In Israel there is a hot debate because of instances on some communities where extra steps are taken to separate men and women in every day life. For example in some bus lines women seat in the back of the bus, and a community tried to have separate sidewalks.

What are the halakhic bases for such separation? Which texts mention in which cases they should be separated?


PS. I am not trying to start a debate, just get some solid sources to make my own opinion.


3 Answers 3


The Gemora says that, in the Beit HaMikdash, the men and women were separated during the "Simchas Beis Hashoeiva". This was because the environment was so lax and fun and lightheaded they were afraid people would do inappropriate behavior in the Beit HaMikdash.

After the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, this concept was further used to create separate seating in the Beit K'nesset (shul) which has some rules similar to the Beit HaMikdash.

From that point on, various communities in various places have created different rules on this topic, all using this line in the Gemora as the basis for their new separation.

However, regarding the busses, another argument is based based on the line in the Gemora, which says not to walk behind a woman. This is normally understood to mean that you don't want to be watching a woman's backend, but they apply it to say that men cannot sit behind women on the bus. On the Jerusalem light rail train, the Charedim have agreed to make the last car in the train for men only, because the distance between the cars is enough that they don't have this "issue."

This mishna is further explained in Avot D'rabbi Natan:

It is written [ibid., ibid. 6]: "None of you shall approach to any that are near of kin to him." From this it was said one must not stay in a separate room with any woman in a hostelry, though she be his sister or daughter, because of public opinion. For the same reason one must not converse with a woman in the market, not even with his wife. For the same reason a man shall not walk behind a woman, even though she be his wife. This was deduced from the following analogy of expression: It is written in the passage of illegal unions, "Ye shall not approach," and here is also written, "Thou shalt not approach," from which it is to be inferred that one shall not approach such things as can cause him to sin (or cause people to talk about him).

There is a correspondance of letters between the Tzitz Eliezer and R. Shlomo Auerbach when they were in their 50s, regarding entering a bus behind a woman. (based on the statement in the Gemora not to walk behind a woman) The end result is that they agree that it is a personal manner, and some people who are not strong should avoid entering a bus behind a woman, but it cannot be a general rule.

The interesting point in the correspondence, is the fact in the 15th century, they mention that the "times have changed", and that in the days of the Gemora or the Rambam, it was rare to find a woman out in the marketplace. However, today, women are found all over the marketplace, and it's impossible to avoid walking behind a woman easily. Therefore, we are lenient on this ruling. If you are in a place where there are a few women (e.g. one or two) then, certainly, avoid walking behind them. But, if you are in a busy place, where removing yourself from behind one woman will just make you walk behind another, then stay where you are.

It is often pointed out by people today, that the Gemora and Halacha are telling a man what he should be careful in doing. But today, there are people trying to tell the woman what they should be careful in making sure the man doesn't do.


The Shulchan Aruch (EH 21:1) rules:

צריך אדם להתרחק מהנשים מאד מאד

It is necessary for a man to distance himself from women to a great extent

This obligation is, I would say, naturally somewhat subjective. Because of this subjectivity, it seems that contemporary attitudes to this obligation vary from one extreme who treat it as a total platitude, to others who think that it is appropriate to transgress severe prohibitions to enforce their ideal standard of separation.

With respect to buses — in addition to the very interesting correspondence between the Tzitz Eliezer and R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach — there is a p'sak by R' Moshe Feinstein permitting one to ride on a mixed bus (Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 2:14). R' Feinstein permits this because incidental contact devoid of affection is not prohibited. Nevertheless, I do not think he belived that there was no benefit in having separate seats on buses frequented by the Orthodox public. Instead, his answer was regarding the reality that was faced on public transit. There are halachic issues than may not prohibit mixed seating on buses, but might best be avoided by separate seating.

Regarding sidewalks (during normal times, not when there are massive events where there separate seating is appropriate and it is worthwhile to arrange separate entrances) this issue has always been around to one degree or another. To my knowledge, we have never seen this "solution" implemented. (This is in contrast to public transit, which is a new issue with specific concerns and the solution of separate seats was soon implemented.) I do not think it is appropriate, except perhaps in extremely crowded areas where it might not be feasible. I know of no Jewish areas that rise to that level, but nobody asks me. :)

  • Public transit has been around in Israel for at least 60 years. Seperate seating on the bus has been around for less than 10. That's 2 generations of people who never had separate seating, or had any Rabbis suggesting that it happen.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 7:55
  • Also, you should see the busses near the kotel. Sometimes you have to wait for 3 buses to come and go before you can get on one.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 7:56
  • I was in Israel over ten years ago and sat on separate seated buses, which were not a new innovations. There was a particular movie made 20 years ago, set in an american chassidic community, which portrayed the separate seating on community buses. This is not a new phenomenon.
    – Yirmeyahu
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 8:20
  • Ok, as I get older, "ten years ago" seems to be not as far away as I believe. But they certainly did not exist in the 80s.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 8:43
  • Also, there is something very new about what is going on now. Maybe its expansion, maybe it's the beating up of people who don't comply, I'm not sure.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 8:45

R' Moshe Feinstein ruled that a man may enter a very crowded New York City subway car, even though it is very likely that he will involuntarily touch a woman. (Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 2:14.)


If one can be squished back to belly with a woman on public transit, certainly one should be able to sit next to, or behind, a woman on public transit.

As Avi pointed out above, it could be that some men who have trouble with staring at the female form, would be wise to secure a frontward seat on the bus, and keep their eyes fixed on the floor, or out the window, for the duration. That is a personal standard, not an absolute obligation for all of Klal Yisrael.


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