[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]
On a Saturday Afternoon
This past Shabbath, I spent some time during the afternoon – as I often do – sitting in the living room of a dear friend and engaging in discussions with couples from our community while enjoying the air conditioning. During a lull in the various exchanges taking place, a group of boys came into the house and briefly sat in the room with us. At the hearing of my friend’s wife singing and humming zemiyroth in the kitchen nearby, they began to pejoratively shout “Kol ishah! Kol ishah!” in the midst of laughter. I noted that it was a mixed group, with a couple of the boys being from irreligious or non-religious Jewish families, so I decided to engage them a little.
“Do you know what kol ishah is? Do you know what it means?” I asked them.
“You can’t listen to women singing or you will go to hell?” They responded with sarcasm.
“Actually, no. It means that you cannot listen to women talking or singing while reciting the Shema. According to one opinion, if the women are members of your immediate family and you are used to hearing them, and can therefore sufficiently ignore their voices in order to concentrate, then you do not have to worry about it.” I explained.
Their sarcasm and deprecation almost immediately turned to intrigue.
“Is that it?” They asked.
“What about non-Jewish music?” They inquired again.
“According to the Rambam in a teshuvah, music can be in any language and written or sung by non-Jews, so long as it promotes proper values and erudite culture. Neither men nor women are allowed to sing about inappropriate or sexual things according to halakhah.”
The boys began looking at one another and one of them spoke up.
“That makes total sense; way more sense.” He said.
Like my own son, these young men had been given a definition of qol iyshah that was decidedly Haredi-Hasidic – and linked to asceticism, as we shall see. Years ago, when my own son was enrolled in a Haredi elementary school, he and his classmates were told by their “rebbe” that if they listened to a woman sing, they would be punished by having their bodies consumed with fire in hell. Apparently, this was supposed to be miyddah ke-neghedh miyddah (“measure for measure,” i.e. commensurate) for all of the lust that would consume them by listening to women’s voices. Unfortunately, this kind of nonsense is all-too-common fare in Haredi-Hasidic circles and only serves to disillusion intelligent young people and drive them away from orthodox Judaism – an orthodoxy that no longer makes sense and is out of step with reality.
The fact is that, generally, only the less-intelligent children who are more likely to believe nonsense and are “scared straight” by these kinds of tactics. Commonly, these more impressionable young people end up being consumed by guilt and fear for common youthful mistakes and live in constant fear of Divine reprisal. Many are so guilt-ridden and damaged emotionally that they are unable to lead productive lives. These young people, if they end up walking away from Judaism (halilah), do so out of an incredibly destroyed self-image, feeling “not good enough” or “beyond saving,” and many times for things which, although they are not good, are nevertheless not out of the ordinary for developing youths to experiment with, but because the Haredi-Hasidic world has criminalized them, promising severe and cruel punishments (usually from the “kabbalah“), these otherwise normal kids become severely depressed and, in some cases, suicidal. I think that we all know the kinds of things I am referring to, but I digress.
Qol iyshah, as will be shown, began with a reasonable and universal rabbinic interpretation, but ended up – for various reasons – being extended by a minority of European expositors into a general ban on listening to the voice of women (even their speaking voice!)
Before we begin digging into the meqoroth, it should be noted that although the issue and original parameters of qol iyshah is fairly straightforward and the various opinions among the rishoniym divide fairly simply across regional lines, many of the sources themselves are fairly intricate. In translating them, I do my best to present them in a straightforward manner, giving bracketed explanations where necessary. However, I will not deny that I am biased and hold particular views – everyone does, and those who deny it are being dishonest. We can only view the world through our own sense and our own minds – unique to each of us. Notwithstanding, the work of the philosopher and seeker is not only to be honest, but to honestly present his or her findings in an unbiased fashion to the best of their ability. This will be my goal as well. May HaShem yithborakh shemo grant me assistance.
Qol Iyshah – The Sources
There are two places in the Talmudh Bavliy – b.Berakhoth 24a and b.Qiydhushiyn 70a – where the halakhic issue of qol iyshah (קול אישה) is mentioned. Both instances appear to be aggadic (i.e. non-halakhic) sections ancillary to the sughyah in which they appear.
