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The Women’s Section

In many Orthodox synagogues, women’s sections are poorly maintained. Whether it’s the lighting, the cleanliness, the availability of siddurim and tissues, air conditioning, or any other number of small and large issues. What are the halachic implications of the state of discomfort and disrepair of a women’s section?

Let’s first note that the often reluctant volunteers who run the shul prioritize the issues they see personally. Since they are men, they see the problems in the men’s section. This natural prioritization is usually instinctive, not intentional. In my experience, when pointed out in a gentle and constructive way, this method of prioritization will be replaced by something more thoughtful. On the other hand, it must be remembered that generally speaking, women attend shul only on Shabbos morning while men attend four times on Shabbos plus every morning and evening during the week. Fixing the men’s section may legitimately be more urgent. But prioritization should not lead to complete neglect of the women’s section.

I. Different Sections 

Setting that aside, let us examine the halachic mandate to maintain properly the women’s section. The Mishnah (Megillah 25b-26a) discusses different levels of sanctity. Does a women’s section have a lower sanctity than a men’s section?

In an astonishing comment, the Chochmas Adam (86:15) says that a women’s section has no sanctity at all. The Pri Megadim (OC EA:151:1) disagrees. He forbids slaughtering kapparos before Yom Kippur in a shul’s women’s section, permitting it only in the shul’s courtyard. In his Rosh Yosef (Megillah 28a), the Pri Megadim explains that a women’s section has the same sanctity as a men’s section.

II. Ukrainian Shtetl

This issue came to the fore in an 1853 controversy. In the Ukrainian shtetl of Zalyshchyk, the people who ran the beis midrash erected pillars in the back of the men’s section on which they built a women’s balcony (the pillars eliminated a few men’s seats). They did this against the protests of the town’s rabbi and Jewish communal leaders. In order to solidify his opposition, the rabbi sent letters to leading halachic authorities. The responses surprised him.

There are many issues to consider in this question, such as the status as the air above a shul and who has the power to authorize changes in a shul. Relevant to our topic, Rav Shlomo Kluger (Shenos Chaim, Kuntres Perat Ve-Olellos) argues that a women’s section has a lower sanctity because the holiest prayers — Kedushah and Barchu — are led in the men’s section and only answered in the women’s section. For this and other reasons, he supported the rabbi and insisted that the beis midrash undo the change.

III. Three Lenient Responses

Rav Chaim Halberstam (Divrei Chaim 1:OC:3, 2:OC:11) agrees with Rav Kluger in principle that the women’s section has a lower sanctity than the men’s section. However, he would permit this expansion of the women’s section because it is for a holy purpose, even though it has less sanctity. His main concern in this case is that the change was done without the approval of the Jewish communal leaders.

Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Sho’el I-Meishiv 1:2:22-24) goes further. He approves of the change. A place where women pray regularly has sanctity, even if it is slightly less than that of the men’s section. Additionally, this change will improve the women’s section greatly, which previously lacked sufficient heat for the cold winter. It will allow women to bring their small children to shul and teach them to pray nicely, which is important. While the rabbi and communal leaders opposed this change, Rav Nathanson advised that they should back down for the sake of peace.

Rav Shlomo Drimmer (Beis Shlomo 1:28) argues that the sanctity of a women’s section is the same as that of a men’s section. It is true that the Mishnah (Keilim 1:8) says that in the Temple in Jerusalem, the men’s section (Ezras Yisrael) had a higher sanctity than the women’s section. However, a shul is different because it is for prayer, not sacrifices. Since women pray and answer all the prayers, their section is equivalent to the men’s section.

IV. Treating Sanctity Properly

Rav Kluger responded to these lenient views, particularly (and harshly) to Rav Nathanson’s responsa. However, later halachic authorities, such as the Maharsham (Responsa 1:OC:4) and Avnei Neizer (OC 34), rule leniently on this. In a fascinating 2003 responsum regarding the Kotel, Rav Asher Weiss (Responsa Minchas Asher 1:8:2) concludes that most authorities permit expanding a women’s section into the air above a men’s section. Additionally, Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (Zeicher Yehosef OC:1:51) says that the consensus is that a women’s section has sanctity, unlike the Chochmas Adam’s view.  While the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (OC 154:7) agrees with the Pri Megadim and Beis Shlomo that a women’s section has the same sanctity as the men’s section, Rav Asher Weiss believes that the consensus seems to be that a women’s section has less sanctity than a men’s section, just like a shul has less sanctity than a beis midrash.

Be that as it may, a women’s section is a holy place, patterned after the Temple in Jerusalem. It has sanctity as a place where women regularly pray. Therefore, the rules regarding the sanctity of a shul apply to a women’s section. This includes the required upkeep and decorum described in Shulchan Aruch (OC 151). The people entrusted with the upkeep of a shul have to ensure that women can pray in a clean and comfortable environment.

V. Men in the Women’s Section

While we are on the subject, we should discuss what a woman should do if she comes to shul and finds men occupying the women’s section. Sometimes men prefer to pray in the often empty women’s section for a variety of reasons. These reasons can include embarrassment at coming late, a search for less crowded area, the opportunity to speak more freely and inappropriately, and even a desire to share a bottle of schnapps with friends in a place that the rabbi can’t see. These men should not be in the women’s section. Rabbis have tried for many years to stop the practice, sometimes locking the door, which prevents the schnapps drinking in shul but also prevents women from entering. If a woman arrives at shul and finds men in the women’s section, she should go right in, sit down and start praying. The men may grumble but they will leave. Just go in and claim your rightful place. Everyone knows you belong there.