Today is May 21, 2018 / /
The Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah
If one were to search the responsa literature, the Rishonim (primary commentaries), and the Acharonim (later commentaries), one would not find a direct treatment of the question of whether it is permissible for a woman to nurse her baby in the synagogue. This topic has not been raised in hundreds of years of rabbinic decisions and responsa. We should not be surprised by its absence, for until recently, women of birthing age were not accustomed to visiting the synagogue. Rather, they remained at home, occupied with caring for their nursing babies and raising their older children. Today, women search for closeness to God through learning Torah and tefillah (prayer). They are prepared for the challenge of occupying two worlds simultaneously, raising their children and also taking an active role in the spiritual realm, “to observe, to do, and to fulfill — to the best of their abilities — all of the words of His Torah, may He be blessed.” Where once a woman who had given birth would remain at home for several months, women today are strong and resolute, returning to the daily routines of life, both secular and religious, a short time after birth. They return to work and go to synagogue with their babies on their shoulders, literally, “in their bosoms.”
The practice of women who are nursing taking their babies to synagogue is a new development. While not the habit of our ancestral mothers and fathers, our rabbis saw such a practice in a good and positive light. According to the opinion of some later commentaries, it is not merely permissible to bring young children and nursing babies to the synagogue, it is also a mitzvah.
The teaching of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah in Chagigah (3a) pertaining to the commandment of hakhel (communal gathering) is well known: “Gather the Nation, men, women, and children. If men come to learn and women come to hear, why do the children attend? In order to accord a reward to those who bring them.” Not only are the adults commanded to assemble en masse in fulfillment of hakhel, but the children (literally “little ones”) are also commanded. Tosafot (ibid. s.v. kedai) equates the synagogue with the commandment of hakhel and concludes that there is room within halakha to allow children to be brought to the synagogue: “And upon this rationale the rabbis permitted bringing children to the synagogue.” Just as we are commanded to bring children to hakhel, it is also correct and proper to bring “small ones” to synagogue. The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim, 589:6) agrees with Tosafot, but where the latter only mentions bringing male children, the former encourages parents to bring both “little boys and little girls.”
Chazal were meticulous in their language and said “taf” (progeny), not little ones, as it is clear in the Rishonim and Acharonim that the subject is newborns and nursing babies. The Minchat Chinukh writes, “it appears that immediately upon exiting the nefel stage ….children are obligated in this mitzvah” (mitzvah 612). Additionally, the Maharsha wrote that we are speaking of ketanim, really little ones (Chagigah, 3a). It appears from a careful reading of the Rishonim that they agree with the Maharsha and the Minchat Chinukh.
The Ramban suggests that the text, in its plain meaning, is speaking of children who are mature enough to understand that which was learned, but he rejects this understanding and writes that, according to “our rabbis,” we are speaking of “those who still nurse from the breasts of their mothers” (Nachmanides, Devarim, 31:12). It also appears that Rashi believes that we are speaking of very small children who are still nursing (Megillah, 5a). Similarly, according to the understanding of Tosafot and other Rishonim, Rabbi Eliezer is referring to very small children in his teaching recommending bringing young children to the Holy Temple or to the synagogue, placing spiritual and religious value in bringing very young children — even those who are still nursing — to the synagogue, to the place of the dwelling of the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) in the Holy Temple or in the synagogue.
And even though the Magen Avraham (689:11) recommends that young children not be brought to the synagogue, a differentiation can be made between small and very small children. Small children are not permitted because they have started talking, and their chatter is apt to distract adults from prayer and devotion of the heart. But the Magen Avraham would agree that one is permitted to bring nursing babies as they spend most of their time sleeping and pose no distraction to those in prayer. The Yerushalmi cites an actual incident of Rabbi Yehoshua, whose mother would bring him to the House of Study in his cradle so that “his ears would cleave to words of Torah” (Yevamot, 1:6). As a result, he merited to understand and instruct. The Yerushalmi goes on to say that this was a fulfillment of the verse, “To whom would he give instruction? To whom expound a message? To those newly weaned from milk, just taken away from the breast” (Yeshayahu, 28:9). In other words, Rabbi Yehoshua’s merit was a product of his mother bringing him to synagogue while he was still nursing.
The Gaon, Rav Yosef Engel, goes one step further in Gilayon HaShas. He quotes the position of Hgaon, Rav Yaakov ben Yaakov Moshe of Lissa, in his Sefer Nachalat Ya’akov on the Torah, Parashat VaYelekh, that “assemble the men, women, and children” is not merely the granting of permission to bring children to the Holy Temple for the purposes of hakhel, for this is self-understood, and why would it be prohibited to bring them? Rather, the intent of the Gemara, according to the opinion of the Gaon from Lissa, is that there is also a mitzvah, an obligation, to bring them. Rav Yosef Engel goes on to say that many attribute this idea to the Arizal, who also believed that parents were “commanded” to bring their young children to the Holy Temple so that they could participate in hakhel.
According to this, our honorable and praiseworthy women wholeheartedly have a firm basis on which to rely for their custom of bringing their very young children with them when they go to the synagogue to pray, commune, and become one with their Creator. As we have seen, for several Acharonim, bringing young children to the house of study is more than permissible, it is a mitzvah. And as Rabbi Elazar taught, parents are destined to be rewarded in Olam Ha’bah for bringing their young children to the synagogue (Chagigah, 3a). Therefore, I have put into my heart the desire to focus on this matter and to determine if we can ease the burden placed upon new mothers today, granting them the opportunity to pray in front of their Creator with minimal distractions. With that preface, I now begin.
When we grapple with the issue of breastfeeding in the synagogue, we must examine three aspects of the question:
Before I delve into the heart of the question, I will provide a summary of Jewish law pertaining to relevant concerns of place: Is there a difference if she nurses her baby in the women’s section or the men’s?
The synagogue and the house of study have an inherent holiness, and as a result, “one is forbidden to accustom oneself to levity therein” (Tur and Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim, 151). The sanctity of the synagogue is intrinsic; it is based on place. The synagogue is the Holy Temple in microcosm, and its sanctity is like that of the Holy Temple. The boundaries of such sanctity are the boundaries of the synagogue; any part of a synagogue in which prayer takes place — this excludes side rooms — has this inherent holiness to the same degree. And even though the Chokhmat Adam (86:15) says that “the women’s section has no sanctity whatsoever,” this opinion has been refuted by many Acharonim. According to their opinions, there is no delineation within a synagogue structure itself; the women’s section has the same level of holiness as the men’s section. There are too many rabbinic decisors who have disagreed with the Chokhmat Adam for me to expound on them here, but I will list a few: Rosh Yosef (Megillah, 28a); Pri Megadim (Eshel Avraham, seif katan 1); Sho’el Umeishiv (first ed., part 2, responsum 22); Shut Beit Shlomo (part 1, responsum 28); Arukh HaShulchan (154:7); Keren Le’David (OC, responsum 33). See also Teshurat Shai (responsum 545), who claims that this question was debated among the Rishonim.
The Gaon Avrohom Bornsztain does write in chapter 33 of the Avnei Nezer that the sanctity of the women’s section is inferior to that of the men’s, but the poskim I mention above disagree with him. According to their collective opinion, the sanctity of the synagogue flows from the fact that it is a unique and special place for Torah and the worship of God, and therefore, one cannot differentiate between the two sections. I agree with this opinion. People study and pray in both; why should it affect the sanctity of the space if those praying are women or men? The allotment of the space to serve God is the act that accords the space sanctity, not designating it as being for men or women, and therefore, both locations are holy in the same measure. It is, therefore, clear that when we contemplate if it is permissible to nurse a child in the synagogue — or to do anything in the synagogue for that matter — it is irrelevant whether we are talking about the men’s section or the women’s; the thing is either prohibited or allowed in both.
One must now take into account the legal status of the law of the sanctity of the synagogue, whether it is deOrayta (Biblical in nature) or deRabbanan (rabbinic in nature). According to the Yera’im, the sanctity of the synagogue is deOrayta. He states:
“You shall fear Your Lord,” a person is commanded upon entering the Holy Temple or a synagogue or to a house of study to act in a manner of respect and awe….We have learned that when the Torah says “and my holy place you shall respect and fear,” that synagogues and houses of study are included” (chapter 324).
