"For Your Voice is Sweet..." An Overview of Kol Isha

By Mia Diamond Padwa 

Is a woman’s voice sexually stimulating to men? And if so, does her voice need to be silenced in order to enable men to carry on their business undistracted? That there may be a halakhically endorsed silencing of a woman’s singing, or even speaking voice, has been under discussion since the time of the Talmud. To many contemporary Orthodox women and to those outside of the Orthodox community, this silencing must seem stifling. Yet as women who seek equality within the parameters of Jewish law we must first understand the law before we can engage the matter from a personal and communal standpoint.

There are three places in the Talmud, each in a different tractate and distinct narrative context that seem to imply that possibility. Any discussion of a possible prohibition of kol isha (literally, the voice of a woman) must begin with these passages.

In tractate Brachot a discussion takes place regarding the impermissibility of reciting the Sh’ma in certain situations, specifically, in the presence of someone who is nude.1 The concern lies in discerning which situations will distract someone such that he will not be able to recite the Sh’ma with due concentration. For instance, one Sage feels that a man’s own wife will not be a distraction, even if their bodies are touching, because her body is like his own.

Then, there is a break in the discussion. What follows is a grouping of four separate statements about aspects of a woman that are ervah, or, sexually stimulating. The others mentioned are all parts of her body such as her thigh or hair, but the amora (scholar whose comments on the Mishnah helped to create the Gemara) Shmuel, in the third of the four statements, says “A woman’s voice is sexually stimulating, as it says ‘For your voice is sweet….’”.2 It is ambiguous whether these four statements are in fact meant to be applied to the Sh’ma or whether these are ad hoc comments. This will become the fodder for intense debate later on. For example, one opinion is offered in the halakhic work Ohr Zarua that “[Shmuel’s statement] is not brought to refer to Kriat Sh’ma. For a woman herself recites the Sh’ma!3 ” In other words, if a woman’s voice is inherently like her exposed thigh, whose exposure prevents the recitation of the Sh’ma, then by definition, no woman ever could recite it.

An opposite viewpoint is that brought by the Meiri.4 Commenting on the same passage, he says, “…and a woman’s singing voice is sexually stimulating with regard to recitation of the Sh’ma.” While he does not directly counter the logical problem raised in the Ohr Zarua, he has, however, limited the prohibition to a singing voice, saying that a man hearing his wife’s speaking voice may recite the Sh’ma. When the Meiri goes on to say that a woman’s mere speaking voice can be stimulating and thus forbidden, he cites another Talmudic passage, the only other one to explicitly mention Shmuel’s statement.

In this passage, an odd confrontation is described between Rav Yehudah and Rav Nahman. Rav Nahman has forced Rav Yehudah to appear before him in court on trumped up charges and, Rav Yehudah is obviously miffed, ready to spar by citing prohibitions in which Rabbi Nahman has become lax. When Rav Nahman asks him to bring greetings to Rav Nahman’s own wife in another city, Rav Yehudah retorts, “Shmuel says, ‘A woman’s voice is sexually stimulating.”

The Meiri cites this passage to argue that a man is forbidden to listen to even the speaking voice of a woman not his wife. Yet, we do have another rishon (early commentator) who explains the two Talmudic passages we have seen thus far in an interesting way. The Rashba cites the Ra’avad, who says the prohibition in Brachot is limited only to a man not being able to recite the Sh’ma while listening to his wife’s singing. He says that hearing her speaking voice, as well as seeing parts of her body that are normally shown, are not impediments. The Ra’avad then links together Brachot and Kiddushin by saying that in the latter is a prohibition for a man on hearing the speaking voice of another woman, but only in exchanging warm greetings, lest this bring them close in a way that would lead to sexual immorality.

To this point, none of the Rishonim quoted here have made mention of the third Talmudic passage which raises a possible prohibition of a woman’s voice. This account in tractate Sotah lists possible prohibitions on music and gaiety, instituted since the destruction of the temple. “Rav Yosef said, ‘When men sing and women join in, it is licentiousness; when women sing and men join in, it is like fire in flax.” Clearly, the context here is neither tefilla nor ordinary conversation, but an activity at the other end of a spectrum of holiness — a drunken gathering. Here too, it appears that a man listening and responding to female singers is more problematic than if the roles were reversed. If those activities are viewed as along a spectrum of holiness, then the drunken gathering being outlawed in this Gemara is certainly at the opposite end. It is also true that men listening to and responding to female singers is seen as more problematic than the opposite.

This passage, despite its more explicit reference to singing, does not enter the halakhic discussion of kol isha until a teshuva written centuries later, during the time of the acharonim (later commentators). Rabbi Moses Sofer writes9 , in the context of a choir in the synagogue, that “mixed singing,” is a form of sexual immorality, and quotes Rashi that hearing a woman’s singing voice will arouse a man’s evil inclination, something especially abhorrent in a synagogue. Thus far, we have examined halahkic decisiors analyzing the Gemara directly. What about the major legal codes?

