Divided We Stand

From: Bruce Hammer in Manti, Utah

Dear Rabbi,

I noticed the divider at the Kotel through the Western Wall camera. What is the purpose of this division? Why is the wall divided into two sections? Thanks.

From: David Salvadori in Italy

Dear Rabbi,

Please tell me, why can men and women not stay near each other in the synagogue? Somebody told me that it is because women can disturb men during the prayer with their voices. Is this the answer or there are other matters? Where is it written in the Torah such a rule?

Dear Bruce and David,

The division at the Kotel, as well as in the synagogue, is to separate between men and women during prayer. The purpose of this division is to ensure that both men and women focus on the purpose of their being there – to nurture their relationship with G‑d through prayer – without possible distractions resulting from the social nature of mixed gatherings of men and women.

The law requiring such a separation, called a “mechitzah”, is mentioned in the Talmud (Succah 51b, 52a). There are a number of reasons given for this separation between men and women during prayer:

One: In order not to cause those who are unmarried to feel left out. If the prayer was mixed, married couples would naturally sit together, and since married people are by nature of their situation fixed in the community, the service would be more “couple friendly” which might alienate singles. Separate seating eliminates this marital bias.

Two: We come to synagogue to relate to G‑d as members of the Jewish People to our Creator, not as fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, sons or daughters, brothers or sisters. The “mechitzah” ensures that entire families do not sit together, thereby minimizing a more limited familial affiliation to Judaism and emphasizing the larger dimension of congregation and peoplehood.

Three: To prevent an atmosphere of socializing and conversation during prayer. As much as there is a tendency for socializing among the genders, there is an exponentially greater tendency for socializing between them. The separation between men and women helps keep the natural human need to socialize to a minimum during times devoted to the Divine.

Four: To ensure modesty and purity of intent during prayer. Both men and women are likely to be distracted from prayer in the presence of members of the opposite gender, to whom there is a natural attraction. Sometimes, this may be the case regarding even married people, but it is certainly applicable regarding singles. The holy rituals of the synagogue and of the services are not to be intermingled with courting rituals, which can push their way even into such a context if allowed. The “mechitzah” therefore enables people to cultivate an intimate relationship with G‑d during prayer, without being distracted by an interest in relationships with the opposite gender.

After communing with G‑d in the synagogue, in a way which is independent of marital status, as a People, in prayer, and focused without distractions, we then return to our homes, which is the place where the appropriate mixing of men and women occurs, namely that of the family. Perhaps this dual decorum, that of the house of prayer and that of the home, is alluded to in the verse (Nu. 24:5), “How goodly are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel.” It is this decorum which ensures the spiritual and physical purity of the Jewish People.

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