As today is the Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I’m posting a few sources (used previously and first studied at the Conservative Yeshiva) which are used in discussion of the right to privacy (which is more fully discussed by Rabbi Elliot Dorff in his chapter contained in ‘Human Rights and Responsibilities in the World Religions‘ ed. Joseph Runzo, Nancy Martin and Arvind Sharma). Seems topical at the moment anyway given the news.

For other posts on Human Rights, for example, see here and here.


 (Source 1) Numbers 24:5

מַה טֹּבוּ אֹֽהָלֶיךָ יַֽעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel!

(Source 2) Rashi – Commenting on Numbers 24:2 and 24:5

שכן לשבטיו. ראה כל שבט ושבט שוכן לעצמו ואינן מעורבין, ראה שאין פתחיהם מכוונין זה כנגד זה, שלא יציץ לתוך אהל חבירו

(On verse 2) Dwelling according to his tribes: He saw each tribe dwelling by itself and not intermingled with one another; he saw that their doorways were not directly facing one another, so that one could not peer into the tent of one’s neighbour.

מה טבו אהליך. על שראה פתחיהם שאינן מכוונין זה מול זה

(On verse 5) How goodly are your tents: He said this because he saw their doorways, that they were not directly facing opposite one another.

Rashi’s source for his commentary is derived from the Babylonian Talmud:

(Source 3) Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 60a

מתני’. לא יפתח אדם לחצר השותפין פתח כנגד פתח וחלון כנגד חלון היה קטן לא יעשנו גדול, אחד לא יעשנו שנים. אבל פותח הוא לרה”ר פתח כנגד פתח וחלון כנגד חלון היה קטן עושה אותו גדול, ואחד עושה אותו שנים

MISHNAH. In a courtyard which he shares with others a man should not open a door facing another person’s door nor a window facing another person’s window. If it is small he should not enlarge it, and he should not turn one into two. 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, and if it is small he may enlarge it or he may make two out of one.

גמ’. מנהני מילי? א”ר יוחנן, דאמר קרא: (במדבר כ”ד) וישא בלעם את עיניו וירא את ישראל שוכן לשבטיו, מה ראה? ראה שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונין זה לזה, אמר: ראוין הללו שתשרה עליהם שכינה.

GEMARA. Whence are these rules derived? — R. Johanan said: From the verse of the Scripture, And Balaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes. This indicates that he saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another, whereupon he exclaimed: Worthy are these that the Divine presence should rest upon them!


• How would you describe the extent of our responsibilities to our ‘neighbour’? Where is the limit?

• Put another way, how much do/should a person’s rights influence our own lives?

• What is the ‘worthiness’ and how does it relate to the Divine?

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with ‘rights’ then look at the next text:

(Source 4) B. Talmud, Baba Batra 22b

תנן: החלונות, בין מלמעלן בין מלמטן בין מכנגדן ארבע אמות, ותני עלה: מלמעלן כדי שלא יציץ ויראה, מלמטן שלא יעמוד ויראה, ומכנגדן שלא יאפיל

We learnt [in the Mishnah, Baba Batra 2:4: “If one’s wall is adjacent to the wall of his fellow, he may not put up another wall adjoining it unless he distances from it four cubits;] concerning windows, whether above, or below, or opposite to them – four cubits.” And in a Baraitha: ‘above’ in order that he should not peer in and see; ‘below’ so that he should not stand on tiptoe and look in, and opposite’ so that he should not take away his light.

We can take this prohibition even further, when examining the right to privacy:

(Source 5) Rabbi Norman Lamm, referring to Mishnah Baba Batra 1:4

Interestingly, the Halacha does not simply permit one of the erstwhile partners [of a shared courtyard] to build a fence for his own protection, and then require his neighbour to share the expense because he, too, is a beneficiary, but demands the construction of the wall so that each prevents himself from spying on his neighbour…This viewing was regarded as substantial damage as if he had physically invaded his premises. (Taken from “Halacha and Contemporary Society” ed. Rabbi A S Cohen, p. 203)


• The preventative nature of these laws changes the right from something that exists in a passive sense to something that actively determines law – what do you think about this shift?

• How do you feel about the control exerted over your world (physical and fiscal) in order to prevent you infringing on another’s rights?

The duty to not damage someone, in this case, seems to be predicated on an individual’s right to privacy. You might now be thinking, ‘I thought Judaism was more interested in duties – mitzvot – than rights’. Look at what Cherie Booth says:

(Source 6) Cherie Booth QC

It is not a one way street as those who seek to downplay human rights often suggest. With human rights there are also duties or responsibilities. In today’s world we commonly hear when an individual is being denied their rights, but less so about when it comes to discharging their duties. Society can only function because most of us understand that bargain…Faith communities have done much to remind us of that. (Human Rights, Religion and the Hope for Substantive Democracy – a speech given at the RSGB Human Rights Seminar day).


• How do you think we as Jews can contribute to the debate and how do we strike the balance in our lives?