The Chayei Adam (Akronot, 17:6) agrees with the Yera’im. This is also the opinion of the Mabit in Kiryat Sefer (Beit HaBechirah, chapter 1, law 4).
However, many of the giants of the Acharonim disagree with those quoted. According to them, the law of “and my holy place shall be venerated” is specific to the Holy Tabernacle or the Holy Temple; the sanctity of the synagogue is simply a rabbinic addition or emendation (see Responsa of the Mahari Bei Rav, responsum 5; Maharsham, part 1, responsum 10; Chazon Nachum, responsum 1, ot 7; Yabi’a Omer, responsum 7, ot 24; as well as the Acharonim cited by HaGaon Rav Chayyim Chizkiyah MiDini z”l in Sdei Chemed, Oit bet, chapter 43).
While significant, this debate does not have direct relevance to the specifics of our situation. Whether the sanctity is Biblical or rabbinic, according to halakha there is sanctity to the synagogue, and because of this, we are mandated to behave in the synagogue with fitting respect and to be fastidious about its holiness and the requisite awe. Because of this, it is incumbent upon us to clarify if breastfeeding in the synagogue negates the sanctity of the space and if, therefore, we have reason to prohibit it.
Mothers generally place a cloth over their shoulder and the top half of their bodies before breastfeeding, covering the mother and the baby for the duration of nursing. In this case, it is clear beyond any doubt that nursing is totally permissible: the mother’s body is covered by a cloth so there is no problem with modesty and no diminution of holiness; it makes no difference whether her body is covered in “clothing” or with a cloth. After all, a cloth tied around the neck is absolutely considered a garment in matters pertaining to Shabbbat, and a garment folded over one’s shoulder even more so (Bi’ur Halakhah, 301:34, s.v. ve’im ein). One is permitted to walk outside with such a garment on Shabbat even though it is not tied to one’s body. If a covering such as this is thought of as a garment for purposes of carrying on Shabbat, why should this same item not be regarded a garment for the purposes of modesty?
And if the pedantic person should get bogged down, holding that a cloth is technically not a “garment” as it is only connected in a temporary fashion, and generally speaking, it is only tied on one side with a knot that is not considered a solid knot as such pertains to Shabbat, nevertheless, there is no problem as the body is hidden and covered. That is to say, in conceptual terms, it is not the law that nakedness must be covered; the important matter is that it should not be revealed. Therefore, as long as there is something covering the private parts, even if according to halakha the cloth does not have the legal status of begged, clothing, it would still suffice according to the laws pertaining to someone who is naked, that one can recite the Shema as long as he is covered in his garment (Orach Chayyim, 74:1), or even by muddy or murky water if the person is bathing (ibid., 74:2). In both scenarios, the person reciting the Shema does not “cover” his nakedness, but the reciting is still permitted as long as his nakedness is concealed and not revealed.
A further example of this is found in the Magen Avraham (43:14), where it is prohibited to bring holy books into the bathroom. Nevertheless, if the books are covered in a pocket or some other covering, one is permitted to bring them into the bathroom, and it is inconsequential, in the opinion of the Magen Avraham, if the pocket is considered a legal covering according to halakha. The Magen Avraham, as is known, is not the only one who posits such. The Birkhei Yosef agrees with him (Yoreh Deah, 282:5, in the name of Shevut Ya’akov, part 1, reponsum 82) and the Radbaz (responsum 948). This can also be derived from the meaning of the Gemara (Shabbat, 61b) and the Rambam (Laws of a Torah Scroll, 10).
Even stringent opinions in the above allow taking a sefer into the bathroom, they simply require a double cover. See, for example, Eliyahu Rabbah according to Mishnah Berurah, 43:25. (However, when one investigates the actual opinion of the Eliyahu Rabbah himself, it is not so clear that he is stringent in this matter. A close reading of his words seems to suggest that he is actually lenient and does not to require two coverings.) Regardless, it is important to note that, when a woman is nursing, there are two coverings over the breast: the mouth of the infant is considered one covering and the cloth is a second, just as the rabbinic decisors regard a book’s binding as one cover even though it does not cover the book entirely (see Kaf HaChayyim, Orach Chayyim, 40:14, in the name of Chesed LaAlafim, 240:8, as opposed to Peri Megadim, 40, AA, 2, and Responsa of Ohel Yosef, 2).
The mouth of an infant can reasonably be considered a cover even though it is not a “garment,” just as the hand of another person is considered a cover as related to covering one’s head (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim, 90:4) and covering one’s heart in a place where one has to be careful that his heart shall not see nakedness (Ba’er Heitev, 74:4, in the name of the Pri Chaddash; his words are also quoted in the Kaf HaChayyim in the name of Petach Devir, paragraph 2). Although the Mechaber wrote (chapter 74) seems slightly hesitant about this, reluctantly allowing it and using the Terumat HaDeshen, (responsum 10) as his only source for this halakha. The Chidda in Birkhat Yosef (74:5) deals with this at some length, deducing additional support for the Mechaber’s opinion from the Gemara in Zevachim (24) and Menachot (94). We might also add the position of the Maharshal (responsum 72) regarding the obligation to cover one’s head. He argues that even those poskim who require an actual covering acknowledge that covering with a hand is sufficient when it is “temporary and for a short period of time.” Therefore, the mouth of a baby can be considered a covering even according to the opinion that human skin is generally not, since as in the case of the Maharshal, we are speaking of a covering that is temporary and applied on an irregular basis.
Therefore, as regards breastfeeding, when the nursing child and any exposed skin are covered by a cloth it is clear that there is no problem whatsoever — at least from the perspective of modesty — with nursing a child in the synagogue, even when the congregation is praying. And, as proven above, since the mouth of the baby covers a definable section of the nipple (the “top” of the breast), there is room for leniency in permitting breastfeeding in the synagogue even without the cloth covering the upper part of the mother’s body.
Parenthetically, it is important to note that the Acharonim (Sha’arei Torah, 74:4, and others) were puzzled regarding the stance of the Ba’er Heiteiv, who quoted the Pri Chaddash as the source of the law that the hand of another person is thought of as a covering, when in reality, the Mechaber noted this explicitly in chapter 91. But the two occurrences are different: The Mechaber speaks of covering from the perspective of laws pertaining to going with an uncovered head. The Pri Chadash adds that the use of another person’s hand is not merely sufficient in laws pertaining to covering one’s head; it also suffices in laws regarding covering one’s naked parts.
Even if we set aside questions of modesty for the time being (we will return these later), we must still address whether or not the action of nursing a baby is permitted in the synagogue since it is a holy place.
On the surface, it seems clear that there is no reason to prohibit breastfeeding in the synagogue as an activity. We make Kiddush and eat light meals in the synagogue. Occasionally we will even have more formal meals there. And, truth be told, eating is not the only thing that people have customarily done in the synagogue. The Gemara in Pesachim (100a) says that, in addition to eating, people would also “drink and sleep” there. Tosafot and other Rishonim have understood this phrase according to its simple meaning: that people drank and slept in the synagogue itself. Several took this phrase to refer to side rooms and not the sanctuary. In our days, in addition to eating and drinking in the house of study, we also host parties and other events at the shul.
As is known, there has been lengthy discussion on this issue (see the rabbinic decisors and the ad locum commentaries in Orach Chayyim, 151). This is not the place to contribute to this discussion in any detail. However, it is clear that the conclusion of the decisors is to rely on the position and stance of the Ran (Megillah), also brought down as the law by the Rema (ibid.), that a house of study is different than a synagogue, and one is permitted to eat in the latter, “even not out of absolute necessity.” If it is permissible for adults to eat in the synagogue, why should it not be permissible to breastfeed or feed little children there?
But in actuality, there is a small but important difference inherent in generic eating and breastfeeding, as nursing is an intimate act that involves bodily closeness. Therefore, there is room to question if one is halakhically permitted to nurse a baby in the synagogue based on the psak of the Rema (Orach Chayyim, 98:1). He writes: “it is prohibited for a person to kiss his young sons [children] in the synagogue, in order to ingrain on his heart that there is no love like the love of the Divine [literally: He that dwells in the Place].” One could liken nursing to kissing and say that the Rema, who prohibits kissing in the synagogue, would also prohibit breastfeeding in the synagogue; just as there is no place to show physical affection in the synagogue, where the Shekhina is present, it is also prohibited to exhibit other forms of parental intimacy there.
