Separation During Prayer: Mechitza
One of the defining characteristics of halakhic communal prayer is the separation between men and women known as the "mechitza." This week, I would like to explore and develop different understandings of this separation, and address the halakhic issues that arise.
The earliest source for separation between men and women during a ritual appears in massekhet Sukka. The mishna (51a) records:
One who has not seen the happiness of the water drawing has not see happiness in his days. After the first Yom Tov of the holiday, they went down to the ezrat nashim (women's courtyard) and would make a great arrangement…
The gemara (51b) continues:
What was this great arrangement? Rabbi Elazar said: Like that which we learned. At first the periphery was smooth, and then they surrounded it with a balcony, and they established that women should sit above and men [should sit] below. The Rabbis learned: Originally, the women were inside and the men were outside, and they would come to frivolity. They established that women should sit outside and men inside, and they would still come to frivolity. They [then] established that women should sit above and men [should sit] below…
The Yerushalmi (Sukka 5:2) provides a source for this arrangement:
And they would make a great arrangement. What arrangement would they make there? That they would set up the men by themselves and the women by themselves… From whom did they learn? From the verse (Zekharya 12:12), "And the earth mourned, each family alone." Two Amora'im [commented on this verse]. One said that this is the eulogy of Mashiach, and the other said that this is the eulogy of the evil inclination. [According to] the one who said that this is the eulogy of Mashiach, if at a time when they are mourning you say that the men should be by themselves and the women should be by themselves, then when they are happy, all the more so! [According to] the one who said that this is the eulogy of the evil inclination, if at a time when the evil inclination does not exist you say that the men should be by themselves and the women should be by themselves, then when the evil inclination does exist all the more so!
The Acharonim discuss the relationship between the separation instituted in the Beit Ha-mikdash and the mechitza of the synagogue. What is the reason for this separation? What type of separation suffices?
We will focus on three approaches to mechitza in the contemporary synagogue.
Three Approaches to Mechitza
Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986) offers a unique approach. Regarding the level of obligation, he writes (Iggerot Moshe OC 1:39):
The rule that even if the men are on one side and the women on the other it is forbidden without a mechitza is… a biblical rule. And the proof is from [Massekhet] Sukka… [the gemara] questioned… [how they built a balcony in the ezrat nashim given] that it is forbidden to add anything to the Temple and the courtyard, and Rav answered that they found a verse [which states] that it is necessary to separate men from women… And even though the verse appears only in the Prophets, one can learn from it, because the verse didn't come to create prohibitions… rather, it says in the verse that… they should mourn like the law of the Torah, men alone and women alone…
Rav Moshe Feinstein argues that the requirement of a mechitza is biblical, mi-de'oraita; if it were not, it would have been prohibited to alter the Beit Ha-mikdash. Rav Feinstein goes on to explain:
…The prohibition is only because of frivolity… but it seems to me that it is enough to have a mechitza higher than the shoulders, for we have seen that the mechitza is not to prevent looking… It is biblically forbidden to act with frivolity during prayer, but it is somewhat necessary to say that this law is biblical in any place of gathering… and without a need for a gathering, even in the Temple it is permissible, because Chana prayed next to Eli the priest…
Rav Feinstein here defines the purpose of the mechitza as prevention of frivolity, which has halakhic implications as to the necessary size of the mechitza, as we will soon discuss. Importantly, Rav Feinstein offers a universal theory of separation. In any place of "gathering," it is necessary to separate the men and women; when there is no gathering, separation is unnecessary even in the Beit Ha-mikdash. While outside of the scope of this shiur, this theory may have far-reaching ramifications regarding weddings, shiurim, and social gatherings. (See Iggerot MosheOC 1:41.)
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, on the other hand, offers a different theory. He explains that the requirement for a mechitza is based on another gemara (Megilla 29a), which teaches:
"Yet have I been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they have come" (Yechezkel 11:16) - these are the synagogues and study hoses in Bavel…
This well-known gemara views synagogues as miniature "batei mikdash." The Yere'im (409) even extends the biblical obligation to be in awe of the mikdash to synagogues!