In Masekheth Berakhoth (24b), in the midst of a discussion regarding where, when, and in what circumstances it is permissible to recite Qiryath Shema`, the follow group of statements are listed regarding parts of a woman what are considered to be `erwah (ערווה – “nakedness”) and which, if they are visible, prevent the recitation of Shema`:
TRANSLATION (Straight Read)
“Rebbi Yisshaq said, ‘An area the size of a hand’s breadth of a woman is nakedness.’ With regard to what? If we say gazing at it, doesn’t Rav Shesheth say, ‘For what purpose did the passuq enumerate the outer ornaments along with the inner ornaments? To say to you that anyone who gazes upon the little finger of a woman, it is as if he had gazed at the place of shame.’ Rather, he spoke regarding one’s own wife in the context of Qiryath Shema`. Rav Hisda said, ‘The thigh of a woman is nakedness. As it says, Reveal a thigh and pass through rivers, and then it is written, You shall reveal your nakedness and also your shame shall be seen.’ Shemu’el said, ‘The voice of a woman is nakedness. As it says, For your voice is sweet and your appearance is lovely.’ Rav Shesheth said, ‘The hair of a woman is nakedness. As it says, You hair is like a flock of goats.'”
“Rebbi Yisshaq said, ‘An [exposed] hand’s breadth [tefah] of a woman is nakedness [`erwah].’ With regard to what? If we say [that he is referring to] gazing [licentiously] at it [i.e. at the exposed hand’s breadth], doesn’t Rav Shesheth [already say], ‘For what purpose did the passuq enumerate the outer ornaments [i.e. garments] along with the inner ornaments [i.e. of the Midianite women in Bamidbar 31]? To say to you that anyone who gazes [licentiously] upon the little finger of a woman, it is as if he had gazed [licentiously] at the place of shame [maqom ha-toref, a descriptive term used by Hazal for the vagina – “shame” having only connotations of modesty, not negativity].’ Rather, [we must conclude that Rebbi Yisshaq spoke] regarding one’s own wife in the context of Qiryath Shema`. Rav Hisda said, ‘The [exposed] thigh [shoq] of a woman is nakedness [`erwah]. As it says [i.e. in Yesha`yahu 47:2], Reveal a thigh [and] pass through rivers, and then it is written [i.e. in 47:3], You shall reveal your nakedness and also your shame shall be seen.’ Shemu’el said, ‘The voice [qol] of a woman is nakedness [`erwah]. As it says [i.e. in Shiyr HaShiyriym 2:14], For your voice is sweet and your appearance is lovely.’ Rav Shesheth said, ‘The hair [se`ar] of a woman is nakedness [`erwah]. As it says [i.e. in Shiyr HaShiyriym 4:1], You hair is like a flock of goats.'”
We will return to the meaning of Shemu’el’s terse, and seemingly broad, statement that “קול באישה ערוה – The voice of a woman is nakedness” below, but I feel that it is necessary to explain at this point that the word usually translated “nakedness” (ערווה – `erwah) does not carry with it the sole meaning of “nudity” (which would be the word `arum – ערום), but usually implies “sexual impropriety,” “immodesty,” being “unchaste,” etc.
In Masekheth Qiydhushiyn (70a-b), the statement of Shemu’el regarding qol iyshah (קול אישה) is mentioned in the context of a much larger story regarding a contention that arose between Rav Yehudhah ben Yehezqel (of Pumbedhiytha) and a “certain man” from Neharda`. Apparently, this Nehardean man was in the Pumbedithan meat shop demanding meat, but when he was told that he would have to wait for the messenger of Rav Yehudhah to take his meat first before he was to be served, the Nehardean made a disrespectful remark, calling Rav Yehudhah a glutton through an intentional mispronunciation of his name. Upon hearing this, Rav Yehudhah put the man under a ban and pronounced him a slave. In response, the Nehardean brought a case against Rav Yehudhah to be heard in front of Rav Nahman, the son-in-law if the reysh galutha (ריש גלותא – “exilarch”), the political head of the Diaspora Jewish community. Rav Yehudhah did not want to appear in front of Rav Nahman, but Rav Huna advised him to do so anyway. Upon arriving before Rav Nahman, Rav Yehudhah was incredibly contentious about being there and harshly contradicted everything Rav Nahman said or did during their exchange, using almost exclusively the halakhic sayings of Shemu’el – and “קול באישה ערוה – The voice of a woman is nakedness” was one of them.