But this comparison is flawed. There is a stark contrast between kissing and feeding. Kissing is emotional while feeding is vital and indispensable. We are certainly speaking of a type of eating that involves emotional intimacy, but in the end, the mother is feeding the fruit of her womb; she is providing for the vital necessities of the baby and not expressing her love, per se.
Nevertheless, even if the most scrutinous among us were to say that nursing is an intimate feeding that involves the close touching of skin and that it is, therefore, like an expression of affection and, as a result, should be prohibited in the synagogue according to the Rema, one must take into account that his statement is very individual (dare we even say radical?) and difficult to substantiate. A rabbinic decisor who desires to base his ruling on these words of the Rema must consider how much halakhic weight should be accorded this opinion.
The concept that kissing and intimate expression involving close contact of skin between people who love each other stands in contrast to the love of the Creator is novel, bold, and daring. There is no mention of this “prohibition” in the works of Chazal or in the writings of the Rishonim. And as later commentaries noted (Responsa of Beit Yisrael, Edlin, responsum 9, Responsa of Orach Mishpat, Orach Chayyim, responsum 22, and Yechaveh Da’at 4, responsum 12), on the surface, it seems the opposite is true. It appears to be permissible and perhaps even critically important for people who are close one to another to express bodily intimacy in the presence of the Shekhinah, for in Torah, in the writings Chazal, and in Midrash there are several examples of people who kissed and expressed affection in the presence of the Divine.
In Shemot (24:7) we read of Moshe and Aharon embracing and kissing each other when they met on “the mountain of God.” In Nedarim (9b) it is said that Shimon the Tsaddik apparently kissed someone in the Holy Temple. Similarly, it is told in Avot DeRabbi Natan (chapter 6) that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai kissed Rabbi Ele’azer ben Hurkanus, and in Masekhet Kallah (chapter 1) it is told that Rabbi Tarfone kissed Rabbi Akiva in the house of study. Although the Acharonim mentioned above do make an effort to resolve the challenge these examples posed by these examples pose to the Rema’s opinion, their solutions are far from their simple meaning.
One must also note the opinion of the Taz (Orach Chayyim, 588:5, and Yoreh De’ah, 117:1) that the Rabbis cannot prohibit that which is explicitly permitted in the Torah. And even though the Chavot Ya’ir (responsum 142) differs with the Taz, writing that his idea is “wrong,” Rabbi Akiva Eiger (in his glosses on Masekhet Sanhedrin, chapter 2, also brought down in Rambam, Frankel ed., Laws of Kings, 3:7) already noted that thoughts similar to those of the Taz were also brought down by the Kesef Mishnah (ibid.) and also in the Shitah Mekubetset on Sanhedrin (19a) in the name of Tosafot HaRosh (see additionally Rabbi Akiva Eiger, first ed., chapter 74, and other citations in the commentaries on the Rambam and the Shulchan Arukh). Therefore, since affection in the presence of the Divine is explicitly permitted in several places in the Torah, the Rema does not have the power to overrule all those sources and prohibit it.
Were I not afraid to express such a bold and daring idea, I would have said that, more than disagreeing with the stringency of the Rema, there is a reasonable implication that Chazal essentially thought the opposite, that corporeal love goes hand-in-hand with and merges with Divine love, and that one is permitted to express human affection in the presence of the Divine. As understood from the verse, “as the clear space on each allowed, with spirals roundabout” (Melechim I, 7:36), the Gemara states that the cherubim stood above the Ark “as a man enveloping the space of his spiral” (Yoma, 54a). According to their opinion, in the Holy Temple, above the Ark in the Holy of Holies, there was a clear demonstration of human love. It is clear that, in contrast to the Rema, the opinion of the Talmud in Yoma does not suppose that human love stands apart from Divine love. On the contrary, we see here that the Gemara posits that the two genres of love, mortal and Divine, complement one another, and that showing affection in the synagogue is a positive since it can serve as a reflection of the higher, more elevated love between the created and the Creator.
Chazal express the idea of equating parent with Creator strongly when they say, “respect [for parents] was compared to the respect accorded to the Almighty” (Kiddushin, 30b). The Ramban (Shemot, 20:11) expounds on this matter, writing:
And he started with the father who is to his ancestral chain as a creator who participates in the creation, for God is our first father and the one who gave birth to us is our last father and therefore it says in Mishneh Torah [Devarim] that just as you have been commanded in respecting me, so too, I command you to honor and respect the entity who partners with me in your creation.
In Avodah Zarah (17a), we also find that Ula embraced his sister every time he exited the synagogue. Here, Rashi seems to make a connection between familial relations and that which occurred in the synagogue.
According to what we have already proven from all the aforementioned sources, it is clear beyond any doubt that there is no Biblical or Talmudic source for the position of the Rema, and that, in essence, the verses and the words of the Gemara indicate the opposite. The Rema consequently lacks any conventional source of proof. It is therefore incumbent upon us to turn to the sole source that exists for Rema’s position, the only source cited by the one who compiled the Hagahat HaRema (not compiled by the Rema himself), namely, the Responsa of Binyamin Ze’ev, Sefer Kol Bo, and the sefer Aguddah. On careful reading, it becomes clear that this citation is erroneous and based in error. The only source for Rema’s unsubstantiated, novel idea is the medieval scholar, Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev, author of the Responsa Binyamin Ze’ev. In responsum 163 he writes,
I have found in the Sefer HaAguddah in Berachot in the chapter “Keitsad Mevarchin” in the name of Sefer Kol Bo that the rabbis are in doubt whether one should recite the Shehecheyanu prayer on fruits who produced their first crop between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av or wait until after 9 Av as the chassidim do not want to eat them, the reason being that they do not want to say at a time of pain and mourning, Shehecheyanu, “for this time period”; and a man shall not kiss his sons in the synagogue in order to indicate that there is no love like the love expressed for God Almighty.
Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev does not base his new idea on Chazal or the Rishonim.
A basic search of the two books cited by Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev (the Aguddah and the Kol Bo) reveals nothing. In both books there is no mention of this prohibition of kissing one’s children in the synagogue. It is clear that the one who cited these sources erred in his reading and did not fully comprehend the intention of Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev. He assumed that the Aguddah was the source upon which Binyamin Ze’ev relied in his discussion of a law against showing affection to one’s children in the synagogue, but this is fallacious. As I have quoted above, there are two new concepts contained in this passage: 1) Perhaps one should refrain from reciting the Shehecheyanu prayer on fruits that ripened between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av. 2) One should not kiss one’s sons in the synagogue. A careful reading of Binyamin Ze’ev would suggest that perhaps Sefer HaAguddah is only the source of the first law, and the second law represents an independent, novel idea belonging to Binyamin Ze’ev. It should be noted that the first idea is likewise not found in Sefer HaAguddah as he claimed, and it is difficult to ignore the possibility that the words “aguddah,” “kol bo,” and “keitsad mevarchin” are a flawed realizations of acronyms, and that Binyamin Ze’ev intended to reference another book or other books.
According to this, not only is there is no source in Bible, Talmud, or the Rishonim for the prohibition of public affection in the synagogue, the source cited in the Shulchan Arukh is also incorrect. The sole source is Rav Binyamin Ze’ev himself; aside from him there is no source for this prohibition whatsoever. It should be noted that the scholars and critics wrote extensively about Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev. According to them, his relationships with the greats of his era were complex. For example, see what the scholar Meir Benayahu wrote in his introduction to the Responsa of Binyamin Ze’ev and in the book Ze’evim Torfim et Binyamin. On page 55 of the latter, Benayahu quotes the Gaon Rabbi David Vital from his LeHatsil HaRoe’eh MiYad HaZe’ev, page 27a, where he finds Binyamin Ze’ev guilty of forgery. He writes that Binyamin Ze’ev quotes something from Sefer HaAguddah that is not found there, and that he “exults in the gift of lies.” It would appear that the quote from Sefer HaAguddah which prohibits parents from kissing their children in the synagogue is not the only instance where Binyamin Ze’ev was aided by an unauthentic citation from that source. Benayahu also writes that “Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev is suspect in that his copying is not accurate and he changes the language to suit his own purposes and needs” (122).
