The Right to Privacy in Judaism

Judaism values privacy, but it's unclear how much.

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First of all, the Torah itself clearly shows great respect for visual privacy. In Genesis 3:7, we are told that Adam and Eve "perceived that they were naked and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths."

Later on, in Genesis 9:20-27, we read the story of Noah who got drunk in his tent. Ham, father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his brothers Shem and Yefet, who took a cloth and walked backwards, covering Noah's nakedness without looking. When Noah woke up, he cursed Canaan and blessed Shem and Yefet. Thus the Torah clearly indicates the importance of  visual privacy and condemns those who violate this basic right.

In the Mishnah, this right to visual privacy gave birth to the concept of "hezek r'iyah" or damage caused by looking. The Mishnah in Bava Batra 3:7 states: "In a common courtyard, a person should not open a door opposite a door and a window opposite a window."

The Talmud (Bava Batra 60a) connects this principle to Balaam. When Balaam saw Israel dwelling according to tribes, he exclaimed: "how goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!" (Numbers 24) The Talmud explains: "What did he see? He saw that their tent openings did not face each other. He said: these are worthy for God's presence to rest upon them."

The Rema adds in the Shulhan Arukh (Hoshen Mishpat 154:7) that it is forbidden to stand at your window and look into your neighbor's courtyard, "lest he harm him by looking." The Shulhan Arukh further rules (ibid., 154:3) that if Reuven wants to open a window into a common courtyard, Shimon can prevent it, and if Reuven opens the window, Shimon can block it up.

Privacy from Intruders

A second type of privacy protected by Jewish law and lore is the privacy of one's domicile from unwanted or unannounced intruders. This attitude is expressed in three aggadic, or non-legal, statements.

The first two state that one should not enter a house, even one's own, without warning. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (second century c.e.) states in Leviticus Rabbah (21:8) that "God hates four things which I also dislike...and a person who enters his own home suddenly and--there is no need to add--his neighbor's home." The midrash then relates that Rabbi Yohanan used to clear his throat before entering Rabbi Hanina's house, in order to make sure that he was not invading anyone's privacy.

We learn in Pesahim 112a that "Rabbi Akiva commanded his son Yehoshua seven things: my son...do not enter your house suddenly, how much more so your friend's house."

The third source goes one step further. Midrash Lekah Tov (to Leviticus 1:1) states that one may not enter his friend's house without permission--and it derives this principle from God Himself! In Exodus 40:35 we are told that Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, whereas Leviticus 1:1 implies that God spoke to Moses in the Tent. The midrash teaches: "From this we learn that a person should not enter his friend's house unless his friend [in Moses' case, God] says 'enter'."

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.