A mechitzah (מחיצה, partition, pl.: מחיצות, mechitzot) is a partition used in Orthodox synagogues to separate men and women during formal prayer services.
For the last 2 centuries it has been erroneously taught that a mandatory mechitzah is an ancient law, followed since the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, 2,000 years ago, and enshrined in the Talmud itself. Here is an example of such a belief.
“It is my job as a Rabbi to teach and educate people. In the times of the second Temple (Beis HaMikdash) in Tractate Sukkos it was written that a special platform was made for the women so that they could view the men dancing and the Lulav and Esrog ceremony. WOMEN AND MEN HAVE ALWAYS BEEN SEPARATED from the time of Avraham until about 1800 in Germany. After the Sabbatai Ẓevi and Jacob Frank false moshiachs [messiahs], the Reform Movement started.”
The thing is, no historians agree with this. There is no relationship between Zevi & Frank, and classical German Reform Judaism. Sabbatai Zevi was a kabbalist, and historians say that some of teachings actually influenced Hasidic Judaism; in contrast classical German Reform was rationalist and rejected all kabbalah, both Zevi’s and Hasidic.
It is true that over the centuries, women and men didn’t sit together in modern-day style. Few historical sources exist, but those that do imply that perhaps men prayed more often in synagogue, and women less often. There were local customs for women and men to sit separately, but there is no evidence that this was ever a widespread law, indeed, perhaps no evidence that it was even considered a local law.
The idea that a mechitzah is mandatory didn’t develop until after the Enlightenment, and the emergence of classical Reform Judaism. In response to these changes, the Orthodox community created new rules on tefila (prayer) and gender.
Two rationales were developed by the Orthodox, in an effort to claim that this rule had always existed.
I. The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 51b, 52a) describes a divider in the form of a balcony, in the Temple in Jerusalem. However, it was only set up only during the festive, raucous, Simchat Beit Hasho’evah (Water Drawing Ceremony) on Sukkot. Otherwise it was not used.
II. The Talmud cites a teaching that we may not daven in the presence of an ‘erva, an immodestly dressed woman. Berachot 24a states “tefach b’isha erva”, “an area of uncovered skin of a woman is ‘erva.” What an area (tefach) actually is, is not defined. Thus one may not daven in the presence of women where this much skin is exposed.
Noah Gradofsky writes:
In absence of evidence the claim that mechitzah started in an effort to avoid davening in the presence of ervah is conjecture. Somewhat reasonable, but you would have to argue that women going in to shul with ervah uncovered was commonplace enough to necessitate this enactment. This strikes me as unlikely, since if women were commonly enough going into synagogues with certain body parts uncovered, those body parts would be, by definition, not ervah. perhaps the conservative mores of a synagogue led people to label what offended them as ervah even though the cultural reality around them was different. One of the interesting points of the phrase במקום שדרקן לכסות – “where they normally cover” is whether the word מקום (place) refers to a geographic location, an anatomical location, or both.
During the same time period, Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews developed prohibitions on women from singing with men, the prohibition against Kol Isha. The result of this gender segregation (mechitzahs and Kol Isha) was to effectively render women not part of the Jewish congregation: Many Orthodox siddurim have a prayer asking God to “bless the congregation – and their wives”, clearly implying that women are full members.
The upshot: There is no mention of any mechitzah in the Temple in Jerusalem, not during the First or Second Temple, nor are there are mentions of it in the Talmud. Rabbi David Golinkin writes:
Towards the end of the Second Temple period the Sages directed that a women’s gallery be constructed in the Women’s Court to keep the sexes separated ONLY during the somewhat light-headed celebration of the water festival during Succot.
During the balance of the year men and women mingled freely in the Women’s Court. (It appears that this was so named because it marked the limit of approach by women who were not bringing sacrifices, to the inner courts of the Temple). There is no literary or archaeological basis for assuming the existence of a synagogue separation during the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.