Even though it is difficult to pinpoint the source that Binyamin Ze’ev cited, if indeed it does exist, and the opposite opinion seems to be brought out by sources in Bible and Chazal, one opinion can be found in the classic sources that supports the stringency of Binyamin Ze’ev. According to the Acharonim, there is a precedent for the words of the Responsa of Binyamin Ze’ev in the Sefer HaChasidim of Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid. Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid, like Binyamin Ze’ev, warns and implores parents not to kiss their children in the synagogue. Apparently Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev drew this stringency from the well water of Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid and his peers, the pious Chasidei Ashkenaz, and this stringency found its way to the Rema. However, even though the source for the words of the Rema came through Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid by way of Binyamin Ze’ev, one must pay careful attention to crucial differences between the Rema on the one hand, and Binyamin Ze’ev and Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid on the other.
In Sefer Chasidim (Margaliot ed,, chapter 255) it is written: “A man should not kiss his son in the synagogue and not in his home in front of his own rabbi.” Two differences can be found between this language and that of the Rema: 1) Sefer Chasidim is not as resolute and firm as the Rema: The Rema prohibits affection; the Sefer Chasidim sounds more like a recommendation for restraining from such activity. In contrast to the Rema, who says, “it is forbidden to kiss,” the Sefer Chasidim says, “one should not kiss.” The phrase takes the shape of a recommendation for a good custom; it does not express an implicit prohibition. The same actually holds true for the language of Binyamin Ze’ev, for he also wrote that one “shall not kiss,” that one should refrain from such activity, and not that there is a prohibition regarding this matter. 2) The Sefer Chasidim does not explain the reason for the prohibition, and therefore, one is not required to say that, according to the Sefer Chasidim, there is the slightest problem with showing affection for human beings in the synagogue. In addition, it is important to note that Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid compares affection in the synagogue, in front of God Almighty, to affection in the house of his rabbi and teacher. From this comparison, one can infer that the prohibition is not concerned with the love for a child interfering with love for God Almighty, for we see that, regarding the rabbi, there is no requirement to show love generally or a commandment to love one’s teacher. From this comparison, it makes sense to say that, according to Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid, the prohibition is derived from the topic of respect and reverence: respect and reverence to a rabbi, or respect of a Divine mandate refraining from affection in their presence.
In summary, the source for the prohibition of the Rema is Binyamin Ze’ev, who offers a stringency from the Chasidei Ashkenaz , who were apparently not nearly as stringent in this as was the Rema. If this is correct, that the entire source for the stringency of the Rema is Sefer Chasidim LeRabbi Yehudah HeChasid, we must assess the status of stringent positions that emanate from the Chasidei Ashkenaz in the annals of Jewish Law.
As is well known, the Noda BeYehudah refuted his words (Even HaEzer, 3rd ed., chapter 79):
Keep in mind, my beloved protégé, and these words shall become ingrained on your heart as a reminder: the great principle that no scholars after the Talmudic era have permission to say anything that contradicts the Gemara and that one who says something even to contradict even the little jots and tittles that come off of a yud in the Talmud, this action shall not be thought of [as praiseworthy] at all among the scholars of Israel. Nonetheless, when we find one of the scholars of Israel who is well regarded in Torah and in reverence beyond any doubt who wrote in a book something which contradicts that which is written in the Talmud, we are obligated to go to great lengths to interpret such words as being uttered for the exigency of the times or for a particular family and that the words of the Talmud remain the general principle. For example, we find Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid in his Tsav’ah [recorded wishes for future generations in the family; a genre of rabbinic literature] writing things that it are almost forbidden for us to hear, for he says that one should not marry the daughter of his sister, and in the Gemara it states that this is a command; he says that a son and a father should not marry two sisters, and yet, Rav Pappa and his son married two daughters of Abba Sura’ah. He says that two brothers should not marry two sisters, and in the Gemara, 80 pairs of brothers who are priests [kohanim] married 80 sets of sisters who were also from the priestly clan, and two daughters of Rav Chisda were wed to Rami and Mar Ukba bar Chami, and more like this in Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid’s Tsav’ah. And if Yehudah HeChasid would command that this Tsav’ah be implemented by all Israel, he would be contradicting the Gemara and we would be prohibited from accepting his words at all. But the truth shall lead the way as Yehudah HeChasid wrote his words for the generation after him and to future generations of his family as he saw in the Divine Spirit that his progeny would not succeed in couplings like the aforementioned and, in this, he does not contradict the words of the Talmud that are still the general principle and the words of Yehudah HeChasid pertain to the details or very specific cases. Until here are the words of the No’a BeYehudah.
As the Gaon Rabbi Reuven Margoliot pointed out, the Noda BeYehudah was not the first one to challenge the authority of R. Yehudah Ha’Chasid. The Gaon Rabbi Moshe Provencale (Responsa of Rabbi Moshe Provencale, responsum 9; his words are also brought down in Sefer Arba’ah Charashim) wrote:
I bear witness that God is truth and his words, both written and oral, are truth. I do not know how to respond, for these tsav’ot were not said by Yehoshua from his own mouth and one cannot believe in them, let alone put them into practice, against the direct traditions of Chazal, and those who desecrate the will of Chazal, I proclaim that they are what the verse intended when calling them “those who leave the paths of the righteous” [Mishlei, 2:13] and “you have left me, the source of living waters” [Yirmiyahu, 2:13].
As shown here, both the Noda BeYhudah and Rabbi Moshe Provencale say in one unified and united voice that any place where Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid’s words contradict those of Chazal, one is forbidden to listen to him and, as we have shown above, Chazal do equate mortal love with Divine love.
And if one was to say that these words of Rabbi Moshe Provencale and the Noda BeYhudah relate specifically to the tsav’ah and not to subjects addressed in Sefer Chasidim, the Maharam Mintz makes the same claim for Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid’s writings in general (Maharam Mintz, chapter 79): “and also all the tsav’ot of Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid were not widely disseminated and most are null and void.” Since he uses the word “tsav’ot” (plural), it is clear that the question he was asked related to something that appears in the writings of Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid himself and not in the testament of his ethics.
To summarize, the Rema prohibits a man from kissing his children in the synagogue since this is a demonstration of affection, and in his opinion, it is not permissible for one to show affection in a place in which the Divine is present. The question at hand is whether this law is sufficient reason to prohibit nursing in the synagogue. In my opinion, an answer in the affirmative has no basis. First, breastfeeding is not essentially a display of affection. Second, even if were, it is difficult to determine if a show of affection is indeed prohibited. The citation of Aguddah and Kol Bo is flawed and incorrect. The sole source is from Chasidei Ashkenaz, and as I have already shown, the rabbinic decisors are hesitant regarding the stringencies of Chasidei Ashkenaz. And Chasidei Ashkenaz themselves are not as singularly stringent as the Rema, who expressly prohibits while they only recommend refraining from such activity. Additionally, we have a series of examples in Bible and Chazal of people who kissed and embraced in the presence of the Divine. Therefore, it is difficult to say that there is any prohibition against such activity. On the contrary, the Gemara in Yoma apparently favors a comparison of human love to Godly closeness, supporting expressions of love in the presence of God Almighty.
In conclusion, even if we were to accept the stringency of the Rema that it is forbidden to show affection in the synagogue, and following this, claim that it is forbidden to nurse in the synagogue, one can say that a child is not eating in the synagogue if the child is entirely covered by a cloth, as the covering makes it as though he were in a different place. Therefore, even if we were to take the stringent approach of the Rema that there is a prohibition against demonstrating affection in the synagogue, this act of “showing affection” is hidden under a cloth so there is no showing of affection in the synagogue whatsoever.
