As we read about the death of the first matriarch, the woman chosen to transmit the promise through her son with Abraham, the woman who “made souls” along with her husband, the woman who laughed at God, it seemed a good time to post an article I wrote in the 1980’s for the first book by women rabbis in the UK – “Hear Our Voice”. The article was entitled “Undermining the pillars that support the women’s gallery: an examination of the foundations of the custom of segregated seating” and examines and lays bare the paucity of reasoning and of sources for this custom that keeps so many of Sarah’s daughters out of public space and public dialogue.
“As women slowly gain an increased profile and greater power in the management of synagogues, they find themselves disadvantaged within its religious expression. In some cases they are literally hidden from view, their presence screened over and muted.
The reasons given for this are fourfold:
- That it is a biblical/rabbinic prohibition for men and women to sit together in worship
- That in Temple times there was a separate women’s courtyard (Ezrat Nashim) and a synagogue by Talmudic principle is a sanctuary in miniature (mikdash me ‘at)
- That male worshipers would become distracted from fulfilling their obligations to pray, if they had to do so in mixed company
- That it is the long established custom and practice for Jews to worship in this way, and to change it would be to “Christianize” the synagogue
Tracing the phenomenon of separate seating – and in particular of Mechitza, (the separating screen) – what emerges is that the historical, legal and theological case for such behaviour is not at all substantial. This is surprising, given the vigour with which it is promulgated and defended.
What is the legal source for the prohibition?
In the responsa literature there is some debate as to whether the separation of the sexes (and how it is to be done) is a biblical prohibition or a rabbinic one (and therefore less authoritative).
The few responsa that argue for a biblical prohibition find themselves unable to provide any verse whatever from Torah to underwrite the claim. The single biblical verse quoted to back up the claim for separation of the sexes being a biblical command in Zechariah (12:12)
“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.”
The plain reading of the verse is that it is set within an oracle in which Zechariah describes the future Jerusalem. The city will be besieged by many nations, but God will strike them with madness and confusion. God will protect Jerusalem, destroying all who make war on her, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will mourn the nations they have “thrust through”. The mourning will be done family by family alone, and Zechariah goes on to name a number of households separately, and to state “and their women [will mourn] alone”
How can this be read as a biblical injunction not only for separate seating but for segregated seating – Mechitza? The logic would seem to be that if, in this quasi-messianic period, men and women were to be separated, and if they were specifically segregated during a period of terrible mourning, how much more should the separation be enforced in our corrupt times, and how much more so when the spirit is not depressed by sadness. For who knows what frivolity might be encouraged if men and women are allowed to be together?
As Moshe Feinstein wrote
“Nowhere do we find that this instance of future mourning was to be in the sanctuary….it therefore indicates that wherever men and women must gather, they are forbidden to be without a dividing Mechitza between them, so that they cannot reach a state of levity…..And so in our synagogues too….”[i]
Clearly this understanding is not the plain meaning of the passage in Zechariah, and clearly too Feinstein’s is a partial reading, as the issue of each family mourning separately is not developed into their behaviour at worship. More important however, is the fact that this source – the ONLY biblical text used to support segregation, comes not from Torah but from Nevi’im – the prophetic books. Feinstein deals &with this by writing:
“And even though its source in the Bible is a verse from the Prophets, in which the rule is that it cannot establish any biblical prohibition, here a biblical law can be derived from it, for it does not seek to originate any prohibition, but merely requires that mourning be observed in accordance with the [apparently pre-existing] scriptural law – men separate and women separate. We learn similarly of many biblical laws from the actions of the Prophets, Judges and Kings, out of verses quoted in passages of Oral Tradition” [ii]
In other words, Feinstein views this as coming under the category of received wisdom – i.e. that we can infer from the narrative the existence of an older law which is then assumed to be a biblical law. So had the text in Zechariah overtly prohibited men and women from mourning together it would not have been a biblical prohibition, but since it does not say that, then we can legitimately infer such a prohibition (!)
