Monday, October 23, 2006

Daf Yomi - Sukkah 52 - Purpose of a Mechitza

The Gemora states that originally during the simchas beis hashoevah, the men and the women were not separated completely and it led to levity. The Gemora relates that a balcony was created to separate the men and the women. The men remained in the azarah and the women went to the balcony.

Harav Moshe Feinstein (O"C 1:39) states that the primary purpose of a mechitza is not to prevent the men from looking at the women. He proves this from our Gemora which states that the balcony was erected due to lightheadedness which occured between the men and the women. He further states that the balcony which was constructed did not consist of a dividing wall and in actuality, the women could still be seen. While it is true that the men directly underneath the balcony could not see the women, the men in the middle would be able to see. The purpose of the balcony was to prevent intermingling and frivolty.

Rav Moshe rules that the most preferable mechitza in a Shul would be a balcony. If that is not possible a dividing wall should be erected at least eighteen tefachim high. This will not prevent the women from being seen, however it will prevent intermingling and levity.

The Rambam in his explanation to the Mishna here does seem to indicate that the balcony was constructed in order to prevent the men from seeing the women. In his explanation to the Mishna in Middos, the Rambam states that it was erected due to the concern of intermingling amongst the men and women.

The Tosfos Yom Tov states that those under the balcony could not see the women and those that were dancing in the middle were righteous and saintly and therefore there was no need to be concerned.

This is quite perplexing as we know the yetzer hora can never be underestimated. There is a well known story told about Rav Elya Lopian. Rabbi Shlomo Price relates it here.

Despite being such a big Tzaddik when it came to immorality Rav Elya Lopian was extremely apprehensive. This is illustrated in the following story (Lev Eliyahu B'reishis p. 13).

A talmid asked permission to go to a wedding. Rav Lopian asked him if there would be any immoral scenes (he didn't mean a bellydancer but whether or not the women would be dressed modestly). The talmid, knowing that there would be a problem, started to rationalize by saying that he would be seated at a special table with his parents…. He concluded by saying, "It won't have an effect on me. "This last statement disturbed Rav Lopian very much. He turned to the talmid and he said, "Listen, I'm already over eighty years old, and blind in one eye, yet despite this when I walk in the street I'm full of fear lest I stumble into seeing immorality. You! a young boy with two good eyes, how can you tell me that it won't have an effect on you?"

He then added a few sharp words which the author refused to print. I was told in the name of Rav Shalom Shwadron Shlit"a that he asked him for his mother's name and saying, "You must be sick, I'm going to make a "Mi Shebeirach" (prayer for a sick person) for you."

The Piskei HaRid learns that there was a wall that was constructed in a manner that the men could not see the women but the women were still able to see the men (one way glass, perhaps?).

Rabbi Doniel Neustadt discusses the halachic aspects of this issue and cites our Gemora as the source here.


The halachah that requires men to be separated from women while davening in shul has its origins in the procedure followed in the Beis ha-Mikdash. Our Sages in the Mishnah(1) report that a major "adjustment" was made in the Beis ha-Mikdash during the festive holiday of Succos. The Talmud explains that the adjustment consisted of building a balcony over the men's section so that the women could witness the festivities of Simchas beis ha-shoeivah. Had they stood where they normally did, the mingling of the crowds and the festive holiday air would have led to kalus rosh, excessive frivolity. The Talmud attests that the need for a balcony was so pressing that its construction was approved even though it is generally prohibited to expand or modify the original structure of the Beis ha-Mikdash. The Biblical source for the separation of men and women, says the Talmud, is found in the verse in Zecharyah in which the prophet foretells the eulogy of Mashiach ben Yosef, where men and women will be seated separately. If separate seating is required even at so solemn an affair as a eulogy, how much more so must separate seating be required on a joyous occasion!

Following the example set by our Sages in the Beis ha-Mikdash, the age-old tradition has been to make a clear division and a separation between the main sanctuary and the women's section. Some shuls built a balcony, like the Beis ha-Mikdash had, while others constructed a thick wall that completely separated the two sections. This arrangement was so taken for granted, so undisputed, that it is not even explicitly cited in the Shulchan Aruch as a requirement(2). About a hundred years ago, when some shuls in Germany and Hungary began to question the need for a mechitzah, all the leading rabbis(3) strictly prohibited davening in any shul that lowered or removed the traditional separation between the two sections.

With the mass immigration of Jews to the United States in the late 1800's, many modern synagogues did not insist upon a mechitzah that completely blocked off the women's section. First Reform and Conservative temples, and then even more traditional ones, began to openly defy our hallowed tradition and gradually lowered or removed the barrier which separated the men from the women. The following questions were then posed to the venerable poskim in the U.S.: Is this practice justified? Is a mechitzah halachically required? How high does a mechitzah have to be?


