Praying Facing a Glass Mechitza
In memory of Fred Stone, Yaakov Ben Yitzchak A"H,
beloved father, grandfather and great grandfather,
whose Yarzheit is 25 Tammuz
Dedicated by Ellen & Stanley Stone, Jake & Chaya, Micah, Adeline,
Zack & Yael, Allie, Isaac, Ezra & Talia, Yoni & Cayley,
Marc & Eliana, Adina, Gabi & Talia.
A question has been raised regarding the existing situation in the women's section of Yeshivat Har Etzion and other synagogues, where the women pray facing a mechitza made of glass (actually, a one-way mirror). The problem is that at night the image of the woman standing in prayer is reflected in the glass, a situation which seems to be at odds with an explicit ruling of the Mishna Berura:
A person is forbidden to pray facing a mirror, for he appears to be bowing down to his own reflection. (90:71).
In my humble opinion, however, there are several reasons this ruling should not apply to this situation.
1) Based on an understanding of the source of the prohibition to pray facing a mirror, which is to be found in the words of the Radbaz:
[Our Sages] of blessed memory said that a person is forbidden to pray [while standing] behind his master. And I heard that the reason is so that people should not say that he is bowing down to his master… Based on this very reason, we forbid a person to pray facing a mirror, so that people should not say that he is bowing down to his own reflection. (Responsa Radbaz, vol. IV, no. 107)
The Bet Yosef (no. 90) cites Mahari Abuhav, who cites Sefer ha-Me'orot, that with respect to permanent seats in a synagogue, one is permitted to pray while standing behind his master. And this is also the ruling of the Mishna Berura:
For everybody knows that this seat is designated for the master, and this one for the student, and so there is no arrogance, or [concern about appearing] as if he were bowing down to him. (90:76)
That is to say, the reason "that people should not say" does not apply. There does not appear to be any reason to distinguish in this regard between praying while standing behind one's master and praying facing a mirror. As such, any distinction between the two should need to be proven.
2) As was stated above, the basis of the prohibition to pray facing a mirror is that the person would appear to be praying to himself. It seems clear that this argument is only applicable to a person praying facing a mirror, but not to a person praying facing reflective glass or the like that is not meant to serve as a mirror. For somebody praying facing reflective material does not appear as if he wished from the outset to pray to himself. So writes the Shevet ha-Levi in a responsum addressing a question raised concerning a chazzan who stands before a "Shiviti" sign that is made from polished metal and presents the chazzan with his own reflection:
The Radbaz and the Posekim are dealing with an actual mirror that is made so that a person may see his reflection and anyone looking into the mirror does so with this intention. This is not the case here where the letters are made for the sake of the sanctity of "Shiviti." This is the goal, not the shine and polish of a mirror. Accordingly, he will not come under suspicion of bowing down to his own reflection, for everybody knows that he is bowing down to the name of God, blessed be He (Shevet ha-Levi, vol. 9, no. 21).
An argument similar to that of the Shevet ha-Levi is found in the Yalkut Yosef (90, no. 41; 150, no. 11).
It seems to me that these allowances provide sufficient basis to overcome the problem of the person appearing as if he were bowing down to his own reflection. I wish to present another consideration that relates to a second problem discussed by the Posekim regarding one who prays facing a mirror, namely, the problem of mental concentration. It seems to me that analyzing this consideration should shed additional light on the entire discussion.
It is indeed possible that from time to time a woman will not adopt the recommended solution of closing her eyes when praying facing glass, and her mental concentration on her prayers will indeed suffer. It seems to me, however, that even if the concern about diminished concentration is legitimate, the great gain afforded by allowing women to pray in the women's section of Yeshivat Har Etzion and other such places, even though they are facing glass, outweighs the small possible loss. In the Yeshiva, it is on the High Holidays, when the women's section is especially crowded, that there is particular demand for the seats facing the glass. This is true despite the concern that the women's reflections will lead to a decrease in their concentration. The reason for this seems to be clear. The women sitting close to the mechitza can see the prayer in the Bet Midrash and feel that they are part of the collective service. Despite the concern that at times they will momentarily become distracted by their reflections, the overall gain and improvement in their prayer is so much greater and more significant, gain that would be utterly lost by the installation of shades or curtains.
May our women's prayers be accepted before Him who listens to prayer, and may the words of Eli be fulfilled:
Then Eli answered [Chana] and said, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you your petition which you have asked of Him.” (I Shmuel 1:17).
(Translated by David Strauss)
 It should be noted that we are not dealing here with a bedi'eved allowance, but rather with a determination that there is no reason whatsoever to forbid the matter in the case of permanent seating, inasmuch as the student would not appear as if he were praying to his master.
 Regarding praying behind one's master, the Posekim write that one should be stringent even in the case of permanent seating. The reason, however, is that regarding prayer behind one's master there is an additional problem, as understood by the Vilna Gaon in explaining the Rema (90:24). Namely, the student distresses his master who will not be able to take the three steps backward.
 There may be a proof against this distinction from the Gemara in Chullin 41b. The Mishna there states that one may not slaughter into the sea but one may slaughter into a pool of water. The Gemara explains that one is forbidden to slaughter into the sea because it might be said that he is slaughtering to the pagan deity of the sea, but he is permitted to slaughter into a pool of water, where the problem of the deity of the sea does not apply. The Gemara then objects that it might still be said that he is slaughtering to his own reflection, and answers that we are dealing with a case of turbid water. This seems to prove that anything that provides a reflection, even unintended, is problematic. To resolve this, it might be argued that water is considered something that people ordinarily look into in order to see their reflection, or that at least this was the case during the time of the Gemara. The matter requires further study.