Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Praying on the Subway

I often see women praying from a siddur on the subway, during the commute to work in the morning. There are many reasons why I think this is a bad practice but we also have to keep in mind that some women are juggling so many responsibilities that this is the only opportunity they have to pray. Let's just address one halakhic aspect of this issue.

The Torah says "ולא יראה בך ערות דבר - He may see no naked thing among you" (Deut. 23:15). The Gemara (Shabbos 150a) learns from the word davar that no dibur (word) of holiness can be recited in front of nakedness. That means no prayer, Shema or words of Torah can be recited in front of someone improperly dressed.

This should effectively prohibit praying on the NYC subway during the summer, when the trains are full of immodestly dressed women. Sleeveless and low-cut shirts, short skirts and shorts, etc. Even closing your eyes is insufficient. The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 75:6) allows you to close your eyes and then pray but the commentaries (e.g. Magen Avraham 9; Taz 2) require you to turn your back.

There is, however, room for leniency. The Rema (Orach Chaim 75:1) follows the Rosh, who holds that this rule applies to women in front of immodestly dressed women just like it applies to men in front of women. The Rashba, though, is lenient and only prohibits women from praying in front of uncovered genitalia. Many later authorities rule according to the Rashba (e.g. Mishnah Berurah 75:8; Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 5:16).

It would seem, therefore, that this issue is not a matter of concern regarding a woman praying on the subway.

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