Leaving aside such convoluted processes, the main objections, that nowhere in the Bible is the separation of men and women in public worship or assemblies commanded,(and indeed we find many examples where men and women clearly do worship together, see below) and that the one verse that is even remotely applicable is in the Prophets, are not addressed.
So it would seem that the prohibition must be, in fact, a rabbinic one. Many responsa, including those of Rav Kook, take this view.
If we look to the Talmud we find that it addresses the separation of men and women only in terms of the Ezrat Nashim (the women’s courtyard in the Second Temple), and of the great amendment made to the Tempe to accommodate the celebration of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva, the water libation ceremony which took place during Sukkot.
In the Second Temple there was a system of courtyards of increasing holiness, culminating in the Holy of Holies. One outer courtyard was ‘the Courtyard of the Women – Ezrat Nashim’, beyond which it is thought that women did not normally go. Likewise there was a ‘Courtyard of the Israelites – Ezrat Yisrael’, beyond which men who were not of priestly descent did not normally pass.
The Ezrat Nashim, however, was certainly not a secluded and enclosed place designed only for the women, as a synagogue gallery is meant to be. It was a large outer courtyard where both sexes could mingle freely. It could not have been an area where women could go to pray quietly and separately, because the men had to pass through it to get to the courtyard of the Israelites and beyond.
Therefore we cannot deduce from the Temple architecture that the sexes were separated for the purpose of worship or assembly. Ezrat Nashim here means not a place reserved for the women, but the furthest point that the women generally went into the Temple (unless of course they were bringing a sacrifice to the priest)
Furthermore we know that the Ezrat Nashim was a busy place. Mishna Middot tells us:
“The Ezrat Nashim was 135 [cubits] in length by 135 [cubits] in width. And there were four chambers at its four corners each forty cubits square; they were not roofed over….And what purpose did they serve? The south-eastern one was the Chamber of the Nazirites, because there the Nazirites cooked their peace offerings, and cut their hair, and cast it beneath the pot; the north-eastern one was the Chamber of the Woodstore, and there the priests that were blemished searched the wood for worms, for any wood wherein a worm was found was invalid [for burring] upon the altar. The north-western one was the Chamber of the Lepers; the south-western one – Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said “I have forgotten what it was used for”, but Abba Saul says “there they stored the wine and the oil and it was called the Chamber of the House of Oil” [iii]
The place described scarcely sounds like the paradigm for separated and segregated seating, such as that above the main body of the synagogue in a balcony, or behind a mechitza. We come a little closer to such a possibility further on in the same mishnah:
“Originally [the Ezrat Nashim] was not built over, and[later] they surrounded it with a balcony so that the woman should look on from above and the men were down below in order that they should not intermingle. And fifteen steps went up from within it to the Ezrat Yisrael, corresponding to the fifteen degrees in the Book of Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing” [iv]
So a women’s gallery did exist for part of the time the Second Temple stood, and it was added after the Temple was built. To find out why this structure was built we need to look at the mishnah and gemara in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah.
The mishnah reads:
“One who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water drawing (Simchat beit HaSho’eva) has never seen rejoicing in their life. At the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles, they (the priests and the Levites) descended to the court of the women (Ezrat Nashim) where they had made a great enactment”
The gemara asks:
“What was the great enactment? R.Eleazar replied ‘As that of which we have learned. 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.” 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 should sit above and the men below”[v]
Note that the men and women swapped their quarters for the celebration, the men in the Court of the Women and the women in the smaller, inner Court of the Israelites.
So we have found the very first enclosure or gallery for women, but are left with two problems if we want this to be the source for the phenomenon either of separate seating or of mechitza.
First, the gallery spoken of in tractate Sukkah is of a temporary nature, erected only for this festival of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (a festival which has not been observed for centuries).
