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Notes from New North London Learning Autumn 2004

Do Men And Women Need To Be Separated In The Synagogue?

Chaim Weiner

[These notes consider only the historical basis for separation; and are abbreviated from the original talk, which also considered how we should use this information nowadays.]

Sociologically the מחיצה [meḥitsa, fence separating the men's and women's areas of the synagogue] is a defining factor of Orthodoxy - it was easier for שירה חדשה (a bleeding-edge-of-Orthodoxy congregation) to start calling women up than to get rid of the מחיצה. This was not the case even fifty years ago. In modern Orthodox literature it is quoted as being מדאורייתא [written in the Torah, not derived by the rabbis]. But there is no place in Jewish law which talks about it. Orthodoxy holds it to be so obvious it need not be mentioned.

In the Temple there was a Women's Area (אזרת נשים); the same term is used to describe the women's gallery in shul. So, was there a separation in the Temple?

Mishna, Middot (measurements) Ch. 2 Mishna 5

(Probably written after the destruction of the Temple, with the aim of keeping its memory alive.)

The Women's Area was a hundred and thirty-five cubits long by a hundred and thirty-five broad. It had four chambers in its four corners, each of forty cubits. They were not roofed, and so they will be in the time to come, as it says, "then he brought me forth into the outer court, and caused me to pass by the four corners of the court, and behold in every corner of the court there was a court." [Ezekiel]

In the four corners of the court there were smoked courts; and smoked means only that they were not roofed. For what were they used? The southeastern one was the chamber of the Nazirites, where the Nazirites used to boil their peace-offerings and poll their hair and throw it under the pot. The northeastern one was the wood chamber where priests with a physical defect used to pick out the wood which had worms, a piece with a worm in it being unfit for use on the altar. The northwestern one was the chamber of the leper. As for the southwestern one, R. Eliezer b. Jacob said: I forget what it was used for. Abba Saul said they used to store there wine and oil, and it was the oil storage room.

(Gee, thanks for sharing that with us, R. Eliezer!) Note that the Nazirites and priests mentioned here are men, so already we are seeing men in the women's area. The אזרת נשים in the Temple was not just for women! It was for everyone who weren't priests or Levites.

It [the Women's Area] had originally been quite bare but subsequently they surrounded it with a balcony so that the women could look on from above while the men were below, and they should not mix together.

Fifteen steps led up from it to the Area of Israel, corresponding to the fifteen [songs of] ascents mentioned in the Book of Psalms. The Levite used to chant psalms on these. They were not rectangular but circular like the half of a threshing floor.

We'll come back to that balcony presently.

Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 51a/b

Mishna. He who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life. At the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles they descended to the Court of the Women where they had made a great enactment (עשו תקון גדולה). There were there golden candlesticks with four golden bowls on the top of each pf them and four ladders to each, and four youths drawn from the priestly stock in whose hands were held jars of oil containing one hundred and twenty log which they poured into the bowls.

From the worn-out drawers and girdles of the priests they made wicks and with them they kindled the lamps; and there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illumined by the light of the place of the water-drawing.

Men of piety and good deeds used to dance before they with lighted torches in their hands,, and sing songs and praiss. And Levites without number with harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets and orher musical instruments were there upon the fifteen steps leading down from the court of the Israelites to the court of the women, corresponding to the fifteen songs of ascents in the psalms. It was upon these that the Levites stood with their instruments of music and sang their songs.

Gemara. At the conclusion of the first festival day, etc. What was the great enactment? R. Eleazar replied, As that which we have learnt. Originally [the walls of the Court of the Women] were smooth, but [later the Court] was surrounded with a gallery, and it was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below.

This was not a permanent balcony, but a temporary one for the duration of the festival.

Our Rabbis have taught, originally the women used to sit within [the Court of the Women] while the men were without, but as this caused levity, it was instituted that the women should sit without and the men within. As this, however, still led to levity, it was instituted that the women would sit above and the men below.

But how could they do so?* Is it not written, All this [do I give thee] in writing as the Lord hath made me wise by His hand upon me? Rab answered, They found a Scriptural verse and expounded it: And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart.

