Mechitza I: Purpose

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אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽה' וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽה' כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ ... וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃ וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽה' כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃

Then Moshe and Benei Yisrael sang this song to God and they said: I will sing to God for He has triumphed greatly, horse and his rider He has cast into the sea…And Miryam the prophet, sister of Aharon, took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing. And Miriam called out responsively to them: Sing to God for He has triumphed greatly, horse and his rider He has cast into the sea…

ר' פנחס אומר, ערב שבת עמדו ישראל בהר סיני עורכין האנשים לבד והנשים לבד

Rav Pinchas says: on a Shabbat eve Israel stood at Mount Sinai, arranged with the men to themselves and the women to themselves.

משנה: אֵין עוֹמְדִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ כּוֹבֶד רֹאשׁ... גמרא... אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן בַּר יִצְחָק מֵהָכָא: ״עִבְדוּ אֶת ה׳ בְּיִרְאָה וְגִילוּ בִּרְעָדָה״. מַאי ״וְגִילוּ בִּרְעָדָה״? אָמַר רַב אַדָּא בַּר מַתְנָא אָמַר רַבָּה: בִּמְקוֹם גִּילָה שָׁם תְּהֵא רְעָדָה.

Mishna: One should only stand to pray with koved rosh [seriousness]… Gemara: Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said [we learn this] from here: “Serve God with awe and rejoice in trembling” (Tehillim 2:11). What does “rejoice in trembling” mean? Rav Ada son of Matna said Rabba said: Where there is rejoicing, there should [also] be trembling.

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: אֵין עוֹמְדִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל לֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְבוּת, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְלוּת, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ שְׂחוֹק, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ שִׂיחָה, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ קַלּוּת רֹאשׁ, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ דְּבָרִים בְּטֵלִים, אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ שִׂמְחָה שֶׁל מִצְוָה.

Our Rabbis taught: One should not stand to pray in sadness, and not in laziness, and not in levity, and not in conversation, and not in frivolity [kalut rosh], and not in trivial matters, but rather in joy of performing a mitzva.

ת"ר בתי כנסיות אין נוהגין בהן קלות ראש

Our rabbis taught: We do not practice frivolity [kalut rosh] in synagogues.

אשה בעזרה מנין

Whence is a woman in the azara [inner Temple courtyard]?

תוספות הרא”ש קידושין נב:

… פעמים שנכנסת [לעזרה] כגון סוטה ונזירה לענין תנופה …ואפילו שלא לצורך אין איסור אם נכנסת … ומ”מ [=ומכל מקום] שפיר קאמר “אשה בעזרה מנין” משום דלא שכיח מילתא שתכנס כמו בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות …

Tosafot Rosh Kiddushin 52b

Sometimes a woman would enter [the azara], such as a Sota or a Nazirite for waving a sacrifice…and even when not necessary, there is no prohibition if she enters [the courtyard]…Still, it is well-stated “Whence is a woman in the azara?” Since it is uncommon for her to enter, as it is in synagogues and in batei midrash.

שער הנשים... צריכין לכנוס שם לעמוד אצל הקרבת קרבנן...

“The gate of the women” [Mishna Middot 2:6]…They [women] must enter there to stand over the offering of their [personal] sacrifices…

תנו רבנן: בראשונה היו נשים מבפנים ואנשים מבחוץ, והיו באים לידי קלות ראש, התקינו שיהו נשים יושבות מבחוץ ואנשים מבפנים. ועדיין היו באין לידי קלות ראש. התקינו שיהו נשים יושבות מלמעלה ואנשים מלמטה. היכי עביד הכי? והכתיב הכל בכתב מיד ה’ עלי השכיל! (דברי הימים א כח:יט) – אמר רב: קרא אשכחו ודרוש, וספדה הארץ משפחות משפחות לבד משפחת בית דוד לבד ונשיהם לבד (זכריה יב:יב). אמרו: והלא דברים קל וחומר. ומה לעתיד לבא – שעוסקין בהספד ואין יצר הרע שולט בהם – אמרה תורה אנשים לבד ונשים לבד, עכשיו שעסוקין בשמחה ויצר הרע שולט בהם – על אחת כמה וכמה.

