By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
There is a wide variety of synagogues and Shteiblach in our communities. These houses of worship have different types of Mechitzos. Some are see-through. Some are are one-way glass and some are so high that they resemble an iron curtain.
In a conversation about Mechitzos with Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, Rav of the Red Shul in Cedarhurst, the latter offered a simple yet revealing definition of a Mechitza, “Mechitzos? Yes. Mechitzos are that which divides a shul.”
When and if the topic arises, no one is opinion-less. To many women, the word conjures up recollections of the huge curtain of a Mechitza that one grew up with, either at the local shteible or while visiting Bubby’s and Zaydy’s house. Which brings up the following question:
Were there perhaps any halachic issues with that old full length curtain Mechitzah in Zaydy’s Shtible?
A number of years ago, this author once posed a question to Rav Elyashiv, Shlita, (may he have a refuah shleimah). Is it possible for a Mechitza to be too high? Most people know about the controversies surrounding Mechitzos that may be too low. But do our shtieblich and perhaps other shuls have Mechitzos that do not conform to Shulchan Aruch because they are, quite simply, too high?
Rav Yoseph Karo in Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 134:2) writes regarding the laws of Hagbah – lifting up the Sefer Torah, “And he [the Chazan] lifts up the Torah and shows the writing to the entire congregation standing to his right and to his left, and he turns it in front of him and behind him – for it is a Mitzvah upon all the men and women to see
the words and to bow and say, ‘VeZos HaTorah..etc'”
The Shaar HaKavanos (48d) explains the reason for this obligation. The effect of the letters upon the viewer exposes him or her to a great spiritual light. The light has a spiritually transforming effect upon the Neshama.
Lest the reader think that this is a minor issue, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sotah 7:4) cites Rabbi Shimon Ben Yakim on the verse in Dvarim, “Cursed be the person that does not establish this Torah” as saying that the verse refers to a person who does not show the Torah to those around him.” This is the explanation of this passage according to the Korban HaEida, one of the primary commentators on the Jerusalem Talmud.
The Ramban in Dvarim (27:26) cites this Yerushalmi conclusively in his commentary on the Torah. The Mordechai (Hilchos Tefilin 98a) cites this important custom and states that the Maharam practiced it as well. The Orchos Chaim cites it and the Kol Bo (Siman 20) explains it as the source as to why the women push themselves to look and see the
writing in the Torah scrolls.
What was Rav Elyashiv’s response to this author’s query? His response as transmitted by his son-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein Shlita, was that, indeed, it is true that a Mechitzah can be too high and must afford the possibility for women to be able to view the Ksav of the Torah as is brought down in the halachic sources.
It seems that the thick, musty, floor-to-ceiling curtain in Zeidy’sshul, may not have fully fulfilled this halachic requirement.
On the other hand, a Mechitza that is too short may open up an entire Pandora’s box of other problems according to the majority of Poskim.
There is great halachic controversy as to the purpose of a Mechitzah. The overwhelming majority of halachic authorities have written that the purpose of a Mechitzah is to prevent men from glancing at women.
The list of Poskim that have subscribed to this explanation is indeed formidable. The Rambam in his Peirush HaMishnayos (Sukkah 5:2) leads the list where he writes that the purpose of the Mechitzah in the Beis HaMikdash was “kdei shelo yistaklu haAnashim baNashim” so that the men will not gaze upon the women. The Piskei HaRid writes that it is so that the men “will not glance upon the women.” The Tosfos Yom Tov writes the same in his comments on the Mishna.
In the year 1866, seventy great Rabbis, led by the author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried the Rabbi of Ungvar, signed a Kol Koreh declaration to this effect – that the purpose of a Mechitzah is to prevent men from looking upon women and forbade the construction of a Mechitzah that does not fit into this definition.
On the other hand, the Rambam in his Mishna Torah (Hilchos Beis HaBechira 5:9 and Hilchos Lulav 8:2) writes that the reason why the sages enacted a change in the Simcha Beis HaShoeva was, “so that ‘these’ [the men] would not mix with ‘these’ [the women].”
Based upon his reading of the Rambam, Rav Moshe Feinstein zatzal in five different places (see for example IM OC 1:39, OC Vol. II #43, YD Vol. II #109) rules that the reason is not avoid gazing or glancing but mere mixing. He rules that the Mechitzah is biblical in origin and must be at least 66 inches high.
Both the opinions of hundreds of Klal Yisroel’s past Poskim and other Poskim contemporary to Rav Moshe, among them Dayan Weiss z”l, Rav Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg z”l, the Satmar Rebbe z”l, the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l, and numerous Roshei Yeshiva are that the purpose of the Mechitzah is to avoid gazing or glancing.
It would seem that, in terms of Mechitzos, and in light of the halachic requirement for Hagbah viewing as espoused by Rav Elyashiv, most Mechitzos in orthodox shuls can be divided into one of four categories.
Category A – A Mechitza that is lower than the type that Rav Moshe Feinstein permitted – below 66 inches.
Category B – A Mechitza that conforms to the standards discussed by Rav Moshe, but not in accordance with the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch’s requirements.
Category C – A Mechitza that conforms to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch’s standards at a minimum height and also the requirement of Shulchan Aruch (OC 134:2).
Category D – A Mechitzah that conforms to the the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch’s standards but is too high to conform to Shulchan Aruch (OC 134:2).
Which Mechitzah is ideal? It seems clear that the Category C Mechitzah is the best one in terms of halachah. And with the advent of modern technology, it is an ideal that, with effort, can be reached.
The author anticipates a flurry of angry emails directed toward him at email@example.com.