After many years of living in an apartment building, we finally moved into our first house. I love my new home, my space and my privacy. I especially love having a small lawn where I can go to relax and unwind. One of my first projects is to put up a higher fence in my backyard so no one is peering into my little sanctuary.
Here’s the problem: My neighbor claims that a higher fence will block her sunny view and make her feel like she is too closed in.
Do I stop my project because of my neighbor’s complaint, or can I finally have my dreamed-of privacy?
My neighbor claims that a higher fence will block her view
There are two key issues here: a) your privacy; b) blocking your neighbor’s view and sunshine.
The importance of respecting another person’s privacy cannot be overstated.
The Torah records how after Balaam’s initial efforts to curse the Jewish nation failed, he shifted gears. He noticed that the Jews camped in such a way that the openings of their tents didn’t face one another, in order to respect each other’s privacy. Balaam praised the Jews, saying, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!”
This moment in history is considered so important that many have the custom of opening the daily morning prayers with this very verse.
The concept of privacy—or to be more accurate, the invasion of it—is called in Jewish law hezek re’iyah, damage by vision, and is the basis for the law that one may not place a door opposite his neighbor’s existing door, nor a window opposite his window or courtyard.
Additionally, if two people share a courtyard, one can (usually) force the other to help build a dividing wall to prevent the neighbors from seeing into each other’s property. However, the neighbor can be forced to partner in building a wall only up to four amot (6–8 feet) in height, which is slightly higher than the average person; anything higher would need to either be built completely on one’s own property, or one would have to compensate the neighbor.
But, regardless of whether a wall is actually built, you still can’t gaze into your neighbor’s home or yard. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes, “It is forbidden to watch your friend without his prior knowledge while he is conducting his activities at his home or property, for he may not wish people to see these activities.”
Although you didn’t mention the height of the existing fence, and there is therefore no way to know whether the neighbor needs to partner with you, you seem ready to build the extension completely out of your own pocket and on your own property, making the question of privacy a moot point. So, the only real question here is about blocking your neighbor’s sunlight.
The only real question here is about blocking your neighbor’s sunlight
The Code of Jewish Law states that if you wish to build a wall next to your neighbor’s window to prevent the neighbor from invading your privacy, you need to make sure to build the wall at least four amot away, so that you don’t block the neighbor’s light. So as long as your wall is the proper distance from your neighbor’s window, you are within your rights to build the wall—or make it higher—even if it does block a little of the sunlight.
There are, however, exceptions to the above rule; for instance, with regard to a synagogue, which needs more light, one would need to distance the wall 8 amot. Since there are exceptions, contemporary rabbis conclude that the 4-amot rule applies only under ordinary circumstances. However, if there are any specific customs, laws, building codes or bylaws about blocking your neighbor’s view, or about how tall one can build a fence or wall in your community, then you are bound, even purely from a Jewish legal perspective—and one not just based on the rule that dina de-malchuta dina, “the law of the land is the law”—to follow those rules.
So, barring any specific local laws or customs, you have the right to extend the height of the wall. However, since you are probably going to be neighbors for quite a while, I would strongly recommend that you try to come up with some sort of compromise or accommodation.
I wish you many happy years in your new home.