Question: Can a women’s/girl’s clothing store sell sleeveless blouses or tops or does this constitute the prohibition of placing a stumbling-block in front of a blind man?
Answer: Firstly, let us begin by stating that the prohibition for a woman to wear sleeveless tops in public is a very grave one, based on the ruling of the Rambam and Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha’Ezer, Chapter 115, Section 4). The Gemara in Masechet Sotah states that this sin causes Hashem’s holy presence to leave the midst of the Jewish nation, as the verse states, “And your camp shall be holy; and He shall not see any promiscuity among you and turn away from you.” Clearly, women who dress in such a fashion transgress the Torah prohibition of placing a stumbling-block in front of a blind man, for this causes many other sins to ensue. The reward for women who dress and act modestly is tremendous, for such women cause Hashem’s presence to rest amongst the Jewish nation; the offspring of such women are destined to be good and proper children, faithful to the service of Hashem. (The amount of the arm which must be covered according to Halacha is up to and covering the elbow.)
Let us now discuss the question regarding whether or not it is permissible to sell immodest clothing.
The Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishnah (Shevi’it, Chapter 5), explains the verse “Do not place a stumbling-block in front of a blind man” to mean that if an individual is “blinded” as a result of falling prey to his desires and the Evil Inclination, do not assist him in increasing his “blindness” and straying even further from the proper path. It is apparent from the words of the Rambam that this prohibition refers to causing a sinner to sin more. Based on this, it would seem to be forbidden to sell clothing which does not fit the guidelines of Halacha, for by selling such garments, one causes the buyer to transgress grave prohibitions.
Nevertheless, Hagaon Rabbeinu Chaim Benbenisti, author of the Sefer Kenesset Ha’Gedolah, writes that the prohibition of placing a stumbling-block before a blind man applies only when the sinner will not be able to obtain or transgress the sin without the assistance he is requesting from us; however, if it is known that the sinner can transgress this very sin even without our assistance, the prohibition of placing a stumbling-block no longer applies. Thus, as long as the woman can purchase such an immodest garment elsewhere, the prohibition of placing a stumbling-block in front of a blind man does not apply. He quotes this law based on the manuscripts of Hagaon Rabbeinu Aharon Sasson (who lived in the times of Maran Ha’Bet Yosef).
There are those who disagree with the opinion of the Kenesset Ha’Gedolah and write that since ultimately, this woman cannot purchase such a garment without someone else transgressing the prohibition of placing a stumbling-block by selling it to her, thus, this prohibition can only come about by someone, whoever that may be, transgressing the prohibition of placing a stumbling-block. According to this opinion, there is no room for leniency to sell immodest clothing. Nevertheless, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that when such clothing is available for sale by a non-Jew, selling such clothing certainly does not constitute the Torah prohibition of placing a stumbling-block; rather, this only constitutes a rabbinic prohibition of “aiding sinners,” for ultimately, one who sells such garments aids the women wearing them to achieve her goal; this constitutes a rabbinic prohibition even if such immodest clothing is available elsewhere.
Halachically speaking, Maran zt”l rules leniently for a different reason which is that many women wear such sleeveless tops on top of another shirt (shell) or blouse with sleeves in a manner where it is not clear that a prohibition will ever ensue, for there is a permissible way to wear such a top. Indeed, the Ritba writes that as long as one is not offering an actual prohibition itself (such as pork, which is forbidden by its very essence) and is only offering an object which can lead to a prohibition (such as an immodest garment) and it is doubtful whether or not the prohibition will even ensue, the prohibition of placing a stumbling-block before a blind man does not apply. Maran zt”l proceeds to support this with proofs and sources. Therefore, in our situation where it is not certain that the wearing of such a garment will be in a prohibited manner, neither the prohibition of placing a stumbling-block nor that of aiding a sinner apply here.
Summary: One may sell immodest clothing to women provided that there is a possibility that the women may wear this clothing in a modest manner. Hagaon Harav Shmuel Ha’Levi Wosner zt”l rules likewise (see Responsa Yechave Da’at, Volume 3, Chapter 67)