Shiur #07: The Mechitza

  • Rav Chaim Navon

Many will be surprised to hear that the obligation to erect a mechitza in the synagogue is not discussed in the Gemara or any other early source. However, Jewish custom from time immemorial dictates that a mechitza be erected in the synagogue to separate between men and women. The later authorities base this custom on two main sources, and see it as a halakhic obligation. The first source is a famous Talmudic passage:


Mishna: At the conclusion of the first festival day of Sukkot they descended to the Court of Women where they had made a great enactment…

Gemara: …What was the great enactment…? Our Rabbis have taught: Originally, the women used to sit within [the Court of Women] while the men were without, but as this caused levity, it was instituted that the women should sit without and the men within. As this, however, still led to levity, it was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below. (Sukka 51a-b)


We see from here that the Sages altered the structure of the Temple in order to separate between men and women during the time of the simchat beit ha-sho’eiva (drawing of the water) celebration on Sukkot. The Gemara asks how they could have acted so brazenly; surely it is forbidden to change the structure of the Temple! Rav (the amora)answers that the Sages learned how vitally necessary such a separation is from a verse that, according to them, refers to the eulogy to be recited in the future over the Messiah, son of Yosef:


“And the men shall mourn, every family apart, the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart” (Zekharya 12:12). They said: “Is it not an a fortiori argument? If in the future when they will be engaged in mourning and the evil inclination will have no power over them, the Torah nevertheless says that men and women should be separated, how much more so now, when they are engaged in rejoicing and the evil inclination has sway over them?


It appears from the Mishna and the Gemara that men and women were indeed separated in the Temple, but it is difficult to accept this as the source obligating us to build a mechitza in the synagogue. According to the simple understanding of the Mishna and the Gemara, we are dealing with an architectural addition that was especially added each year for Sukkot. This would imply that all year long men and women stood together in the women's courtyard of the Temple.


An internal contradiction is found in the Rambam's ruling on this matter. In Hilkhot Sukka (8:12), the Rambam rules in accordance with the Mishna that the separation in the Temple was a special provision for the days of Sukkot, necessitated by the simchat beit ha-sho’eiva. In Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira, however, he writes as follows:


The Court of Women was surrounded by a balcony, so that women would observe from above and the men from below and the two would not mingle. (5:9)


The Rambam's words imply that we are dealing with a permanent fixture in the structure of the Temple. If we try to reconcile the Rambam's two rulings, we might reach the conclusion that the balcony, or at least some preparation for the balcony, was in place at all times, but it was only in anticipation of the simchat beit ha-sho’eiva that they made the necessary preparations for actual separation. From here, too, we get the impression that all year long, with the exception of Sukkot, men and women stood together in the Court of Women in the Temple.


The verse in Zekharya speaks of separation between men and women at a eulogy in the future, and the a fortiori argument that the Gemara suggests implies that there is an absolute general obligation to separate between men and women. It seems, however, that in reality this separation was not constant, so it would appear that we are dealing with a mere asmakhta (support adduced from a verse) and not with a Torah obligation based on the verses. This is also implied in the words of the Meiri:


Even though the entire building was [erected] based on the words of a prophet, and they should not have added anything, they introduced temporary construction to repair breaches, so that there be no levity with men and women intermingled. For even with regard to a eulogy, it is hinted:  “And the men shall mourn, every family apart, the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart.” (Meiri, Sukka 50a)


We already noted that if separating men and women were really a Torah obligation, it would be impossible to limit the obligation to the simchat beit ha-sho’eiva. The Meiri'spoint of departure is slightly different, though he too arrives at the same conclusion: The book of Zekharya is not part of the Torah proper, but rather part of the Prophets, and the verse in question does not even include a clear command regarding separation in the Temple. The Meiri speaks of the verse as an allusion or as an asmakhta. How, then, was it possible to rely on an asmakhta to introduce a change in the structure of the Temple? The Meirianswers that the change was temporary – only for the days of Sukkot – and so in any event there was no violation of a prohibition.


A second source for erecting a mechitza in the synagogue is found in another Talmudic passage, which speaks of Amora’im who would separate between men and women:


Abaye made a partition of jugs. [Rashi: At a place where men and women would gather for a lecture or a wedding, he would set up many clay jugs between them, so that if they intermingle, there will be a noise.] Rava made a partition of canes. Avin said: “The sorest spot of the year is the festival.” [Rashi: The sorest part of the year for seclusion and sin is the days of the festival, for men and women assemble to hear the lecture and converse with each other.] (Kiddushin 81a)


Here we are dealing with the erection of a mechitza whenever men and women assemble to hear a lecture. It should be noted, however, that no halakhic source is offered for this practice. Nor do know the precise nature of the social atmosphere at such gatherings during that period. What we have here is educational-communal guidance, rather than a halakhic ruling. This guidance depends not only on the atmosphere at these mixed gatherings, but also on the degree to which these gatherings were exceptional. It is reasonable to assume that when women were generally confined to their homes, their very act of going out into the world and mingling with men gave rise to various concerns. In contrast, in our generation, men and women intermingle in their workplaces. It is not clear then that separation by gender should be necessary at every gathering that has a religious nature. One can disagree with this approach, but, as stated, we are not dealing here with an unequivocal halakhic ruling, but rather with a public policy consideration that should be weighed by rabbinic authorities.