Rav Kook (Ma'amarei Ha-Ra'aya, "Le-Mikdash Me'at") argues that:
We are certainly obligated to come as close as possible, in all that is permitted to us in these "small sanctuaries,"… to the holy qualities of the great and holy sanctuary…
In other words, the obligation to build a mechitza is rooted in the synagogue's similarity to the Beit Ha-mikdash. Just as a mechitza was built in the Beit Ha-mikdash, one should also be constructed in the synagogue. Seemingly, this explanation would not apply to other social gatherings, as RavMosheFeinstein suggested.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of YeshivaUniversity, wrote a powerful and articulate non-halakhic defense of the mechitza in 1959. In an article entitled "Separate Pews in the Synagogue: A Social and Psychological Approach," (Tradition 1:2, 1959, 141-164), he argues that the need for a mechitza is firmly, and exclusively, rooted in an understanding of the Jewish concept of prayer. Rabbi Lamm explains:
[A Jew] approaches God out of solitude and insecurity, relying completely upon Him for his very breath. This complete concentration on God, this awareness only of Him and nothing or no one else, is called kavana… without kavana, prayer becomes just a senseless repetition of words…
Mixed pews, Rabbi Lamm argues, lead to distraction and frivolity, which undermine one's kavana.
Furthermore, Rabbi Lamm insists that prayer requires "bashfulness" and a "sense of insecurity." He quotes his teacher, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, who attacked the notion of family pews.
…The approach of the Jew to God must be out of a sense of isolation, of insecurity, of defenselessness. There must be a recognition that without God none of us has any security at all, that my husband's life is dependent on God's will, his strength on God's favor, his health on God's goodness…
The sense of security one feels when sitting with one's spouse, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued, is antithetical to the Jewish concept of prayer.
Clearly, according to this approach, mechitza should be understood within the narrow framework of prayer, rather than within the broader question of the mingling of men and women or the relationship between the modern synagogue and the Beit Ha-mikdash.
Height and Material of the Mechitza
How high must the mechitza be? From which materials may it be fashioned? Seemingly, this should depend upon the reason, or purpose, of the mechitza.
The Acharonim debate the reason, or function, of the mechitza. On the one hand, some cite the Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar Lulav ve-Sukka 8:12):
How would they do this? On the eve of the first holiday, they would make in the Temple a place for the women above and the men below in order that they should not mix with each other…
From this citation, it seems that the Rambam believes that the mechitza is meant to physically prevent intermingling between men and women.
Others, however, point to another citation of the Rambam, which seems to provide a different reason for the mechitza. He writes (Peirush al Ha-Mishna, Sukka 5):
"A great arrangement" – of great benefit. And it was that they would prepare a place for the women and a defined place for the men, and the place for the women was higher than the place for the men in order that the men should not look at the women…
Here, the Rambam implies that the mechitza is meant to prevent the men and women from even seeing each other.
Rav Moshe Feinstein authored a number of teshuvot on this question. In Iggerot Moshe (OC 1:39), he writes:
…Also in synagogues, where men and women gather to pray, it is preferable to make a balcony in which the women are above. If for whatever reason it is difficult to make a balcony, it is necessary to make a real separation, which will prevent them from frivolity… Therefore, a mechitza of ten tefachim is not sufficient… rather it seems that a mechitza which reaches the shoulders would be sufficient, as we see that the need for a mechitza is not related to gazing… [A mechitza of] less than 18 tefachim [five feet] is prohibited, and one should protest [such a mechitza]…
In other words, RavMosheFeinstein views the mechitza's function as preventing the possibility of frivolity, and therefore requires a barrier that prevents mingling, and even physical contact, between men and women. However, he is not concerned with men and women seeing each other, per se, as long as standards of modesty are preserved.