Our rabbis taught: At first women were inside and men outside, but frivolity [kalut rosh] ensued. [The sages] enacted for the women to sit outside and the men inside. Still frivolity ensued. They enacted that the women sit above and the men below. How could they do this? Behold it is written “everything [of the Temple plans] is in writing from the hand of God upon me to understand” (Divrei Hayamim I 28:19). Rav said: They found a verse and expounded. “And the land mourned, each family to itself, the family of the house of David to itself, and their women to themselves” (Zecharya 12:12). They said: Are the matters not a kal va-chomer (a fortiori)? Just as in the time to come, when they are occupied with eulogy and the evil inclination has no power over them, the Torah said men to themselves and women to themselves, now that they are occupied with rejoicing [on Sukkot] and the evil inclination has power over them, how much more so [should they be separated]!

וְהִקִּיפוּהָ כְצוֹצְרָה, שֶׁהַנָּשִׁים רוֹאוֹת מִלְמַעְלָן, וְהָאֲנָשִׁים מִלְּמַטָּן, כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יְהוּ מְעֹרָבִין.

And they surrounded it with a balcony that the women see from above and the men from below, in order that they not be intermingled.

שהיו מעמידין האנשים בפני עצמן והנשים בפני עצמן כהיא דתנינן תמן וחלקה היתה בראשה והקיפוה כצוצטרא שהנשים רואות מלמעלן והאנשים מלמטן כדי שלא יהו מעורבין. ממי למדו מדבר תורה. [זכריה יב יב] וספדה הארץ משפחות משפחות לבד

That they would place the men by themselves and the women by themselves, as we learned in a mishna (Middot 2:5) “and it was smooth at first, and they surrounded it with a balcony that the women would see from above and the men from below, in order that they not be mingled.” From where did they learn it? From a matter of Torah: “And the land will eulogize, each family to itself…” (Zecharya 12:12)

(יחזקאל יא, טז) ואהי להם למקדש מעט אמר רבי יצחק אלו בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות שבבבל ור"א אמר זה בית רבינו שבבבל

“And I will be for them a small Temple.” Rabbi Yitzchak said: These are the synagogues and batei midrash of Babylonia.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, 'As a Little Sanctuary.' In The Sanctity of the Synagogue, p. 98

According to the Talmud (Megilla 29a) synagogues are to be looked upon as sacred Temples-in-miniature. It is, therefore, our duty to exalt them to the same level of holiness as our Holy Temple (may it be rebuilt soon in our day). Indeed, our fathers, in establishing two separate divisions for men and women in the House of Prayer thereby continued the system inaugurated in the Temple.

Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik, 'On Seating and Sanctification.' In The Sanctity of the Synagogue, p.116

Prayer means communion with the Master of the World, and therefore withdrawal from all and everything….Clearly, the presence of women among men, or of men among women, which often evokes a certain frivolity in the group, either in spirit or in behavior, can contribute little to sanctification or to the deepening of religious feeling; nor can it help instill that mood in which a man must be immersed when he would communicate with the Almighty.

Natalie Gorman, 'My Forbidden (Mechitza) Love Story,' Lilith

….When I sat in a separate space, I found my own space for prayer, one whose contours had nothing to do with who did or didn’t come with me to synagogue. As a college student seeking to define her own religious identity, I came to see the mechitza as a symbol of my independence, and of my ability to define my own Jewish experience irrespective of my nuclear family. As a woman among women, what I felt was not kinship (although I was among friends), but rather, the liberating absence of family structure. Now, as an engaged woman, I still enjoy praying independently, without reference to my partner, my new family. The mechitza has allowed me to claim prayer as a private space, in which I can shed my various roles and simply be myself.

Joelle Keene, 'My Beloved Mechitza.' Chabad.org

Synagogue becomes one place where we can be with our own gender, something not without a pleasure all its own. So you can say the mechitzah exists to keep women out, that the genders are identical and all else is cultural conceit. For many of us, though, the mechitzah opens a door in, perhaps into a more concentrated experience of who we are and certainly into the presence of Gd where holiness and much direction lie.

Lucette Lagnado, 'Prayer Behind the Partition', Wall Street Journal, 23.3.07

As a little girl, I was both enamored of the women’s section at the back of my Orthodox synagogue and tormented by it. I lived for Saturday mornings, when my mother and I left our Brooklyn apartment and walked around the corner to sweet, friendly Young Magen David and the cozy partitioned area reserved for women only. It was its own world: intimate, charming, a place that encouraged friendship as well as prayer. Safe at last, I’d think, as I put the rough school week behind me. I’d take a seat next to my mother behind the wooden filigreed divider with clover-shaped holes. My immigrant congregation, made up of families who came from the Middle East, was so small that it was easy to follow the service from our area, and when the Torah scrolls were passed around you’d see women’s hands poking through the holes to touch the holy scrolls. Yet I also bristled at the divider and longed to escape to the men’s section. The men seemed to have such fun…

Natalie Gorman, 'My Forbidden (Mechitza) Love Story,' Lilith

I don’t like the idea of women being sidelined in religious settings or anywhere else… That said, I knew that my male friends on the other side didn’t regard me as less intelligent or less able than they. We were separate for reasons of law and tradition in a religious setting, not because they were out to take away my rights or disrespect me as a human… That enabled me to be comfortable with the mechitza, and therefore with having it be a part of my experience of tefillah, even if I don’t love all aspects of it all the time.

