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Traditionally, there are halachic rules and community customs that lead to a particular pattern of dress for those that observe the halacha regarding modesty. This is most typical among the Orthodox segment of Judaism, but is occasionally found elsewhere. It is good to keep these rules in mind if you visit traditional communities, especially in Israel. These dress rules/customs include:
Sleeves are typically covered as far as the elbow.
The neckline does not expose any cleavage.
Skirts are long enough to cover the knee when seated.
Depending on the area, pants or slacks may be allowed; for example, in many religious kibbutzim the women wear pants out of habit, for the simple reason that they work in agricultural areas or other activities where a skirt would be less modest. However, this is the exception; when not performing these activities, skirts are worn. Women not in such situations at all are encouraged not to wear pants.
The problem with pants are two-fold: first, some communities still consider them banned under the laws that prohibit cross-dressing. The other is that any attire that shows the location of the croch is considered immodest attire for women. If the problem is only the latter, then perhaps a skirt or apron over pants would be permitted. Different rabbis and communities follow different norms
Married women cover their hair either completely, or with approximately 2 finger widths showing of the bangs. As to unmarried women, hair covering is not required, although there are Sephardi customs that even unmarried women should "put their hair up", so that it's not flying 'wildly' (but not necessary to cover it). In some communities, particularly amongst Hassidim and Sepharadic Jews (those from Arab countries), wearing a wig is NOT sufficient head covering. In some Chassidic groups women wear a hat over their wig. Amongst Sepharadic Jews, the wig is of no relevance to this law, and the hat would have to be large enough to cover all of their hairmaking the wig pointless.
Tzeni'us has come to mean dressing sexually modestly. The underlying concept, though, is far broader. It is also why a man who is offered to be chazan shouldn't jump at the honor unless no one else is available or the gabbai is getting desperate. Tzeni'us in its fundamental sense is not going through life trying to draw attention to oneself. Sex sells, so the distinction between looking good and dressing sexy is a significant piece of it. But not the only one.
Of the laws of dressing tzenu'ah, there are two basic categories:
das Moshe (the rite of Moshe), objective, non-changing rules, that apply in all cultures
das Yehudis (the rite of Jewish woman), which changes as the norms change.
A bikini violates das Moshe. A woman in Victorian England showing her ankles would be violating das Yehudis. Most hold that pants, by making it obvious where the crotch is, violate das Moshe, and therefore can't be worn in mixed company. (Some invoke, usually in addition to this idea, the prohibition against wearing men's clothing; but it seems to me that given today's fashions it is hard to make an argument that pants are still particularly masculine.) This is why you won't see very many Orthodox women in pants. However, the one or two who disagree do provide a basis for allowing a nurse or a woman EMT to wear scrubs without objecting to the dress code. In extreme cases, they provide "wiggle room" for one's halachic decisor.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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Daniel P. Faigin <firstname.lastname@example.org>