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Can I Peek Through Someone’s Window?

Can I Peek Through Someone’s Window?

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Dear Rabbi,

What is the Jewish take on peeking? Can I peek through someone’s window? I have this great new pair of binoculars, and it’s extremely tempting to have a good look into my neighbors’ houses. Please shed some light…

Answer:

Shortly after the Israelites became the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, they were praised for their strong sense of privacy. Ironically, this praise did not come from an admirer, but from the wicked prophet Baalam who actually wished to curse the Jewish nation at the request of Balak, the king of Moab. In a surprising turn of events, Balaam instead began to sing the nation’s praises:

Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of G‑d rested upon him… How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24:1-4)

Our sages explain what he saw1 that made a strong impression on him:

Their tents were not pitched facing each other, where one could see into the other’s tent. Therefore he said: These are people that deserve G‑d’s presence to rest among them.2

Modesty, keeping our privacy, is something we strive to implement in Jewish life. What we do at home, or in our private lives, does not need to be seen by others. In fact, gossip often stems from something seen or overheard that is misunderstood. It is extremely important to recognize and maintain boundaries, both physical and virtual. This includes protecting the other person’s privacy.

Is It Prohibited?

However, while the Jewish nations were praised for their action, is it prohibited in Jewish law?

From the codifiers of Jewish law, it is clear that it is. This is the summation of one codifier, “Even if there is no doubt that viewing another’s residence will not cause physical damage, one is not allowed to look there without explicit permission, for maybe that person does not want people to know of his workings or doings.”3

In Jewish law, “peeking” is categorized as “damage from vision,” and is included in the laws of damages. But if no physical damage was done to the property, how can it be categorized as such?

The sages explain that the damage incurred refers to a person not feeling comfortable on his own property – or on parts of it. If a person fears being watched, he may feel restricted from using certain places, even in his own home.4 An additional explanation: The Talmud states that blessing is found “only in something that is hidden from the eyes.”5 Therefore one who makes something public without permission may be removing the blessing from it, thus causing damage.6

To sum it up, just as one should not enter another’s home without permission, one should not look into another’s home without permission. A person may technically be on his or her own property, but climbing a tree and looking with binoculars into the neighbor’s living room is still an invasion of privacy!

So, enjoy your new binoculars – just look at the birds or the stars.

See Privacy and Modesty from our selection on Tzniut: “Modesty” in Dress & Behavior.

Footnotes
2.

The Talmud, tractate Baba Batra 60a.

3.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Shulchan Aruch Harav, vol. 6, Hilchot Nizkei Mamon, 11.

4.

See Encyclopedia Talmudit vol. 8, p. 661.

5.

Talmud, Bava Metzia 42a.

6.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Tzemach Tzedek, Chidushim Al Hashas, beginning of Baba Batra (In Kehot 1995 edition p. 298).

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Anonymous February 21, 2017

Analogy to windows I have often heard the argument that those who does not do anything wrong shouldent be opposed to revealing their privacy. I disagree. Even a beautifull woman prefer to keep her cloths on! The thinking about peaking into someones privacy analogically is super relevant today, and strickt laws on any kind of peaking into private lives should rule. Today our computers and private telephones might be compared to windows! In my country up to last decade, it was only allowed to spy on someone (by the police if they had due cause to suspect specified serious crime and judges accepted first. I think that was a good rule. When anybody may be spied on, by neighbors, businesses, governerments or companies, without due cause, it will cause fear and mistrust in society. When I was young we heard about the Sovjet as a "police state" and neighbors that could not trust each other, or meet freely together, and we were glad we didnt live there because of that. Reply

Yiska Tucson October 1, 2012

Modesty and borders Please read the book "doesn't anyone blush anymore?" by Rabbi Manis Friedman Enjoy! Reply

Anonymous Concord, NH May 25, 2012

To the Peeker Trust me, you would not want to be caught doing so by anyone. Even if your mind is innocent, others will make you guilty of many terrible things and it can ruin your life. I saw this happen to a few people over the years. It never goes well for the peeker, and instruments that make peeking so tempting are everywhere, maybe put them in a spot that makes it very inconvenient to dig them out. Reply

Anonymous Nederland, Texas May 17, 2012

After reading your article and thinking that a person who looks into another person's house was violating that person's right to privacy, I felt that it wasn't really too dangerous having them in society. However, the next morning before the sun had risen above the horizon, I went outside in my back yard and found a person wearing a green and blue baseball cap, and a large pair of binoculars being very still peeking over my privacy fence and between my garage and house at the house across the street. That person is mentally deranged and scary in my unprofessionaly opinion, and now I'm uneasy about the safety of myself and others in my neighborhood. And speaking for myself, I am angry. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY May 16, 2012

but... The Shabbos Angels do it all the time! Reply

Jim. Adelaide, SA Australia May 10, 2012

Peeking We live in a society that is acutely attuned to personal privacy and its right to to do. When this happens, peeking, stalking and a host of other such negatives happen. We have created this disease.
We have become so private in our lifestyles that we have not considered how that has affected the ways we engage publicly. Where once peeking was neighborly, looking out for one another and caring, it is now something often perverse.
A society that has legal right to privacy will engineer this condition and a whole lot of others.
I value my privacy but not at the expense of meaningful social relationship(s)
Solution? Not sure....
Just a thought.... Reply

Hany MTL, Ca May 10, 2012

Remote Viewing Interesting article. Torah protects privacy surely. Now I was wondering that the Sages and Masters would say in relation to ( Remote viewing ) and if lawd would differ. Reply

Marc May 6, 2012

re: peeking through a window for a scam if we all become the police, than we could close down from being a normal society.

if you are involved in a scam, or someone asks you to be involved in one, you must report it. the police should do the rest of the job, the peeking or whatever else they feel like doing. Reply

Ron Leiden, NL May 6, 2012

@Justin poor logic You're reasoning is fallacious; The talmudic statement that 'blessing is found in X' does not imply that 'all X equals blessing'. For example: all polar bears are white, which does not mean that everything that is white are polar bears. In this regard, the talmudic statement is not contrary to your observation that some hidden things are not blessings. Reply

Anonymous Montreal, Canada May 6, 2012

peeking through a window for a scam It's not nice to peek through a window just for curiosity but what if you think someone is creating a scam to drain someone from their inheritance? What if they fabricated a medical story & scammed a family member for more than a couple of thousands of dollars? Interesting thought huh? Down right dirty! Maybe the medical situation is real but not easy to believe if you cannot view the person being treated because of possible infections. Reply

Justin Roth Staten Island, NY May 3, 2012

I take exception to one sentence in this article On the Talmudic statement that blessing is found “only in something that is hidden from the eyes," I would say that this is not always true. The actions of the Nazis were hidden from the eyes of the world for a time, as are many atrocities being carried out by our own government today. Spying, torturing, harassing, kidnapping of citizens by one's own government has, unfortunately, become a reality in the US and other countries and is "hidden" from many people's eyes. What if someone murders another person and does not get caught? It is certainly “something that is hidden from the eyes" and is definitely not a blessing in any sense.
What about a woman who wears makeup to hide her own natural beauty for a perceived greater beauty?
I value my privacy. I don't like people who invade it. The fact that my own government, as well as others, may do it makes it an even larger sin.
So, enjoy your new binoculars – just look at the birds or the stars. Reply

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