Judaism has rules for how you act — how you eat, speak, and even dress. A few weeks ago, my wife showed me a full page advertisement in a Brooklyn-based magazine purportedly signed by rabbinic leaders of the Lakewood community declaring that women must wear tights or stockings that cover their calves. I don’t know whether this was approved by the rabbis whose names appeared on the ad and do not consider it particularly relevant. More important is the halakhic issue. While this ad is entirely correct, it is also entirely wrong.
A few years ago, my daughter came home from school and reported puzzedly that her teacher said the Mishnah Berurah requires women to wear tights. My daughter knows very well our house rule on the subject — required in Boro Park, optional in Flatbush. Why, she asked, don’t we follow the Mishnah Berurah? I gave her two answers. First, the Mishnah Berurah is not always the final word on the subject and we follow our rabbi’s rulings. Second, the Mishnah Berurah actually says the exact opposite of what your teacher claimed and we do follow it on this issue (I also told her not to contradict her teacher because that might get her in trouble).
The Gemara (Berakhos 24a) says that a woman’s shok is considered nakedness, and therefore must be covered. Halakhic authorities disagree over the definition of shok. According to the Bach (Orach Chaim 75 sv. ve-khein), shok is the lower leg, between the knee and the ankle. According to others, such as the Peri Megadim (Orach Chaim, Mishbetzos Zahav 75:1), shok is the upper leg, from the knee to the waist. The practical difference between the two is whether a woman must cover her lower leg. According to the Bach she must and according to the Peri Megadim she need not. However, all agree that in a place where women generally cover a specific part of the body, all women must conform to that standard of modest dressing. If all women wear gloves, the garment becomes mandatory. And if all women wear stockings covering their lower legs, the garment or its equivalent are also required.
The Mishnah Berurah (75:2 – link) rules like the Peri Megadim. According to the Mishnah Berurah, women need not cover their lower legs except in a place where that is the common practice. That is why my “house rule” is that in Boro Park the women must wear tights. In my opinion, that is the standard practice in Boro Park but not in Flatbush. And in Marine Park, I suspect that during the summer even socks are optional.
Other authorities disagree with the Mishnah Berurah. Most importantly, the Chazon Ish (Orach Chaim 16:8) leaves the debate unresolved. R. Elyakim Ellinson (Hatznei’a Lekhes, vol. 2 ch. 3 p. 141 nn. 44, 48), based on the writings of R. Ovadiah Yosef (Yabi’a Omer vol. 6 YD no. 14), states that most authorities agree with the Mishnah Berurah. Especially since the Chazon Ish does not rule on the subject, the Mishnah Berurah‘s ruling is conclusive. However, I think R. Ellinson is a little too quick to reach a conclusion of what the majority of contemporary decisors hold. R. Shmuel Katz (Kedoshim Tihyu, ch. 8 n. 25) lists a number of important authorities who rule strictly on the matter. (R. Katz also elicited a lenient responsum from R. Shlomo Min Hahar.)
Regardless, I was taught to follow the Mishnah Berurah‘s position and, in my experience, it is normative in all non-Charedi communities and most non-Chasidic neighborhoods in the US. While the Lakewood rabbis have every right to follow the strict authorities and declare that this is the absolute halakhah for their community, their ruling has no effect on other communities. As always, follow your rabbi, not what you read on a blog, in the newspaper or in a magazine.