Privacy

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By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

One is forbidden to read the mail or other documentation addressed to someone else.[1] Not only is reading other people’s material forbidden but even opening the envelopes or containers of others is forbidden, as well. This is true even if one has no intention of scanning the contents.[2] If the owner of the mail has discarded the documents in question or has otherwise made it clear that he is not particular if others see the contents, then it is permitted to read such documents.[3]Postcards and other clearly open materials are permitted to be read by anyone.[4] It is forbidden to reveal information to others that one has been told to keep secret.[5] 

The Talmud[6] teaches that it is forbidden for us to position our front doors, or even our windows so that they directly face those of our neighbors. This rule was enacted in order to ensure a superior standard of privacy. In fact, it was no other than the evil Bilaam who made a note of this phenomenon, when he praised the Jews for their high levels of dignity and modesty.[7] 

Halacha recognizes a person’s need for privacy within his own home. Even simple activities such as an outdoor picnic with one’s family becomes somewhat more intimidating knowing that others may be watching you. This concept of ensuring that we don’t inappropriately observe our neighbor’s personal affairs is known as “Hezek Re’iya” (“damage done with the eye”). It goes without saying that one is forbidden to peek through a neighbor’s window to see what may be taking place there.[8] Similarly, it is forbidden for one to open a store that faces residential windows.[9] While there is no obligation to actively prevent oneself from hearing noises, conversations or other goings-on in another person’s home,[10] intentional eavesdropping is completely forbidden.[11] 

In addition to ensuring other people’s privacy, it was believed that envious gazing upon a neighbor can arouse the “Evil Eye” and bring damage upon him and his property. As such, it is forbidden to stare at the property and possessions of others.[12]In fact, one is even obligated to pay for any damage that may have been caused by arousing the “Evil Eye” through one’s extensive staring.[13] Indeed, it is even forbidden to stare at another person’s property even in a situation where there would be no concern for violation of privacy.[14] 

Neighbors can force one another to build fences and walls to maintain each other’s privacy.[15]However, in a place where fences are generally not built between neighbors, there would be no obligation to do so.[16] It is even forbidden to intentionally observe your neighbor’s activities that take place in their yard if they don’t know that you may be watching.


[1] A ruling generally attributed to Rabbeinu Gershom though some doubt exists as to its true origins. See Bnei Banim 3:17.

[2] Beit David cited in Bnei Banim 3:17

[3] Maharam Mirottenberg 160a

[4] Bnei Banim 3:17

[5] Orchot Chaim of the Rosh 41

[6] Bava Batra 60a

[7] Bamidbar 24:2

[8] C.M. 154:3

[9] C.M. 154:3

[10] Rabbi Akiva Eiger C.M. 154:3

[11] Teshuvot V’hanhagot 3:388

[12] C.M. 378:5

[13] Aruch Hashulchan C.M. 154:6

[14] Bava Batra 2b, Bava Metzia 107a

[15] Aruch Hashulchan C.M. 154:14

[16] C.M. 158:1;Sma 2

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot. www.rabbienkin.com

3 comments

  1. “It goes without saying that one is forbidden to peek through a neighbor’s window to see what may be taking place there.[8]”

    Can this halakha can be traced to the episode in Bereishit (26:8) where Avimelekh peers through the window of Yitzchak’s tent and sees him “metzacheck” with Rivka? Do any of the poskim suggest this?

  2. Great idea! Shkoyach!

    There is no mention of this in the Shulchan Aruch or commentaries on the page — but no doubt there is a connection!

    Regards,

    Ari Enkin

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