When Pharaoh began to crack under the pressure of the plagues that continued to strike him, and wished to allow the Jewish people to leave Egypt to serve Hashem, he asked Moshe the question: Who exactly will be leaving? His intention, as is clear from the ensuing conversation, was that only a part of the nation should leave to serve Hashem: “Go now, please, the menfolk, and serve Hashem, for this is what you request!”
Moshe, however, clarified that the service of Hashem will not be limited to a single group of priests or a specific part of the nation. “We will go with our young and our old, with our sons and our daughters, and with our flocks and herds, because it is a festival to Hashem for us.” All parts of the nation, men and women alike, young and old—all are part of serving Hashem, all must be party to the festival.
Throughout the generations, having both men and women present in the service of Hashem raises the question of modesty: How do you have both men and women present while respecting principles of modesty fundamental to Jewish law and tradition?
The basic solution to this is a mechitzah—a partition that separates between men and women. Yet, as we will see, the nature and the laws of the mechitzah are widely debated, and have a range of opinion. Moreover, is the mechitzah required at all events, or only in Shul?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The source for a halachic separation between men and women during a religious event is the Mishnah in Sukkah (51a), which records the proceedings of the simchas beis ha-sho’eva in the Beis HaMikdash: “One who has not seen the happiness of the simchas beis ha-sho’eva (water drawing) has not seen happiness in his days. After the first Yom Tov of the holiday, they went down to the ezras nashim (women’s courtyard) and would make a great modification (tikkun gadol).”
Th Gemara (51b) explains the nature of the tikkun gadol “What was this great modification? […] The Rabbis learned: Originally, the women were inside and the men were outside, and they would come to lightheadedness. They established that women should sit outside and men inside, and they still came to lightheadedness. They therefore established that women should sit above and men below.”
The Gemara teaches that a special balcony was constructed to allow women to be present during the simchas beis ha-sho’eva. This presents a halachic difficulty: the construction of the Mikdash is governed by Scriptural commandments, which raises the problem of how building the additional balcony was permitted. The Gemara replies: “They derived it from a Biblical passage”—a passage referring to separation of gender even at a eulogy. Rashi explains that the passage teaches that there is an obligation to separate men and women, to ensure that there should not be any spiritual flaw. As the Gemara explains, if an obligation to separate between men and women applies at a eulogy, it applies all the more so on occasions of joy.
As to the nature of the separation between men and women, the Rambam offers two seemingly distinct interpretations. In his commentary to the Mishnah in Sukkah, the Rambam states that the purpose of the separation is that the men should not look at the women. However, in the laws of Lulav (8:12) the Rambam suggests a different reason: “so that they should not be mixed with one another.” As we will see, the difference is of significance concerning the nature of the mechitzah.
Mechitzah in Shul: Rav Moshe’s Approach
One of the most important and influential rulings on the subject of the mechitzah in Shul is found in Shut Iggros Moshe (Orach Chaim 1:39). When discussing the reason for the separation and the type of mechitzah that is required, Rav Moshe Feinstein says that the obligation to separate between men and women is Torah law. Although derived from a Pasuk in Nevi’im, Rav Moshe explains that the Pasuk does not mean to teach a new law, but to indicate the Torah law concerning modesty at public events. Moreover, were the prohibition not Torah law, it would not justify making an alteration to the structure of the Mikdash.
In defining the prohibition of having men and women together, Rav Moshe writes that the problem is creating an atmosphere of lightheadedness and frivolity, and not to prevent men from looking at women. Based on this explanation, he rules that while it is preferable that women should be upstairs and men downstairs, a mechitzah qualifies under halacha even if it reaches shoulder height alone (he mentions a height of 18 tefachim), even if men and women can see each other over the mechitzah.
Rav Moshe also highlights that the mechitzah is required only at gatherings of men and women. Where there is no gathering, there is no need to separate men from women even at a time of prayer, as we find concerning Chana who prayed in the Mikdash next to Eli the Kohen Gadol. We will discuss below the question of social gathering for non-prayer events and meetings.
Types of Mechitzah
Based on Rav Moshe’s approach, it seems that a mechitzah made of glass will also fulfill the halachic requirements. While not preventing men from looking at women, a glass mechitzah is sufficient to prevent the intermingling of men and women, and is therefore halachically valid.