It remains for us to ascertain whether there is a concern for gilu’i erva (exposure of forbidden nakedness) in the act of breastfeeding. Seemingly, there is no concern of exposure for, as I have mentioned above, the practice is that the woman covers her body with a cloth before she commences the process of nursing, leaving no part of her body exposed. Additionally, the mouth of the child covers a significant part of the nipple. With all this, there is still room to grapple with the issue of exposure of nakedness since the breast is exposed and revealed, at least for a brief moment, before nursing and right afterwards.
The question can be asked from two different vantage points: that of those who are praying and that of the synagogue itself. First we must explore whether those who are praying sense that they are praying in close proximity to an exposed sex organ (ervah in the language of halakhah), which could lead to lustful thought, something prohibited by the law of “let Him not find anything unseemly among you” (Devarim, 23:15). And even if we were to set aside the concern of those who are praying and the prohibition of “shall not be seen,” we must examine that which is contained at the beginning of the verse: “your camp shall be holy” (ibid.). From this, there is an additional prohibition against exposing one’s nudity in a holy place, such as a synagogue, a place that is holy on its own and also by dint of the Torah scroll contained within.
Parenthetically, the source of this law is in Berakhot, 25a; Shabbat, 150a and 23a; and Bava Metsi’a, 114b. The fastidious reader will notice that there is a slight confusion between the Gemara, the Rishonim, and the different versions in precisely how to understand both laws contained within the verse: that the camp should be holy, clean from all thought of promiscuity, and that nudity shall not be exhibited. There are those who opine that “your camp shall be holy” is a prohibition pertaining to the causation of promiscuous thought in a place of holiness, whereas “shall not be seen” is a commandment to refrain from naked exposure in a place of holiness in its own right, even if this action will not cause licentious thought. And there are those who reverse the order of the verses. See Rashi on Shabbat 23 and the version cited there, in the margins of the daf; Panim Me’irot, part 1, responsum 74, based on the Rashba and in other Acharonim. The primary commentaries deliberated whether this law is deOrayta or merely deRabbanan. See Rambam, Laws of Terumot, 4:4; Ramban in Sefer HaMitsvot (in the added negative commandments, command 11); Ramban on Devarim (ibid.); and the glosses of Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Perla to Sefer HaMitsvot LeRav Sa’adyah Gaon (negative commandments, 1–4). It is important to mention the novel position of the Gaon, author of Yad Eliyahu (responsum 14), that “your camp shall be holy” is a positive commandment, not a prohibition of a negative commandment, for the Torah did not prohibit reciting the Shema in a dirty and smelly place, but rather commanded that the camp be holy in order that one should be able to recite the Shema in purity.
We will deal with the last first and the first last.
It is clear beyond any doubt that the law not to expose one’s nudity in the synagogue, even if there is no concern for licentious thought, so that our camps shall be holy does not apply to the breasts. Only the nether region is considered ervah, not the breasts. It is written in the Mishnah (Challah, 2:3): “a woman may sit and knead her dough when she is in a state of nakedness because she can cover herself.” Thus a woman is permitted to separate the challah when her body is naked as long as she is sitting, as being in the seated position is, in and of itself, considered a covering. As the Rambam, the Rash, and other commentators explain, when she is seated, the lower section of her body is submerged in sand and her naked area is covered. And as long as her naked area is covered, there is no issue with nakedness being revealed as the rest of her body (including her breasts) is not considered ervah for the purposes of nudity. And not only is she permitted to separate challah in this fashion, but as Rambam and Rash say in their respective commentaries to the Tractate of Challah, and as Rashi and other commentaries say in Shabbat and in Bava Metsi’a, a woman is also permitted to recite a blessing and utter God’s name as long as ‘that place’ is covered. Hence, exposed breasts do not have the status of nudity whatsoever.
Thus we follow this rule in halakha. A woman is permitted to recite blessings when her breasts are exposed (see Rambam, Laws of Terumot and Laws of Blessings, 1:9; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim, 74:4, 206:3; and Yoreh De’ah, 328:1). It is therefore clear that, from the perspective of halakha which prohibits the exposure of nudity in the synagogue, there is absolutely no problem when the breast is momentarily exposed during nursing, as the breast itself does not have the rule of nudity pertaining to it.
Parenthetically, according to this ruling, it is also understood that if a woman is praying by herself in a place where no other people are present, it is permissible for her to pray and to utter God’s name at the time of breastfeeding even if her breasts are totally exposed, for to her, breasts are not nudity at all, as is explained explicitly in the Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim (74:4):
There are those who opine that women can recite blessings and pray when they are wearing a blouse, even though it does not extend below the heart. Rema adds: and if they are nude, their nakedness must be submerged in the ground or they must sit on something else, for then none of their nakedness will be seen.
Regarding this matter, all of the rabbinic decisors who deal with this issue quote the Rashba (Berakhot, 24a), who says that the law as brought down in the Mishnah Challah is said about the woman herself (who is permitted to recite a blessing), but “other people” may not recite blessings in her presence, due to the fact that “licentious thoughts” may present themselves. That is to say that the permission granted to a woman to take challah while naked and to recite blessings is merely a law due to “your camp shall be holy,” as the breasts themselves do not have the law of nudity, and therefore, both from the perspective of the synagogue itself and from the perspective of the nursing mother, there is no concern. But we still must delve into the status of the other people who are praying in her vicinity. Is it permissible for them to pray in the synagogue while a woman is nursing her child? One can clearly see that that, although, according to the Law, the breasts do not have the legal status of ervah, when they are exposed they could potentially cause sinful longings and licentious thoughts in those who look at them, and due to this, one should be prohibited to pray in the presence of exposed breasts based on the law of “nothing shall be revealed,” as one is enjoined not to pray in a place where licentious thoughts are common.
The opinion of the Rashba (Berakhot, 24a) is that we only suspect licentious thoughts in men, not in women. The Rosh (Berakhot, 3:37), it seems, does not concur. As the poskim point out, a careful reading of the Rosh would suggest that licentious thoughts also pertain to women. Halakhically, the Rema (Orach Chayyim, 75:1) agrees with the Rosh, that a woman is prohibited from reciting the Shema in the presence of another woman who is naked. The later commentaries (Eliyahu Rabbah, the Pri Chadash, and the Gra) all disagree with the Rema and opine that licentious thoughts do not pertain to women. In their opinion, therefore, it is permitted for a woman to pray in close proximity to the exposed nakedness of another woman. Likewise, the Mishnah Berurah (OC Chapter 108) also rendered his legal decision in consonance with the later commentaries. The Eliyahu Rabbah distances himself even more than this. He posits that these commentaries do not understand the disagreement between the Rashba and the Rosh, as both of them agree that women who gaze upon other women in a state of naked exposure do not come to licentious thoughts. In the opinion of Eliyahu Rabbah, the crux of their argument concerns a separate topic; see his words there. However, in putting the law into action, it is difficult for me to rely on these later commentaries against the Rema, who says explicitly that rules pertaining to naked exposure also apply to women. In particular, it is difficult to ignore the position of the Rema today, when the truth of the matter is so evident. We know for a fact that there are women who are aroused by female nudity. Therefore, I have no doubt that all laws pertaining to “nothing shall be revealed” should apply to men and women equally and that it is forbidden for a woman to pray in close proximity to female ervah, just as it is prohibited for a man.
Let us return to the topic at hand. We must still deal with the issue of if there is a problem with nursing in the synagogue due to exposure of nakedness when people are praying. As previously stated, in general, the exposed breast is covered by the mouth of the baby in addition to a cloth spread over the nursing mother, and in this way, there really is no concern over nudity. The reason we must delve into this perspective is because of the fact that, at times, due to the nursing process, the breast is exposed for a very short while, and therefore, it is incumbent upon us to ascertain if this brief nudity has the standing of gilu’i ervah (exposure of nakedness) that is prohibited due to “shall not be seen.”
In his comments on Masekhet Berakhot (3:52), the Rosh considers the necessity of covering the nakedness of a baby about to be circumcised while the mohel says the blessing over the circumcision. The Rosh quotes Rabbenu Yonah: “And Rabbenu Yonah of Blessed Memory wrote that, certainly concerning a very small child, nakedness is not an issue, and there is no need to cover him at the time of the blessing.” The Rosh immediately adds another reason why there is no need to cover the nakedness: “it also appears that, since the mohel is concentrating on the task of circumcision, the exposed penis is not a negation of the “sacredness of your camp,” and there is no concern at in this brief period for “nakedness shall not be seen.”
