T.B. Brachot 62a, where a braita is quoted claiming one is not called tznua unless they are a tznua in the bathroom. See “Hagaot V’Chadoshot” of Rav Horowitz, who explains that this is referring even to a person who is already a tznua in sexual manners. He further explains that the proper bathroom behavior being referred to includes being quiet and alone. (In ancient Rome bathrooms were not private, but social gathering places. Even in modern times, one could question the use of urinals.) This tznius behavior, though not necessarily sexual, is still focused upon concealing one’s body from another.
  • See Rambam, Hilchot Daot 5:6. The Rambam tells us about the extra tznius customs of chachamim. Included in this list is not removing clothing earlier than necessary when using the bathroom. We can assume that this is even though these chachamim are alone at the time. Here, the need for covering the body does not result because another person would otherwise see nakedness. For whom, or for what purpose, did the chochamim take upon themselves this stringency?
  • See the Shulchan Arach, Orach Chaim 2:1. Here the idea of covering one’s body even when alone is discussed not as a stringency but as normative halachik practice. See the Mishna Brurah on this halacha. He states explicitly that this halacha is concerned with tznius. He also makes a distinction between tznius action that is required when one is alone and tznius action that is required because one is in front of others.
  • See T.B. Brachot 8b. Rabban Gamliel says there that for three things he loves the Persians: they are tznouin in the way they eat, the way they use the bathroom and in sexual manners. The Ben Yehuyeday gives two explanations as to what it means to be tznius in the their way of eating. One is that the Persians ate in private so that the sight or smell of the food wouldn’t cause someone insatiable desire for that food. This connects tznius to any situation where one is sensitive to the desires of another. His second explanation is that the Persians discouraged overeating and gluttony. This explanation is more a kin to the Rambam. The tznius behavior is self-inclosed; the value being taught in this case is not as much sensitivity to the desires of others, as it is self-awareness, perhaps sensitivity to self.

What these examples show is that there exists a broader definition of tznius than the normative definition of tznius, either as it is understood technically or as a character trait. Tznius, even on the surface, has diverse ends; actions associated with it have possibly more than one goal in mind. In designating the range of tznius it is important to question not only how and when tznius can or should apply, but also to question what the aim of tznius is. As one’s definition of tznius expands, tznius will find greater jurisdiction in the realm of character development, but equally, and perhaps more surprisingly, in the realm of action. 

© 2005 NISHMA