Much of Jewish life is built around community. Jews often live in close proximity to each other, in many instances with a synagogue or synagogues at the center of their neighborhoods. As important as living in a community is, Judaism has always put a premium on maintaining individual privacy.

In the era of the Talmud, those living in towns and cities often built their homes around communal courtyards–comparable, perhaps, to today’s townhouse communities. Because people lived so close to each other, the Talmud contains detailed discussions about insuring privacy. For instance, it is written: “In a courtyard that an individual shares with others, a man should not make a door facing another person’s door nor a window facing another person’s window…On the side of the street, however, he may make a door facing another person’s door and a window facing another person’s window” (Baba Batra 60a).

Protecting individual space by not placing doors and windows that invade other’s privacy is more than good manners. The sages understood that respecting the privacy, and thus the modesty, of every Jewish family, is critical to maintaining the Jewish people’s mission to be a holy nation. Thus, the Talmud continues:

“Whence are these rules derived? – Rabbi Johanan said: From the verse of the Scripture, “And Balaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes” (Numbers 24:2). Found in this week’s Torah portion of Balak, this passage indicates that Balaam saw that the doors of the Israelites’ tents did not face one another, whereupon he exclaimed: “Worthy are these that the Divine presence should rest upon them!”

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