One early code is that of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, the Rif. Strikingly, he makes no reference whatsoever to Shmuel’s statement in Brachot, nor to Rav Yehuda’s statement in Kiddushin. We assume this to mean he does not consider the “ad hoc” statements to be legally binding.

Maimonides, generally follows the Rif and accordingly notes no prohibition on hearing a woman’s voice singing or speaking, during recitation of the Sh’ma. But he does find another context for such a prohibition — situations that must be avoided lest one come to engage in improper sexual relations. He writes, “even to listen to the voice of a forbidden woman or to look at her hair is forbidden.” Interestingly, the Rambam here uses the word ervah as a noun, meaning “a forbidden woman”, rather than an adjective, “sexually stimulating.” He makes this clear by excluding unmarried women, who are not forbidden, and by stating that a man’s own wife who is in niddah, though now forbidden, soon will not be, and thus is not covered by the prohibition. It is clear that, far from saying that a woman’s voice is sexually enticing in any context, the Rambam is instead concerned about avoidance of improper relations, and listening lustfully to a married woman’s voice is one of a few avenues towards an illicit relationship.

Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, in his monumental work, the Tur, follows Maimonides on both counts: affirming the prohibition of a woman’s voice as a preventive measure against illicit relations and omitting any reference to kol isha in reference to reciting Kriat Sh’ma.

Rav Yosef Karo, in his Beit Yosef commentary to the Tur, brings a fascinating hiddush (new idea) to the discussion. He first quotes a long passage from the Rosh in which the Rosh, similarly to the Tur who does not include kol isha in his section of impediments to the Sh’ma, says that the tenet kol b’isha ervah does not apply to the Sh’ma. But within that citation is another from the Mordechai, in which that authority first insists that kol isha is banned from Kriat Sh’ma and any context in which devarim she b’kedushah are being recited. But then he brings Rabbenu Yonah on the Mordechai to say, “…even at a time when she is singing, if he can inline his heart [concentrate] to his prayer such that he will not even hear her, … it is permitted.” In this statement, the responsibility for proper attention during prayer is put back where it belongs; on the one praying.

The Hazon Ish, writing much later, mentions the same leniency in his laws of Kriat Sh’ma. He both bemoans it as a necessary concession to the times, and extends the same permission to giving a public Torah lecture when there will be women present with uncovered hair.

In the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Karo echoes the findings of the Tur. In the general context of arayot, or illicit relations, he repeats the prohibition on hearing the voice of a forbidden woman or seeing her hair. For Kriat Sh’ma, he puts in a cautionary note not seen in the Tur, and writes, “it is good to be careful and avoid hearing a woman’s singing voice while reciting the Sh’ma.” Even this muted warning is limited by Rav Moshe Isserles. The Rama adds here that while the above is true even for a man’s wife, in general “a voice to which he is accustomed is not sexually stimulating.”

We must mention one major responsum by Rav Yaakov Yehiel Weinberg, writing as the Sridei Esh.16 He is discussing a youth group that often had boys and girls together singing Shabbat zemirot at their gatherings. At one point in his lengthy essay, he first points out that, far from the wine parties banned in the passage in Kiddushin, “those who sing holy songs do this for the sake of heaven, in order to awaken religious feelings among the girls…”. He then invokes the principle of et la’asot l’Hashem, hafru Toratecha, it is a time to act for G-d, uproot your Torah. He quotes the Tosafot saying “better to uproot one letter from the Torah, that the Torah not be forgotten from Israel.” He cautions that only the Sages can determine when this is appropriate, but states that the situation at hand is one such time. He writes, “In this matter, in which there is no real prohibition, but only a custom of the pious and instance of especial modesty, it is permitted to look for supporters…”. In his following paragraph, he adds one last plank in the platform, saying that these girls “have a certain level of self respect, and would regard it as a disgrace and an exile from the community, were they forbidden to participate in singing Shabbat songs.”

In conclusion, we see that the prohibition of kol isha has a long and complex history. The constant arguments over its appropriate context and even the very nature of the prohibition would suggest that the process of reinterpretation is not over. In the context of religious observance, such as during recitation of the Sh’ma, davening in shul or religiously inspirational settings, there are moderate positions that permit women’s voices to be heard. These positions clearly grow out of a consideration for women’s feelings and they are brought down without any stigma of sexual distraction or hint of the danger of enticement. Moreover, there is a whole range of contemporary situations that fall neither in the category of spiritual concentration nor drunken feasting that are not explicitly discussed in the sources, and therefore need not necessarily be bridged to kol isha in a way that is restrictive. Certainly in our day, when women’s voices are welcomed in all of their many manifestations and when women’s sensibilities and self-regard are taken with seriousness, a dialogue on this subject should be opened that includes the voices of all. 

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