Here, the Rosh gives two reasons why there is no need to cover the nakedness of the baby at the time of the circumcision. First, in the name of Rabbenu Yonah, is that the one who is being circumcised is small, and the nakedness of one who is extremely young is not considered nudity. Second, the mohel is preoccupied with the task of Brit Milah and, for “that short time span” the exposure does not constitute halakhic gilu’i ervah. The latter implies that it is possible for the nakedness of a small child to be considered nudity, and still, there is no need to cover the nakedness. In this case, nudity is not a problem within Jewish Law since it occurs during the process of circumcision.
An analysis of the words of the Rosh shows that this latter reason is, in essence, a contraction or merging of two claims: 1) Since “the mohel is preoccupied,” this process would still fall under the appellation, “your camp shall be holy.” 2) That the uncovering is merely “for a brief time” (literally, le’sha’a). We must fully comprehend what the connection is between these two claims. It seems that the substantiation of the Rosh is based on his deep understanding of the term “ervah.” In his opinion, defining halakhic ervah is subjective, not objective. Ervah occurs when parts of the uncovered body are seen by another, awakening and arousing desire and stimulation in the one who sees the nakedness. So according to the Rosh, in the case of ritual circumcision, there is no issue of nudity since, subjectively, ervah is not manifested in the situation. The mere presence of the sex organ does not create nakedness since the exposure is connected to “alternative preoccupation” (tikkun) and the exposure is for a short time (“just le’sha’a”). The Rosh needed to give two reasons since his approach is built upon a combination of circumstances that form the uniqueness of the situation. Here, the exposure is for a purpose and it is only for a very short time. The confluence of these two scenarios erases any sexual tension, such that the subjectivity of the organ is no longer considered ervah for the duration of the circumcision.
The Levush (Yoreh De’ah, 265:8) quotes the words of the Rosh and adds in explanation: “there is no holiness like the holiness of the circumcision which brings to the revelation of the Shekhinah” Incidentally, these words are repeated in Sefer HaKovetz in the commentary on the Rambam, Laws of Circumcision, 3:5. Apparently, the Levush is the source of the phrase; perhaps the author of the Kovetz simply forgot to cite him.
Thus, according to the understanding of the Levush, the mitzvah of circumcision causes the sexual tension to be eradicated. Being that circumcision is a holy commandment, the holiness of the circumcision blocks the exposure from being defined as sexual. However, it seems that not all of the Acharonim understand the Rosh in this fashion. For example, from the language of the Radbaz, it appears clear that the concept is broader in scope and not limited to ritual circumcision. In explaining why one does not have to cover the nakedness of a small child, Radbaz writes: “furthermore, because it is of a katan, which he [the mohel] is accustomed to, and he is focused on his work, he will not come to licentious thought” (Lilshonot HaRambam, ch. 75). Here, it is clear that the reason there is no problem of nudity is rooted in the fact that the mohel is engaged and focused on his task, the situation not being sexual in any way. It would appear, according to the Radbaz, that this idea of the Rosh is an echo of the principle in Bava Metsi’a (91a) that permits a professional who is trained in such matters to engage in animal husbandry, as “the [painting] stick is stuck in the tube.” This is not considered promiscuity since he is engaged and focused on his work.
Therefore, if we establish our position based on the understanding of the words of the Rosh held by the Radbaz and other Acharonim, there is no doubt that exposed nudity causes no inherent problem for one saying a bracha, as the person is pre-occupied with their obligation. I would therefore argue that this chiddush is not limited to circumcision. Rather, it should extend to any exposure of a sex organ for a specific, non-sexual purpose; it does not matter if it is ervah or any other organ, nudity of this nature is not considered a sexual, un-holy exposure. He just used circumcision as an example, as it deals with the same organ which he has discussed. It is clear that he would say the same thing in our case, concerning a nursing woman whose breast was momentarily exposed while feeding her child. Here again, the exposure of the sex organ was done while the practitioner was preoccupied with “tikkun,” and it is also only for short duration, a minute or two, for the purposes of nursing, and therefore, there is no problem according to halakha; this does not constitute halakhic gilu’i ervah. The exposure of a breast is not a case of uncovering one’s nakedness, and there is no problem of dichotomies, of a custom that is not holy in a holy camp. A fleeting exposure is not defined in the annals of Jewish Law as violating the sanctity of holiness.
We find a similar thought expressed in the Yerushalmi (Sotah, 3:1):
It is written [in Bamidbar, 5:25] “the kohen should take the minchat hakena’ot from the hand of the woman,” and is it not true that she also has to wave the sacrifice? Rather, what the pasuk means is that he first takes the mincha from a mundane vessel and places it in a holy vessel, and then the kohen places his hand underneath the woman’s hand, and then they wave it together. And placing his hands upon those of a woman is not considered disgusting? He uses a cloth to separate his hands from hers. And this article does not form a barrier?! [So instead] he brings a older kohen who is perhaps less likely to be aroused by this physical encounter. Perhaps even bring a younger kohen, for the yetser HaR’a (evil spirit) is not present for a short time” [see Yerushalmi, Kiddushin, 1:7).
(This Yerushalmi is quoted by Tosafot, Sukkah, 47b, s.v. kohen; and in Menachot, 61b, s.v. kohen). It is explicit in the Yerushalmi, as in the Rosh, that exposure or (in the case in the Yerushalmi) the touching of nakedness for a short time is not problematic, and that this necessary touching is not considered “nudity.”
The Gaon, HaRav Ovadiah Yosef of Blessed Memory, twice in his responsa bases his arguments on these statements of the Yerushalmi. In Yabi’a Omer (part 4, responsum 15), he refutes the words of the author of the Torat Chakham and permits a woman to recite the Gomel prayer in the men’s section, not regarding her presence there as immodest given its brevity. HaRav Yosef also relies on the words of Yerushalmi to allow a bridegroom to put a ring on the bride’s finger during her menstrual period despite the touching of bare skin. Even though it is ervah for a bridegroom to touch the hand of his bride at the time of her menses, one need not be concerned since the contact is only for a short duration, as the yetser HaR’a is not present for something that lasts such a short time (Yabi’a Omer, part 5, Even Ha’Ezer, responsum 9). What is more, my friend and colleague Rabbi Asher Lopatin showed me that the Gaon, Rabbi Simcha Cohen of blessed memory, in his book Timely Jewish Questions, Timeless Rabbinic Answers, uses the above Yerushalmi as his base in asserting that it is permissible to shake a woman’s hand (26).
The Gaon, the Minchat Yitzchak of blessed memory (part 5, reponsum 27) cites the view of Rabbi Meir Arik (who is also quoted by Rabbi Reuven Margaliot in his commentary on Sefer Chasidim, chapter 1090) that the permission to touch a woman’s hand given in the Yerushalmi only extends to times of exigency or necessity. The criteria that Rabbi Arik imposes needs clarification: What is considered a necessity? Is it specifically for the purposes of a mitzvah? Does it only apply to a great need, or also to a lesser need? Furthermore, I am also not sure where he gets the idea to limit the application of the Yerushalmi. What is the source of his claim that necessity keeps brief exposure from being considered nudity? It would appear that the reasoning of the Yerushalmi is that an action that occurs between people of opposite genders that is done for a short time is not, qualitatively, uncovering of nakedness. If so, why should we care if it is of necessity or not? At the end of the day, the action is not a sexual activity.
As far as nursing is concerned, this debate is irrelevant. Even if we follow the opinion of Rabbi Meir Arik that naked exposure for the short duration is only permitted in a case of necessity; in our situation, certainly it would be a case of exigency, since there is a very real need for a mother to nurse her baby so that she will be able to pray simultaneously. And regardless, we have the position of the Rosh, who tells us in his unequivocal position that there is no problem with fleeting exposure. It remains for us to ascertain whether the opinion of the Rosh represents the decisive halakhic stance.
