Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Walking behind a woman - prohibited today?

Tzitz Eliezer (9:50): Question: What is the nature of the prohibition of walking behind a woman in contemporary times – Letter sent to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. In one of our meetings a while ago, you asked me the precise nature of the prohibition of walking behind a woman. In particular whether it applies to getting on a bus. There are times when the wife of a major talmid chachom is also waiting to get on the bus – should one refrain from honoring her by letting her get on the bus first because of this prohibition? We spoke about the Ritva (end of Kiddushin) also mention in Pischei Teshuva (E.H. 31:3) and we didn’t come to a clear conclusion. Answer: 1): I just found an amazing comment on this issue in the Leket Yosher (Y.D. 376) that I was reading regarding another matter. He writes in the name of his rebbe the Terumas HaDeshen, “He said it is permitted to walk behind the wife of a talmid chachom (chaver) or behind one’s mother because today we are not so careful not to walk behind a woman.” These are astounding words and they don’t seem to make sense. Why should it make a difference whether walking behind the wife of a talmid chachom or an ordinary woman? Isn’t there there the same concern in both cases for hirhur (sexual thoughts)? I thought to explain the Terumas HaDeshen in the way yous asked your question. Perhaps because letting the wife of a talmid chachom go first is honoring the talmid chachom and that the Termuas HaShen permitted it because he held that honoring Torah took precedence. This reasoning might explain why he also permitted walking behind one’s mother and not the talmid chachom’s mother since it involves honoring one’s mother. We see that honor is given only to the wife of a talmid chachom and not his mother or perhaps the allowance to walk behind one’s mother is because there isn’t so much a problem of sexual fanstasy. 2) However this still leaves unanswered the end of the Leket Yosher where he gives the reason that it is permitted because today we are not so careful not to walk behind a woman.< What has happened that the halacha would change – are the generations improving? Perhaps he is referring to the idea expressed in the Radvaz (2:770) which is mentioned in abbreviated form in Be’er Heitiv (E.H. 21:2) and Piskei Teshuva (21:1). The questioner suggested to the Radvaz that a distinction be made in this halacha between those countries where woman typically are covered from head to toe and nothing is uncovered that a man could stare at. The Radvaz rejected this by noting that the decree did not make distinction and that furthermore the sexual thoughts are not just because of seeing part of the woman but primarily by observing her walking and movement. However perhaps the Terumas HaDeshen thought that it might justify being lenient regarding the wife of a talmid chachom (who obviously is totally covered) because there is the additional factor of honoring Torah and also regarding the case involving honoring one’s mother since there is not such concern for sexual fantasy. Incidentally the words of the Radvaz are astounding to me because he says the reason for the prohibition as stated in Berachos (61) applies even to one’s wife because of sexual fantasy. This is incredible assertion to say that walking behind one’s wife is prohibited because of sexual fanstasy. Rashi says that the reason is only because it is a degrading thing to walk behind one’s wife. The Rambam and Shulchan Aruch don’t mention this halacha at all. It is discussed in detail in Otzer HaPoskim (23:8.4). 3) Perhaps one can say that this reasoning is the basis of the Terumas HaDeshen. In other words there has been a decrease in sexual fantasy from earlier times when women did not normally walk around the streets but rather stayed in the house as the Rambam (Hilchos Ishus 13:11) that a woman should best stay in the house and that it was degrading for her to go out. Rambam and Shulchan Aruch (E.H. 73.1) rule that a woman should not typically go out alot because it isn’t nice for her but rather she should stay in the house. Consequently if a man should meet her and walk behind her in the street it would cause him to have sexual fantasy. In contrast in modern times the reality is different and women do not stay in the house as in previous eras. Thus men are accustomed to see women in the street. Thus their degradation is actually to their benefit since there isn’t such a problem of sexual fanstasy in walking behind a woman. That would explain why the Terumas HaDeshen was lenient – at least concerning the wife of a talmid chachom and a person’s mother. This is similar to what the Levush (O.C. 30 Minhagim) writes concerning why we don’t avoid saying the beracha shehasimcha bemono in a place where men and women see each other. He explains that is possibly because in modern times typically women are found amongst men and therefore there is not so much sexual fantasy since they are viewed just as white geese because of habituation and since the halacha is ignored it is not relevant. Response of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. I received your letter and what you found in the Leket Yosher gave me much pleasure. I greatly appreciate you notifying me about it because it provides something to rely on in emergency situations While the intent of what he is saying seems very astounding but my view is similar to what you write concerning the end of his statement – but I have a slightly different understanding. Because from the aspect of logic it would seem in my view that the language of the Shulchan Aruch “that he encounters (pega) a woman in the street” implies that it was not normal for women to be on the streets except on rare occasions and he happened to encounter her by chance. It is well known that in previous times the normal existence of modest women was to remain in the house as it says, “the glory of the princess is inside.” (It is well known the Chasam Sofer which says that the reason that women don’t like Chanuka lights themselves is so they don’t have to stand at the doorway of the house next to the street.). Therefore when a man is walking next to a woman there is no great concern because he is embarrassed to stare at her because she would be aware what he is doing. In contrast if he is walking behind her – he sees her but she doesn’t see him – then there is much greater concern. In addition to this it would also seem that in those days it was possible to be careful not to walk behind a woman. In contrast in our days, even if he runs to avoid being behind a woman he will immediately find himself behind another woman. In fact it seems to me that there are more women on the street then men. Furthermore in our days, immodest dress and behavior is considerably more common and to our dismay it is more common than modest dress and behavior. And men are not embarrased to stare at women – even to her face. Therefore in my humble opinion in a situation of mitzva or because of accepted rules of etiquette – there is no reason to be strict in our days. Therefore my heart rejoices from this Leket Yosher that you found. And even in the time of the Terumas haDeshen when the conditions were much better than in modern times – nevertheless it seems correct to say that even then women were commonly found in the streets and markets. Therefore no matter where a person went he would always find himself behind a woman. That is why he is lenient in my humble opinion. And since even without this reason they were considerably habituated, it is reasonable to be lenient in cases of mitzva.


  1. Seems that the discussion revolves whether they are dealing with an emergency situation, shaas hadchak, looking to be dan lkaf zchus someone who walked behind a woman.

    Though even on this no other recognized posek I know of would permit it.

  2. Now I understand the pushing to get on a bus first. The chilul haShem is l'shaym shomayim.

  3. Quote "However perhaps the Terumas HaDeshen thought that it might justify being lenient regarding the wife of a talmid chachom (who obviously is totally covered)"
    I don't think this applies anywhere today, except some parts of Beit Shemesh.

    Walking up stairs getting on an intercity bus puts the man's eyes inches away from the top of the woman's skirt, which is not common in other situations where heads are usually level with heads and further apart.

  4. Considering what women wear today, it's probably a prohibition to walk towards them, behind them and even beside them for fear of looking sideways and walking to a pole.

  5. A few years ago I was walking along the street, and in the opposite direction were 2 women, each walking a dog. It's an issur to walk between 2 women, and another issur to walk between 2 dogs. As I was calculating which direction to walk in, they split, and walked past be, one on each side. So sometimes one violates halacha in a split second, in this case a double violation!


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