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The term tzniut (Hebrew: צניעות, tzniut, Sephardi pronunciation, tzeniut(h); Ashkenazi pronunciation, tznius, "modesty", or "privacy") is used within Judaism and has its greatest influence as a concept within Orthodox Judaism and sometimes within Conservative Judaism. It is used to describe both the character trait of modesty and humility, as well as a group of Jewish religious laws pertaining to conduct in general and especially between the sexes. The term is frequently used with regard to the rules of dress for women.
Humility is a paramount ideal within Judaism. Moses is referred to as "exceedingly humble, more than any man in the world" (Book of Numbers 12:3). Though the adjective used of Moses is anav (ענו), and not tzana (צָנַע), the cognate of the noun tzniut. The verb tzana "to be humble" occurs in Proverbs 11:2 and, (in the hiphil), "walk humbly" in Micah 6:8.
Tzniut includes a group of laws concerned with modesty, in both dress and behavior. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Elazar Bar Tzadok connected the injunction at Micah 6:8 to "walk humbly (hatzne'a leches) with your God" as referring to modesty and discretion in dress and in behavior (Tractate Sukkah 49b).
In the legal dimension of Orthodox Rabbinic literature, the issue of Tzniut is discussed in more technical terms: how much skin may a person expose, and so on. Notwithstanding these details, the concept of humility and modesty as a positive character trait, a practice, and a way of life—a "way of walking"—is also taught to be important in Rabbinic literature. This awareness informs the concept and the practice of Tzniut in its rules and details.
The principal guiding point of tzniut in regard to dress is that a Jew should not dress in a way that attracts attention. This does not mean dressing poorly, but neither men nor women should dress in a way that overly emphasizes the physical or attracts undue attention.
Orthodox Judaism requires both men and women to substantially cover their bodies. In Haredi communities, men generally wear long trousers and often long-sleeve shirts, and women wear blouses with sleeves below the elbow and skirts that cover the knees. Some women try not to follow fashion, while others wear fashionable but modest clothing.
In Modern Orthodox practice for women it is generally accepted for sleeves to cover the elbows and shirts to cover the collarbone, skirts to cover the knees with or without tights, and trousers not to be worn in the presence of men. Some Modern Orthodox women will wear sleeves up to a fist's length (tefach) above their elbows or even short sleeves, and some do not cover their collarbones.
Haredi women avoid skirts with slits, preferring instead kick-pleats. They also avoid overly eye-catching colors, especially bright red. Some insist on closed-toe shoes and always wear stockings, the thickness of which varies by community. In some Haredi communities women wear loose vests over shirts. Men must wear shirts with sleeves. Some Modern Orthodox men will wear shorts, but Haredi men will not, and many will not wear short sleeves at all. Sandals without socks, while generally not worn in a synagogue, are usually accepted in Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist Communities in Israel for daily dress. Haredi Ashkenazi practice discourages sandals without socks both in and out of the synagogue. Haredi Sefardic communities tend to accept sandals at least outside of synagogue and sometimes in synagogue as well. Dress in a synagogue and, according to many, in public should be comparable to that worn by the community when meeting royalty or government.
Conservative Judaism formally requires modest dress, although this requirement is often not observed on a day-to-day basis, but is somewhat more observed when attending synagogue. While day-to-day dress often simply reflects the general society, many Conservative synagogues expect somewhat more modest dress (although not necessarily as stringent as in Orthodox Judaism) for synagogue attendance, and may have specific dress requirements to receive synagogue honors (such as being called for a Torah reading). Reform Judaism has no religious dress requirements.
Style of dress involves cultural considerations distinct from religious requirements. There are many Conservative and Reform synagogues in which suits and ties are socially expected, while in many Orthodox synagogues (especially in Israel) dress, while meeting religious modesty requirements, is quite casual. Many Haredi and Hassidic communities have special customs and styles of dress which serve to identify members of their communities but regard these special dress features as customs of their communities rather than as general religious requirements expected of all observant Jews.
