Separation Anxiety: Mechitzot at Weddings

by Leebie Mallin

While the discussion of mechitzot (partitions between men and women) in the context of synagogues is familiar, a less frequently discussed question is whether a mechitzah is necessary at a wedding, specifically during the ceremony and reception.1

The talmudic origins of mechitzah are found in Tractates Middot and Sukkah. These sources explain that a balcony was constructed in the Temple during simchat beit hasho’evah, the water drawing ceremony, held during the interim days of Sukkot. The purpose of the mechitzah was to prevent mixing between men and women and frivolity.2 The gemara in Sukkah explains that despite the prohibition against changing the structure of the Temple, there is a source in Prophets (Zechariah, 12:12) for the addition of the balcony. In Zechariah’s portrayal of mourning at the end of days, the men and women mourn separately. The gemara turns this verse into a source for mechitzah, by interpreting it as follows: “If in the future when they will be engaged in mourning and the evil inclination will have no power over them, the Torah nevertheless says, men separately and women separately, how much more so now when they are engaged in rejoicing and the evil inclination has sway over them.”

Many rabbinic authorities debate the legal status of mechitzah, in general. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, for example, argues it is a Torah law3 while Rabbi Yehuda Henkin says it is a rabbinic enactment.4 There is also a difference of opinion over the scope of the law of mechitzah. Where is a mechitzah required? Only in the Temple? In the synagogue? At all public events? This discussion of the scope of mechitzah is most relevant to the question of mechitzot at weddings.5

According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a mechitzah is required at synagogues as well as at mandatory public gatherings. Rabbi Feinstein bolsters this claim by pointing out that the proof text in the Talmud for mechitzah comes from a description of eulogizing during a time of mourning, which he considers a mandatory public occasion. In contrast, Rabbi Feinstein categorizes the wedding as an optional public assembly and does not think a mechitzah is necessary. Since he does not distinguish between the ceremony and the reception, one can presume that he equates them and holds that a mechitzah is not required at either. Rabbi Feinstein finds talmudic support for mixed seating in the common practice of families eating the Korban Pesach (Passover Sacrifice) together in order to minimize leftovers, which would have to be burned. He assumes there was no mehitzah at these meals since the Passover sacrifice had to be eaten as a group, and a mechitzah would constitute a barrier between people in a single group.6

Rabbi Yehudah Henkin argues that the mechitzah requirement is confined to prayer. Therefore, it would seem that a mechitzah would not be necessary during a wedding ceremony or reception.7 Likewise, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Chatam Sofer, points out that mechitzah is only required during communication with God that requires intent, such as prayer or eulogizing at a funeral.8 Based on this definition it seems no mechitzah is necessary at a wedding reception or even at the ceremony, an event that requires intent only for those directly involved—the bride, the groom, the officiant and those reciting the seven blessings—but not those in the audience. A mechitzah under the chuppah between the bride and the groom would clearly interfere with the ceremony, so would not be necessary. 

On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that a mechitzah is required at a wedding. The concern in Tractate Sukkah is to prevent frivolity at a joyous celebration. It seems that a wedding reception is just such an occasion. Rashi comments that weddings involve drunkenness and frivolity.9 Based on a similar understanding of weddings, Rabbi Judah HaChasid in Sefer Chasidim argues that one should not recite the special wedding blessing shehasimchah bi-m’ono (that there is joy in His abode) if men and women are sitting together.10 Based on Sefer Chasidim, many later authorities, including Rabbi Joel Sirkes (the Bach), say if men and women are sitting together the above blessing is omitted.11

Rabbi Mordechai Jaffee (the Levush), however, qualifies this prohibition of mixed seating. He explains that in his time the special wedding blessing was recited when men and women were seated together, since men were accustomed to seeing women, and thus no sinful thoughts should occur in such a situation.12 This reasoning seems to be equally relevant in the modern Orthodox Jewish world, where interaction between men and women is commonplace. 

Since the talmudic source for mechitzah is the festive occasion of the water drawing ceremony, there is ample reason to rely on those who distinguish between the requirement at this particular occasion and other occasions such as weddings. Along these same lines, mixed seating should also be allowed. This is an especially compelling point in light of the many social inhibitions that arise from the Orthodox community’s value of modesty.


1. The distinction between mechitzah, a divider separating men and women, and separation, men on one side and women on another without a divider, is significant. For instance one could foresee an opinion requiring separation between the sexes without a mechitzah. Many of the sources explored in this article are ambiguous in terms of this distinction. Therefore, it cannot be definitively stated how one commenting on mechitzah views the issue of separation.

2. Mishna Middot 2:5; Mishna Sukkah 5:2; Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 51b-52a.

3. Iggrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, 39 and 41.

4. B’nei Banim, 1, 3 and 4.

5. For a comprehensive discussion of the specific topic of mixed seating at weddings see Rabbi Eli D. Clark, “Mixed Seating At Weddings,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society,Number XXXV Spring 1998/Pesach 5758; pp. 28-61.

6. Iggrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, 39 and 41.

7. B’nei Banim, 1,3, and 4.

8. Chatam Sofer, 1:190.

9. Sukkah 25b.

10. Sefer Chasidim, no. 393. 11. Bach, Even Ha’Ezer 62.

12. Levush ha-Chur, Minhagim, no. 36.

 

Leebie Mallin is in her second year of Drisha’s Scholars Circle. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from Stern College, an M.A. in Political Science from Columbia and an M.A. in Jewish History from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

 

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