Nudity in Jewish Law

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by R. Gil Student

I. Revealing Nakedness

The Torah refers to forbidden relations as revealing the nakedness of someone else (Lev. 18). However, this is a euphemism. In a literal sense, you may not reveal our own nakedness, i.e. walk around nude.

The Gemara (Shabbos 118b) quotes R. Yossi who said that the walls of his house never saw the seams of his robe. Rashi (ad loc., s.v. lo ra’u) explains that R. Yossi used to get dressed and undressed under his sheets so he would never stand bare in his house. This was R. Yossi’s extra-careful way to dress himself.

Rabbenu Yonah (Sefer Ha-Yirah, beginning of 3rd paragraph, no. 15 in the Zilber edition) quotes this as normative practice. Not only should we be careful to not walk around nude, we should be extremely careful to avoid nudity even while getting dressed and undressed. Significantly, Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 2:2) quotes this.

Later authorities, such as Malbim (Artzos Ha-Chaim 2:1) and Pri Megadim (Mishbetzos Zahav 2:1) quoted in Mishnah Berurah (2:1), say that the specifics about dressing and undressing are not technically obligatory. The general rule is that you may be nude when necessary. For example, everyone agrees that you may shower naked. Those who are extremely careful use a very limited definition of necessary, and therefore dress and undress under a cover. However, the base rule considers dressing and undressing a time when you need to be nude. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, vol. 3, no. 47, sec. 3) likewise says that you may dress normally, and do not need to be constantly covered (e.g. by a robe), in your bathroom. Although there is room for someone to choose to be strict on this issue and only change under a robe.

Everyone agrees, though, that except when necessary, you may not walk around nude. This is true even when you are alone in the house. You are never alone because God’s honor is everywhere. Out of respect to God, you must always be covered (except when necessary).

II. Nudity and Shame

The Gemara (Bava Kamma 86b) quotes a Baraisa that says that if you embarrass someone who is naked, you have to pay for his humiliation. The Gemara asks, “Is some naked subject to embarrassment?” Rashi (ad loc., s.v. arum) explains that since he walks around nude publicly, clearly he has no shame and cannot be embarrassed. Therefore, the Gemara says this must be speaking about someone whose clothes were blown slightly off by a wind and you made it worse, thereby further embarrassing him. But if he was walking around naked intentionally, he is not subject to embarrassment.

Tosafos (ad loc., s.v. arum) explain the Gemara differently. Even someone who walks around naked can be embarrassed in other ways, such as if you slap him publicly or spit on him. The Gemara only means that you cannot embarrass him further about his nudity, such as by pulling off whatever remaining clothes he may be wearing — clearly, he has no shame about it.

Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, 16th cen., Poland; Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma 8:19) says that Rambam follows Rashi while Rif, Rosh and Rashba follow Tosafos. However, Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 420:34) rules like Rashi that you are not liable for embarrassing someone naked.

Maharshal brings Rashi and Tosafos closer in practice. He says that Tosafos only say that you are liable for embarrassing someone (about something else) who is naked for a practical reason — because he is sick or hot or is fixing his clothes. The fact that he is nude means that he isn’t embarrassed about it. But he has a reason. If he is naked because he just wants to be, and he freely walks around other people while nude, “there is no greater fool (shoteh) than this and he has no shame at all.”

III. Clothing and Honor

Rav Yehudah Loewe (Maharal, 16th cen., Czech; Be’er Ha-Golah, ch. 4) says that clothing is considered a person’s honor. Clothing are a vehicle for people to see your status. Honor in general has to be visible to others and clothing is the prime example of this. The Gemara (Shabbos 113a) says that we honor Shabbos by wearing nice clothes. The Gemara compares this to how R. Yochanan would call his clothing, “mechabdosi, my honor.”

Rav Yosef Engel (20th cen., Poland; Beis Ha-Otzar, b”g, no. 11, s.v. ve-ulam guf sevaras ha-B”Y) says that shame and honor are opposites. When you remove the shame, you gain honor. Clothing, which covers nudity, brings honor by removing that shame. Therefore, clothing is considered honor. Adam and Eve, in their ignorance, did not recognize the shame in nudity: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). They should have been ashamed but were not. Clothing remedies this shame.

Interestingly, some believe that the English word “shame” comes from some pre-Germanic word that means “to cover,” because you cover yourself when you feel ashamed. Shame is a sense of being uncovered, which you remedy by covering yourself.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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