In order to answer these questions correctly, we must first examine what, exactly, was the purpose of the balcony in the Beis ha-Mikdash. We explained earlier that a balcony was constructed to prevent kalus rosh, excessive frivolity. The Talmud does not, however, elaborate on how the separation was effective in guaranteeing that kalus rosh did not prevail. There are two possible ways to understand this:

A.Kalus rosh prevails when the men can freely gaze at the women. It interferes with their concentration and profanes the sanctity of the Beis ha-Mikdash. By seating the women on a balcony over the men's section, the men can no longer view the women(4). To accomplish this purpose, the balcony was constructed in one of two ways: 1) The men's section was directly underneath the balcony, hidden from the women's line of vision. The women were nevertheless able to see a small clearing in the middle of the men's section where the few dancers would perform(5). (The majority of the men did not actively participate in the festivities; they were merely spectators(6).) 2) The balcony was built above the sides of the men's section, but it was enclosed with a curtain or a one-way mirror. This permitted the women to watch the men from above but completely blocked the men's view of the women(7).

B.Kalus rosh prevails when men and women are free to mix socially with one another. By relegating the women to a balcony and physically separating them from "mixing" with the men, the proper decorum and sanctity of the Beis ha-Mikdash was duly preserved(8). According to this understanding, then, the balcony did not completely block the men's view. Rather, it separated the two sections and prevented the men and women from communicating or interacting with each other in any way.

The question, then, as it applies to present day mechitzos, is as follows: Do we follow the first interpretation and require a mechitzah that completely blocks the men's view, or is it sufficient to have a mechitzah that divides the two sections in a way that prevents frivolity?


There are two schools of thought among contemporary authorities as to the practical halachah. Many poskim(9) hold that the purpose of the mechitzah is that the men should not be able to view the women. Accordingly: The mechitzah must be high enough to completely block the entire women's section.

The mechitzah must be made entirely from an opaque material. Glass, flowers and decorative wood slats are not acceptable for any part of the mechitzah. Even a balcony must be completely encircled by a curtain, etc.

As stated previously, this practice was universally accepted, wherever Jews davened. The women's section, whether in the balcony or at the back of the shul, was totally separated from the men's. Such a separation was a fundamental feature of shul architecture, as basic as positioning the amud at the front of the shul and a bimah in the middle. It was and still is part of the standard model for a Jewish place of worship.

Harav M. Feinstein(10), however, after establishing that the basic requirement for separating men and women during prayer services is a Biblical obligation, holds that the basic halachah follows the second approach that we mentioned earlier. Although he agrees that it is commendable and praiseworthy to maintain the age-old traditional mechitzah, he nevertheless rules that the widespread practice of many shuls to lower the mechitzah somewhat is permitted according to the basic halachah. As long as the mechitzah is high enough to effectively block out any communication or interaction between the men's and women's sections, it is a halachically valid mechitzah. Accordingly:

1. The minimum height for a mechitzah is shoulder-high, which the Talmud(11) calculates to be 17 to 18 tefachim high. Allowing for a difference of opinion concerning the exact size of a tefach, Harav Feinstein rules that a 66-inch mechitzah is permitted(12), while in extenuating circumstances 60 inches will suffice(13). Any mechitzah lower than that, however, is not considered a mechitzah at all.
2. A balcony does not need to be encircled with a partition or a curtain. It is preferable and recommended, however, to do so if possible(14).
3. Although, technically, the upper part of the mechitzah may be made out of glass since it serves as a physical barrier between the sections, it is self-defeating and inadequate to use glass, as many women, unfortunately, come to shul improperly dressed and /or with their hair not covered properly(15).
4. A mechitzah which has sizable gaps towards the top is not acceptable since it does not effectively guard against kalus rosh(16). A mechitzah which has tiny openings in the lattice work is permitted(17).
5. The mechitzah must reach the required height (60") in both the men's and women's sections. Raising the floor of the women's section-which in effect lowers the height of the mechitzah-defeats the purpose of the mechitzah(18).


Avromi said...

Daf Yomi - Yoma 54 - Impure thoughts in the Beis Hamikdosh

The Gemora states that the keruvim embraced each other like a זכר ונקבה. The Sheorim Metzuyanim B'halacha brings down from the Minchas Elozar and others that in the Beis Hamikdosh, they were not concerned about הרהור - impure thoughts.

My assumption is that Reb Yochanan ben Zakkai instituted a balcony to separate the men and women because of intermingling and not because of thought.

posted by Avromi at 7/30/2006 01:57:00 AM

ben said...

The Satmar Rav has a teshuvah where he disagrees with Reb Moshe Feinstein zt"l regarding the need for a mechitzah and he elaborates on thhat Gemara in Sukkah that you quoted. Seems from Divrei Yoel that there clearly was a problem of hirhur.

Mon Jul 31, 12:24:22 AM 2006

David said...

There is apparently "two dinim" in a mechitzah: 1) to prevent "kalus rosh", ie, frivolity; and 2) impure thoughts. That is why a mechitzah alone is insufficent, according to R' Moshe, but rather a mechitzah of at least 5 feet is required. Were frivolity alone the only reason, merely sitting seprately would suffice.

At least, that's how I understood it.