This despite the fact the quoted verse is referring solely to mourning!

* I.e. making changes to the architecture of the Temple.

† King Solomon on making the Temple.

These sources are from rabbis who were not always unbiased. Can we find testimony from other sources?

Josephus: Against Apion, 2:8

(Apion was a Roman antisemite.)

Now then, all such as ever saw the construction of our Temple, of what nature it was, know well enough how the purity of it was never profaned; for it had four courts, encompassed with cloisters round about, every one of which had by our law a peculiar degree of separation from the rest. Into the first court everybody was allowed to go, even foreigners; and none but women during their period of impurity were prohibited to pass through it; all Jews went into the second court, as well as their wives, when they were free from their uncleanliness; into the third went the Jewish men when they were clean and purified; into the fourth went the priests, having on their sacerdotal garments; but for the most sacred place, none went in but the High Priests, clothed in the peculiar garments.

Further evidence may be found in the archaeology of old shuls: nothing proves they had [fixed] מחיצות (though that's not to say they didn't have curtains).

But perhaps that's because women didn't attend synagogue at all!

Did Women Attend Synagogue?

Here's some evidence for it:

Exodus, chapter 38

1. And he made the altar of burnt offering of shittim wood; five cubits was its length, and five cubits its breadth; it was square; and three cubits its height. 8. And he made the basin of bronze, and its pedestal of bronze, from the mirrors of the women assembling, who assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting.

Deuteronomy 31:10-12

Moses commanded them, saying: At the end of every seven years, in the time of the year of release, in the Feast of Booths; when all Israel has come to appear before the Lord your G-d in the place which he shall choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men, women and children, and your stranger who is inside your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your G-d, and take care to do all the words of this Torah.

Judith 4:11-12

All men, women and children in Israel who reside in Jerusalem kneel down in front of the Ark, and put ashes on their heads and wore sackcloth before the Lord, and they called out to the Lord G-d of Israel together loudly...

Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah 38a/b

An Israelite may set meat upon the coals and let a heaten then come and turn it over pending his return from the Synagogue or House of Study and he need not take notice of it*; and a [Israelite] woman may set a pot upon a stove and let a Gentile woman then come and stir it pending her return from the bathhouse or Synagogue, and she need take no noticed of it.

* I.e. need not worry it was cooked by a non-Jew.

Talmud, Tractate Sotah 22a

A certain widow had a synagogue in her neighbourhood; yet she used to come daily to the School of R. Jochanan and pray there. He said to her, "My daughter, is there not a synagogue in your neighbourhood?" She answered him, "Rabbi, but have I not the reward for the steps!"

Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews 14.10.23

The decree of the Sardians: "This decree was made by the senate and the people, upon the representation of the praetors: Whereas those Jews who are our fellow-citizens, and live with us in this city, have ever had great benefits heaped upon them by the people, and have come now intoo the senate, and desired of the people, that upon the restitution of their law and their liberty, by the senate and people of Rome, they may assemble together, according to their ancient custom, and that we will not being any suit against them about it; and that a place may be given them where they may have their congregations, with their wives and children, and may offer, as did their forefathers, their prayers and sacrifices to G-d. Now the senate and people have decreed to permit them to assemble together on the days formerly appointed, and to act according to their won laws; and that such a place be set apart for them by the praetors, for the building and inhabiting the same, as they shall esteem fit for that purpose; and that those that take care of the privisions of the city, shall take care that such sorts of food as they esteem fit for their eating, may be imported into the city.

It is the eighth to ninth centuries before you before see separation appearing in the sources—but the first references are not to shul but to wedding feasts (see earlier reference to times to merriment). Furthermore these are all in the context of the Muslim world, not the Christian one - the Jews took the custom from their neighbours.

Jewish learning notes index

Women seperated by mechitsa

Date: 2005-09-06 03:00 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I actually heard from a Masorti Rabbi (maybe Chaim Wener) that the Mechitsa was invented in the middle age. Before men and women sat together.

Re: Women seperated by mechitsa

Date: 2005-09-07 12:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
You heard it in the same place that I did, which is the talk I've typed up above. There's no hard evidence either for the meḥitsa from beforehand.

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