Secondly, there are always problems in drawing a parallel between the Temple and the synagogue. While a synagogue may be a miniature sanctuary[vi],many activities particular to the Temple are not transferred to the synagogue (for example, the use of musical instruments is not acceptable in an Orthodox synagogue).
There is no reason why this once-a-year change in seating so as to prevent an over-enthusiastic celebration should transfer to the synagogue as a permanent relegation of women to a gallery or separated enclosure. As Steinsaltz wrote:
“Simchat Beit HaSho’eva; as well as it being a religious commandment to be joyful every festival it is a particular commandment to rejoice on the days of the festival of Sukkot and thus they used to do in the Temple. On the eve of the first day of the festival they would prepare a gezuztra (enclosure or balcony whose finished side faced upwards) in the Court of the Women, so that the men and women would not mingle, and would begin festivities at the end of the first day. And so it would be for each of the intervening days of the festival. From the time that the evening sacrifice was offered, they would rejoice and dance the rest of the day and all of the night”[vii]
This is scarcely the practice today.
If the Talmud only mentions separated and segregated seating in the setting of the annual erection of the gezuztra in the Court of the Women (from which we can also infer that the gezuztra was taken down for the rest of the year), where does the practice begin?
The Codes do not specifically discuss the special women’s galleries in synagogues. Neither the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (1135-1204) nor the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Caro (1488-1575) refer to such a thing. This could be for one of two reasons:
It could mean that the law referring to mechitza and the separation and segregation of women was so well known that it was pointless to codify it, or else it could signify that the law was not known at all.
Certainly there are many instances in the Bible where the women are involved in public worship. The earliest example is in Exodus 38:8 when we are told about the serving women who did service at the door of the tent of meeting. Other references can be found in Leviticus 12:16, the Prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:12, the Shunammite woman in 2Kings 4:23 and there are many more.
The book of Nehemiah contains a specific reference to Ezra the priest reading the Book of the Law “before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding…in the presence of the men and the women” (8:2-3) and in 2 Chronicles we are told:
“And all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women spoke of Josiah in their lamentations unto this day” (35:24-25)
Interestingly here we have a text which speaks of joint mourning, both men and women public lamenting, as distinct from the verse from Zechariah, used as a prop for the custom of separated worship.
We know too that the early Christians – who modelled themselves on contemporary Jewish observance – did not have separation of the sexes in worship. We read in Acts (1:13-14)
“These [male disciples] all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” Further sources are Galations 3:28, Romans 16:12 etc.
Professor Shmuel Safrai of the Hebrew University is clear “from numerous sources” that women attended synagogue in antiquity, but that “there were no women’s galleries or any other known form of sex separation in synagogues”. He acknowledges that there might have been some internal division of sexes (for example women seated to the side or to the back), but if there were “there are no contemporaneous sources to describe them”[viii]
The exhaustive survey of the remains of ancient synagogues by Bernadette Brooten[ix] backs up Safrai’s claim. Having examined synagogue remains from the ruin of Masada (first century) onwards, her conclusion is unequivocal. There is absolutely no archaeological evidence for a women’s gallery or a separate women’s section in ancient synagogues. Instead she found much evidence of the prior assumptions held by the archaeologists who investigated this subject. She writes:
In a lecture on the Galilean Synagogue ruins held on 16 December 1911 in Berlin, Samuel Krauss said to his audience: “Now that we are inside the synagogue, let us first of all – as politeness demands – looks for the rows of the seats of our dear wives, non the supposition that something will be found which could be viewed as the remains of a ‘Weibershul’ in the synagogue ruins”
Following the demands of politeness, Mr Krauss did look for, and did find, the remains of what he called the women’s gallery in the ancient Galilean synagogues. The majority of modern Judaica scholars and archaeologists follow Krauss in both method and result – i.e. they look for a women’s gallery and they find one.
