Men / Women – Thoughts / Seeing / Gazing
by Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein
I received a question recently from a student regarding a class I had taught a few years ago. Because it is a topic that affects every one of us, I figured I would expand the answer I sent in reply and, since for many it certainly falls into the category of “I didn’t know that!” Halachos, I thought I would share the thoughts with all of you. In addition, these weeks of Shovavim [the weeks of the parshiyos beginning with Parshas Shemos (the “Sh” of Shovavim) and continuing through Va’Eira, Bo, Bishalach, Yisro, and Mishpatim – the Roshei Teivos spell “Shovavim”] are traditionally a time that Klal Yisroel uses specifically to focus on our growth and sensitivities in areas having to do with tznius and male/female interactions in general.
The question I received was: Is there a source for Shmiras HaAynayim (a man’s requirement to “guard” his eyes)?
The reason that this question is so important is because, at least from a strictly Halachic standpoint, this requirement is at the core of the halachos that define how a woman may be dressed in the presence of men who are not her immediate family members. Therefore I would like to briefly outline the background, and some specifics, of this Halacha.
Mitzvot Lo Taasei that appear in the Torah
1 – “Vi lo sasuru acharei… eineichem” [Bamidbar 15] The literal translation of the pasuk (that we say every day in Krias Shema) is, “And you shall not be swayed after your hearts or after your eyes.” Chazal write that this is specifically referring to “z’nus” – the seeing of immodestly dressed women or other such inappropriate scenes. The Gemara in Brachos 12b refers to this as Lo Ta’aseh as does the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 4, 1 and 4, 4), Rabbeinu Yona (Igeres HaTeshuva 14 and Shaarei Teshuva Shaar 3, 64), and the Beis Yosef (Even HaEzer Siman 21). This Lo Ta’aseh is brought in the Shulchan Aruch in Even HaEzer Siman 21, 1 and referred to by the Mishna Berura on the very first page of the Mishna Berura, in the second Be’ur Halacha in his discussion of the 6 Constant Mitzvos.
2 – “Vinishmarta mikol davar ra” [Devarim 23] Literally, “And you shall guard yourself from every bad thing.” The Gemara in Avodah Zara 20a explains this pasuk to also specifically be referring to a man’s responsibility to “guard” himself from seeing in appropriate scenes. There is a discussion in the Rishonim regarding the exact “status” of this issur – whether it is an issur Min HaTorah (Sefer Mitzvos Ketanos 30) or possibly not (Ramban on the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzovs, the “extra” Lavin 11) or referring to a man’s having illicit thoughts about women, but not specifically related to his “seeing” women per se (Rabbeinu Yona in Igeres HaTeshuva and Tosafos on the Gemara in Avoda Zara). Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l understood that applied to illicit thoughts about women, as well as the seeing of anything that would bring a man to have illicit thoughts.
What are the halachic parameters of this? The way it works is as follows: There are basically two types of looking that a person does. For our purposes, lets refer to one as “seeing” and one as “gazing.” Seeing is what we do most of the time when we are not specifically focusing our vision on any one thing in particular. Gazing is when one consciously focuses his or her attention and, if it is a pleasant thing to look at, derives enjoyment or satisfaction out of the what he or she sees. This distinction is something that comes up in other areas of halacha as well. For example, without getting into all the details right now, a person is not supposed to “look at” the moon. Or a rainbow. The poskim say that this means to gaze at it with intent and focus. Simply to look up and “see” the moon is not a problem. This distinction plays an important role in the halachos regarding “Shemiras HaEynayim.”
It is forbidden for a man to gaze at a woman, even if she is dressed completely appropriately, and even if he is only gazing at a specific part of her body that is not supposed to be covered (the example given is a pinkie). This prohibition is brought by the Gemara, the Rambam (I”B 21, 2), the Shulchan Aruch (EH”E 21,1) and Mishna Berurah 75, s.k. 7. Regarding this prohibition, unless a woman is doing something specifically to attract attention, like wearing something attention-grabbing or interacting in such a way that is causing the man she is interacting with to look closely or specifically focus his attention on her, a woman is not responsible if a man were to gaze at her.
Excluded from this prohibition (meaning a man may specifically focus his attention and look) are any blood relatives (parents, siblings, children, grandparents, grandchildren), a man’s wife or a potential shidduch.
When it comes to seeing, however, the halacha is different. The Mishna Berura (75 s.k. 7) writes that if there is nothing inappropriate around, there is no prohibition for a man to “see” women. He writes that with the exception of those who wish to be extra careful and pious in this area and not even see women at all, it is permissible for a man to see and interact in the presence of women. However, this is only if there is no exposed “ervah” present. An area of the body that is halachically required to be covered by women is prohibited from even being seen by a man, even if he is not specifically focusing his attention on what he is looking at. So even if a woman is not dressed in such a way that she is seeking to specifically attract attention, if she is in the presence of men, she has to see to it that she is not dressed in such a way that a man would even see the parts of her that are supposed to be covered. [Without going into the specifics now, the consensus among the poskim is that this includes any area of a woman from her neckline to her elbows to her knees and, depending on the neighborhood and accepted practice, possibly her calf as well.]