ומקוננים שם עד רביע הלילה האנשים בבית הכנסת שלהם והנשים בבית הכנסת שלהן וכן ביום מקוננים אנשים לבד ונשים לבד עד קרוב לשליש היום.

We recite dirges there until the end of the first quarter of the night, the men in their synagogue and the women in their synagogue, And so, too, during the day we recite dirges, the men on their own and the women on their own, until almost a third of the way through the day.

שו”ת ציץ אליעזר חלק ז סימן ח

וזה שלא נזכר בשו”ע [=בשלחן ערוך] מדין עשיית מחיצה בין ביהכ”נ לעז”נ [=בית הכנסת לעזרת נשים] הוא מפני שאז לא היתה קיימת בעיה כזאת בכלל, כי כל בתי הכנסיות היו עשוים באופן שכותל עב היה מפסיק בין ביהכ”נ לעז”נ [=בית הכנסת לעזרת נשים] והיתה מגעת מהרצפה ועד הגג וקול התפלה היה מגיע להם דרך חלונות קטנים או דרך חלולים חלולים, שהיו עשוים בכותל, ולא עלה על הדעת כי תתקיים בכלל בעיא כזאת אם צריכים מחיצה.

Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 7:8

The fact that the Shulchan Aruch did not mention the law of making a mechitza between the synagogue and the ezrat nashim is because then this question did not exist at all. For all synagogues were constructed in such a way that a thick wall divided the synagogue from the ezrat nashim, and it would reach from the floor to the roof and the sound of prayer would reach them [the women] by way of small windows or little apertures, that they would make in the wall, and it did not occur to anyone that such a question of whether we need a mechitza [or not] would arise.

שו”ת אגרות משה אורח חיים חלק א סימן לט

והנה עצם הדין שאף אם האנשים הם בצד אחד והנשים בצד אחר אסורין הן להיות בלא מחיצה הוא לע”ד [=לפי עניות דעתי] דינא דאורייתא….איסור שהוא מדרבנן לא ידחה איסור הכל בכתב שהוא מדאורייתא …וכן הוא בירושלמי סוכה פ”ה ה”ב שאמרו ע”ז [=על זה] שעשו התיקון בהוספה על הבנין ממי למדו מדבר תורה עיין שם אלמא שהוא נקרא דבר תורה. ואף שאינו אלא קרא בדברי קבלה…אם היה זה רק מדרבנן לא היה אפשר להוסיף אלא ודאי שהוצרכו לעשות הגזוזטרא מדאורייתא…. מסתבר שהוא מדאורייתא בכ”מ [=בכל מקום] קבוץ. ובלא צורך קבוץ אף במקדש מותר שהרי חנה התפללה סמוך לעלי הכהן …

Iggerot Moshe OC I:39

Behold the essence of the law, that even if men are on one side and women on the other, they are prohibited from being without a mechitza, is, in my humble opinion, a Torah-level law. …A rabbinic prohibition would not override the prohibition [regarding the Temple architecture] of “all is in writing,” which is on a Torah level. So it is in the Yerushalmi Sukka 5:2 that they said about this that they made a rectification by adding to the structure [of the Temple], “from what did they learn it? From a matter of Torah” (see there). Therefore, it is called a matter of Torah. Even though the verse is only in the Writings…if it were merely rabbinic it would not be possible to add [to the structure of the Temple]. Rather it is certain that they were required on a Torah level to make the balcony …It stands to reason that it [the requirement of a mechitza] is on a Torah level in every place of congregating. And where there is no need to congregate, it was permissible even in the Temple [without a mechitza], for Chana prayed adjacent to Eli the kohen

Rav Yosef D. Soloveitchik, 'An Open Letter,' in The Sanctity of the Synagogue, ed. Baruch Litvin (New York: Ktav, 1987), 140-141.

