The Need for a Mechitza Without a Minyan

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mechitzaby R. Daniel Mann

Question: Is there a need for a mechitza between men and women when there is no minyan?

Answer: We must start our answer with some sources that serve as the basis for the need for a mechitza. Most explicit discussions on the matter are relatively recent, as the mechitza was taken for granted without halachic discussion until the 19th/20th century.”

The gemara (Sukka 51b) tells of structural changes made in the Beit Hamikdash to deal with the growing realization of problems of modesty between the genders. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim I:39) is prominent among those who learned from the fact that such changes in the Beit Hamikdash are generally prohibited that the need for separation must be a matter of Torah law.

The only context in which there is any Orthodox unanimity that a physical separation is necessary is when davening in shul. It appears that the concept need not be linked specifically to davening, as the gemara says that Beit Hamikdash renovators based themselves on a pasuk relating to a funeral (Zecharia I:28:12). On the other hand, in practice there is not a history of anything close to universal separation between the genders. Rav Moshe (ibid., OC V:12) makes a distinction between settings that are private (i.e., by permission only), which do not require separation, and those that are open to the public, which require.

Since the setting of davening in shul is unique in its unanimity and its level of definitiveness, it is worthwhile to investigate the halacha’s scope by broadening your question. Does all tefilla require a mechitza? Does everything in shul? How do we define a shul? A man is not allowed to daven, learn aloud, or even make berachot when exposed to a lack of modesty (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 75 with commentaries). However, it is agreed that regarding davening in a place that is not set for tefilla, the formal requirement of mechitza per se does not exist. This is more obvious in a public place, like a plane. The need for a mechitza is more of an obligation to put one in the proper place than a prohibition to daven without it. Therefore, since there is no way to expect an airline servicing Jews and non-Jews to put up a mechitza, there is no problem. Even in places like sheva berachot and a shiva house, there is not a formal need for a mechitza (see Igrot Moshe ibid.).

If men are davening in a shul at a time when there is no minyan, it would seem that a mechitza is needed if women are present (one or two women are likely not a problem (see ibid.; Ishei Yisrael 9:28)). After all, they are davening and the shul has sanctity that elevates tefilla even without a minyan (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 90:9).

What about a place that is set for tefilla without a minyan? The gemara in Megilla 27b can be instructive. In explaining the various positions on whether a communal beit knesset can be sold to become a beit knesset of an individual, the gemara raises the claim for R. Meir that an individual’s shul does not have kedusha. Rashi (ad loc.) and others explain that this is because matters of kedusha (i.e., elements of prayer that require a minyan) are not recited there. On one hand, this downplays the status of a shul without a minyan, but many posit that even according to R. Meir it has some kedusha (Ramban, ad loc.) and at least the status of a beit knesset. We note that many places that have semi-regular davening but without a minyan usually have several other uses, which also makes it less like a classic shul, in which we know a mechitza is required.

Tying things together, we suggest the following approximate guidelines (there are many slightly varying cases). In a room that is treated like a shul, just that it belongs to such a small community that there is not usually a minyan, there should be a mechitza. In a multi-use room that has semi-regular davening but without a minyan, davening should be done with a separation between men and women, but a mechitza per se is not necessary (assuming it is done in a way that there are no modesty in dress problems).

About Daniel Mann

This column is produced on behalf of Eretz Hemdah by Rabbi Daniel Mann. Rabbi Mann is a Dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of Living the Halachic Process, volumes 1 and 2 and A Glimpse of Greatness.

7 comments

  1. To clarify: Minyan with no shul doesn’t need, shul without a minyan does? A bit counterintuitive, but I see the point.

    “The gemara (Sukka 51b) tells of structural changes made in the Beit Hamikdash to deal with the growing realization of problems of modesty between the genders.”

    Just to make it clear, wasn’t this just for Sukkot and just for the Simchat Beit HaShoeva dancing? It’s always seemed a bit of a weak basis to me.

    • Rav Kook, in Orach Mishpat no. 35, argues that the change was done once and remained that way. I’m not sure if everyone agrees with that. Even if not, this was in the Women’s Courtyard because there was a big event there on Sukkos. The rest of the year, the men didn’t stand around in the Women’s Courtyard and just walked through it.

  2. From the Gemara in Sukka, it appears that at first there was no mechitza. Then some changes were made which did not achieve the goal, and so further changes made. It seems pretty clear that the ikkar is the need for the result- no pritzut, rather than a specific mode of separation

  3. Ye’yasher kochakhem, R. Mann and respondents. I agree with Rabbeinu Nachum Lamm that to claim that a Minyan outside of Shul does not need a mechitzah is counterintuitive. Indeed, Iggerot Mosheh, Yoreh De’ah 2:109, writes that ladies must leave the room (in a corporate business hall) when the gentlemen wish to pray michah/ma’ariv. This is outside the synagogue, and yet R. Feinstein requires a partition. R. Feinstein does not explain why, but I would suggest that it is consistent with him analytical reasoning in OC 1:39, where he claims that although “u-Mikdashi tira’u” only applies on a rabbinic level to the synagogue outside of prayer times, it applies on a Torah level when a minyan is reciting devarim she-bi-kedushah. So there is no reason that this need be limited to the synagogue setting.
    The posthumously published responsum where IM does not require a partition in the shivah house (-which, by the way, is only be-di’avad, even according to this posthumously published responsum) or at a wedding is inconsistent with the earlier responsa published by R. Feinstein during his lifetime.
    It is true, as R. Mann, continues, that my stringent reading of R. Feinstein would mean that a minyan is impossible on an airplane. However, R. Hershel Schachter (for other reasons) advises against having a minyan on an airplane anyway, so it’s not necessarily such a tragedy to be a Shalom Spira fanatic on this question…

  4. I apologize that I oversimplified in my previous comment. I was assuming that a flying airplane has the halakhic status of a building, but this is a highly controversial question. In any event, even if a flying airplane is not halakhically considered a building, and is instead considered to be an outdoor environment, there would still be a need to have four cubits of separation between ladies and gentlemen during tefillah be-tzibbur, which is presumably a logistical impossibility on aircraft. Hence, R. Schachter’s advice for tefillah be-yechidut seems well warranted. See footnote
    116 of http://www.scribd.com/doc/168693341/Synagogue-Partition

  5. That said, for the sake of intellectual honesty, I must admit that R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, as cited by the posthumously published Halikhot Shelomoh, Tefillah, ch. 8, footnote 4, agrees with R. Mann that no partition is needed on an airplane, on the grounds that an airplane is not a space designated for communal prayer. So kol ha-kavod to R. Mann.

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