By: Zahava Fertig
Every shul has a different type of mehitsah: some shorter, some taller, some prettier, some plainer, some with one sided mirrors, some with slats some all the way up to the ceiling, some up to a man’s shoulder and some up to a child’s shoulder. Regardless of what it looks like, the mehitsah serves a function. A mehitsah is a physical boundary that creates two separate sections, one for men and one for women. But, as one of the clearest indicators of an Orthodox shul, there is a glaringly noticeable lack of information provided in the Gemara and earlier sources regarding mehitsot.
The only the source regarding mehitsot is, interestingly enough, brought in the context of the Simhat Beit ha-Sho’evah. Every Sukkot when the beit ha-mikdash was standing, there was a festive water drawing ceremony in the courtyard. Everyone would come to watch the ceremony, and the men would dance all night. The Gemara (BT Sukkah 53a) discusses how the nation would celebrate at this event: The Leviyyim played their instruments and lit torches. Some would engage in a juggling performance, including Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel. Earlier in the discussion (51a), the Mishnah notes that after the first Simhat Beit ha-Sho’evah , the Leviyyim enacted “a significant repair.” The Gemara elaborates further, explaining that the women’s courtyard, the location of the water-drawing ceremony, was originally set up as follows: The women sat in the inner circles surrounding the mizbe’ah, and the men sat in the outer circles surrounding the women. But at a time of such a celebratory and exciting event, the atmosphere and environment became too lax and led to “kalut rosh,” commonly defined as frivolity, among the men and women. The Gemara explains that the “significant repair” referred to in the Mishnah was the building of a balcony for the women to stand on that overlooked the courtyard. Originally, they tried to flip the men’s and women’s locations with each other; in that formation, too, there was mingling within the crowd. By building a balcony, the intention was to separate the men and women from each other and to prevent them from mixing together in the courtyard.
While the main source for mehitsot is in tractate Sukkah and not in Berakhot – which does have a section discussing prayer before women[i] – the mehitsah plays a tremendous role in an Orthodox shul. Yet, the mehitsah’s actual function is up for debate. With regards to a mehitsah in a shul, there are varying opinions on what a separation should look like. The root of this debate revolves around the goal of the mehitsah. The first opinion is that men should not see women while they are praying. Following this ruling, a mehitsah would need to as tall as the tallest women. Additionally, the mehitsah would need to be made from a material that cannot be seen through, or at least not be seen through from the men’s section of the shul.
While this opinion is followed by many communities, there is another understanding of the reason for a mehitsah, one that would change the requirements for the structure of the partition wall. The second opinion is not about a man seeing a woman while he is davening. Rather, the main problem that the mehitsah is trying to prevent is the development of a frivolous environment within the shul during tefilah, something that can occur as a result of men and women congregating together.
Rav Eliezer Waldenberg of Jerusalem, well-known for his halakhic works titled the Tsits Eliezer, was of the opinion that the main issue with mixed seating is for a man to see a woman during tefilah. Therefore, he determined that the mehitsah must be high enough that a man could not look over it and see into the women’s section (Tsits Eliezer 7:8).
Rav Moshe Feinstein discussed in his responsa (Iggerot Moshe 1:39) that the ideal form of a mehitsah is a balcony. There are two logical reasons why a balcony is ideal and why many shuls follow this architectural design. Firstly, the original mehitsah – in the beit ha-mikdash – was indeed a balcony (refer back to BT Sukkah 51a). Secondly, a balcony separates men and women further, and it avoids any dispute about the appropriate height, material, and design of the mehitsah itself. If installing a balcony is not reasonable in a given shul’s layout, the second best mehitsah setup according to Rav Moshe is a partition that reaches up to a woman’s shoulders. The reason for this position that while separate seating might prevent frivolity within the shul, there is still a concern should a woman come to shul dressed immodestly: if the mehitsah was not tall enough to cover the woman’s body there would now be an additional issur of men saying the Shema in front of ervah (BT Berakhot 24a).
Additionally, there is a debate whether or not the requirement of a mehitsah is a from the Torah or rabbinic in origin. Rav Feinstein held that the requirement for a mehitsah – and the parameters of the mehitsah itself – was a mitzvah from the Torah that was passed down through the oral tradition. This perhaps could explain why there is extremely limited information in the halakhot of mehitsot: there was no need to elaborate on halakhot that were orally and generationally transmitted. Contrarily, Rav Yosef Dov Soleveitchik held that while the requirement for a mehitsah was a Torah law, the laws regarding what the mehitsah looked like are only a rabbinic requirement.
While these disputes over the technical aspects of the mehitsah requirement are still debated, in essence the goal is the same. When it comes to tefilah, one’s concentration is necessary; the goal of the mehitsah is to make it easier for both men and women to concentrate on their prayers. Regardless of the reasons why a mehitsah is necessary, today, there is a mehitsah in every Orthodox shul; it is an accepted part of the Tradition that men and women sit separately during prayer. Having a mehitsah in their synagogues defines the halakhic observance of the Orthodox community and differentiates it from Reform and Conservative synagogues.
To conclude with a personal note, as an Orthodox Jewish woman living in 2018, I admit there are times when I am in shul and the mehitsah bothers me. When the hazzan is davening, I don’t want to struggle to guess the words that I can barely hear through a thick curtain or solid wall. When the Rabbi is speaking, I like to be able to hear what he has to say. When the Torah is raised for hagbahah, I want to be able to say, “ve-Zot ha-Torah asher sam Moshe…” after actually seeing the text in the sefer Torah.[ii] Alternatively, I’ve also been in a shul where the women’s section is parallel to the men’s section and while there was a full mehitsah dividing the men’s and the women’s section, when it came time for the Rabbi to give his derashah, the curtains on the top part of the mehitsah were opened so that the entire congregation could not only hear, but also see who was addressing the entire community.
While there is no perfect solution for the relatable phenomenon in which women feel as though they are outsiders during a communal prayer, there is hope for an adjusted future. As new shuls are formed or built, the women’s section location should be placed intentionally and thoughtfully in order to maximize the ability to see the aron kodesh and the bimah, and to hear the tefilah, all while maintaining the proper decorum of seriousness and intent required during times of communal prayer.
Zahava (Samantha) Fertig is an upper sophomore at Stern College for Women. She is likely to major in Philosophy with Biology and Education minors. Zahava is currently involved in YUNMUN, Beit Midrash Committee, and START Science.
[i] BT Berakhot 24a says that a tefah of hair showing on a married woman is considered ervah, which can be literally translated as ‘nakedness’. When the Sugya discusses the prayer of Shema, it explains that a man may not recite the Shema while in front of a woman who is exposing her ervah.
[ii] Shulchan Arukh O.C. 134 states that the sefer Torah is shown to everyone while the congregation stands. When the men and women see the actual text of the sefer Torah, they recite the following pasuk, “ve-Zot ha-Torah asher sam Moshe…” (Deuteronomy 4:44).