Jewish law requires married women to cover their hair; According to the Talmud this is a biblical requirement, which in this context is called dat Moshe (the law of Moses). The most common hair coverings in the Haredi community are the sheitel (wig), the snood, and the mitpachat (Hebrew: scarf) or tichel (Yiddish); some Haredi women cover their hair covering with an additional hat or beret. The practice of covering hair with wigs, or detached hair, is debated among halachic authorities. Many authorities, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, permitted it, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe actively encouraged it, while some authorities forbid it. Observance of this law was nearly entirely out of practice among Modern Observant women a generation ago (except in synagogue), but younger generations are increasingly taking the practice upon themselves. Among Modern Observant women who do cover their hair, the most common form of coverings include a hat or beret; younger women often wear baseball caps and bandannas when dressed casually, and some wear bright and colorful scarves tied in a number of ways. A style of half wig known as a "fall" has become increasingly common in many segments of Modern and Haredi Orthodox communities. It is usually worn with either a hat or headband.
In Yemen unmarried girls covered their heads also, like the Muslims there; however, upon their emigration to Israel and other places, this custom has been abandoned. While Rebbe Aharon Roth, founder of Shomer Emunim, praised this custom, no Ashkenazi community, including the most strict Haredi circles, have ever practiced such a custom.
Men, married or not, may cover their heads. The most common head covering is the kippah (Hebrew: skull-cap), known as yarmulke in Yiddish. Most men wear something on their heads at almost all times, while some cover their heads only when performing some religious act, or when eating. Few cover the entire head. Almost all will bathe with the head uncovered, but sleeping varies by community or family practice. The exact nature of this practice, and how binding it is, is a matter of dispute among halakhic authorities. Wearing a hat is not required by Jewish law, and those who wear a hat usually wear a kippah underneath; however, there are some rabbis, especially in Hasidic Judaism, who require a double head covering—of kippah and hat or talleth—during prayer.
Conservative and Reform Judaism do not generally require women to wear head coverings. Some more traditional Conservative synagogues ask that married women cover their heads during services. However, some more liberal Conservative synagogues suggest that women, married or not, wear head-coverings similar to those worn by men, and some require it, not for modesty, but as a feminist gesture of egalitarianism. Almost all Conservative synagogues require men to wear a head covering (usually a kippah), but in Reform synagogues there is often no requirement.
In Orthodox Judaism men are generally not allowed to hear women sing, a prohibition called kol isha. This is derived from Song of Solomon 2:14: "Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet ("arev") and your face is beautiful." The Talmud classifies this as ervah (literally "nakedness"). The majority view of halachic authorities is that this prohibition applies at all times, and forbids a man to pray or study Torah in the presence of a woman who is singing, similar to other prohibitions classified as ervah. A minority view holds that the prohibition of praying or studying in the presence of kol isha applies only while reciting the Shema Yisrael prayer.
There is debate between poskim (authorities of Jewish law) whether the prohibition applies to a recorded voice, where the singer cannot be seen, where the woman is not known to the man who is listening and where he has never seen her or a picture of her.
There are also opinions, following Samson Raphael Hirsch and Azriel Hildesheimer, that exclude singing in mixed groups from this prohibition, such as synagogue prayer or dinner-table Zemirot (religious songs), based on the idea that the female voice is not distinctly heard as separate from the group in these cases (“Trei Kali Lo Mishtamai,” two voices cannot be heard simultaneously - Megila 21b). However Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg found this explanation unsatisfactory, and instead proposed, following the Sdei Chemed quoting the Divrei Cheifetz, that the kol isha prohibition does not apply to women singing zemirot, songs to children, and lamentations for the dead, because in these contexts, men do not derive pleasure from the woman’s voice.
