MEḤIẒAH (Heb. מְחִיצָה; "partition"), designation of the partition screen in synagogues between the space reserved for men and that, generally in the rear or upstairs, for women. The origin of the meḥiẓah derives from the talmudic description of the festivities (Simḥat Beit ha-Sho'evah) held on the second evening of the feast of Tabernacles in the court of women of the Temple (Suk. 5:2; Mid. 2:5). The Talmud states that men and women were allotted separate space (Suk. 51b–52a; Tosef., Suk. 4:1). Further sources for the separation of the sexes, as practiced in traditional synagogues, are to be found in midrashic literature like Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 41, where it is stated in the name of R. Pinḥas that men and women stood separately when the Israelites assembled at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (see also PdRE 23). Remains of galleries discovered in ancient Palestine synagogues have been taken as belonging to the women's sections.
Most European synagogues of the Middle Ages had a separate women's gallery called Weibershul fenced off by an iron grille or a non-transparent curtain. In synagogues where there was no balcony, the meḥiẓah was made of latticework serving as a partition between the seats of the men in front and those of the women in the rear. References to the custom of meḥiẓah in the Middle Ages can be found in the responsa literature of that period such as *Mordecai b. Hillel's commentary to Shab. 3, note no. 311, where it is stated "We are permitted to erect on Sabbath the partition-curtain between men and women during the time of the sermon" (see also Sefer ha-Maharil of Jacob Moellin (ed. Cremona (1565), 38a, 50b, 59b). The abolition of the meḥiẓah by the Reform movement in Europe in the early part of the 19th century was strongly opposed by the leading rabbinic authorities in Hungary and Poland, such as Moses *Sofer, Moses *Schick, and Elijah *Guttmacher, who regarded this innovation as an illicit change and, consequently, ruled that any synagogue without meḥiẓah is unfit for prayer.
In most Conservative synagogues in the United States, the meḥiẓah has been abolished and men and women sit together, or, in some cases, one side of the synagogue is reserved for the men and the other for the women, without an actual partition. In Reform synagogues the segregation of men and women has been entirely abolished based on the fact that the Bible nowhere commands the separation of men and women during public worship or assemblies (see Deut. 31:12; Neh. 8:2–3). These modern trends met with vigorous opposition in the 1950s on the part of Orthodox Jewry in the United States, which has come to regard the retention of the meḥiẓah as a cardinal principle and as a mark of the preservation of the Orthodox character of the synagogue. In several congregations the Orthodox minority turned to the courts for legal redress and were granted relief by court orders enjoining the synagogue board from changing the status quo, as in the case of congregation Beth Tefilas Moses of Mount Clemens, Michigan (Court Order of Sept. 21, 1959). Similar litigations were dealt with by the state courts in New Orleans, Louisiana and by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (no. 178, October Term, 1954), all of which ruled in favor of the party demanding the retention of the meḥiẓah.
J.B. Agus, Guideposts in Modern Judaism (1954), 133ff.; idem, in: Conservative Judaism, 11:1 (1956), 11ff.; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 49; B. Litvin, Sanctity of the Synagogue (1959; Orthodox viewpoint). HALAKHIC RESPONSA: Moses Schreiber, Hatam Sofer (1855), to Sh. Ar., ḤM 190, OḤ 28; Moses Schick, Maharam Schick (1880) to Sh. Ar., OḤ 77; Hillel Lichtenstein, Teshuvot Beit Hillel (1908), no. 50; Ḥayyim Halberstam, Divrei Ḥayyim (1875), no. 18; Elijah Guttmacher, Zikhron Shelomo (1933), 70–72.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.