In fact, Rav Moshe himself discusses the possibility of a mechitzah made of glass (Orach Chaim 1:43; he refers to a mechitzah of which only the top third was glass), and argues that while halachically valid, such a mechitzah will raise a modesty issues concerning women who come to Shul in immodest clothing. This will cause a problem for men who can see the women, and who thus will not be able to freely daven while immodest women are visible. He adds that a one-way mirror could be a good solution, so that the men will not be able to see women, while women can still see the men.
Rav Moshe (Orach Chaim 4:29) likewise disapproves of mechitzos in which the top part is made of lattice work (he refers to these as “open windows”), and recommends that a curtain be hung over them. He writes that some are lenient if the gaps are less than three inches, but states that this is inappropriate for benei Torah. However, if the lattice mechitzah has only small holes which don’t allow for conversation between men and women he is lenient (Orach Chaim 4:32), provided it is five feet high which is enough to prevent lightheadedness.
The Satmar Rov’s Approach
The principle disputant of Rav Moshe on this matter is the former Satmar Rov, who wrote a lengthy and fiery teshuva (Shut Divrei Yoel, Orach Chaim 10) concerning the obligation of a mechitzah in Shul.
Concerning the 18-tefachim mechitzah permitted by Rav Moshe, the Satmar Rov argues that such a mechitzah is not sufficient even to prevent frivolity, since men and women will be able to intermingle by speaking above the mechitzah. Lightheadedness, he explains, depends first and foremost on people’s heads, and not on their bodies.
Yet beyond this, the Satmar Rov argues that the obligation to separate men and women is not out of concern for intermingling alone, but also out of concern for the possibility of men seeing the women. This too, as noted by the Rambam, is a cause for the prohibition.
While the Rambam also mentions the issue of lightheadedness (kalus rosh), the Satmar Rov explains at length that if a person has improper thoughts (that are caused because he can see women), this itself is considered lightheadedness, and the concern for men looking at women (which he explains is a Torah prohibition, too) is therefore sufficient to obligate a mechitzah.
According to the Satmar Rov, it follows of course that the mechitzah needs to prevent any possibility of men seeing women in Shul, and a mechitzah made of glass is entirely disqualified for halachic purposes. In support of his position, the Satmar Rov mentions a letter, organized by Rav Shlomo Ganzfried (author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) and signed by seventy leaders of Hungarian Jewry, prohibiting entry into a synagogue in which the men can see the women.
Other Poskim, predominantly from the Hungarian tradition, side with the Satmar Rov in this matter. For instance, Rav Shmuel Wosner (Shut Shevet Ha-Levi 1:29) also writes that the primary purpose of a mechitzah is to prevent men from seeing women, and only a mechitzah that does so is halachically valid.
Is the mechitzah obligatory even in gatherings for purposes other than prayer?
Rav Moshe Feinstein writes that for gatherings that are non-obligatory, such as weddings, he is in doubt as to the need for a mechitzah. He proceeds to bring a number of proofs that there is no obligation to erect a mechitzah for non-obligatory events, as we find concerning eating the Korban Pesach, and in other sources.
In another teshuva (Yoreh De’ah Vol. 4) he notes that the obligation for a mechitzah applies only to events that are open to the public, and not to private affairs (such as weddings) that are not open to the general public. For a Torah lecture open to the general public Rav Moshe writes (Orach Chaim 5:11) that there is an obligation of a mechitzah (since it is open to the general public), but if there is no option one should not refrain from teaching in such an environment, where doing so is for Kiruv purposes.
Other authorities are far more stringent, and write that even at weddings and similar functions there is a full prohibition on mixed seating of men and women. Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos VeHanhagos 2:65) writes (concerning South Africa, where most weddings were mixed) that there is no room for leniency, noting that according to the Bach the Simcha Bime’ono blessing is not recited in a mixed environment, and adding that rabbis should refrain from attending such weddings (see also Shut Lev Avraham 1:135, who disputes Rav Moshe’s ruling at length).
In conclusion, it is worth noting the ruling of the Seridei Eish. The author, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg agrees essentially with Rav Moshe’s position, and he notes that while stringency for the Hungarian position is worthy, such halachic ruling will depend on circumstances. In his time and place, he writes that “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.”
The halachic ruling in practice will therefore depend on the time and locale, and of course a competent halachic authority should always be consulted for proper guidance.