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My Beloved Mechitzah

My Beloved Mechitzah

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I didn't know these lovebirds, but there they were, unmistakably just that, standing at Sabbath morning services amid a sea of men and women with his arm around her waist, she leaning into his shoulder and the two of them swaying gently back and forth to the sound of the prayers. How nice, I thought, that they're learning Torah together. Where it will take them no one can say, but they're together on a great and splendid journey.

Since then my own journey, begun in part in that same room, has led me to a place where I could not possibly stand in prayer with my husband's arm around my waist. Praying might just be the most important thing we humans do, setting the It's hard enough to pray when you're alone stage for all of the rest of our behavior, but it is not the easiest. For most of us it takes tremendous concentration, a great erasing of everything outside and at the same time a bringing of everything we are into one small moment framed by a particular piece of ancient text. The problem is that love is so powerful – especially love for a spouse, but even premonitions of love like crush and curiosity – that in any given moment, prayer cannot compete.

Perhaps that's why Jewish tradition invented something called the mechitzah, surely the most widely maligned – I would say misunderstood – of any institution in Judaism today. A mechitzah, literally "separation", is a screen or other barrier in a traditional synagogue that separates women from men during worship; in this separation, some say, the women are demeaned. The religious idea is that men should not be able to see women while they're praying, for if they do, their prayer will not be heard. To me, that's not demeaning; it's a statement of obvious fact. It's hard enough to pray when you're alone.

Try this exercise: Imagine that you need to speak with G‑d. Imagine that you need something very, very badly, and that G‑d really is all – powerful and the only One Who can grant it to you. Or imagine that you've done something terribly wrong and need some great forgiveness, or that your first child has just been born and you want to offer thanks. Close your eyes. Find the words. Now try, really try, to send them up to heaven.

Could you do this while cuddling with your spouse? Could you do it while ogling the latest beauty to join the synagogue, or that guy you see each Saturday who's so cute it makes you laugh? Maybe you could – everyone's different – but I strive mightily just to sense G‑d's listening when I pray.

For many of us, the mechitzah opens a door in... Sometimes I picture great tree-limbs, an overarching Father seeing every word and deed, or see myself as human clay addressing Him who formed it. Or I conjure up an awesome, holy Throne bathed in rays of light, considering with mercy my so tiny, distant plea. Yet with all these tools and more, still it's hard. We need all the help we can get.

And so we have a curtain – to center us perhaps, to make a place that forms a space where we can pray. There are as many kinds of mechitzahs as there are synagogues – I've seen sleek wood carved in modern shapes, and balconies where height is the mechitza, and gathered lace on curtain rods that roll.

But all mechitzahs hold us back from one another and group our prayers by gender rising heavenward. Perhaps this helps G‑d hear us, too; perhaps we sound clearer, are more ourselves, unmediated by our opposites. Judaism loves categories and celebrates them every way – night and day, milk and meat, Sabbath versus holidays and ordinary days – and gender's no exception.

The men's section is front and center because men have more ritual commandments in the synagogue, while women are responsible for bringing Torah into the home. Synagogue becomes one place where we can be with our own gender, something not without a pleasure all its own.

So you can say the mechitzah exists to keep women out, that the genders are identical and all else is cultural conceit. For many of us, though, the mechitzah opens a door in, perhaps into a more concentrated experience of who we are and certainly into the presence of G‑d where holiness and much direction lie. In prayer, we reach outside our earthly yearnings and search for something different, something that ennobles us, sets our sights high and improves us from the inside out. In love, we find an outlet for those improvements, for our goodness, kindness, generosity. Love is arguably our most G‑d-like activity, and also our greatest earthly reward; in its physical expression, it is said to bring G‑d's presence to rest on us directly. Each paves the way for the other; I'm a better wife for praying, and drawn closer to G‑d through the love my marriage brings. Each creates a chasm we can cross.

And so I wonder again about those Sabbath lovebirds, trying to make their yearnings heard above the din of daily life, studying Torah and singing psalms, arms linked, perhaps journeying down paths deep into wisdom.

There's no one way to pray, and none of us can say for sure whose prayers are heard. But perhaps their love has grown so much that they can't sit together in services anymore, or their love for G‑d has grown in such a way that they don't want to. Maybe it would take more than a curtain to keep them apart – and perhaps just a curtain to link them.