What about a mechitza in the synagogue itself? Here the solid, unequivocal and consistent custom in all Jewish communities is that there should be a mechitza in the synagogue during prayer times. Jewish prayer is conducted in the framework of total separation between men and women. No halakhic authority challenges the obligation to have a mechitza. Nevertheless, it is not at all clear that this practice has an unequivocal halakhic foundation.


Rav Moshe Feinstein presents a different understanding of the force of the obligation to have a mechitza from what we have outlined thus far. He deals with the issue at length, and his words serve as an important source for questions concerning the erection of a mechitza in actual practice (Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chayyim, I, no. 39). Rav Feinstein derives from the Gemara in Sukka that there is a Torah prohibition for men and women to intermingle and a corresponding Torah obligation to actively separate men from women by way of a mechitza. It is only for this reason, he argues, that the prohibition to introduce changes into the Temple does not apply here. It is not that the prohibition concerning the intermingling of men and women sets aside the prohibition to introduce changes in the structure of the Temple. Rather, since we are dealing here with a Torah law, it is as if it were included in the original instructions given by the prophets regarding the structure of the Temple. Even if it was never explicitly written or stated that a mechitza must be erected, it is clear that this is what the prophets meant when they detailed the plans for the Temple. It is obvious that the Temple cannot be built in such a way that people will come to transgress a Torah prohibition, and therefore it is as if the matter were stated explicitly. According to Rav Feinstein, were we not dealing here with a Torah law, it is difficult to understand how it would have been possible to change the structure of the Temple.


This understanding, however, is not necessary if we accept the Meiri’s position. According to him, a change in the structure of the Temple is permitted, despite the fact that the verse in Zekharya is merely an asmakhta,because that change is only temporary: All year long men and women stood together in the Court of Women without any mechitza separating between them, and the balcony was built for the simchat beit ha-sho’eiva exclusively.


Rav Feinstein himself cites the Maharsha, who understands the Talmudic passage differently, if only to reject his approach. Like the Meiri, the Maharsha maintains that there is no violation here of the Torah prohibition against changing the structure of the Temple. According to the Maharsha, though, the reason for this is that the structure of the Temple remained essentially unchanged. The added balcony was meant to solve a localized problem, and did not fundamentally alter the Temple’s structure or appearance. If there is no violation of the prohibition against changing the structure of the Temple, there is also no need for a Torah obligation to separate men and women in order to overcome that prohibition.


Rav Feinstein raises another consideration that has important halakhic ramifications. He argues that there was no concern in the Temple about the men seeing the women, for if that were the concern, they would not have tried models of separation that clearly did not provide visual separation. If they wanted to prevent the men from seeing the women, why did they try putting the women within and the men without? Surely this would not solve the problem. Even the final solution of a balcony does not prevent the men from seeing the women. Why, then, was a mechitza needed? “Because [the absence of a mechitza] led to levity, that is, increased conversation between them, physical contact, and the like.” The mechitza in the Temple was meant to prevent mingling that involves levity, and not necessarily visual separation. So too writes the Rambam (cited above) regarding the need for a balcony in the Temple: “So that they would not mingle.” Rav Feinstein therefore rules that a shoulder-height mechitza suffices, as it provides enough separation to prevent the mingling of men and women during the prayer service. This is a novel ruling, as the laws governing a mechitza are not detailed precisely in the Shulchan Arukh or other early sources. This seems to support the argument that we are dealing here not with an actual halakha, but with a custom.[1] Rav Feinstein, however, maintains that this is indeed a halakha. He bases the practice on early halakhic sources, and he even tries to establish a precise definition of the height of a mechitza – eighteen handbreadths.[2]


How does Rav Feinstein counter the argument that all year long there was no separation between men and women in the Temple? His argument is that the obligation to create a separation by way of a mechitza only applies when there is an obligation to assemble – as in the Temple during the time of the simchat beit ha-sho’eiva and in the synagogue during the time of prayer. When there is no obligation to assemble, there is no need to create a separation. It is not clear why this factor – the obligation to assemble – is critical with respect to the obligation to separate between men and women. In another responsum, Rav Feinstein adds that, in his opinion, there is no obligation to separate between men and women outside the synagogue:


But in a place where people assemble for optional matters, or even for weddings, I am in doubt whether this prohibition applies, in a situation where there is no concern about seclusion. I am more inclined to say that this prohibition does not apply, for we find with respect to the eating of the korban Pesach that men and women would eat it in the same house, and there were several families there, for each and every korban Pesach had more than ten counted to it. (Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chayyim I, no. 41)


Rav Moshe argues that several families ate their shared korban Pesach together, and we have no indication that men and women were separated there. From here he infers that even at weddings or other gatherings there appears to be no obligation to separate between men and women.


            It should be noted that many authorities disagree with Rav Feinstein regarding the purpose of a mechitza, and, as a result, with his lenient height requirement as well. These authorities therefore require a taller mechitza, one that not only separates men and women, but prevents men from seeing women as well.[3]



(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The Tzitz Eliezer (VII, no. 8) explains that the Shulchan Arukh omits the laws governing a mechitza only because in his day women prayed in a different room, altogether separated, and therefore the problem never arose.

[2] In responsum no. 42, Rav Feinstein writes that in a place where women dress immodestly, the mechitza must be higher.

[3] See Tzitz Eliezer VII, no. 8. For more on the subject of mechitza, see Baruch Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue (3rd ed., Hoboken, 1987).