In a novel ruling, Rabbi David Bigman holds that kol isha only applies when there is sexual pleasure involved. According to the majority of authorities, i.e. those who did not link kol isha to Kriat Shema, kol isha is in fact similar to gazing at a woman's little finger, which is another case in Berachot ibid. But the Rishonim rule that gazing at a woman's finger only applies when done expressly for sexual pleasure, or when there is any sexual pleasure involved. Thus, it stands to reason (no previous authority has explicitly stated as such) that kol isha is similar, and has parallel by-laws applicable to it. Therefore, Rabbi Bigman states, "There is no prohibition whatsoever of innocent singing; rather, only singing intended for sexual stimulation, or flirtatious singing, is forbidden. Although this distinction is not explicit in the early rabbinic sources, it closely fits the character of the prohibition as described in different contexts in the Talmud and the Rishonim, and it is supported by the language of the Rambam, the Tur, and the Shulchan Aruch."
In a similarly novel ruling Rabbi Avraham Shammah comes to the same conclusion as Rabbi Bigman. He argues that ideologically, the laws of tzniut are defined by time and place, according to what people are accustomed to, and what gives them sexual pleasure. He quotes the Maharam Alkashar (a 15th century rabbinic exile from Spain), who says
Response: Indeed, there is no concern about that hair [that is outside of the braid], because it is customary to reveal it ... and that [which is said] ‘a woman’s hair is a sexual enticement’ is only referring to hair that it is usual to be covered, but a person is accustomed to that which is usually uncovered [and therefore is not aroused] and it is permitted ... Likewise, the Ra'avya wrote that all those [things] that we mentioned for [concern about] sexual enticement are specifically for things that are not customarily exposed ... all is according to the customs and the locations.
Rabbi Shammah cites many sources, such as Maharshal and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who permit various violations of their theretofore normative laws of tzniut, on the basis that the behavior in question is not sexually enticing in that time and place. In regards to kol isha specifically, he notes that
R. [Yehiel Yaakov] Weinberg cites Maimonides Hilkhot Isurei Bi’a (Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations) 21:2, in which Maimonides states that "one who looks even at a woman’s little finger with the intent to derive [erotic] pleasure is as if he looked at her privates and even to hear the voice of a forbidden woman or to see her hair is forbidden." R. Weinberg points out that the meaning of Maimonides’ words is that the prohibition to hear a woman’s voice is only if there is intent to thereby derive erotic pleasure.
Rabbi Weinberg relies also on the Sdei Chemed, quoting the Divrei Cheifetz, that Shabbat hymns and funeral dirges, when sung by women, are not kol isha, as men do not derive sexual pleasure from them. Rabbi Shammah simply takes this logic further, and concludes that if a man judges himself sincerely and honestly, that in a particular case, he will not be enticed by a woman's voice, he may listen to her sing, even ordinary songs in concerts, and the like, depending on the case. He closes saying that
From my childhood [growing up under Syrian Jewish-Orthodox immigrants to Israel] until my adulthood I do not remember closing my ears, nor was I instructed to do so, and I heard the best music, both from the Orient and the West, even when performed by female singers, and even at live performances. Apparently, the principle is based on the fact that there is no intent here for some forbidden pleasure. [People] have testified to me that there were Torah-observant Jews at the performances of the famous Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum [considered by some to be Egypt’s most famous and distinguished twentieth-century singer], and even more than that, they listened to her songs and learned them well, even though some of the songs had inappropriate words. Prayer leaders (among them scholars) used her tunes [in the prayer services], until this day, with the approval of halakhic authorities, who knew quite well the source [of these tunes].