An example: In Gamla (destroyed 67CE) the synagogue is approached in its southeast corner by stairs coming up the side of the hill. An article in the Biblical Archaeological Review states that these stairs ostensibly led to an upper [women’s] gallery….. Further excavation in 1979 revealed that these steps are a continuation of a road leading up the side of a hill to the synagogue, and are thus leading to the synagogue itself, rather than a gallery”
Bluntly stated, Brooten’s conclusion is that a number of Palestinian synagogues clearly never had a gallery, and of the few where a case was made for a gallery by the archaeologists, the evidence examined did not support such a hypothesis. In the case of side rooms in the excavated sites, the general rule seemed to be that if a gallery could not be imaginatively reconstructed, then the side room was perceived as the women’s area. Otherwise it was assumed to be storage or a school room.
So, given that there is no strong biblical, Talmudic or archaeological case for a women’s gallery or a separate women’s section, we are left with a mystery. Where does such a fixture (and custom) come from?
The earliest written source is from the thirteenth century. Mordechai ben Hillel haKohen (1240? – 1298), a German rabbi and author, who wrote a commentary on the Talmud. On a discussion about permitted and prohibited actions on the Sabbath he noted:
“It is forbidden to set up any screen whatever on the Sabbath, unless it is for chasteness in general…. But a screen for general chasteness is permitted. For example, we are permitted to erect on the Sabbath the partition curtain between men and women, which is set up during the time of the rabbi’s sermon”[x]
Mordechai is using an existing practice to illustrate his point about work on the Sabbath. This is the first we know of such a practice, and it clearly shows that normally the women were not segregated within the synagogue, and that the segregation of men and women was done only to prevent impropriety during a sermon when the synagogue building was full. By the time of R. Jacob ben Moses Moelin(Cremona 1565) the curtain is said to have been made from prayer shawls, strung across the room to form a divide[xi]
Other responsa on the subject of the separation and segregation of women in the synagogue all stem from the mediaeval period or later. For example Rashi (1040 -1105), commenting on a Talmudic passage which is dealing with men and women being alone together, says, “Where men and women come together either for the sermon or for a wedding, he should arrange earthenware jugs between them so that if they approach each other these would make a noise”[xii]
The Yalkut Shimoni (a midrashic work dating from the first half of the thirteenth century) cites the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu Rabba (a midrashic work composed in the second half of the tenth century, probably in Southern Italy) as follows:
“A man should not stand among women and pray, because he is likely to be distracted by the presence of women”[xiii]
It would seem that at some point in mediaeval times the notion of men being distracted from their obligatory prayer by the presence of women (also praying?) took hold. What was a problem in Second Temple times only during one very energetically celebrated festival became a problem for the Jewish community permanently. What remains unclear is – why?”
Several theories have been advanced. The dispersing of the Jewish population in Europe as the Crusades swept through Europe in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries may have forced a hardening of attitudes towards the women, in common with the non-Jewish world outside. Some scholars believe that it is the influence of Islam on Judaism, which has encouraged it to hide its women away [xiv]
Possibly the separation and segregation was done to protect the women in some way. Certainly the separated and segregated seating is required only when there is an halachic obligation to gather, and so for weddings for example there is no need for such a partition. In the same way as the Talmudic law works on the principle that women do not need to put themselves in danger by exposing themselves to a dangerous situation in order to fulfil a religious commandment, the separating and segregating may have been a technique to protect those who were seen as the vulnerable sex.
