The blogosphere lit up recently with news of Yiddish language signs placed in a predominately haredi neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, asking women to “please step aside when men walk towards you” in the street.
After these signs garnered tremendous media attention, city workers took down the signs saying that they were placed illegally. Media coverage of this story suggested that these sign were placed by “a hardline rabbinical group.”
The media reported that “similar signs can be seen in Hasidic strongholds like upstate (New York’s) Kiryas Joel and New Square.”
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The New York Daily News quoted 18-year-old Abraham Klein as saying, "The signs don't bother anybody,” explaining that in his community “men and ladies don't go together. It's just our religion."
Many newspapers and blogs used this quote, thus, giving the reader the impression that the reason woman are asked to step aside for men in Hasidic communities has to do with Hasidic laws regarding modesty.
In fact, this tradition has to do with a passage found in the Talmud which states, “There are three who must not pass between, nor may others pass between them, and they are: a dog, a palm tree and a woman” (Pesachim 111a).
The Talmud (Horiyot 13b) indicates that the reason a man should not walk between two women has to do with the superstition that it may impair the man’s ability to remember the Torah he learned.
Many haredi men are particular about this issue, and the custom is therefore for women to move to one side of the street when a man approaches, thus, allowing him to easily avoid walking between two women.
The great Talmudic commentator Rashi (1040-1105) makes it clear that this tradition includes the suggestion that a woman not walk between two men. Although the reason for this is less clear.
It must also be noted the neither Maimonides nor the standard Code of Jewish Law mention this tradition as codified law. In addition, many Orthodox Jews are not at all particular about this tradition.
In fact, some have speculated that it is precisely because some of the women living in this Brooklyn neighborhood are not particular about this tradition that the signs went up in the first place.
To be sure, both the traditions themselves and those who follow them should be respected. Clearly, however, if a man does not want to walk between two women, common sense (and common decency) dictates he should move to the side in order to avoid such a scenario.
Equally, if a woman would like to keep to the tradition of not walking between two men it should be she who moves out of the way to avoid having to do so. The onus to move aside should certainly be on those who keep the tradition.
Asking all Jewish women, whether they keep to this tradition or not, to move to one side when men approach on a public street in New York City has nothing to do with Jewish law or modesty. Sadly, it rather has to do with a basic lack of Menschlichkeit (Yiddish for common decency) and Derech Eretz (loosely translated as polite and considerate behavior).
The Talmud indicates that people, even Torah scholars, who display a lack of Derech Eretz are more likely to sin (Kiddushin 40b). Those putting up signs asking woman to move over would do well focusing on that part of the Talmud.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life
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