Mon Jul 31, 09:46:37 AM 2006

Sam said...

the long Tosafos reviews the rules of tzelem or dmus--obviously, if Shlomo could carve 3-dimensional keruvim into the walls, the rules are not like, l'havdil, Muslims who allow no images at all. But can engraved (beneath the surface) & raised images be used in other decor? And were these additionbal keruvim there for any purpose other than decoration? Seems unlikely, considering the significaqnce of the aron's keruvim & their positioning. And how did Shlomo's keruvim look? Facing, embracing, etc? This might have implications for hirhur vs. kalus rosh--after all, these were the keruvim that he public saw (according to one opinion).

Tue Aug 01, 12:09:07 PM 2006

Avromi said...

In response to your question as to how did the keruvim of Shlomo look...

The Ritva answers that the Gemora in Bava Basra is referring to the keruvim that Moshe made (those that were on the ארון) and shlomos's keruvim that were standing next to the Aron and our Gemora is discussing the keruvim that were drawn on the wall and these keruvim never changed their positions - they were always embracing. Rashi seems to indicate like this pshat for he says that the goyim peeled them off the walls and then brought them outside.

Tue Aug 01, 12:52:51 PM 2006

Avromi said...

In response to your question regarding the purpose of those keruvim here is this taken from

The SI'ACH YITZCHAK points out that the Nochrim could not have taken out the Keruvim on the Kapores, because the Gemara earlier (52b) says that Yoshiyahu hid the Kapores along with the Keruvim years before the Churban. The Si'ach Yitzchak says that the Nochrim must have taken out other Keruvim. However, how does he know that the Keruvim that they took out were not the Keruvim of Shlomo ha'Melech?

According to Rav Landy's explanation, the Gemara (54a) explicitly states that the Keruvim of Shlomo ha'Melech were not present in the second Beis ha'Mikdash. Why is the Gemara so certain that the Keruvim of Shlomo ha'Melech were not present in the second Beis ha'Mikdash? The answer is that the Keruvim of Shlomo ha'Melech were made only to serve the Aron, and thus they were considered part of the Aron. When Yoshiyahu hid the Aron, he also hid Shlomo's Keruvim with it, just as he hid all the other contents of the Kodesh ha'Kodashim (52b). The only Keruvim left for the enemies to display at the time of the Churban were the ones drawn on the walls.

Perhaps this is the intention of the Gemara earlier when it says that in the second Beis ha'Mikdash there were "no Aron, Kapores, and Keruvim." It lists Kapores and Keruvim separately because the "Kapores" refers to the actual Kapores and the Keruvim on top of it, while the "Keruvim" refer to those of Shlomo ha'Melech.

Tue Aug 01, 12:55:46 PM 2006

Aton said...

Perhaps since the Ezras Nashim only had the Kedushah of Har HaBayis/Machaneh Leviyah it lacked what the Kodesh HaKodashim and the Azarah had (Gilui Shechinah in form of Nissim, staging of the Avodah) to prevent Hirhur?

Tue Aug 01, 06:16:01 PM 2006

Avromi said...

I was thinking like that, but i figured that the minchos elozar was saying that it will prevent hirhur from seeing the keruvim in that manner and the people observing would be in the azarah.

Tue Aug 01, 06:26:55 PM 2006

Aton said...

I mean, I wonder if the point is that when looking at something in the Kodesh Kodoshim or Heichal, regardless of where one is, his thoughts are dominated by nothing but Eimas HaKodesh (we find Mikdash inspiring or controlling thoughts, e.g. Yonah getting Ru'ach HaKodesh at Simchas Beis HaSho'evah, Gemara in Sukkah about it...) -- whereas looking women in the Ezras Nashim, which has the lesser Kedushas Har HaBayis, may not be sufficiently protective?


Tue Aug 01, 11:04:41 PM 2006

Michael P. said...

If R. Moshe Feinstein determined that the mitzvah of mechitza is Biblical, and the Sages enacted the balcony because of frivolity, the mechitza at the Simchas beis haShoavah was clearly Rabbinic. So how can we learn ANYTHING about a modern mechitza from what was done on Sukkos?

Rabbi N. said...

The basic concept of separation between genders during tefillah and avoda is min ha-Torah; the details and specifics are given over to the chachamim to decide in each situation - similar to hilchos chol ha-moed

Avromi said...

just found this here

How high must a mechitzah be?
by Rabbi Moshe Miller
There are two schools of thought regarding the purpose of a Mechitzah: some maintain that its purpose is to prevent men from seeing women. Accordingly, the mechitzah must be high enough to completely block the entire women’s section, and must be made from an opaque material.

Others however maintain that is purpose is to prevent men and women from mingling or interacting. Accordingly, as long as the mechitzah is high enough to effectively block out any communication or interaction between the men’s and women’s sections, it is a Halachically valid mechitzah. The minimum height for such a mechitzah is shoulder-high, which Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rules to be 66 inches, and at the very least 60 inches.

There are some who combine the leniency of Rabbi Feinstein with the stringency of the other position and make the first 60 inches of the mechitzah completely opaque, with a curtain or latticework forming the remainder of the mechitzah.

To a certain extent, the opinion one follows depends upon the community in which one lives. But one should not be any less strict than the majority of the Orthodox Jewish community in one’s city.

It would be best to consult a local orthodox rabbi for a more specific ruling.