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Mannerisms & Modesty
by Rabbi Yossi Braun

Editor's note:This article is a selection of a Series of Questions and Answers on the themes of Mannerisms and Modesty.
It is presented here in honour of 22 Shevat, the yahrtzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson OBM, a woman who exemplified the verse (Tehillim 45: 14) "Kol kevudah bas melech penima"' - all the glory of the daughter of a King is on the inside", in every sense of the word.

Q. My Mom is big into mannerisms. She keeps on lecturing to me about the role of knives and forks, sitting upright at the Shabbat meal (I would prefer to recline...) and how casual wear is not appropriate.
Does the Torah have what to say about these stuff?

A. The Torah encourages reclining at meals, dipping your fingers into your food and wearing ripped clothing. It is only a question of where and when.

At the seder table we are expected to recline to symbolise freedom; at a bris the mohel dips his finger into the cup of wine (many follow the custom of dipping their finger in the havdala wine too) and mourners are instructed to wear ripped clothing.
The implication is that, ordinarily, we should sit still when we eat, eat with forks and knives and dress elegantly.

Q.  I get you. But is there anything inherently wrong with being casual and free spirited?

A. Yes, it is a lack of tzni'us (modesty).

Q. Tzni'us?  I dress very modestly. I cover my elbows, knees, necklines, the works... I just prefer tee shirts and casual style clothing.

A. Torah places an emphasis on dignified appearance - in dress, in posture, in everything.

Q. I never heard about this. Be it as it may, what does this have to do with tzni'us? This isn't a neckline and hemline issue?

A. Many people see tzni'us as a rule or a ritual. Just like we have specific guidelines how to cut out nails, how to wash our hands, we have technical instructions about how we dress.

In truth, tzni'us has nothing to do with necklines and hemlines. In other words, one can keep all the technical rules of tzni'us and miss the essence of tzni'us. You can cover up from top to bottom yet expose much more.

The term tzni'us is rooted in the verse "hatznay'a leches im Hashem elokecha" - "Walk discreetly with your G-d" (Micah 6:8). This verse describes our inner relationship with G-d. Tznius, accordingly, is actually all on the inside.

Q. Why then is the requirement to "cover up" always referred to as the laws of tzni'us?

A. Because it is our inner dignity that propels us to dress in a certain way.

The manner by which so many people clothe themselves in public these days reveals a lack of self worth that is unfortunately all too common today. To attract attention or in the name of comfort and informality, people will present themselves to others in the worst possible way, against their own self-interest.

Q. Why do you think people are acting like this?

A. Kaballah tells us that we all possess ten key character traits, comprising of three intellectual faculties and seven emotional attributes. We have been granted the intellectual capacity for wisdom, understanding and knowledge. And emotionally our soul possess the inner gifts of love, discipline, harmony, endurance, humility, bonding and dignity.

While the score for intelligence quotients, and, perhaps even emotional intelligence, might be on the rise, many of us have failed the malchus - inner dignity - test. 

True, we got 9 out of 10 on the exam. But we missed the fine print on the paper, the knowledge that this tenth question is worth more marks than all other nine combined.

In a value-free society-free of morals, free of standards-where virtue and purity do not readily trade in the marketplace, many also live free of feelings of self-worth, self-respect, and dignity. And thus one's dignity can be violated.

Q. So how does one go about 'getting' self dignity?

A. Self worth and dignity come from within; it is rooted in the very depths of one's consciousness. It has nothing to do with feeling good about ourselves; whether our parents, educators or friends think highly of us or not.  Letting other's establish our standards implies that we are depending upon someone else's image rather than our own.

Malchus is a sense of dignity and majesty born of the knowledge that each of us has a soul within, literally a "part of G-d," as it were. The only way to enhance this inner dignity is by looking inward in search of our inner holiness.

Every one of us is a ben melech - a child of the King of kings. This is our true source of pride and the ultimate root of our inner confidence.

The woman of valour is described by King Solomon (Mishlei 31:25) as someone who dresses with "garments of strength and regality". Her strength lies in her persistence and fortitude to withstand any external peer pressure. She does not need acceptance from others. Her self-value comes from that fact that she is regal; it stems from her inner royalty.

Q. Okay, back to casual clothing and slouching on the couch during the meal...

A. So whether one dresses inadequately (non-kosher necklines), ostentatiously (loud and gaudy styles) or casually (untidy and baggy) - it is all an expression of lack of tzni'us.

And, therefore your posture or table manners can equally indicate an awareness of tzni'us or lack thereof. 

You are a walking advertisement. What you wear, how you sit or eat, will either advertise your skin-deep physical properties or your values and inner royal persona.



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