The Right to Privacy in Judaism

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

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Protection from intruders also found legal expression. In Deuteronomy 24:10-11, the Torah forbids a creditor from entering the house of a debtor in order to take a pledge. Rather, when you make a loan of any sort to your fellow, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge. You must remain outside, while the person to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you.

The rabbis added that even an officer of the court may not enter the debtor's house in order to take a pledge (Sifrei Devarim, par. 276; Tosefta Bava Metzia 10:8; Bava Metzia 113a-b), and this was codified by Maimonides (Hilkhot Malveh V'loveh 2:2) and the Shulhan Arukh (Hoshen Mishpat 97:6). Thus, even a person with a very good reason may not invade another person's territorial privacy.

Protecting the Mail: The Herem of Rabbenu Gershom

A third type of privacy protected by Jewish law is the privacy of one's mail, as defended by the herem (ban) of Rabbenu Gershom Me'or Hagolah (Germany, 960-1028).

He is the reputed author of a series of takkanot--rabbinic enactments governing various aspects of Jewish life. One of the takkanot attributed to him says that, "One should not read his friend's letter" and some versions add, "without his knowledge and without his permission." Indeed, until today some observant Jews write hdr"g (חדר"ג), an abbreviation of "herem d'rabbeinu Gershom," on the outside of their letters.

Confidentiality     

Finally, in addition to all of the above laws and legends intended to protect a person's privacy, there are sources which prohibit the disclosure of secrets or confidential information, or require the permission of the person in question before that information may be revealed.

Proverbs 11:13 says that: "A base fellow gives away secrets, but a trustworthy soul keeps a confidence." The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 3:7) uses this verse to teach that judges are not permitted to reveal their deliberations after a verdict is reached. This ruling was codified by the Rif (Sanhedrin, fol. 9a) and by Maimonides (Sanhedrin 22:7).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 31a) adds a story about a student who revealed a secret from the House of Study twenty-two years after the fact. It is not clear what kind of secret was intended; Rashi (ad. loc.) says that it was some bit of slander or gossip. In any case, Rav Ami threw him out of the House of Study, saying: "This is a revealer of secrets!"

This source was followed by Rabbi Eliyahu ben Hayyim of Constantinople (1530-1610). He ruled in his responsa (Ra'anah, No. 111) that if one of the communal leaders revealed the secret deliberations of the City Council, he is disqualified from serving on the Council.

The last source we shall quote has the most direct bearing on our case. We read in the Talmud (Yoma 4b):

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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.