The brief section containing this statement is as follows:
TRANSLATION (From נשדר)
“‘Would the rav like to send greetings [i.e. shelama, “peace”] to Yalta?’ He said to him, ‘Shemu’el said, The voice of a woman is nakedness’…”
Rav Nahman’s wife, Yalta, was a well-known and educated woman. She was also the daughter of a reysh galutha, a prestigious position stationed in Neharda`. Wishing her well – rather than ignoring her – would have made sense due to her prominence, but Rav Nahman probably suggested it since she unusually (i.e. unusual for her era) demanded the respect of even the greatest of hakhamiym (cf. b.Berakhoth 51a). Rav Yehudhah, however, stubbornly refused to do so – as he stubbornly refused every other suggestion of Rav Nahman on that occasion – by citing Shemu’els statement “קול באישה ערוה – The voice of a woman is nakedness.” So much did he insist on resisting the suggestions of Rav Nahman (and Yalta advises him that Rav Yehudhah was seeking to make him look like a fool – see there), that he even refused to send greetings indirectly to her through Rav Nahman himself! This instance, much more than the one in Masekheth Berakhoth, appears aggadic rather than halakhic. Rav Yehudhah’s application is seriously disputed by Rav Nahman’s own commonsense, but, as has already been noted, this use of Shemu’el was most likely due to his contempt for having to appear before Rav Nahman, rather than an actual halakhic position.
The Talmudh Yerushalmiy
In the Talmudh Yerushalmiy, the statement of Shemu’el regarding qol iyshah appears only once. Although the discussion is characteristically brief, the hakhmey eress yisra’el do a tremendous service to us in giving an explanation of “קול באישה ערוה – The voice of a woman is nakedness.” It is the following statement (found in y.Hallah 2:1) that, I believe, holds the key to understanding the position of the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah, and also why he seems to have mentioned it at all (as opposed to the Rav Alfasiy), as we will see shortly).
כהדא דתני המסתכל בעקיבה של אשה כמסתכל בבית הרחם והמסתכל בבית הרחם כילו בא עליה שמואל אמר קול באשה ערוה מה טעם והיה מקול זנותה ותחנף הארץ וגומר
“…As has been taught in a baraytha, ‘The one who gazes [licentiously] on the heel of a woman, it is as if he gazed [licentiously] at the house of the womb [beyth ha-rehem, i.e. her vagina]. And the one who gazes [licentiously] at the house of the womb, it is as if he had intercourse with her.’ Shemu’el said, ‘The voice of a woman is nakedness.’ What is the reason for this [i.e. for saying so]? [Because of the passuq in Yermiyahu 3:9, which says] ‘From the voice of her fornication the land became polluted,’ etc.”
It appears that in the Yerushalmiy, qol iyshah is understood to be specifically within a context of either a man deriving licentious sexual pleasure from a woman or, conversely, a woman being overtly sensual with her voice. The beauty of this passage is that it places the responsibility for ssaniy`uth (modesty) on both men and women jointly. Men must be very careful not to misuse women, degrade them, or treat them as sexual objects – the male sex drive must be controlled and accounted for by the male. Women, however, cannot simply say, do, and dress in an overtly skimpy or sexual fashion and then tell men that if they are uncomfortable it is “their problem” – females must acknowledge their inherent sexual attractiveness and be responsible with it. There are two roles to play in sexual attraction and there are therefore two roles to play as regards modesty.
Of all the literature left to us by the great scholars of the Geonic era (ca. 650 – ca. 1050 CE), there are several works which are considered the most influential, and served as veritable “standards” of halakhic literature for the rishoniym.
