By Yair Hoffman

There was a debate about printing pictures of women even before the Hamodia or the Yated ever existed. And lest anyone think that this was made up, the back-and-forth is recorded in Siman 74 of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Nachmanson’s responsa sefer for Lubavitch shluchim titled “Sh’ut HaShluchim,” as well as in the responsa sefer titled, “Menachem Meishiv Nafshi,” a collection of over 1,000 letters written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902–1994), of blessed memory, published some ten years ago.

It was February 29, 1988, a mere 19 days after the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbetzin. Apparently, a publication titled Imeinu HaMalkah, Our Mother the Queen had just been printed. Rav Gavriel Zinner wrote to the Rebbe about the photograph of the Rebbetzin that was included in the publication.

Rav Zinner’s Letter

To His Honor, the Admor HaGaon HaKadosh, shlita,

I have come to comment on the matter that in the sefer Imeinu HaMalkah, a photo of the Rebbetzin, a’h, was printed, and in my humble opinion it is not proper to do so.

And even though Chazal have told us (Sanhedrin 45a) [YH: regarding young kohanim who may see a sotah in un-tznius position] that the yetzer ha’ra is only dominant in regard to the specific vision of what the eye sees, it is established in Even HaEzer 21:1 that it is forbidden to see even the colored garments of a woman he recognizes (see the Otzar HaPoskim sub-paragraph 12 citing the responsum of the Bach, siman #14, that this applies even if she had passed away). And certainly it is a middas chassidus to be stringent.

“Blessed is the generation where the great ones listen to the small ones.”

The Rebbe’s Response

It was the Rebbe’s custom to respond to letters in a point-by-point rebuttal within the text of the correspondent’s own letter. To see his rebuttal we will reproduce Rav Zinner’s letter and place the Rebbe’s responses in CAPS.

“I have come to comment on the matter that in the sefer Imeinu HaMalkah, a photo of the Rebbetzin, a’h, was printed [HE MUST HAVE CERTAINLY EASILY SEEN, EVEN WITHOUT GAZING AT ALL, THAT IN THE NEXT EDITION IT WAS PRINTED NOT IN COLOR BUT IN BLACK AND WHITE] and in my humble opinion it is not proper to do so.

“And even though Chazal have told us (Sanhedrin 45a) that the yetzer ha’ra is only dominant in regard to the specific vision of what the eye sees, it is established in Even HaEzer 21:1 that it is forbidden [THE SHULCHAN ARUCH THERE SAYS “GAZING” (YH: not looking at)] to see even the colored garments [IT SAYS AT THE COLORED GARMENTS (YH: and this is not colored, nor is it the actual garments)] of a woman that he recognizes (and see the Otzar HaPoskim sub-paragraph 12 citing the responsum of the Bach, siman #14, that this applies even if she had passed away). [IT SAYS AND HE KNOWS HER (YH: And the readers did not know her) AND BY MENTION OF THE POSITIVE WE INFER THE ABSENCE OF A PROHIBITION WHEN EVEN ONE IS NOT PRESENT AND CERTAINLY ALL THREE] And certainly it is a middas chassidus to be stringent. [FOLLOWING THIS COURSE OF ACTION (YH: i.e., eliminating the picture) WILL LIMIT THE ABILITY OF ‘V’HA’CHAI YITEIN AL LIBO’—THE INSPIRATIONAL EFFECT UPON THE LIVING OF THE ONE WHO HAD PASSED AWAY].”

It is clear that Rav Zinner and the Rebbe, a’h, have two very different approaches to the issue. The Rebbe points out that the strict halachah is that if any of the three requirements in the Shulchan Aruch are missing, it is not a violation. He further points out that one should not take the machmir approach when dealing with matters of kiruv—just stick to strict halachah.

Background

The Gemara in Nedarim (20a) explains that anyone who looks at women in the end will come to sin. The Ben Yehoyada asks: The looking itself is forbidden; indeed, it is even considered abizrahu of arayos! Why then does the Gemara state, “in the end he will come to sin?” He further asks concerning the language of anyone who does so “excessively.” The Ben Yehoyada explains that this Gemara is not referring to actually looking at the woman but to seeing her image. If he rationalizes looking at such images by saying he is not looking at her directly, he will end up actually gazing upon the woman herself.

It seems from the Ben Yehoyada that it is something that is highly discouraged, but not an out-and-out prohibition. Poskim in the chassidishe world are more adamant regarding the prohibition involved in a man looking at a picture of a woman. Rav Yisroel Harfenes, one of the leading poskim in the United States, in his sefer Yisrael Kedoshim (p. 125), writes that even when the woman is dressed in a completely modest fashion, the idea of a man gazing at her picture is entirely against halachah.

The Debreciner Rav (Be’er Moshe Vol. III #154 and Vol. IV 147:22) writes that when the pictures depict inappropriate images, everyone agrees that it is completely forbidden. He buttresses this position from the Gemara in Sanhedrin (36a) and the ruling of the Bach in a responsa (#17).

Notwithstanding the stringent view, the issue is subject to much halachic debate. Certainly, halachah singles out “ogling” as a prohibition. Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah 1:6 and 8) defines it as a full-blown Biblical prohibition. His position, as explained by the Beis Shmuel (Even HaEzer 21:2) is that it violates the verse, “Do not go after your hearts and eyes.”

The Rambam also forbids it, but whether it is a Biblical or rabbinic prohibition is subject to debate. The Beis Shmuel and the Pnei Yehoshua (Even HaEzer Vol. II #44) both understand that the Rambam rules that it is forbidden only by rabbinic decree. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, (Igros Moshe E.H. Vol. IV #60) rules that the Rambam’s view is that it is forbidden by Biblical decree just like the Rabbeinu Yonah position.

The Second Source

There is another source as well, other than the Gemara in Nedarim. The Talmud in Avodah Zara (20a and b) discusses the prohibition of histaklus, ogling. Since the close of the Talmud, however, halachic decisors have grappled as to the exact parameters of “ogling.”

Once again, the exact term that the Talmud employs in its discussion is “histaklus.” The question is whether we define “histaklus” as looking, staring, or ogling. The translation is, of course, essential to understanding what would be prohibited.

The Parameters Of Histaklus

The Sefer Chassidim (#99) discusses the parameters of “histaklus” and says that histaklus is more than just looking. It is looking intentionally for a long time and contemplating who she looks like or to whom she is equal in appearance. Rav Chaim Palagi in Re’eh Chaim (p. 13c) defines it in this manner as well. Thus, the issue is a universal one, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic.

On the other hand, regarding other aspects of halachah, the Sma (Choshen Mishpat 154:14) writes that the term “histaklus” can, in fact, mean mere looking. The Chida and a few other poskim rule in accordance with the view that histaklus means mere looking.

The Salmas Yosef (Vol. I 22:6) also indicates that looking at a woman in a picture is considered as if he recognizes her. He does not forbid it, however.

Conclusion

Most poskim seem to learn that it is not halachically forbidden to look at pictures of women but that it is strongly discouraged. It could very well be that in modern times, when there is a plethora of images, there really is no concern that someone will go beyond the pale of what is acceptable and start ogling. Nonetheless, since there are many opinions that understand the Talmudic text in tractate Avodah Zara in a manner that forbids even looking, and that the Talmudic text in Nedarim is a strong recommendation, one should view them as scrupulously adhering to a valid halachic opinion and not dismiss this view. 

The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com. Read more of Rabbi Hoffman’s articles at 5TJT.com.

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