…There is certainly a requirement for the erection of a partition, and the synagogue which fails to erect one is guilty of violating a very sacred tradition. However, there is a basic difference between this wrong and that of the complete mingling of the sexes, for, as I indicated above, separation has its origin in the Bible itself, whereas the requirement of a mechitzah must be attributed to a Rabbinic ordinance. The Biblical passage from which the Talmud derives the interdiction against mixed pews [Zechariah 12:12 in Sukkah 51b], and also the Pentateuchic injunction, Let him see no unseemly thing in thee (Deuteronomy 23:15), deal with separation only. There is no mention, however, of segregation. The latter has been introduced in accordance with the old maxim, va’assu seyag latorah, “Make a fence around the Law (Aboth 1, 1) as a safety measure in order to prevent the mingling of the sexes.

הָיוּ מְתַקְּנִין בַּמִּקְדָּשׁ מָקוֹם לַנָּשִׁים מִלְּמַעְלָה וְלָאֲנָשִׁים מִלְּמַטָּה כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יִתְעָרְבוּ אֵלּוּ עִם אֵלּוּ.

They would establish in the Temple a place for the women above and for the men below, in order that they not mingle with each other.

ומקום לנשים ומקום הנשים למעלה ממקום האנשים כדי שלא יסתכלו האנשים בנשים

The place of the women was above the place of the men, higher than it, in order that the men not gaze at the women.

פסקי רי”ד מסכת סוכה נא:

ועדיין היו באין לידי קלות ראש. פי[רוש] שהיו מסתכלין אילו באילו וקורצין בעיניהן. התקינו שיהו הנשים רואות מלמעלה והאנשים מלמטה.

Piskei Rid Sukka 51b

They still would come to frivolity. That means that they would gaze at each other and wink their eyes. They [the sages] enacted that the women see from above and the men from below.

שו”ת אגרות משה אורח חיים א: לט

שכוונתו בפירושו לסוכה להסתכלות כזאת שיכולה להביא לידי קלות ראש….ואף אם נסתפק בכוונתו בפירושו לדינא אין לנו אלא מש”כ [=מה שכתב] הרמב”ם בהלכותיו…שהוא כדי שלא יהיו מעורבבין… אבל מצד הסתכלות עצמה אין לחוש.

Responsa Iggerot Moshe OC I:39

His [Rambam’s] intention in his commentary to Sukka is gazing of the sort that can lead to kalut rosh ….Even if his intent in his commentary is unclear, for halacha we only have what Rambam wrote in his halachot [Mishneh Torah]…that the purpose is that they not be mingled…but seeing on its own is not cause for halachic concern.

(ב) הָעוֹשֶׂה דָּבָר מֵחֻקּוֹת אֵלּוּ הֲרֵי הוּא חָשׁוּד עַל הָעֲרָיוֹת. וְאָסוּר לָאָדָם לִקְרֹץ בְּיָדָיו וּבְרַגְלָיו אוֹ לִרְמֹז בְּעֵינָיו לְאַחַת מִן הָעֲרָיוֹת אוֹ לִשְׂחֹק עִמָּהּ אוֹ לְהָקֵל רֹאשׁ... וְהַמִּסְתַּכֵּל אֲפִלּוּ בְּאֶצְבַּע קְטַנָּה שֶׁל אִשָּׁה וְנִתְכַּוֵּן לֵהָנוֹת כְּמִי שֶׁנִּסְתַּכֵּל בִּמְקוֹם הַתֹּרֶף. וַאֲפִלּוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ קוֹל הָעֶרְוָה אוֹ לִרְאוֹת שְׂעָרָהּ אָסוּר:

One who does one of these [abominable Canaanite] practices is suspected of sexual transgressions, and it is prohibited for a man to signal with his hands or feet or to hint with his eyes to one of the women prohibited to him or to joke with her or to be frivolous…And one who looks even at the little finger of a woman intending to take pleasure from it is like one who looked at her genitalia.

שו”ת דברי משה או”ח י

…שהי[ה] החשש רק בשביל ההסתכלות שעפ”י [=שיל פי] רוב א”א [=אי אפשר] להשגיח ע”ז [=על זה] ולהבחין אם הי[תה] הבטה בכוונה, אבל סוף כל סוף הרגישו שהי[תה] בין העם הסתכלות והרהורי עבירה וזה נקרא קלות ראש….

Responsa Divrei Yoel OC 10

…For the concern was solely gazing, for on the whole it is impossible to supervise this and to discern whether the gazing is intentional [for pleasure]. Rather in the end they [the sages at the time of simchat beit ha-sho’eiva] felt that there was gazing among the people and thoughts of sin and this is called kalut rosh

שו”ת שבט הלוי חלק ה סימן קצז

אין להכחיש שאם באמת מסתכלים לשם זנות ואישות עוברים הנשים כמו האנשים דלא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם הוא לאו השוה בכל שמצווין הנשים על הלאוין כמו האנשים…אבל לראות סתם ויביטו באנשים בלי לזון עיניהם דהיינו בלי מחשבה של אישות כמו שרואים הם כרגיל מבית הכנסת של הנשים בודאי לא מצינו לאבותינו ורבותינו שחששו לזה.

