Before Morning Prayer

by Chossid July. 07, 2012 8086 views

What is the reason for a mechitzah (separation between men and women) in the synagogue?
by Rabbi Tzvi Shapiro

Two Jews three opinions.
Here are three reasons why Jewish law mandates two sections in the synagogue1.

Attraction is Distraction

More than gravity pulls objects to the center of the earth, genders gravitate towards each other.

Nature’s impulse is that when in the presence of a beautiful girl (or handsome guy) and a prayer book, your attention will be on the beautiful girl. That is why they use beautiful girls, and not prayer books, in ads for watches.

Perhaps people shouldn’t be like that, but they are. Synagogues were built for people, not angels. Besides, Judaism believes you should be attracted to the opposite gender, but in the proper time, place, and setting.

Synagogue service is not that setting. Why? Because in extreme cases this attraction actually becomes an erotic thought, but even in the best situation it is still a distracting thought.

Sit Upright

For us, citizen’s of the modern era, a Mechitzah is a strange phenomenon. But if you think about it, it is not nearly as strange as praying to a G-d you can’t see, a G-d you can hardly know.

The sight of a Mechitzah is an immediate reminder of the uniqueness of this place. More specifically it is a reminder that the primary focus of this place is shifted vertically, not horizontally.
After all, the synagogue is not the only place where we have separations for men and women: sports, schools, clothing, restrooms, and gyms are all examples of where you might find gender separation. But a synagogue (as the personification of Jewish prayer) is the only place where we talk to someone we can’t see or hear! We have no image of this G-d, and are told no image exists.
It gets stranger. Judaism is not satisfied with lip service, or prayer. The Hebrew word Tefilah which is commonly translated as prayer, actually means connection; and in Jewish writings prayer is known as “Avodah” work. Judaism wants us to form a relationship with G-d, to forge a “connection” the caliber of which requires “effort”.

Tefilah is not a recital to G-d; it is a date with G-d. But a very blind date.

Thus the synagogue is meant to create a setting which is conducive for this type of experience. The Mechitzah reminds us that this place is different. What is perfectly normal elsewhere is completely foreign here, because what is perfectly normal in this context is completely foreign in others.

The sight of a Mechitzah is an immediate reminder of the uniqueness of this place. More specifically it is a reminder that the primary focus of this place is shifted vertically, not horizontally.2

Together Separately

Two basic elements of cooking are fire and water. Yet basic physics has it that if you put fire and water together you will either have just fire, or just water. You definitely won’t have dinner. So how does one cook with fire and water?

Enter the pot, the partition, the item that defines the parameters of each, and thus lets them both join together to form a perfect meal.

A Jewish community is not complete without men and women, but men and women express different energies. G-d created each because he wants both. The Mechitzah sets parameters to separate each element, so that we can join together to create a big picture, one in which no element is lost.

(For more about the different elements of synagogue service see Pray Like a Woman)


1. Different people will relate differently to the different answers. As a synagogue is a place where all people gather, all of the following reasons are not only true, but also relevant.
2. For this reason many synagogues had, and have, tall narrow windows, high ceilings, and very tall arks. It is a reminder to focus on what is “above” us.

In reply to Jackie's question below “So the seats face the mechitzah…just one row? Do people stand? Are they looking at something on the other side (#4)? Where is the person who speaks?”

The seats face the ark where the Torah scrolls are, and the place where they are read, not specifically the mechitzah. In this particular place, which is really mainly a higher level yeshiva (kind of like a Jewish university for men) and only secondarily a synagogue, there are probably many more men than women. It is very large, and the seats are in a balconyon three sides of the room. I'm pretty sure there were 3 rows, and probably more at the end. Even in such a situation, when there are more people, like on the holidays, they can add more folding chairs. In general, in Judaism, the home is the center of Jewish life, not the synagogue. So while men and boys from the age of 13 must pray together in the synagogue (shul) three times a day, women can pray at home if they want, and that is usually more practical for us. The woman is called “the foundation of the house.” It is she who makes sure her children will absorb Judaism together with their mother's milk, creates the environment in the home, encourages her husband to continually keep learning Torah (a lifetime pursuit,) and of course continues learning herself. We have both positive laws (thou shalts, if I may call them) and negative laws (thou shalt nots.) Because the woman's primary role is to ensure that the next generation will be a Torah generation, she is exempt from positive commandments that must be done at a specific time. I.e. By (about) 9:00 a.m. a Jewish man should have prayed with a quorum of at least 10, and donned tefillin (phylacteries.) If he is a chossid, he will have immesed in a mikvah (ritual pool) and learned for an hour or so before he even prays. And of course ha also gave tzedaka (poor translation is charity) before that. A woman can pray at home, and with a broader time limit. There are definite prayers that women do say every day.