Israel Abrahams wrote: In the separation of the sexes the synagogue only reflected their isolation in the social life outside. The sexes were separated at Jewish banquets and home feasts no less than in the synagogue. If they did not pray together, neither did they play together. The rigid separation of the sexes in prayer seems not to have been earlier however, than the thirteenth century. The women had their own court in the temple but it is not impossible that they prayed together with the men in Talmudic times. Possibly the rigid separation grew out of the mediaeval custom- more common as the thirteenth century advances – which induced men and women to spend the eve of the Great Fast (Yom Kippur) n the synagogue. By the end of the thirteenth century, and perhaps earlier, Jewish women had their own prayer meetings in rooms at the side of, and a little above, the men’s synagogue. With which the rooms communicated by a small window or balcony. Or if they had no separated apartments, they sat at the back of the men’s synagogue in reserved places, screened by curtains [xv]
The idea that the separation and partition came about to protect chastity during Yom Kippur (and which then took on a life of its own) makes the most sense in terms of the innovation which was brought into the Temple on Simchat Beit HaSho’eva, and of the first textual reference by Mordechai ben Hillel haKohen
The Synagogue is seen as a place of reverence, and levity would be out of place. Thus, when the opportunity arose- a rowdy minor festival, a sermon in crowded building, a night when both sexes would be sleeping in the same large room – the erection of a separate screen would seem logical and desirable. The only problem is the ex post facto legitimization of this screen into a biblical command, building into it the devaluing and disappearance of the women. One must also question whether it is the right way to combat levity in the synagogue today, or whether it actually induces people to ignore the service in favour of elaborate signalling communication with each other
This would lead us into the question of where it is possible to change an age-old custom, and whether this would ‘Christianize’ the synagogue. To take the latter first. The early Christians copied the Jews in matters of ritual. They had men and women praying together because that was the age-old Jewish way. Add to that the fact that the gallery was taken into synagogue architecture from outside the Jewish tradition (it certainly did not feature in the ohel moed, the tent of meeting in the desert – nor the Temple as described in the Book of Chronicles, and one could ask whether removing the mechitza and the galleries from our synagogues might not in fact be bringing us closer to our architectural roots.
Krauss believed that the gallery was adopted by the Jews from the Greek style, and later copied by the Christians. Certainly many Christian chapels have very similar architecture.
Regarding the changing of a time honoured custom (and as this is the true source for the mechitza this is the crux of the matter) there is, as ever, more than one opinion.
One view would be that this is a relatively new custom which was made to prevent the reverence of the synagogue from being tainted by levity and unchastity. Since it now has the effect of alienating women from the service, and in their alienation causing them to chatter and laugh and try to catch the eye of others, tis innovation no longer serves its purpose and should be allowed to lapse, as so many customs have done throughout Jewish history.
The stringent view would be that in effect custom takes on the force of law. In the Jerusalem Talmud the response of the Sages to a request to change an ancestral custom was “do not deviate from the customary practices of your fathers whose souls rest in peace”. Thus it is inferred that to disregard customs instituted by earlier generations to safeguard religious practice is to dishonour those dead earlier generations. The proof text for this desire not to amend or to innovate within Jewish practice is taken from the Book of Proverb (1:8). “Forsake not the teaching of your mother”. Somehow, when applied to the segregating of women behind thick curtains, or up into galleries away from the heart of the synagogue service, that is the biggest irony of all.
[i] Responsum by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein “On the law of Mechitza” reprinted in B.Litvin, “the sanctity of the synagogue” KTAV, New York 1987, 124
[ii] Ibid 120
[iii] Mishna middot 2:5
[v] Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah 51a
[vi]Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah 291
[vii] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Orach ha Halachah, ad loc
[viii] Professor Shmuel Safrai, Tarbiz 32, 1963
[ix] Bernadette Brooten “women leaders in the ancient synagogue” Brown Judaic Studies 36, Scholars Press, California 1982
[x] Mordechai on Mishnah Shabbat 3 (n.311)
[xi] Sefer Maharil 38a
[xii][xii] 12Rashi on Babylonian Talmud tractate Kiddushin 81a
[xiii] Yalkut Shimoni 1, 934, cited in Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue (note 1)
[xiv] Professor Shmuel Safrai interviewed in the Jerusalem Post 8th August 1986
[xv] Israel Abrahams “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages” 1896 Athenaeum, New York 1985