The Rambam (Laws of Reciting the Shema, 3:16) forbade saying the Shema in the presence of the nakedness of a small child but still paskens (Laws of Circumcision, 3:7) that the mohel is not required to cover the nakedness of the baby at the time of the blessing. It would appear that he agrees with the Rosh that the nakedness of a baby is considered nudity, but there is no need to cover it since, in the case of circumcision, the mohel wrapped up in his work, and therefore, there is no problem of nudity (for more on this, see Rav Ovadiah Yosef z”l in Yabi’a Omer, part 6, Orach Chayyim, responsum 14).
It would appear, that this is also the approach of the Mechaber. Like the Rambam, he paskens that the nakedness of a child is considered nudity, and one is forbidden to recite the Shema in front of him (Hilchot Tefilah, 75:5). But again, he rules that one is not required to cover the nudity of the baby during the time of the circumcision (Hilchot Milah, 265:8). As the Shakh noted (ibid., 265:18), his opinion is clearly like that of the Rosh: the purposeful exposure of nudity for a short time is not “naked exposure.”
Although both the Rambam and the Mechaber pasken that the circumcision of a gadol needs to be covered, even though here too the exposure is only for a short time, the Gaon, author of Or LeZion (Berakhot, 25a), already explained that there is a difference between the circumcision of a baby and that of someone older: “Only with the organ of a minor is one focused and preoccupied [because of the possible harm to the child], with a more mature individual there is less distraction and therefore more potential for perhaps being distracted by inappropriate thoughts.” From this, it is clear that halakha agrees with the Rosh’s chiddush: questions of sexuality and sensuality are subjective, and not every instance of exposure of the sex organ is a de facto exposure of nakedness according to halakha.
And even though the Rema (Orach Chayyim, ibid.) rules against the Mechaber, stating that the nakedness of a baby is not considered nudity (“this is the correct opinion”) and echoing the first reason given by the Rosh (in the name of Rabenu Yonah) regarding covering a child’s nakedness during the recitation of the blessing of circumcision, the Levush (ibid.) quotes the opinion of the Mechaber that the nakedness of a young child is nudity and continues by quoting the position of the Rema, but he skips over the words “and this is the correct opinion,” making it appear, since he disagrees with the Rema and concurs with the stringency of the Mechaber, that the nakedness of a small child is indeed considered nudity. The Eliyahu Rabbah also agrees with the Levush and with the Mechaber, that nakedness of a child is simply considered nudity. The same holds true for the Radbaz (part 2, responsum 260) and the Chayyei Adam (principle 4).
It is, therefore, quite obvious to me that the opinion of a vast majority of the rabbinic decisors is that halakha agrees with the chiddush of the Rosh that sexuality is a subjective issue and not every exposure of a sex organ is seen as a halakhic exposure of nudity. And even though the nakedness of a small child is halakhically considered nudity, one need not cover it during the circumcision since, as the Rosh claimed, when a person is performing a task and his mind is occupied there is no halakhic problem of exposure of nudity.
There is no doubt in my mind that all of these rabbinic decisors would say the same thing regarding breastfeeding. Even if the concern over the possibility of the breast being revealed for a moment while the woman is preparing to nurse or after she has finished is valid and correct, as we have seen, it does not pose a problem of exposure of nudity, for that which was exposed during those few moments does not have the legal position of ervah at all.
A close reading of the Mishnah Berurah (75:3) would perhaps support this claim. He writes in the name of the Chayei Adam: “And therefore a woman must be careful at the time of nursing, when her breasts are exposed, that she should not speak any words of holiness at that point.” The phrase “when her breasts are exposed” suggests that he is speaking of a situation in which the breasts are exposed for the duration of breastfeeding. But as in our case, the Chayei Adam and the Mishnah Berurah would agree that it is permissible for the mother and others to pray when the breasts are only exposed for a brief moment.
After I wrote all of this, one of my friends showed me that the Gaon, Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, wrote so explicitly: “And there are those who say since a woman’s natural tendency is to expose her breasts at the time of nursing, her breasts are thought of at that time as if they were like the palms of her hands and her face, and the prohibition to read Shema in front of exposed breasts is only referring to those of a non-breastfeeding woman, since they are never exposed” (Ben Ish Chai, Parashat Bo, letter 10). And even though he only adheres to this approach in time of necessity, it appears to me that based on the proofs I discussed above, one can rely on this argument a priori.
Additionally, we shall add the unique and distinct position of the Gaon, the Chidda, who introduced an extremely major new idea in the laws pertaining to nudity. Basing himself on the Gemara (Niddah, 13a) he writes, “And from there was copied into most of his other books (Rosh David, Chomat Anakh, etc.) that in a place where the Divine dwells, one does not have to be concerned about licentious thoughts and, based on this, he permitted people to listen to a woman’s singing in a place of holiness, for there one need not be worried about bad thoughts” (Devash LeFi, 100:19). Similar thoughts were penned by the Gaon, Rav Shlomo Kluger: “In the Holy Temple, the yetser HaR’a has no dominion for it says that “bad shall not befall you,” which according to the Midrash on VaYetse means that even in the house of study the evil spirit does not rule” (Tuv Ta’am VaDa’at, 1st ed., ch. 189).
Even though the Bnei Ysoscher (Kislev-Tevet, Ma’amar 4, ch. 123) was critical of the Chidda’s chiddush, Maran Harav Ovadiah z”l (Yechaveh Da’at, part 4, responsum 15) relies on him. (It is worthwhile quoting his words at length):
We must further add that, as the Chidda wrote in Rosh David (Parashat BeShalach, pg. 44d) and Mar’it Ha’Ayin (Niddah, 13a), that those who said that the voice of a woman singing is considered nudity, nonetheless, in a place where the Divine dwells and there is reverence, one need not be concerned about this injunction. And proof for this from the Gemara (Niddah, 13a). Chazal quotes Shmuel saying to Rav Yehudah, take your male appendage and urinate off the roof, due to the presence of the Divine, we are not concerned about licentious thoughts…. These are the words of the Chidda.
The Bnei Ysoscher quotes the Chidda as well, using this idea to explain the Midrash, “behold my beloved you are pleasant”: this is the revelation of the Divine, ‘even her couch is beautiful,’ that they [the parents] will be praised by their sons and daughters. That is to say, if there is revelation of the Divine, boys and girls may praise and sing together. This also helps explain the Gemara in Megillah (23a) which says that all can receive an aliyah to the Torah among the seven and even a woman, but the rabbis said that a woman shall not read from the Torah due to the dignity of the congregation.
And the Gaon Yavatz wrote in his glosses: that which was said in the first part of the statement, and even a woman, that is in a situation where seven men are not proficient to read from the Torah, and there is a proficient woman, where one cannot execute the task without her, and in the second part of the statement we speak of when there are seven men capable of reading from the Torah, and therefore a woman should not read due to the dignity of the congregation (ibid.).
Compare this to the Mordechai in “haNizakin,” Siman 404, where he writes that, when a man cannot read, the dignity of the congregation should be set aside and a woman should count toward the seven aliyot. How did they permit a woman to be called up and read from the Torah with trope, as this is like the singing voice of a woman? Would it not have been more correct for a man to read several times to complete the number of aliyot, as is the case in the Tosefta (Megillah, ch. 3, halakhah 6) and the Tosafot Gittin (59b), which tell us that if only one person knows how to read the Torah, he reads and returns to his seat, goes us and reads again, returns to his seat, etc. A later edict allowed that each person who goes up to the Torah need not sit down between readings, that saying the blessing before and after each aliyah will suffice. This approach is also suggested by the Gaon Maharad Pardo in Chasdei David on the Tosefta (Megillah, ch. 3). He says that is seems from the Tosefta that, even though they said a woman should not read from the Torah due to the dignity of the congregation, if a woman did get up for an aliyah she should not step down, since, according to halakha, she counts towards the seven.
