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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The Mordekhai, a 13th-century German rabbinic authority, states specifically (Shab. 311) that a screen could be set up for such a purpose even on Shabbat. (One might question whether this permission to erect something on the Sab­bath, an ordinarily forbidden act, might not indicate the absence of a per­manent mehitzah in the synagogue.) It was not until the modern period, when the Reform Movement first removed the mehitzah and later insti­tuted family pews, that responsa explicitly requiring a mehitzah for prayer services were written. Orthodox decisors today all agree that one can only pray in a synagogue with separate seating and a mehitzah. No matter what the historical record, the Temple pattern of that one day has thus been extended to the synagogue permanently.

The halakhic process surrounding this one issue involves many levels of interpretation, differential weighting of sources, a variety of reasons, and a serious difference of opinion concerning women's "disturbing" presence during prayer. In the last 150 years, the issue of a separation has taken on political overtones that impinge on the legal ones.

The legal questions raised are fascinating and begin with the ambigu­ous sources relied upon. The primary text is the Talmudic discussion of Mishnah Sukkah 5 :2, which states that on Simhat Beit ha-Sho'evah they went into the ezrat nashim and made a great improvement (repair) or a major enactment (u-matkinim sham tikkun gadol).There are other Mishnaic ref­erences such as Middot 2:5, and Sanhedrin :5, which add to the picture, but the Talmudic discussion in Sukkah 51a,b-52a is the most elaborate.

What exactly was the "new enactment"? The legal decision to sepa­rate the men and women is clear in the Talmudic discussion in Sukkah 51a-52a, but the questions as to how, why, and when remain. Was this reform, according to the Talmud, only for that one holiday, when levity reached a level that moral laxity was feared? Or does the Talmudic use of the text of Zechariah 12: 12-14, which relates that men and women were separated for mourning, indicate a known policy on the separation of men and women? What is the legal relationship of that text to other bibli­cal texts in which men and women mingle at public celebrations?

Fur­thermore, if men and women were separated for mourning, how is it that women still performed officially as wailers?Is that text, then, extend-able to all moments of holiness such as prayer? How did the Sages institute something new for. the Temple? Even with the agreement of a special court of 71, how could any changes be made when 1 Chronicles contains the injunction ha-kol be-khtav (all this in writing),which prohibits any change to the Temple structure? Given even that a physical structure is necessary, will only a balcony suffice? And finally, what does kalut roshmean, what causes it, and are we to avoid it only during a prayer service?

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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.