Others, such as the former Satmar Rav, Rav Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Ha-Levi 1:29) and representatives of the Hungarian and Chassidic communities, disagree. They claim that the primary purpose of a mechitza is to prevent visual contact between men and women. Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, gathered seventy leaders of nineteenth century Hungarian Jewry and had them sign a letter prohibiting entry into a synagogue in which the men can see the women (see Tzitz Eliezer 7:8)!
Incidentally, Rav Soloveitchik reportedly ruled that a mechitza need only be ten tefachim tall, between 40–50 inches! See Rabbi Aryeh A. Frimer's "Women and Minyan" (Tradition 22:4, Summer 1988) and Rabbi Michael J. Broyde article at http://www.yith.org/library/yi%2520ideology%2520Mechitza.pdf+soloveitchik+mechitza&hl=iw&gl=il&ct=clnk&cd=3). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot MosheOC1:41) rejects this position, as seen above.
Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1885–1966), in his Seridei Eish, supports Rav Moshe Feinstein's position. In addition, he argues that while the Hungarian position
may be guided by pure motives, to preserve modesty as it was practiced years ago, nowadays the situation has changed; if women stay home and do not go to shul, they will completely forget their Judaism, and therefore it is prohibited to distance them based on this stringency which has no basis in the halakha…
Based upon the above considerations, recent poskim have discussed which materials may be used for the mechitza. For example, may part, or all, of the mechitza be constructed of glass?
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe OC 1:43) discusses a mechitza in which the top third is made of glass. He argues that the mechitza poses no problem halakhically, but he raises a concern regarding modesty.
…However, maybe [some women] will come in inappropriate clothing, which reveals their skin, as many women are accustomed to walk around in our countries, in which case it may be prohibited for the men facing the women's section to pray and recite words of Torah…
He also notes that
I have heard that there is glass that can be seen through from only one direction, and it would be good to use this glass, as the women would be able to see, but the men would not be able to see…
RavMosheFeinstein also discussed mechitzot constructed of lattice work. For example, in one teshuva (OC 4:29) he addresses a mechitza in which 50 inches are made from a solid material, and the top 13 inches consist of lattice work ("open windows"). He strongly discourages praying in such a synagogue, and suggests hanging a curtain over them. He notes that some are lenient if the gaps are less than three inches apart, but urges that congregations filled with the "God fearing and benei Torah" not to be lenient.
In another teshuva (Iggerot Moshe OC 4:32), however, he permits a lattice mechitza with small holes, as long as the mechitza is 60 inches high and is able to prevent frivolity ("kalut rosh").
RavFeinstein (Iggerot Moshe OC 4:31) addresses another issue common in American synagogues. He was asked about a women's section that was raised 40 inches; from the men's side, the mechitza was at least 70 inches high, but from the women's side, if was only thirty. He expresses his displeasure with such a mechitza, and insists that the mechitza should be at least 60 inches high on the women's side as well. In another teshuva (OC 3:23) dealing with a women's section raised 12 inches, he also expresses his disapproval, but writes that he cannot prohibit it outright.
The question of whether a mechitza is necessary outside the synagogue is beyond the range of our course. However, for those interested in pursuing this topic, see Sefer Chassidim 393; Yam Shel Shelomo, Ketuvot 1:20; Levush, Likkutei Minhangim 36; Bach, Even Ha-Ezer 62; and Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 149. See also Iggerot Moshe OC 1:41 and Seridei Eish 1:77.
This week we conclude our two year study of The Laws of Prayer. The shiurim of the past two years can be found at the VBM shiur archives, at http://www.vbm-torah.org/tefila.html and http://www.vbm-torah.org/tefila68.html. After the summer, we will launch a new series of halakha shiurim: The Laws of the Festivals. Over the next two years we hope to study, in the following order, the laws of Rosh Ha-shana, Chanuka, Purim, the Fast Days, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Sefirat Ha-omer and Sukkot. Similar to our previous shiurim, I hope to offer a broad overview, alongside an in depth analysis of many of the issues relevant to the above topics. I look forward to our continued learning.
Have a good summer. – David Brofsky