There is no avoiding the implications in of all this. It must be that the rabbis permitted a woman to read in front of the congregation when seven proficient men were not present, because in a place where the Divine dwells, the rabbis were not concerned about licentious thoughts. This, however would be a challenge to the Ba’al Ha’Ittur, who writes concerning the Laws of Megillah that women cannot read the Megillah on behalf of men due to the fact that the voice of a woman is considered nudity. This idea is also mentioned in Sefer Ha’Eshkol, part 2, pg. 30, and in Orchot Chayyim, Hilkhot Megillah, letter 2. And how shall they answer that which is written in Megillah (23a) above. And all of this needs further analysis, this is not the place to expand and expound on this. And now, we can say that also in our case since a woman enters the men’s section only for Birkhat HaGomel and in a place where ten are present, the Divine resides (Sanhedrin, 39a), therefore, one should have no concerns regarding the saying of HaGomel in this fashion due to licentiousness.
In sumary, Rav Ovadiah z”l stands by the Chidda’s approach and permits a woman to enter the men’s section in order to say HaGomel in front of them out loud and there is no concern due to licentiousness, since she is in the synagogue, and in a synagogue since there is reverence for the Divine, one is not concerned that licentious thoughts and actions will intercede.
I will mention that the Acharonim commented on the chiddush of the Chidda from an explicit Gemara in Masekhet Sukkah (51a and b). There, the Gemara recounts that at the festival of the libation of water (Simchat Beit HaSho’evah) the rabbis enacted a “big correction” in the Holy Temple, they separated the women from the men at the time of Simchat Beit HaSho’evah. In order to do this, they changed and enhanced the structure of the Holy Temple so that the women would celebrate above in a balcony, and the men downstairs, so that they should not come to a “transgression” (kilkul) of promiscuity. Behold that in the Holy Temple, a place of Divine dwelling in paradigmatic form, the rabbis were concerned about promiscuity and did not rely on the “respectful fear of the Divine.” But in truth, it would appear that this is not a contradiction to the newfangled idea of Maran HaChidda. The subject of discussion in the sugya in Sukkah does not correspond at all to his situation. The differentiation is clear, as Masakhet Sukkah speaks of a situation in which women and men were together for an extended period of time. And over an extended period of time, we are concerned that the compulsion to promiscuity will trump the reverence for the Divine and that people would come to sin. But in the situation that the Chidda discusses, that of Rav Ovadiah, and in the case which we are dealing with, in all scenarios, we are dealing with a short span of time, when the exposure of nudity is brief, and in this situation one can say that the Chidda is correct, that the reverence of the Divine is strong enough to push off any concerns we might have regarding the compunction to sin in a sexual way.
To our subject at hand, even though the Bnei Ysoscher was critical of the Chidda’s chiddush, and the Gemara in Sukkah would also seem to contradict him, since Maran HaRav Ovadiah z”l based himself on this in terms of applicable law (in addition to several of the scholars of Sefarad in their commentaries on the Torah who are quoted), one can add this as an additional reason to permit the nursing of children in the synagogue even though there are times when the breast might become revealed for a short period of time.
In conclusion, we must also consider the opinion of the Mordechai (Ketubot, ch. 182). “Rabbi Shimon Ben Barukh says that even though one should not be served and taken care of by another woman, the way of maidservants is permitted, as Avigail said (1 Shmuel, 25:41) ‘to wash the feet of the servants of my master.’” The Rema (Even HaEzer, 21:5) agrees with the Mordechai and adds that this, indeed, is the practice. According to their opinions, there is perhaps room to be somewhat lenient regarding gilu’i erva in the public sphere.
And even though the Acharonim essentially hit the Rema upside the head for this leniency in very biting language: The Beit Yosef (ch. 21) wrote: “I say we should bury this matter and not preach it as this matter cannot be raised and I have no doubt that some student erred and wrote this on his own volition and hung this (erroneous practice) on his rabbi.” And the Bach (ibid.) wrote:
And I have seen in the Mordechai Yashan written in this way, she is permitted to wash men in the bathhouse if he can distance himself from bad thoughts and he who refrains from such activity shall be praised. And in the printed editions these words (that people should refrain from this practice) were omitted in error, since the Rav wrote that this is correct according to the Law, but not to be put into practice, and according to the Law, this is only in a situation in which there is no doubt that he can restrain himself from ill thoughts and, according to this, those who have the tendency to be lenient to use a woman to wash a man in the bathhouse according to the Mordechai and as the Rav wrote in his glosses to the Shulchan Arukh (Chapter 5), we should eradicate this bad custom for it was enacted in error based on the books that where written and published with mistakes as I have noted.
The Bach continues further in his Kuntrus Acharon and writes as follows:
Peruse what I have written inside that we follow the opinion of the Beit Yosef who wrote that it is forbidden to use non Jewish female maidservants in the bathhouse and this is not like the opinion of the Shulchan Arukh and the Maharukh (Derishah, Letter 5) who supports the opinion of the Rema (who allows this practice) based on logic but without any textual proof; may God forgive him, for this is a solid prohibition as discussed in the long version of the Mordechai as I have noted earlier.
Regardless of all this, we must carefully differentiate between the topics. The Mordechai presents a new idea that is very logical and acceptable to the modern thinker: privacy is required for a meeting between people of opposite genders will be categorized as sexual. Meeting in a public setting does not generally involve or engender sexual tension. Based on this, the Mordechai permits a naked man to be bathed by a woman he does not know. That is to say, he permits physical contact between the sexes as long as it occurs in public. The Beit Yosef, the Bach, and others justifiably complain that this leniency goes too far, holding that, when a man and a woman touch one another in such an intimate way over an extended period of time, there is certain to be sexual tension, even if the contact occurs in the presence of other people. However, it seems that all would agree that, as in our case, when there is no physical contact, only one part of the body is exposed for a brief moment, and the exposure happens in close proximity to other people, one need not be concerned over lewd thoughts since this is “in public.”
Anyway, it appears from all that has been mentioned above that even if it were possible for a woman’s breast to be revealed for a short time while she is nursing, we should not be concerned for all of the aforementioned reasons: 1) Exposure of nudity for a short time when breastfeeding is not regarded as exposure. 2) In a synagogue there is even less concern. As the Chidda introduced in his chiddush, in a place of holiness there is less of a concern for licentious thinking. Since it is a place of dwelling for the Divine and reverence for God, ill thought does not occur. 3) The nursing takes place in public in our case, in the synagogue. There is no concern for sexual exposure given that there are many people present. Therefore, there being no protracted exposure of the sex organs, it is no problem whatsoever to pray in the synagogue when a woman is breastfeeding, not for the nursing woman or for men or women standing in close proximity to her.
Therefore, based on all of the above, it appears abundantly clear, without any doubt or hesitation, that it is entirely permissible for a woman to breastfeed in the synagogue. In the women’s section or the men’s (on occasions where women sit there, such as during a lecture), there is no reason to prefer the women’s section for nursing. Both parts of the synagogue have the same degree of holiness; that which is prohibited is prohibited in both, and that which is permitted is permitted in both. Therefore, since it is our opinion that a woman may nurse her baby in the synagogue, it does not matter where in the synagogue nursing occurs. One is permitted to breastfeed in both the women’s and men’s sections. If the nursing mother is careful to cover her upper body as much as possible, the possibility that her breast will be exposed for a brief moment is not an issue, and it is also permissible for the congregation and the nursing mother to pray or learn Torah while she is nursing.
To conclude, I will note that there is a fantastic description in the Gemara (Sotah, 30b) of the people of Israel, men and women, reciting the “Song of the Sea” after the amazing miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The Gemara says: “How did they recite the “Song of the Sea”? The baby was placed on the knees of his mother and nursed from her breasts. When they saw the Shekhinah, the baby lifted his neck, detached from his mother’s nipple, and said: ‘This is my God and I will adore Him, as it says: from the mouth of babies and infants you have become fortified with strength.’” Here, in the middle of nursing, a baby removes his mouth from his mother’s breasts and, in close proximity to exposed breasts, recites the song and, in so doing, mentions the name of God when he says, “this is my God and I will adore Him.” Of course, we do not learn halakha from narrative stories, but this nevertheless serves as a complement to the proof that we have already stated: minor and brief nakedness is not considered gilu’i ervah, exposure of nudity, and it is therefore permissible to pray and discuss issues of holiness in the presence of a nursing woman.
May God allow His Divine Spirit to impact the work of our hands. “May the pleasantness of the Lord our God be upon us and establish for us the work of our hands, O establish the work of our hands.”
I wrote that which I humbly believe to be right and true.