The value of the mechitzah
Parshat Beha’alotcha derives its name from the opening phrase, “When you ascend…” (Numbers 8:2). Rashi, quoting the midrash Sifrei, explains this expression as teaching that one must ascend upon a small stepping-stone when lighting the menorah. The Talmud in Menachot 29a assumes that this particular scriptural decree is rationally based (unlike many other scriptural decrees, such as the red cow, which operate independently of any scientific explanation).
The menorah is three cubits in height, and thus it is difficult for a person on the ground to manipulate the lamps of such a tall structure. The Torah therefore ordains a stepping-stone.
Tiferet Yisrael and Or ha-Yashar, in their respective talmudic commentaries both observe that three cubits in height equals shoulder height, thereby clarifying the difficulty that mandates a stepping-stone. It would be uncomfortable for a person to raise his hands above his shoulders in order to light the menorah.
This concept of shoulder-height limitation reappears later in Beha’alotcha (Numbers 11:31), where Rashi (again based on Sifrei) reports that the miraculous quail described in that verse was jumping to a height of “approximately two cubits,” which corresponds to opposite a person’s heart, so that there would be no problem for the Jews to collect the quail. Rashi implies that had the quail been jumping to a height of three cubits, it would have been uncomfortable to collect it, since that would require Jews to raise their arms above shoulder height.
Arguably, these two references can be marshalled to support 20th-century Jewish law authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein regarding the required stature of the synagogue partition. Rabbi Feinstein believes that the goal of the partition is to create an atmosphere of reverence in the sanctuary by hindering comfortable socialization. To that effect, he claims that a shoulder-height barrier is both necessary and sufficient, since it is awkward for people to raise their arms above their shoulders, thus frustrating socialization.
The precedents of the menorah stepping-stone and of the quail might corroborate Rabbi Feinstein’s calculation.
Interestingly, during the final years of Rabbi Feinstein’s life, Paramount Pictures released a film that broadcast his message to humanity. Namely, in the climactic scene of Star Trek II (released June 4, 1982, i.e. the week of Beha’alotcha), the two protagonists are helplessly separated by a glass barrier that allows them to see one another but prevents them from touching, precisely matching Rabbi Feinstein’s prescription. (Cf. the Talmud in Eruvin 21a, which takes outer space exploration as a metaphor for the excitement of Oral Torah study.)
Simultaneously, in the public health sphere, the global HIV pandemic emerged, whereupon social separation – the paradigm for which is the synagogue – became recognized as an effective strategy to prevent the pandemic from spreading.
Thus, in both the sci-fi and science reality realms during Rabbi Feinstein’s final years, the mitzvah of the synagogue partition became well appreciated, and it remains a cherished value for posterity.
Rabbi Spira is spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Yehouda in Cote St. Luc, Que.