Mehitzah: Separate Seating in the Synagogue

A curtain or other divider separates men and women while they pray in some synagogues.

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Excerpted with permission from Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (Jewish Publication Society).

The separation of men and women in public places has a long and complicated history. Biblical stories of women as singers, dancers, and mourners attest to their presence at communal events.Other sources also indicate that women were participants at Temple public celebrations. The subject of this [article] is not the question of their presence but rather of their place in the synagogue, the place that has been the focus of public ceremonies since before the destruction of the Temple.

At present, a variety of seating arrangements exists [in synagogues], ranging from mixed pews to balconies and separate rooms. Many presume the separate seating model to be a replica of ancient patterns. However, as Professor Shmuel Safrai indicates, much more research must be done before any­one can conclusively date the use of a structural barrier between the sexes for the purpose of prayer.

Of course, the absence of a mehitzah (barrier) does not automatically imply the existence of mixed seating. It could mean that men and women satseparately without a barrier or that no evidence of one remains. conclude that women did not attend synagogue.However, since the evidence available does indicate that women frequently did attend services, no absolute statement on seating arrangements is plausible. Whether its origin was in biblical, late antique, or medieval times, the mehitzah has become a symbol of denominational allegiances and policies in the 20th century.

There was an ezrat nashim (Women's Court) in the Second Temple, ac­cording to rabbinic tradition. Men and women did congregate there. Tal­mudic references indicate that it became necessary to separate men and women for one specific celebration during Sukkot, namely, Simhat Beit ha-Sho'evah (the water-Drawing Festival). The reasons given for this re­striction or restructuring is the presence of kalut rosh (light headedness). The Sages understood this as frivolous or lewd behavior, the prevention of which becomes the key factor in later halakhic [legal] pronouncements and developments.

Legal Issues

As clouded as the archaeological and historical records are, the halakhic issues are equally ambiguous. Questions remain about the re­quirement that the sexes be separated for prayer (with or without the mehitzah) as well as for all public occasions. The wording of the Talmudic texts is unclear, and the codes nowhere explicitly require a mehitzah. There is neither a direct prohibition nor a direct requirement; there are merely a few references to the ezrat nashim, indicating that there was such a thing. Maimonides refers to the women's section in his compilation of laws dealing with the Temple and not in the section dealing with prayer and synagogue. Other medieval texts specifically mention using a parti­tion for public occasions such as the rabbi's lecture.

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Dr. Norma B. Joseph

Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph is Director of the Women and Religion specialization. She is also an associate of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. Her teaching and research areas include women and Judaism, Jewish law and ethics, and women and religion.