We sit for certain parts of the prayer service, but stand for other parts, especially for the Amida or Shemonah Esrei, which is like a private audience with our Maker, and whenever the ark is open during services.

One person leads everyone else in prayer, and he is in the front, and is called the chazan. There isn't a “speaker.” We are all praying together, each one connecting to the One Above. Continued below…

In some synagogues, on Shabbos, the Sabbath, Saturday, there may be a sermon, either by the rabbi, or another member of the congregation. In others, there may be a “Dvar Torah” (word of Torah) at the kiddush (small meal to sanctify the Shabbos) which follows prayer. There are usually many classes in the synagogue, so the sermon is not a must.

In my next post, we will peek through the mechitzah! :-)

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There are 17 comments , add yours!
Jay 8 years, 9 months ago

Beautiful photos. A couple of these are going to the favorite department. I absolutely love the "Two Jews, three opinions". Jewish humor is something I dearly miss. To go home to Richmond and to sit in the kitchens of the mothers of my Jewish friends and to listen to them talk, or to have dinner in their homes with the families: I miss that.

8 years, 9 months ago Edited
Gianluigi Gg 8 years, 9 months ago

very nice post, n°5 is my fav!

8 years, 9 months ago Edited
Marsha 8 years, 10 months ago

Intriguing commentary....and wonderful shots as well! Nice lighting throughout the brings a positive atmosphere!

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Michel Benjamin 8 years, 10 months ago

very interesting, and thank you for bringing us so much knowledge about the jewish religion. the picture of the lady #5 is perfectly done.

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Sadhya Rippon 8 years, 10 months ago

Fascinating post Leah. I really appreciate a little respectful glimpse into a world I will never know.
And by the way, photograph#12 is exquisite.

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Eiram Marie 8 years, 10 months ago

Thank you so much for this post, Leah. You have a great gift - you can explain and teach us about your way of life in a very interesting way! I love to learn from your blog - the position of a woman in judaism is particularly interesting for me !

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Maz 8 years, 10 months ago

Very interesting!

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Olga Helys 8 years, 10 months ago

Very interesting !
Lovely portraits:)

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Huiching 8 years, 10 months ago

Beautiful shots. Added #5 to my fav.

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Carrie 8 years, 10 months ago

Wow great photo collection

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Dannii L 8 years, 10 months ago

Great compositions and I love how you kept the squares as ongoing theme for the set.

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Antonio Gil 8 years, 10 months ago

Thank you so much for another thorough explanation about Judaism.

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Mallusatish Reddy 8 years, 10 months ago

Very nice~!~

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Becky Brannon 8 years, 10 months ago

Wonderful informative post! Certainly makes me ancestors were Quakers, men and women were segregated in the congregation but I don't know why. This is making me wonder.....

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Jacki 8 years, 10 months ago

Hmmmm.... I'm lost! So the seats face the mechitzah...just one row? Do people stand? Are they looking at something on the other side (#4)? Where is the person who speaks? I know very little about the Jewish faith. I notice the statement: "Judaism believes you should be attracted to the opposite gender". I'm curious if there is a law regarding homosexuality?

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Lisa Charbonneau 8 years, 10 months ago

Amazing capture!

8 years, 10 months ago Edited
Dan Ravasio 8 years, 10 months ago

Thanks for the lesson Leah. Very interesting and thought provoking. I can understand and relate very well the reasoniing behind this practice. Makes sense. Your pictures are very cool. 2,5,12,15 are awesome shots. #12 to my faves... I am going to build a portable mechitzah and take it with me every where I go..... Even to Mass....

8 years, 10 months ago Edited