The first mention is towards the end of the period of the Geonim (around the eleventh century). From then on, such separation is occasionally mentioned in passing. Not until the end of the nineteenth century do we have a halakhic source *requiring* separation in the synagogue.
At this point one is reminded of the classic joke retold by the ThinkJudaism blog:
Conservative Jew: Why doesn’t Rav Yosef Karo’s law book, the Shulḥan Aruch, have a section for the laws of meḥitza?
Orthodox Jew: Why?
Conservative Jew: We learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need a meḥitza.
Orthodox Jew: No, we learn from this that a synagogue really doesn’t need women.
Image: Jews in front of Western Wall, Jerusalem, from a negative taken approximately 1900 to 1920. Library of Congress LC-DIG-matpc-12192
Laws about mechitzahs were never said to be a part of halakhah until the 1800’s. Examples include
Chatam Sofer, Orech Chaim 5:190
Moses Schreiber (1762–1839), Germany
It is right according to our Torah law to listen to the voice of a woman in shul, in a place that men congregate, and the women’s voice goes from the women’s section to the men’s section? The reason for this, is that we believe that all prayer and praise and thanksgiving should not be mixed with improper thoughts. And because of this we separate the women from the men in shul, to make sure they do not come to think improper thoughts during the time of prayer. And we learn this from the water libation ceremony that is spoken about in Tractate Sukka where they made sure the women were above and the men below so they would not come to kalut rosh. . And it is said there on 52a, as it says: “And the land shall mourn, every family apart: The family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart.” (Zecharia 12:12). And it is a kal v’chomer- here where they are talking about a eulogy where there is no evil inclination the Torah tells us that the men were separate, and here that we are talking about happiness, where there is an evil inclination, all the more so there should be a separation.
– Translation from Sefaria.Org
Maharam Shik מהר”ם שיק, Orech Chaim 77
Rabbi Moshe Schick משה שיק, (1807 – 1879), Hungary
Igrat Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:39
Rav Moses Feinstein משה פיינשטײַן (1895–1986), New York
Shu”t Tzitz Eliezer 7:8
Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915–2006), Jerusalem
Joseph B. Soloveitchik יוסף דב הלוי סולובייצ׳יק (1903-1993) Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications. Ktav Publishing House, 2005. p. 129-130. During the 1950’s, Soloveitchik ruled that it was forbidden to pray in a synagogue without a separation between the sexes, and that this law was actually mi-d’orayta, an actual law in the Torah. At the time, during the political-social fighting between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, many Orthodox Jews accepted this claim as correct. Today however no person takes this claim seriously; there is not mitzvah in the Torah on this subject. He further stated that the use of a mechitza as we know it today was mi-derabbenan, a rabbinical prohibition from the Talmud (discussed above, which we now know is mistaken. He misread the Talmudic text about the temporary partition erected during raucously celebrated Simchat Beit Hasho’evah (Water Drawing Ceremony) on Sukkot.
Trichitza. A strange word, no? Until I was in Israel two weeks ago and prayed in a trichitza setting for the first time, I’d never heard the word before. Shortly thereafter, I came across a trichitza-related article in the November/December 2006 edition of New Voices. I’ve since learned that over the past few years, a growing number of communities have experimented with a trichitza, defining religious space in new, pluralizing ways. Adapted from the word mechitza (which literally means “separation” and refers to the physical divider traditionally used to separate men and women during prayer services), a trichitza divides the prayer space into three sections: one exclusively for women, one exclusively for men, and one not classified by gender. This provides options for nearly everyone: those whose Jewish practice is built upon gender-egalitarianism, those who wish to pray in a gender-specific space… , and those whose own gender-identity lies outside of the male/female binary. The author of Mah Rabu, a blog about Jewish politics, culture, and religious issues writes of the trichitza: “It’s an elegant idea that didn’t exist and then someone came up with it, and everyone said: ‘why didn’t I think of that before?’”