On the other hand, against the novel and minority view of Rabbis Bigman and Shammah, Rabbi Cherney notes that,
[W]e find that Shmuel's claim that it [i.e., various violations of the normative laws of tzniut] is permitted "for the sake of Heaven, הכל לשם שמים," [meaning, the act is normatively forbidden, but permitted because it gives no sexual pleasure in the given time and place] is quoted by later authorities. R. Moses Isserles (the Ramo) quotes Shmuel's liberal view, as stated by Tosafot. But we should note that although Ramo obviously accepts this principle, he does not quote it in the context of Kol isha. In our own generation, R. Ovadia Yosef [who elsewhere is willing to be lenient on certain normative laws of tzniut when men are no longer enticed by them in the given time and place] has expressed the opinion that, "you should not let your heart seize the argument that nowadays since we are accustomed to the voices of women, we need not be concerned that [the voice arouses lewd thoughts], for we may not say these things out of our own understanding if it is not mentioned in the authorities."
Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, based especially on the Maharshal, permits men and women to mix in general society, based on the fact that this is no longer sexually enticing today, but he, like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, likewise forbids this same argument to be applied to kol isha.
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Conservative Judaism interprets the relevant passage of the Talmud as expressing a Rabbi's opinion rather than imposing a requirement. Reform Judaism does not regard this traditional law as applicable to modern times.
In Orthodox Judaism, men and women who are not married and are not closely related are generally not allowed to touch each other. Many observant married couples will also not touch one another in public. A person who refrains from touching the opposite sex is said to be shomer negiah. Shmirath negiah applies to touching which is b' derech chiba (in an affectionate manner). According to some authorities, mainly of Modern Orthodox background, a quick handshake, particularly in the context of earning a living in a business setting, does not fall under this category. However, people who are stringently shomer negiah will avoid shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex, even in a business context. This is almost universally observed within the Haredi community and somewhat observed within the Modern Orthodox community where the term originated in recent decades. Conservative and Reform Judaism do not follow these laws.
Examples of relatives that one may touch include parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, and one's spouse if she is not niddah (ritually impure during and after menstruation). This prohibition is colloquially called shmirath negiah (observance of the laws of touching) or shomer negiah. Whether or not children adopted at a young age are included in this prohibition is a matter of dispute and case-by-case decision.
In Orthodox Judaism, men and women who are not married to each other and are not immediate blood relatives are not allowed to enter into a secluded situation ("yichud") in a room or in an area that is private. This measure is taken to prevent the possibility of sexual relations which is prohibited outside of marriage. According to some authorities this applies even between adoptive parents and adoptive children over the age of maturity, while others are more lenient with children adopted from a young age. Simply being in a room together alone does not necessarily constitute seclusion. The situation must be private, where no one else is expected to enter. Originally, this prohibition applied only to married women secluded with men other than their husbands, but it was extended to include single women. According to the Talmud, this extension occurred in the time of King David, when his son Amnon raped Absalom's sister, Tamar. On the issue of elevators, opinions vary; some allow yichud in an elevator for a time of no more than 30 seconds, while others forbid it under all circumstances, partly due to the possibility of an elevator getting stuck.
In Orthodox Judaism, men and women are not allowed to mingle during prayer services, and Orthodox synagogues generally include a divider, called a Mechitza, creating separate men's and women's sections. This idea comes from the old Jewish practice during the times of the temple in Jerusalem when there was a women's balcony in the Ezrat Nashim to separate the male and female spectators at the special Succot celebrations. The is also a prophecy in Zechariah (Zechariah 12:12) which talks about men and women mourning separately. The Talmud took this account and inferred that if men and women should be separate in times of mourning, then they certainly should be separate in times of happiness.
Mechitzot are usually seen in Orthodox synagogues to separate the men and women. Conservative synagogues rarely have Mechitzas because the conservative movement puts a strong emphasis on egalitarianism, so that men and women should have equal roles in the prayer service. In Reform synagogues, they are never seen. (The original German Reform synagogues had balconies, although in modified form.)
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There are several levels to the observance of physical and personal modesty (tzniut) according to Orthodox Judaism as derived from various sources in halakha. Observance of these rules varies from aspirational to mandatory to routine across the spectrum of Orthodox stricture and observance.