The Origins of Modesty, Clothing and Sewing



The Origins of Modesty, Clothing and Sewing

by Mrs. Moriya Chesler

Where does modesty originate and why is it associated with clothing? Who invented sewing?  As people of faith, we don’t have to look very far to discover the answer to this question.  If we open to chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Bereishis (Genesis), we will find our answer there.

Adam and Chava (Eve) when they were created were not ashamed of their being unclothed as we find in verse 2:25 in the Book of Bereishis.

כה  וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים, הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְלֹא, יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.

And both of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not embarrassed — Bereishis 2:25.

Adam was commanded by G-d to not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  But he and his wife, Chava (Eve), transgressed that prohibition.  Immediately after they ate, they discovered that they were naked.

ז  וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם


And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew, that they were naked. And they sewed a fig leaf, and they made for themselves girdles (belts) — Bereishis 3:7.

Soon after, Adam and Chava heard G-d calling them and hid themselves from G-d.

י  וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶת-קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן; וָאִירָא כִּי-עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי, וָאֵחָבֵא.

And he (Adam) said, “Your voice I’ve heard in the garden; and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.”  — Bereishis 3:10

After meting out punishments to Adam, Chava and the snake, G-d clothed Adam and Chava with garments of skin.

כא  וַיַּעַשׂ יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ, כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר–וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם.

And G-d made for Adam and his wife, garments of skin, and He clothed them. — Bereishis 3:21

From the above two verses, we can ask the following questions:

  1. Why were Adam and Chava not embarrassed of their nakedness before the sin?
  2. Why after the sin did they only realize that they were naked?  Doesn’t this contradict their awareness of their being unclothed before the sin?
  3. Why did Adam and Chava sew girdles?
  4. Even after covering themselves, why was Adam fearful and why did he see the need to hide from G-d?
  5. Why did G-d clothe Adam and Chava further with garments of skin?

Before the sin, there was nothing for Adam and Chava to be ashamed of.  They served G-d with their entire being, body and soul together.  Adam’s skin was unlike ours, as it was translucent like our fingernail.[1]  According to Kabbalistic sources[2], G-d clothed Adam with a spiritual garment of light, called Ketones Ohr or כתונת אור.  This light is perceived to be even brighter than sunlight. In a simplistic sense, Adam and Chava’s nakedness was not a problem as they were enveloped in this primordial light shining through their fingernail-like skin.

As a consequence of the sin, Adam and Chava were stripped of this spiritual garment of light.  According to Rashi[3], Adam and Chava’s eyes were enlightened with newfound awareness and intelligence.  Sforno[4] tells us that Adam and Chava now acquired a desire for every base pleasure despite its adverse effects.  Being devoid of their spiritual garments of light, Adam and Chava saw the need to cover their nakedness with something physical, for basic dignity.

Adam and Chava sewed girdles or belts for themselves.  What good is a belt?  Is that enough to cover oneself with?  According to the Zohar[5], the belt provides a clear distinction between the activities of the upper and lower torso of man.  Adam and Chava sewed belts to guard themselves based on their discovery of bodily desires and lust as a result of the sin. The belt covered the body from the waist down like an apron.

Before the sin, Adam was comfortable with G-d’s presence despite his nakedness. He was fearful afterwards because he realized that being minimally covered with fig-leaf garments is not respectful before G-d[6]. Imagine one appearing before a flesh-and-blood king with only one’s undergarments.  That would not be appropriate.  How much more so appearing before G-d, the supreme King of kings that way.  That is the origin of modesty.  Thus, Adam hid himself, together with Chava from G-d.

Performing one of many acts of kindness[7] and revealing parental love at the same time[8], G-d clothed Adam and Chava with garments of skin, that not only modestly cover but also provide further protection from the elements[9].  Rabbi Chama bar Chanina[10] tells us that just as G-d clothed the naked, so are we obliged to clothe the naked.  Adam’s shame of being naked in public teaches us that the it is worse than death[11].  A garment is not only for modesty, or to distinguish the wearer as a dignified human being rather than an animal, but it also sanctifies one as holy[12].  Through modesty and living a holy life, one can reveal the godliness within ourselves and bring us back to Gan Eden that we lost[13].

Adam HaRishon, the first man, teaches us lessons of modesty through his action of hiding from G-d while embarrassed at the insufficient covering from the fig leaves. He and Chava were the first people to sew clothing out of fig leaves.  A sin brings about consequences that affect life moving forward.  However, G-d is compassionate and remains kind to the sinner.  He waits patiently for the sinner to repent.  Repent, Adam did.

[1] Rabbi Pinchas Winston, 20th century Torah commentator

[2] Etz Chaim, teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria also known as the Arizal

[3] Rashi, also known as Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century French Torah commentator

[4] Sforno, also known as Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 15th century Italian Torah commentator

[5] The Zohar, authored by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, contains hidden secrets of the Torah.

[6] The commentary of the Brisker Rav, as told by Rabbi Eli Oelbaum

[7] Rabbi Simlai, a third century Torah authority

[8] Rabbeinu Bachya, 13th century Spanish Torah commentator

[9] Professor Nachum Sarna, professor of Jewish Theological Seminary and Brandeis University

[10] Rabbi Chama bar Chanina, a third century Amora in Eretz Yisrael

[11] Yalkut Meam Loez, a collection of legal and Midrashi materials first published by Rabbi Jacob Culi

[12] Rabbi Meir, second century Tanna

[13] Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, 19th century Rabbi who rebuilt Orthodox Jewry in Germany