While the Rebbe focused primarily on teaching Chassidus and spreading Yiddishkeit, there were certain areas where the Rebbe saw a laxity and stepped in. One of them was the issue of mixed dinners.
By Anash.org writer
During the early years of the nesius, the Rebbe waged many battles for the raising of standards among American Yidden. Even amongst fine people, associated with Anash, much was left to be desired, and the Rebbe addressed it.
In the 5710’s (1950’s), it was considered normal, even in frum circles, to have weddings with mixed seating. Though dancing was separate, seating the men and women separately, and certainly putting a mechitza between them, was considered an Eastern European concept. Aside for select families who held onto the alter heim traditions, the mainstream frum community did without.
Halacha rules that at a sheva brachos meal with mixed seating, one may not add to the zimun the customary words “shehasimcha bem’ono” (in Whose abode there is joy), since “there is no joy before Hashem when there is mingling of the genders and the yetzer hara is given control.”
Some have tried to interpret this to mean that the act is permissible only that these words should be omitted, the consensus of poskim is that it is halachically forbidden to have mixed seating at these meals.
As the Rebbe put it succinctly in a letter from Tishrei 5722 (1961), “Is it permissible for a Jew to, chas veshalom, allow the yetzer hara to rule?” (Shulchan Menachem, Vol. 6, p. 224)
Some poskim in earlier centuries have suggested that people have become more accustomed to interacting with the other gender and therefore it doesn’t lead to sinful thoughts. However, the Rebbe (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 9, p. 1) pointed out that this is clearly not true of the present age and this heter is therefore irrelevant.
It is thus clear, that the objection to mixed seating is not limited to a sheva brachos meal, but it is binding for any dinner with mixed seating.
Lubavitch Raises the Bar
While the broader frum public had been lax in this issue, it was Lubavitch that raised the bar.
It was the 770 bochurim, with the Rebbe’s encouragement, who began to change the tide through insisting for separate seating and proper mechitzos at their own chasunos.
In Montreal, the full mechitzos at the chassuna of Reb Elye Gross in 5714 (1954) was a novelty, and set a positive trend in that city.
In Manchester, UK, when Reb Avrohom Jaffe insisted on having a mechitza at his own chasuna in 5724 (1964), it created an uproar. His father, Reb Zalman a”h, and future father-in-law Mr. Sydney Beenstock, were both highly respected in secular circles, and many of their friends planned to attend. Additionally, a prominent rosh yeshiva had made a mixed seating wedding a week earlier, and this would be an affront.
The Rebbe was contacted, and a 20 Tammuz letter followed, encouraging a mechitza of “due dignity and splendor,” even if it were to instigate financial complications. (Mr. Manchester, page 152)
That closed the case. “Since my chassuna,” says Reb Avrohom, “it has become the norm in Manchester.”
A Personal Project
The Rebbe took the matter of separation very seriously, and even appointed someone to implement the standard. When one person attempted to breach the standard, the Rebbe sent a strong message.
The late mashpia of Montreal, Reb Volf Greenglass a”h, related:
“The concept of having a strict mechitzah at chassunos was at that point still a nisayon for many. The Rebbe spoke out publicly at farbrengens, privately in yechidus, and via extensive correspondence, until matters improved.
“There was once a chassunah where the Rebbe appointed someone to stand guard at the mechitzah to ensure that it was not tampered with. One of the guests attempted to shift the mechitzah, but was stopped.
“The next day, the Rebbe asked to receive that person’s name and mother’s name…”
Maintain the halachic requirements, the Rebbe insisted, need not come at the expense of a beautiful event. So important was the issue to the Rebbe, that he even offered to pay for an attractive mechitza.
Rebbetzin Chava Hecht a”h related:
Once in yechidus, the Rebbe said to me, “I hear your sister is getting married. It would be worthwhile to ensure that there be a mechitza at her chassuna.”
I found it difficult to tell my sister what to do, but I told the Rebbe that in Montreal they made a mechitza out of woven flowers.
The Rebbe said, “Nu…”
“But it’s so expensive,” I argued, still uncomfortable with the idea of mixing into my sister’s business.
The Rebbe committed to pay for it. Ultimately, my sister agreed and of course we didn’t take any money from the Rebbe. All the guests remember the beautiful wedding, with its Yiddishe chein. It felt like a flower garden. (Sipur Ishi, page 126)
“Make Enough Noise”
The Rebbe’s Shliach to England, Reb Nachman Sudak a”h, related how the bochurim were given specific guidance by the Rebbe on how to deal with difficult scenarios, and the impact that their conduct had on rabbonim from other communities.
“I had a friend who made a condition at his engagement that there be a mechitzah at the chassunah. However, when he walked into the wedding hall, there was none to be seen. The bochur was furious, and he stormed out of the hall.
“The bochurim, his friends, who had come to join in his simcha, were at a loss. In their quandary, they telephoned the Rebbe’s secretariat, and explained the situation. The Rebbe instructed that that they proceed with the chassunah. However, they should set up tables around themselves as mechitzos, and be freilach with the chassan, ‘and make enough noise so that others will want to join you.’
“Indeed, others joined, and brought more mechitzos-tables with them. The lonely, distinguished dignitaries sitting on the dais, a respected rosh yeshiva amongst them, could only watch the sincere temimim with envy.” (Main Nachman, page 8)
The Rebbe was staunch on upholding this standard even when fundraisers felt it was necessary to hold mixed dinners to attract donors.
Rabbi Shlomo Cunin related:
When I was preparing for Chabad of California’s first dinner, I wrote to the Rebbe about it. Four days before the dinner, I get a call from Harav Chadakov who indicated that the Rebbe was on the line. He relayed to me the following message, “I had the zechus to be by the Rebbe today, and certainly the men and women will be seated separately.” (A Chassidishe Derher, Av 5774)
When an organization wrote to the Rebbe that they want to hold a mixed dinner not to push away certain heavy donors, the Rebbe responded, “Why should you chas veshalom push away the definite yiras Shomayim (of all the participants) for a doubtful financial gain (of a few)?!” (Dvar Melech (5759), p. 127)
Even for a Holy Cause
At a farbrengen in the winter of 5719 (1959), the Rebbe spoke about the significance of men and women keeping separate even for the sake of funding the building of the mishkan.
On the possuk describing Moshe’s gathering the Bnei Yisroel to collect funds for the mishkan, the Zohar and Ohr Hachaim explain that the men and women stayed separate. This of course is not because one of them is superior to the other, explains the Rebbe, but to avoid nisyonos.
“There are some who want to show kuntzen (tricks),” said the Rebbe, ” and they put themselves into challenging situations… But we don’t need their kuntzen! We ask Hashem not to put us in a nisayon, which even Dovid Hamelech could not withstand…”
The lesson, says the Rebbe, is that even when Yidden gather for the loftiest purpose, like building the mishkan which is the purpose of all of seder hishtalshelus, care must be taken that the men and women remain separate. This is true even when the ingathering is being done by Moshe Rabbeinu and on the day after Yom Kippur when the Yidden are like malochim.
The Rebbe concludes:
“This is the lesson for all times: when people gather together for any purpose, even the most holy, it is forbidden to bring oneself to nisyonos. Only in this way can we go about v’shachanti bsocham, making a dwelling place for Hashem.”
A future column will IYH be dedicated to the topic of mechitzos in shul and shiurim.