Dear Rabanit Cohen,
Is it okay for a young lady or woman to go jogging in the street for exercise? If they feel it’s to promote better health and they will be wearing proper tzniyus attire and mostly running in quiet streets with little traffic with no guarantee that no one will see them since it is the public domain – what are your thoughts? Also, what about wearing leggings? It seems it’s the new thing and very accepted that women and girls wear leggings underneath their skirts. What’s the Halachah and what is the hashkafah view point?
Sarit Rubenstein, Los Angeles, CA
You ask such an important question that is indeed relevant to our current state of galut. I will do my best to answer you and hope the answer will help.
The topic of tzniyut is brought down in numerous sefarim where chachamim write that in general, a woman should not even be seen on the streets unless there is a good reason. Today, that good reason may be: grocery shopping, a simchah, work if need be etc. But to purposely go out to the reshut ha’rabim to go jogging would not be considered a good reason and certainly it falls in the category of improper modesty.
In many sefarim that discuss hilchot tzniyut it is written that women should not run as this is not considered modest conduct (unless necessary i.e running from danger). Since a Jewish woman is considered a Bat Melech, she should rather walk. You will rarely, if at all, see a princess or Queen running. She walks – with dignity and with a regality.
It is unfortunate that in today’s generation many women have relinquished their inner modesty and as a result, the sanctity of Yahadut has been diminished. Many women no longer care who sees them or what they look like or that they have defiled their essence. It is a sad reality. Let me share with you the following story that is brought down in the Midrash of Eicha Rabah as well as in many of the Kinot we read on Tisha B’Av.
There is a story told of two women who were neighbors. Following the Roman siege around Yerushalayim there was a great famine in the land. Jews were literally eating the grass and even the leather straps of their horses just to be able to survive. It was a desperate time that called for desperate measures.
The two women decided to venture to the market place to see if by some mere chance there was some food that could still be purchased. Neither of them knew that the other was going.
When they reached the market place and saw each other, they threw themselves on each other’s shoulders and began to sob uncontrollably. The Midrash wonders: did they cry because of the tragic circumstance? What was the cause of their anguish?
They cried because there was rarely a time in Am Yisrael where a woman left her home to be seen in the public domain; not even to shop in to the market place. This was the level of a woman’s modesty. When these two neighbors saw each other they realized the extent of the Churban. If a woman had no other choice but to leave her home and be seen in the public domain – that was indeed a CHURBAN!
So they cried bitterly because they realized the extent of the destruction. They realized that lack of modesty had now breached their walls and for this one has to cry! These were the righteous women of yore. From them we have to draw strength and from them we should learn.
The question of running in the wee hours of the morning is a breach of modesty because it does not matter if the woman will be seen or not. There are other forms of exercise that a woman can engage in and in the privacy of her own home or in a designated place specifically for women.
Regarding the leggings, we all know that no modest woman would have ever been seen wearing leggings. If anything, the holy women covered their entire body with a long dress. Even our attire today is not considered modest in comparison to the modesty of long ago. And we all know that in the area of tzniyut we have experienced a sad decline. If you look at pictures of how our great, great grandmothers dressed in comparison to how we dress today – there is no denying that there is an obvious deterioration. So to decline further and to begin wearing leggings underneath a skirt which shapes the leg all the more, would not be considered modest.
I am not certain why a woman feels the need to wear leggings and why it has become a fashionable craze in certain circles. What’s the point exactly? This is just another breach in tzniyut. The more holes you poke in the foundation, the more you risk the collapse of the entire structure. So, if you’re asking me personally, I would not wear leggings nor would I jog in the streets – morning, noon or night.
As far as the halachah is concerned I strongly believe that there are two aspects of halachah: the actual law (halachah) and the spirit of the law (halichah/hashkafah). For example: the halachah allows me to move my furniture around on Shabat. I could revamp the space and move couches elsewhere; put my coffee table in the kitchen; remove the chairs and place them in another part of the house. I could technically spend a few hours redesigning my living room on Shabat and it would not be considered melachah or halachically non-permissible.
As a matter of fact, many times for a simchah, people move furniture around, dragging chairs, and then “cleaning up” and getting the room back in order. However, there is the halichah aspect; the spirit of the law. In other words, do I want to be spending three hours on the holy day of Shabat moving my furniture around in order to redecorate my living room space? Is this the honor due the Shabat Queen? It’s one thing if I plan to host a Sheva Berachot and need the space and therefore have to move the furniture around. But it’s another thing if I’m dedicating several hours to my personal needs and thereby forgetting and neglecting the Shabat and even turning it into a yom chol.
