Modesty is an attitude and a way of conduct. While it includes appropriate dress, it reaches well beyond. The book of Rus overs important lessons on the significance of modesty and also in its moderation. We see in this sacred tale a middle path.
In Rus 2:5, Boaz asks his workers the identity of Rus, at the time collecting grain in the fields along with other poor people. On this inquiry, Rashi raises a paradox of modesty. He asks why Boaz, a righteous man, was commenting on a random woman collecting in the field and answers that Boaz noticed how modestly she was acting. In other words, Rus stuck out due to her modesty. But modest behavior is supposed to avoid sticking out!
Tzeni’us, modesty, is not primarily about how you dress but about how you act. It is about acting dignified and maintaining privacy. Despite the importance of maintaining a low profile, there is no license for improper behavior. The clear message is that in an immodest environment, we must still act modestly even if that means we will ironically be immodestly sticking out.
The contradictory description of Rus’ associates in collecting grain tells another story of modesty. In Rus (2:8), Boaz tells Rus to collect with the other poor women. However, Rus tells Naomi that Boaz had told her to collect with the men (v. 21). Naomi corrects her and tells her that she should collect with the women (v. 22). Malbim explains that the Jewish practice was for men and women to collect separately out of modesty. Due to her Moabite background, Rus was unfamiliar with this modest practice and assumed Boaz had merely intended her to collect with the other people. Naomi corrected this misunderstanding.
Of particular interest is the respect shown to Rus when she mistakenly collected with the men. They allowed her to continue uninterrupted and were so careful to avoid offending her that she did not even notice her mistake. The response to immodest behavior, particularly when inadvertent, is patient tolerance.
While men and women were publicly separated, this separation was not complete. We see this with the seating practices at the meal. Boaz asked Rus to sit next to him at the head of the table (2:14). Rus was shy and therefore sat with the other harvesters, farther down the table. However, she did not sit mingled among the men but rather after the last one, as the Gemara (Shabbos 113b) points out—“next to the harvesters but not among the harvesters.” Even though men and women sat at the same table, the commingling was still modestly restrained. Boaz’s table describes a delicate balance of modesty and practicality.