Take a virtual tour of some of the best known historic synagogues and you may notice several common features: an aron kodesh (ark/cabinet) that houses the Torah scrolls, a bimah (raised platform) from which the service is led, and an ezrat nashim, a women’s section. This last feature, the separation of men and women during the prayer service, is, for many, a source of fundamental importance, and for others a source of great consternation. The roots of the division between men and women during prayer originate in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
In the Talmudic Tractate Sukkah, during a discussion of the Simchat Beit Hashoevah (the water libation ceremony), Rabbi Eleazar explained that “Originally [the walls of the Court of the Women] were smooth (without a balcony), but [later the Court] was surrounded with a gallery, and it was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below” (Sukkah 51b).
The text of the Talmud continues to explain that when the women sat in the inner chamber and the men in the outer chamber, there had been a problem with levity. When the chambers were switched, the problem persisted.
When some sages wondered how the expansion of the courtyard could be allowed to accommodate the holiday’s crowd, reasoning for the need for separation was brought from the Book of Zechariah, which states: “And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart” (12:12). It was understood that if separation of genders was necessary in a time of mourning (when the evil inclination would have no sway over them), “how much more so now when they are engaged in rejoicing” (Sukkah 52a).
Although the Talmud refers to a balcony for the women’s section, many traditional synagogues have a physical partition known as a mechitza separating the men’s section and the women’s section.
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