In ancient synagogues, women sat with men

Women were regularly present in the synagogue. One early rabbinic tradition speaks of a halachic ruling allowing a non-Jewish woman to help prepare the meal until the Jewish woman of the household returned from the synagogue (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 38a-b).

Another mentions the right of women and minors to be included among the seven people called to read from the Torah on the Sabbath (Tosefta, Megillah 3, 11-12); the obvious assumption here is that these participants were regular attendees.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 1, 4, 16d) tells of a woman in Tiberias who went to the synagogue every Friday night to hear R. Meir’s sermons, and a late midrash (Yalqut Shim’oni, Deuteronomy, 871) tells of an elderly woman who, when consulting with the second-century R. Yose b. Halafta, mentioned that she went to the synagogue every morning.

A Christian source also confirms the presence of women, albeit in a less flattering light. Toward the end of the fourth century, John Chrysostom (later to become the Patriarch of Constantinople) preached that synagogues were places of abomination, the proof of which lay in the fact that men and women gathered there together.

He also denounced some of the women in his church as “judaizers,” an indication that they regularly attended the synagogue (Discourse against Judaizing Christians)…

For the first seven centuries of the Common Era, women and men in both Palestine and the Diaspora sat together in the synagogue. This practice was in stark contrast to that of Roman society, which regularly instituted segregation in the public realm along class, ethnic, or gender lines; and that of the early church, which by and large separated men and women as well.

The physical separation of men and women in the synagogue developed at a later time. There is no archaeological evidence from antiquity of a women’s section in any synagogue, nor a single inscription noting such a separation. The absence of epigraphical evidence is significant, given the fact that many synagogue inscriptions of the time do, in fact, name various areas within the building.

The majority of these edifices had only a single prayer hall where the congregation gathered, but no balcony. And even when a building did have one, there is no reason to assume that it served as a women’s gallery. It might have functioned as a space for meetings, court sessions, festive meals, study, or the hazzan’s (cantor’s) living quarters; according to rabbinic sources, the synagogue balcony was used for all these purposes.

Also notably absent from rabbinic sources is any discussion of separate seating for women. Four hundred or so traditions in rabbinic literature address the synagogue and its functions, and not one mentions a special women’s section.

One rabbinic source does attest to the separation of men and women, but this was in the Jerusalem Temple, when a special balcony was constructed around the “Women’s Court” to separate the sexes during the frivolous Water Drawing Festival on Sukkot (Mishnah, Middot 2, 5; Tosefta, Sukkah 4,1).

Notably, this stated exception to the rule makes it clear that on the other fifty-one weeks of the year, there was no such separation of men and women in the Temple precincts.

The sum of the evidence leaves little doubt that throughout Late Antiquity, whenever Jews gathered in the synagogue for ritual purposes, there were no gender distinctions in seating arrangements …

We know from Maimonides and the Cairo Genizah that the custom (of separate seating), in Egypt at least, was well in place by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as these sources explicitly note a separation or partition (mehitzah).

Thus, at some point between the seventh and eighth centuries (our last-dated archaeological and literary sources for Late Antiquity) and the eleventh century (the above-noted sources from Egypt), this division was adopted by Jewish communities, likely because of Islamic or Christian influence, newly developing religious stringencies within Judaism regarding the impurity of women, or perhaps both of these considerations.

The full interview

Read the full interview with Professor Levine on the Reform Magazine website

Exerpts used with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism


“Four hundred or so traditions in rabbinic literature address the synagogue and its functions, and not one mentions a special women’s section”