The following is a discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the week.
For final rulings, consult your Rav.
The kohen shall bring her near and have her stand before Hashem (5:18)
We tell her... wine causes sin, excessive frivolity causes sin... (Sotah 7a)
MECHITZAH IN A SHUL: WHY AND HOW?
The halachah that requires men to be separated from women while
davening in shul has its origins in the procedure followed in
the Bais Hamikdash. Our Sages in the Mishnah (1) report that a
major "adjustment" was made in the Bais Hamikdash during the
festive holiday of Sukkos. The Talmud explains that the
adjustment consisted of building a balcony over the men's
section so that the women could witness the festivities of
Simchas Bais Hashoeivah. Had they stood where they normally did,
the mingling of the crowds and the festive holiday air would
have led to kalus rosh, excessive frivolity. The Talmud attests
that the need for a balcony was so pressing that its
construction was approved even though it is generally prohibited
to expand or modify the original structure of the Bais
Hamikdash. The Biblical source for the separation of men and
women, says the Talmud, is found in the verse in Zechariah in
which the prophet foretells the eulogy of Moshicah ben Yosef,
where men and women will be seated separately. If separate
seating is required even at so solemn an affair as a eulogy, how
much more so must separate seating be required on a joyful
Following the example set by our Sages in the Bais Hamikdash,
the age-old tradition has been to make a clear division and a
separation between the main sanctuary and the women's section.
Some shuls built a balcony, like the Bais Hamikdash had, while
others constructed a thick wall that completely separated the
two sections. This arrangement was so taken for granted, so
undisputed, that it is not even explicitly cited in the Shulchan
Aruch as a requirement (2). About a hundred years ago, when some
shuls in Germany and Hungary began to question the need for a
mechitzah, all the leading Rabbis (3) strictly prohibited
davening in any shul that lowered or removed the traditional
separation between the two sections.
With the mass immigration of Jews to the United States in the
late 1800's, many modern synagogues did not insist upon a
mechitzah that completely blocked out the women's section.
First Reform and Conservative temples, and then even more
traditional ones, began to openly defy our hallowed tradition
and gradually lowered or removed the barrier which separated the
men from the women. The following questions were then posed to
the venerable poskim in the USA:
Is this practice justified?
Is a mechitzah halachically required?
How high does a mechitzah have to be?
REASON FOR THE BALCONY IN THE BAIS HAMIKDASH
In order to answer these questions correctly, we must first
examine what, exactly, was the purpose of the balcony in the
Bais Hamikdash. We explained earlier that a balcony was
constructed to prevent kalus rosh, excessive frivolity. The
Talmud does not, however, elaborate on how the separation was
effective in guaranteeing that kalus rosh did not prevail. There
are two possible ways to understand this:
Kalus rosh prevails when the men can freely gaze at the women. It interferes with their concentration and profanes the sanctity of the Bais Hamikdash. By seating the women on a balcony over the men's section, the men can no longer view the women (4). To accomplish this purpose, the balcony was constructed in one of two ways:
The men's section was directly underneath the balcony, hidden from the women's line of vision. The women were nevertheless able to see a small clearing in the middle of the men's section where the few dancers would perform (5). [The majority of the men did not actively participate in the festivities; they were merely spectators (6).]
The balcony was built above the sides of the men's section, but it was enclosed with a curtain or a one-way mirror. This permitted the women to watch the men from above but completely blocked the men's view of the women (7);
Kalus rosh prevails when men and women are free to mix socially with one another. By relegating the women to a balcony and physically separating them from "mixing" with the men, the
proper decorum and sanctity of the Bais Hamikdash was duly preserved (8). According to this understanding, then, the balcony did not completely block the men's view. Rather, it separated
the two sections and prevented them from communicating or interacting with each other in any way.
The question, then, as it applies to present day mechitzos, is
as follows: Do we follow the first interpretation and require a
mechitzah that completely blocks the men's view, or is it
sufficient to have a mechitzah that divides the two sections in
a way that prevents frivolity?
THE TWO VIEWS OF THE POSKIM
There are two schools of thought among contemporary authorities
as to the practical halachah. Many poskim (9) hold that the
purpose of the mechitzah is that the men should not be able to
view the women. Accordingly:
The mechitzah must be high enough to completely block the entire women's section;
The mechitzah must be made entirely from an opaque material. Glass, flowers and decorative wood slats are not acceptable for any part of the mechitzah;
Even a balcony must be completely encircled by a curtain, etc.
As stated previously, this practice was universally accepted,
wherever Jews davened. The women's section, whether in the
balcony or at the back of the shul, was totally partitioned from
the men's. Such a separation was a fundamental feature of shul
architecture, as basic as positioning the amud in front of the
shul and a bimah in the middle. It was and still is part of the
standard model for a Jewish place of worship.
Harav Moshe Feinstein (10), however, after establishing that the
basic requirement for separating men and women during prayer
services is a Biblical obligation, holds that the basic halachah
follows the second approach that we mentioned earlier. Although
he agrees that it is commendable and praiseworthy to maintain
the age-old traditional mechitzah, he nevertheless rules that
the widespread practice of many shuls to lower the mechitzah
somewhat is permitted according to the basic halachah. As long
as the mechitzah is high enough to effectively block out any
communication or interaction between the men's and women's'
sections, it is a halachically valid mechitzah.
The minimum height for a mechitzah is shoulder-high, which the Talmud (11) calculates to be 17 to 18 tefachim high. Allowing for a difference of opinion concerning the exact size of a tefach, Harav Feinstein rules that a 66 inch mechitzah is permitted (12), while in extenuating circumstances 60 inches will suffice (13). Any mechitzah lower than that, however, is not considered a mechitzah at all.
A balcony does not need to be encircled with a partition or a curtain. It is preferable and recommended, however, to do so if possible (14).
Although, technically, the upper part of the mechitzah may be made out of glass since it serves as a physical barrier between the sections, it is self-defeating and inadequate to use glass as many women, unfortunately, come to shul improperly dressed and /or with their hair not covered properly (15).
A mechitzah which has sizable gaps towards the top is not acceptable since it does not effectively guard against kalus rosh (16). A mechitzah which has tiny openings in the lattice
work is permitted (17).
The mechitzah must reach the required height (60 inches) in both the men's and women's sections. Raising the floor of the women's section--which in effect lowers the height of the mechitzah--defeats the purpose of the mechitzah and should not be done (18).
1 Sukah 51a.
2 Tzitz Eliezer 7:8.
3 Led by R' Shlomo Ganzfried, author of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch,
and M'haram Ash, disciple of Chasam Sofer, and countersigned by
the Divrei Chaim. The proclamation is published in Leiv Haeevri.
See also M'haram Shick 79 and Zichron Yehudah 1:62 who also
voiced strong objections to any tampering with the traditional
4 Rambam (commentary to the Mishnah Suka 5:2)
5 Tosfos Yom Tov (commentary to the Mishnah Suka 5:2)
6 Rambam Hilchos Lulav 8:14.
7 Piskei Rid Suka 51; Meiri Midos 2:5; Korban Eidah (Yerushalmi
Sukah 5:2) as explained in Divrei Yoel 1.