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Women and Prayer

Men and Women in the Synagogue

Question: Why are men and women separated in Orthodox synagogues?

Answer: According to many authorities, the source for separate seating in synagogues can be found in the design of the Temple in Jerusalem (destroyed in the year 68). The Talmud relates that every Succos, in preparation for the “bais hasho’eva” celebration, balconies would be erected along the inner walls of the “Women’s Courtyard.” On these balconies, women would gather to watch the goings on below, while men watched from the floor below. Because of the general festival atmosphere, explains the Talmud, there was the fear that were men and women to mingle, some amount of lightheadedness might result, perhaps leading to behavior inappropriate to the Temple site.

Some of the more modern commentators (notably, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein – d.1984) observe that adding the permanent buttresses necessary to support these temporary balconies would be forbidden (along with any other changes to the Temple structure) if they weren’t actually included in the Torah’s original plan (as delineated by the prophets Samuel and Nathan). It must have been, therefore, that the Torah itself required, in the face of the risk of improper behavior, such separation.

It’s really not such leap to compare the sanctity of the Temple to that of a “small Temple” (see Ezek. 11; 16), or a synagogue, many of whose goals and activities should enjoy similar focus and respect. Separating men from women, therefore, is a hallmark of an Orthodox synagogue.

Rabbi Boruch Clinton
Ottawa, Canada

Also see this article on the Laws of the Mechitza Separation

2 Follow-ups »

  1. I understand the need for the separation as noted in your answer. But my question is, why is it that women are the ones separated from the service and why if they need to be separated can they not participate at another time within the sanctuary, in their own service so to speak? Thank you.

    The priority given to men in the sanctuary seems to stem from the distinctly different obligations placed by the Torah upon men and women. Since men, whose roles tend to take on more public faces, are required to meet publicly for prayer (an obligation that doesn’t bind women), the prayers are placed in their “domain.”

    Why, though, can’t women have their own services at different times in the sanctuary? It would appear that there really is no clear-cut prohibition. However, very senior halachic authorities have suggested that if a group of women was motivated by some political agenda rather than a wholesome desire to approach G-d more closely, than whatever might be gained by the gathering, would be more than offset by the cynicism and negativity that stand to dominate the atmosphere.

    For a (rather sharp) treatment of this general topic, you might like to see my essay at here.

    With my best regards,
    Rabbi Boruch Clinton

    Comment by ATR — November 8, 2006 @ 12:37 am

  2. I’m sorry, but we (my wife and I) didn’t understand the answer above. Were men and women always separated in the Temple, or was it only during the festive occasion of Beit Hasho’eva (Water Drawing event during the Succos Holiday)? If they were always separated, then the balconies to let them watch were only for the festivities. How do you derive from that that women are always allowed to be in the synagogue and watch, but that they have to be separate from the men?

    If they were only separated during the festivities, then they were allowed to intermingle on more solemn occasions (when inappropriate behavior was less likely). In that case, how do you derive separation at all times in a synagogue, where things are not always festive?

    Were women always separated but allowed to watch in the Temple, and the temporary balconies were there merely to handle a larger number of women during Beit Hasho’eva than the regular number of women?

    Who decided which Temple laws are appropriate to a synagogue and which aren’t and when? We know (Mishna Megilla 4:7/8, depending on the version) that some laws such as walking barefoot are inappropriate in a synagogue.

    These are interesting questions. I believe that (according to R’ Moshe Feinstein) the Torah requirement to separate men and women is only activated by specific “triggers”. The only thing that we learn from the enactment in the Templer was that, when there is a trigger, the legal requirement is Biblical (for no Rabbinic ruling could have justified an actual structural change in the Templer).

    Therefore, through the normal day-to-day activities in the Templer (in which there was no prolonged or institutional mingling between men and women – men tended to move westward to the Israel Courtyard while women tended to remain in the central area of the Women’s Courtyard below to the East), there was no problem that could have triggered the need for an enactment. But the Simchas Beis Hashoeva brought a predictable and unusually celebratory crowd together and was considered cause for concern. I can’t tell you when or where the decision was made that regular synagogue services were to be compared to the Simchas Beis Hashoeva, but I can say that the ruling certainly fits with modern experience! I will add that the “Tzitz Eliezer” (by the late Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg) addresses the question of why there is a virtual silence in classical legal literature related to synagogue partitions. He suggests that many communities (especially in Hungary) used raised balconies for the women where a partition isn’t necessary; others – probably the more ancient communities included – would have had entirely separate chambers for women and still others would have discouraged women’s attendance in the first place.

    “We know (Mishna Megilla 4:7/8, depending on the version) that some laws such as walking barefoot are inappropriate in a synagogue”

    That is a very interesting observation. I will really have to think further about this one. But for now I will observe that the prohibition of being barefoot in the synagogue is a product of community standards (“kovod hatzibur”) – i.e., that the community would feel cheapened if a member dressed that way. In fact, the Mishna Brura (91:13) rules that in places where it’s normal and accepted for people to go barefoot before dignitaries, it would be permitted to do so in synagogue as well. On the other hand, the prohibition of shoes in the Temple seems to be due to its intrinsic holiness (akin to the burning bush) which simply doesn’t exist in a regular synagogue.

    With regards,

    Comment by ATR — June 17, 2007 @ 6:45 pm

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