The records of the Jewish community of Krakow relate a story concerning Rav Moshe Isserlis when he became rabbi of the town in the mid-16thcentury. There was a custom in Krakow that the morning after a woman went to the mikveh, the mikveh owner (usually husband of the mikveh attendant) would wish ‘mazal tov’ to her husband. Rav Isserlis found the minhag to be seriously lacking in tzniut (generally translated as “modesty”) and abolished it. Soon after, when the mikveh owner was in the market, a man angrily accosted him and demanded to know why he had not received a ‘mazal tov’ like every other husband whose wife had immersed the previous night. The mikveh owner answered him – “First because the Rav abolished the minhag (custom), and second because your wife did not come to the mikveh last night!” According to the story, Rav Isserlis realized that even the strangest minhagim may have a purpose, and undertook to collect Jewish customs so that they would not be lost. Thus was born his halachic commentary to the Shulchan Aruch.

Another equally important take-away from this story could have been that not everything done in the name of tzniut is correct.

Tzniut is a much-misunderstood concept, and number one in the list of tzniut misconceptions is its confusion with ervah (“nakedness”). Ervah is a halakhic concept, discussed at length in the traditional sources (Berachot 24a, Shulchan Aruch OC 75), which regulates when a person may pray, make blessings, speak words of Torah etc. in the presence of nakedness. It applies to both men and women, but differently. More areas of a woman’s body are halachically ervah to a man than of a man’s body to a woman. Fundamentally, ervah objectifies the body, addressing the distracting and sometimes arousing impact that nakedness can have on others. For that reason, the halakhot of ervah use the language of objectivity and measurement, such as a tefach (an area of exposed skin roughly 3.5 inches square), in defining when and where ervah can be exposed.

By contrast, while tzniut is also a halachic concept, its perspective is very different. Essentially, tzniut requires a recognition of the reality of God’s presence in our lives. It is presented in these terms at the opening of the Shulchan Aruch, which enjoins us to develop an awareness of ‘shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid’ – I have set God before me always (Tehillim 16:8). In this sense, tzniut treats a person as a subject, challenging them to invite God into their ‘zone’ throughout the myriad situations of life. How should we behave and dress lifnei Hashem (before God) on the train, in the shower, with close family, giving a public lecture, in the bathroom, in a work meeting, in a moment of intimacy? In all of these situations, we have the potential to be tzanua, or not, in different ways.

It goes without saying that the tzanua way to be in the shower, or in the mikveh, is entirely undressed. The issue of ervah arises only if someone wishes to pray, say blessings etc. in front of a naked person and there is nothing remotely un-tzanua about nakedness in an appropriate context. Remarkably, the Mishna Berurah (2:1) even criticizes men who place their hands over their private parts when naked in the bath house, thinking that this is more modest. He points out that nakedness in the bathhouse is fully appropriate and therefore not lacking in tzniut. On the contrary, it may be inappropriate to cover himself in this way since he appears to be embarrassed by the mitzvah of milah (circumcision).

Tzniut is really about inviting God into our lives by acting in a manner which is appropriate for each situation. In the context of mikveh, this translates into the couple being careful to conceal the timing so as not to publicize their marital intimacy. However, women should feel comfortable and relaxed with the fully tzanua aspects of nakedness during their immersion and in the moments of intimacy between husband and wife which follow.

For some people, even discussing concepts of intimacy, mikveh and family purity with their children feels like a lack of tzniut. This is a mistake. While most parents understandably conceal the timing of mikveh night from their children, especially from teenagers who may feel this to be uncomfortable or inappropriate if they understand the connection to intimacy, they must also find the right time to discuss with their children the beauty of a Torah life of family purity. There is no lack of tzniut in explaining to our children the halakhic cycle of physical and emotional connection, whereby a husband and wife are ‘re’im ahuvim’ – sometimes good friends and at other times also physically intimate.

In fact, these conversations are even more important for teenagers, who are often exposed to the vulgar and self-indulgent sexual values of broader society, yet usually unaware of the empowering and enriching Torah sexual ethic. Those conversations, at the appropriate time and in the correct setting, are imbued with tzniut since they invite God into your family life in important ways.

In this way, thinking more deeply about tzniut can provide us with opportunities to develop healthier connections with God, with our loved ones and with ourselves.