Responsa Shevet ha-levi 5:197

One cannot deny that if they [women] really look [at men] for the purpose of sexual pleasure, women transgress like men. For “you shall not stray after your hearts and after your eyes” is a negative commandment that applies equally to everyone, for women are obligated in negative commandments like men… But just to see or to look at men without feasting their eyes, i.e., without sexual thoughts, as they see them regularly from the women’s section of the synagogue, certainly we did not find that our forefathers and rabbi were concerned about that.

שו”ת חתם סופר חלק ה – השמטות סימן קצ

כי אנו מאמינים שכל תפלה או שבח והודאה שמתערב במחשבה ההיא שום הרהור אפי[לו] באשתו לא תעלה במעלות לפני הי”ת [=השם יתברך] ולא תקובל לפניו ומפני זה אנו מפרישי[ם] הנשי[ם] מן האנשים בבה”כ בפ”ע [=בבית הכנסת בפני עצמן] שלא יבאו לידי הרהור בשעת תפלה ותהי[ה] תפלה נדחית רחמנא לצלן… וכיון דבררנו דקול באשה ערוה א”כ [=אם כן] הקול המתהלך מעזרת נשים לעזרת אנשי[ם] מעורר הרהור ובטול הכוונה בתפילה.

Responsa Chatam Sofer 5:190

For we believe that every prayer or praise or thanksgiving that mixes with any [sexual] stray thoughts, even of his wife, will not ascend on high before God and will not be received before Him. And therefore, we separate the women from the men in a synagogue to themselves, so that they [the men] not come to stray thoughts at the time of prayer and their prayer be rejected, Heaven help us …Since we clarified that a woman’s voice is akin to erva; if so, the voice that travels from the women’s section to the men’s section arouses stray thoughts and nullifies intentionality during prayer.

תנא דבי אליהו ... לא יעמוד ברשות הרבים ויתפלל מפני דעת הבריות. ולא יעמוד בין הנשים ויתפלל מפני דעת הנשים

It was taught in the beit midrash of Eliyahu: …One should not stand in the public domain and pray, because [one is likely to be distracted by] the thoughts of others. And one should not stand among women and pray, because [one is likely to be distracted by] the thoughts of women.

Yael Unterman, 'Of Intruding Eyes and Hidden Things.' Times of Israel

For those people in the synagogue for whom prayer…is a profound communing with God and the transcendent, a great disservice is done, in my opinion, by placing others in a position where they can easily observe them. It demonstrates a lack of spiritual sensitivity to ignore the magnificent intimacy that takes place when one is praying — an intimacy that should remain private, if the laws of modesty are fully understood…[Once], during the final verse of lecha dodi — the one beginning with bo’i kalah where all turn to face in the opposite direction — I found myself looking down from my front row seat right into the face of a man who was clearly filled with love and ecstasy and communing with God and the Sabbath queen at that moment. I felt truly embarrassed, like a voyeur. That moment was not for me to see; and yet the synagogue’s design had let me see it, seated in the front row as I was.

שו”ת שרידי אש א:ח

ואין לחוש כי בשעת התפילה יבואו להסתכל לשם הנאה. וברור, שמה שכתב הרמב”ם שלא יסתכלו היינו לשם הנאה, אבל בהבטה בעלמא אין איסור…ומה שהנערות מתפללות בקול רם – אין בכך כלום. וכבר התירו גדולי אשכנז ובתוכם הגאון ר’ עזריאל הילדסהיימר זצ”ל לאנשים ולנשים לזמר ביחד זמירות, משני טעמים: א. תרי קלי לא משתמעי. ב. זמירות קודש אין מביאים להרהורי עבירות.

Responsa Seridei Eish, I:8

One should not be concerned that during prayer they [men] will end up gazing [at women] for the purpose of pleasure. It is clear that what Rambam wrote [in his commentary to the Mishna] “that the men not look at the women,” his intention was that they not gaze for the purpose of pleasure, but mere seeing was not prohibited…That the young women pray out loud, there is no issue at all. The great sages of Ashkenaz, among them Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, already permitted men and women to sing Shabbat songs together, for two reasons: 1. Two voices [sounding simultaneously] are not heard. 2. Sacred songs don’t bring people to thoughts of transgression.

© DERACHEHA: WOMEN AND MITZVOT 2020