Therefore, any halachah should be seen through the eyes of the halichah aspect of it, the lens of hashkafah. The same holds true with regards to tzniyut. What I do know and remember learning is that the rules of tzniyut have been kept to a minimum because the Rabanim felt that women would not be able to handle the level of tzniyut that the Torah demands of them in this generation.
So covering our elbows, collar bones and knees became the foundational rules and elementary “halachah.” But it goes far beyond the basics. For example: The Ben Ish Chai (a”h) in his Sefer, “Hilchot Nashim” tells the women that their necks have to be covered and in many communities, especially in Sefardi circles, many Jewish women covered their face when they ventured out to the public domain. In Yerushalayim, in the early 20th century, if a woman was seen on the streets with a synthetic sheitel, she was put in cherem by the Ashkenazik Rabbis of the time.
Even though the rudimentary halachah states that we should cover our knees, elbows and collar bones, there are women who ignore the halichah, the spirit of the law. They will cover the knee, but the skirt will just about make it to the knee or the skirt will be so tight or the fabric so inappropriate that one can see the outline of her undergarments. You might cover your collar bone but if you wears a shell as your main top without anything on top of that shell, we might see your erva outlining the shell. If your elbows are just about covered and then you lift your arms for any reason, then what?
So, many times, we walk away thinking we’ve adhered to the basic halachah – but is that really true? Is this really tzniyut? Many women try to get away with every inch LESS that they could possibly get away with while ignoring the hashkafah, our halichot – the manner in which a dignified Jewish woman carries herself. It is truly sad to see how the sensitivity towards modesty is fading away. I feel sad to see how our holy women are underestimating their true value.
The halachah would say that the leggings could technically replace tights/panty hose. After all, if I can wear tights, why can’t I wear leggings? And it makes perfect sense.
However, the halichah and your neshamah screams out, “Dear Bat Melech, the real reason you’re wearing the leggings is because deep down in your heart of hearts it makes you feel like you’re wearing pants. The real reason you want to wear those leggings is because it has become fashionable in your community and you want to blend in. The real reason you are wearing the leggings has very little to do with ‘modesty.’ And even if it did, there are better ways to cover your legs than with leggings which accentuate your legs all the more. If you are so modest that you’re going jogging early in the morning so men should not look upon you – if you’re so modest that you want to be stringent and wear leggings that are thicker than tights – if you are so careful with your modesty, why not wear a long skirt that covers your ankles as well? In this way, we won’t see the shape of your legs and your knees will certainly be covered. There will be no problem at all with your tzniyut.”
Try telling a woman who wants to wear leggings the above words and notice her reaction. She may argue and debate the issue. If she does, it is a sign that her intentions are not driven by modesty but by her yetzer hara and desire to look like the rest of the women in her community or secular world.
Halachically, a woman should really not be seen in the reshut ha’rabim. Halachically, a woman should not be dressed the way many of us are dressed today. And certainly, the spirit of the law has unfortunately been desecrated as well. I wish that instead of young girls asking if they could go jogging or if they could wear leggings – that they would ask what they could do to increase their level of tzniyut.
If they would ask these questions, the answer would be, “Please read the sefarim ha’kedoshim and learn about your essence; about who you really are and how your neshamah functions in this world. Please read about the power of your modesty and what you could accomplish in this world through its observance; who you could help heal through its commitment; what wars and tragedy you could prevent by devoting yourself to the mission. And certainly, neshamah tovah, do not go jogging in the morning hours or be seen too much in the public domain. Remove the leggings that appears like pants underneath your skirt and accentuates the shape of your legs. Remember that a true Bat Melech, looks to increase the sanctity of the palace and not destroy its walls. The walls are up for a reason; it’s to protect you from the outside. Remember that it is your modesty, your kedushah and your taharah that will help bring the Mashiach. But if you will move away from our traditions, what will become of the Jewish woman inside you? How will your future generations have a chance to survive and what will they look like? Stay strong and committed. There is no woman in the world that possesses the neshamah that you hold and there is no woman in the world that has the connection that you have to the Ribono Shel Olam. Be delighted to be His daughter. Be happy that He chose you. Feel proud at your distinction and honor the King on High!”