A discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the
week. For final rulings, consult your Rav.
SELECTED HALACHOS RELATING TO PARSHAS VAYIGASH
MECHITZAH IN 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 Beis ha-Mikdash. Our
Sages in the Mishnah(1) report that a major "adjustment" was made in the
Beis ha-Mikdash during the festive holiday of Succos. 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 beis ha-shoeivah.
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 Beis ha-Mikdash. The Biblical source
for the separation of men and women, says the Talmud, is found in the verse
in Zecharyah in which the prophet foretells the eulogy of Mashiach 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 joyous occasion!
Following the example set by our Sages in the Beis ha-Mikdash, 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
Beis ha-Mikdash 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 off 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 U.S.: Is this practice justified? Is a mechitzah halachically
required? How high does a mechitzah have to be?
REASON FOR THE BALCONY IN THE BEIS HA-MIKDASH
In order to answer these questions correctly, we must first examine what,
exactly, was the purpose of the balcony in the Beis ha-Mikdash. 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:
A.Kalus rosh prevails when the men can freely gaze at the women. It
interferes with their concentration and profanes the sanctity of the Beis
ha-Mikdash. 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: 1) 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).) 2) 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).
B.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 Beis
ha-Mikdash 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 the men and women 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
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 separated from the men's. Such a separation was a
fundamental feature of shul architecture, as basic as positioning the amud
at the 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 M. 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. Accordingly:
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
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") 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(18).
1 Succah 51a.
2 Tzitz Eliezer 7:8.
3 Led by Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, author of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, and Maharam
Ash, disciple of Chasam Sofer, and countersigned by the Divrei Chayim. The
proclamation is published in Lev ha-Ivri. See also Maharam Shick 79 and
Zichron Yehudah 1:62 who also voiced strong objections to any tampering with
the traditional mechitzah.
4 Rambam (commentary to the Mishnah Succah 5:2)
5 Tosfos Yom Tov (commentary to the Mishnah Succah 5:2).
6 Rambam Hilchos Lulav 8:14.
7 Piskei Rid Succah 51; Meiri Midos 2:5; Korban Eidah (Yerushalmi Succah
5:2) as explained in Divrei Yoel 1:10.