Joelle Keene, a mother of three, currently teaches music and journalism at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. Prior to this Joelle worked as an award winning newspaper reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the Seattle Times. Additionally she was a music critic, and served as Associate Editor of OLAM Magazine.
Originally published in OLAM Magazine.
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Anonymous March 18, 2015

Thank you! I love this article for bringing another spin on an idea that could otherwise be seen as pure 'sexism'. Reply

sarah Australia December 27, 2014

Single woman As a single woman going to shul, having a mechitzah is great- if it is not stopping women from seeing the service. As a single woman, I feel comfortable with knowing that I am welcome as a single person and can sit with any woman.

If families sit together, I feel left out and singled out, and if moving to a new area, have to suss out different shuls to ascertain where I feel comfortable as a single person. Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem May 28, 2014

prayer The above article is really a beautiful outlook on prayer. Perhaps the women who after reading it still don't like the mechitza should reread it and try to work on the level of prayer that the author is talking about. and then the mechitzah probably wouldn't bother them. Actually, we should all try to improve our prayers.

Talking in shul: It is wrong to talk in shul, as tempting as it might be. Every woman has to work on herself and decide not to talk. Perhaps the rabbi could make an announcement saying it is forbidden. And sighs could be put up.

May all our prayers be answered for good. Amen. Reply

miriam fishman los angeles, california August 15, 2011

comment by Ava How beautiful and frank your above comment is; working in a field which ipso facto has to "worship" vanity, has given you a very clear perspective on true values. May HaShem hear your prayers for the kind of home you desire, since you see the depth and beauty of a Torah way of life. Reply

Ava NY, NY August 10, 2011

As a working model and actress who gets devalued all DAY merely because of her looks... I LOVE the partition .... I LOVE being able to pray freely and without care to who sees me or who judges me ...

fom what Iv've seen Jewish women are SOO beautiful its so importan tthat we have a SPACE to pray , to light candles , to be OURSELVES unmolested by men's eyes and desires ... though I work in an un-modest field d i truly APPRECIATE modesty and its emphasis on the personality ..on HUmanity and Learning and True heartfelt spirritual as well as physical Love :) .

Just for Myself - I WISH for a Torah learned and observing faithful husband ! ( and observant , correctly raised beautiful Jewish children ! ) :) Reply

Anonymous Omaha, Nebraska February 27, 2011

About the mechitza To separate the men and women in the synagogues does not bode well with me. I go along with the saying that the family that prays together stays together. In our shul, which is orthodox, we are separated by a glass partition, where we can still see one another, but seems very austere. The little boys in the congregation have to sit with their fathers, and talk about distractions! They are running up and down the aisles and making lots of noise, as little boys do; and sometimes in desperation, the dads tell their kids to go and sit with mama on her side, even though it's forbidden. I think the separation creates a distance between husband and wife, and does not seem to serve any worthwhile purpose. It was so different in the conservative synagogue where I used to attend. The families sat together and prayed together and the children were much better behaved. I may just go back. Reply

Neshama November 1, 2009

I find it difficult to focus on prayer when i have to listen to only men sing and i cannot sing along. I also prefer to pray alongside my family-not alone and cast aside. maybe you all like it but for me the mechitzah means being alone. Why doesn't anyone seem to understand this? Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn October 24, 2009

Why is it all about sex? It seems that this tradition is based on the idea that as human beings we are always thinking about sex. I do believe that a time of prayer is best done alone. I recently attended a service with a mechitza at an orthodox synagogue. I felt uncomforable and removed from the most important part of the ceremony: The Torah. I feel that if one is truly IN the act of davening, then nothing around you will distract you. Not the person sitting next to you shuffling through the Siddur or the chatty kathy behind you. Reply

Shirah St Petersburg, Russia March 30, 2009

what about the Torah? I have no problem with the mechitza, in fact, I have noticed many benefits in my own family. My husband has been forced to tap into his own spirituality instead of relying on me, my oldest daughter feels the mechitza protects her from being ogled by young men while she's davening and I am free to pray without having to worry about whether or not the men in my family are comfortable.
But.. I miss the Torah. I love to touch it and hold it and long to be able to read from it. Reply

Linda Korn Los Angeles, CA February 25, 2009

my mechiztah makes music Joelle,
While this builds a beautiful case for the mechiztah is quite simply a lovely commentary on prayer. thank you for the wonderful images. I used to think myself I could NEVER sit through a religious service withouth holding my loved one's hand. I have since heard the melody of my own mechitzah - since the separation allows me to shift my focus from the pulse of my beshert to my own heart's beating which is where I can sing my own song to Hashem. And often, the power of other women's voices around me, reminds me of how smart g-d really is! Reply

Eli January 8, 2009

It's not about oppression Oppression has nothing to do with it, nor discrimination. It is a mater of choices and different functions. Men and women are not the same, do not have the same religieus requirements and obligations and should therefor not perform all sorts of riuals together. As for the Chupah, we did ours 21 years after our civil marriage. We had our three children playing music. The fact that my wife was there next to me at the chupah was in itself a kedusha (holy). To all men and women who think men and women are equal, just go back to biology class! You are different. One is not less than the other, just different. Reply

Malka Stern via chabadisraeli.net January 7, 2009

To the woman who thinks we've overdone it ...and to the woman from Bklyn who thinks that we don't need mechitzas at weddings, again, this is all about kedusha. Weddings are a very high form of kedusha, so yes, we definitely should continue the holy practice of mechitzas there, too!

Let's quit this game of thinking women are oppressed, or that we should change tradition if it suits us better... Reply

Malka Stern via chabadisraeli.net January 7, 2009

Sorry, but you cannot make generalizations about chit chat. Talking is a problem of its own and exists in some places and not in others, unrelated to the topic of mechitza.

Distractions come from inside a person and exist even when a person is at home all alone.

The mechitza was adopted as a specifically Jewsih form of worship. It distinguishes the synagogue from the church. (to be continued) Reply

cr CA September 24, 2008

I agree with Talia and Eli...I think there is the most talk on the women's side because the Rabbi cannot "see" what is going on while he's reading the Torah with the men. However, I prefer the mechitzah; I don't have to put up with men oggling me or who knows what during services. Reply

Mirjam Lübke Viersen, Germany January 11, 2008

Why not a service just for women? I have also attended all kind of services and did not find it more silent on the balcony. I was often hard to concentrate on the prayer there, because some women seemed to use it as a kind of theatre gallery, watching the men praying and commenting their actions. Do not misunderstand me, I am not a against seperate prayer, but why not making up a womens' prayer room, where we can really be on our own? I always thought it would be a good compromise for my country, where you do not have the choice to attend many synagogues of different denomination. Reply

Talia Gilad Los Angeles, CA December 24, 2007

where people talk less I have prayed in orthodox, conservative and reformed shuls and I have found that the greatest amount of chit chat during tefilah takes place in orthodox shuls with their mechitzahs and the least chatter occurs in refom temples without mechitzahs! Reply

Eli van Tijn enschede, Holland October 8, 2007

gossip I agree with statement that less distraction results in better prayer, however, the main distraction is the fact that people (men and women alike) are not able to shut up even during shma or the shmone esrei (two foudational prayers when speech is forbidden). At one time I became so upset by the shameless bable around me that I folded my tallit and left in the middel of service, went home and finished service there. Reply

Ellen Ladson, SC September 17, 2007

Mechitza Some of the logic in this article appears faulty to me. If it is "difficult enough to pray when alone", then how can men, even if they cannot see women, pray together successfully? Also, if men are so very distracted by the sight of women or women by the sight of men, then perhaps they aren't in the correct frame of mind to pray at all. Prayer involves intense focus on G-d and the prayers themselves and their meanings, and if one is looking around at everyone else one is not concentrating on one's prayers anyway, and so these prayers will not be heard.

I was raised in the Reform community, and have always sat together with men in my family and with men and women surrounding me. No Mechitza required. I don't think it's that I feel women are demeaned by this practice of separation; rather it is the men who are demeaned because they cannot focus themselves with women present. I cannot believe that a religious Jewish man cannot focus his prayers because people are present around him, men or women.

Thank you. The articles on this website are tremendous and very well written. I hope to read more soon. Reply

Andrea Schonberger University Place, WA via chabadpiercecounty.com April 19, 2007

Mechitza is necessary I have prayed in both mixed and separate seating and believe me I concentrate better in a shul with a mechitza--so does my husband though he probably wouldn't admit it! Reply

Aviva New York, NY April 18, 2007

Thank goodness for a mechitza for my own spiritual development! I am a ba'ala teshuva and deeply needed that separation because I was so self-conscious about learning to pray. Without that mechitza, I know my growth and progress would have been stunted. Reply

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