In the areas of hashqafah and Biblical studies, Rav Sa`adyah Gaon (also known as Rasag) is the premier ge’on with his HaNivhar Emunoth Wa-Dhe`oth, Arabic tafsiyr (translation) of the Torah along various books of the Tanakh, his siddur, and his manuals of Hebrew grammar. Although Rasag did write about halakhah, he is remembered as a philosopher and a grammarian, not a halakhist. Halakhically, however, four ge’oniym stand above the rest, being extensively quoted by the subsequent rishoniym: Rav Ha’iy Gaon, Rav Yehuda’iy Gaon, Rav Shim`on Qayyara, and Rav Aha’iy Gaon. There were others, such as Rav Natrona’iy Gaon, Rav `Amram Gaon, and Rav Sheriyra Gaon whose quotations also found some prominence in the works of the rishoniym, but because they did not produce comprehensive halakhic codes or compendiums they occupied a more limited sphere of influence on later authorities.
Rav Ha’iy ben Sheriyra Gaon (969 – 1038 CE, Pumbedhiytha) was considered to have been the last of the ge’oniym, as well as one of the most prolific. His teshuvoth and personal customs are cited by numerous later authorities as proof of certain legal positions in various areas of halakah.
Rav Yehuda’iy Gaon (Reysh Methivta in Sura, 757 – 761 CE) is most famously the author of a Geonic code known as the Halakhoth Pesuqoth (sometimes referred as Sefer Halakhoth Qatan). This work is only extant in a partial manuscript from Yemen and citations in the works of various rishoniym. He is sometimes confused with Shim`on Qayyara, the author of the Halakhoth Gedholoth, another – and, perhaps the best known – Geonic codification of Talmudic halakhah.
Shim`on Qayyara (known also as the Bahag – Ba`al Halakhoth Gedholoth) appears to make extensive use of the She’iyltoth in his work. Although he lived and was known as a great Talmudic scholar during the Geonic era, he was never the head of either academy and therefore was never known by the appellation “Gaon”.
Last, but certainly not least, is Rav Aha’iy Gaon (8th century CE) the author of a compendium of halakhic derashoth which are organized according to the weekly parashah known as the She’iyltoth. Of a decidedly different style than later works, such as the Gedholoth or the Pesuqoth, the She’iyltoth does not simply cull statements from the Mishnah, Baraytoth, and Talmudhiym. Instead, it fuses a fair share of midrashiym into its discussions, apparently tailoring them so as to be read to ba`aley batiym on a weekly basis. Aha’iy was never officially the head of an academy, but “Gaon” is often appended to the mention of his name.
Aside from the plethora of responsa on numerous questions of law that were written by other rabbaniym who served as ge’on, it is chiefly the works of these four men which are collectively referred to as “the ge’oniym” and which are viewed being generally representative of the shittoth of that era.
Of these works, neither the She’iyltoth nor the Halakhoth Pesuqoth appear to mention or record Shemu’els statement at all, not in the context of berakhoth or Qiryath Shema` and not in the context of general feminine modesty. The Halakhoth Gedholoth, however, does codify the statement of Shemu’el, but places it under the laws of Qiryath Shema` – an association that will make more sense as we proceed. Rav Ha’iy Gaon – as his words appear in the Ossar HaGe’oniym (Perushiym 102) – also place qol iyshah squarely within the context of Qiryath Shema`. He also makes several important distinctions in the arena of ssaniy`uth.
[24a] “…but it is regard to one’s wife at the time of Qiryath Shema`.”
“…that even one’s own wife, if a hand’s breadth [tefah] of her body is uncovered, it is forbidden to recite Shema` in front of her.”
And Rabbenu Ha’iy Gaon z”l writes that it is the law for any woman who uncovers a hand’s breadth [tefah] in a place on her body that is [normally] covered, that it is forbidden to recite [Shema`] in front of her because [of what is written in the Gemara, that] “a hand’s breadth [tefah] of a woman is nakedness.” And also one should not recite [Shema`] during a time when she is singing because [of what is written in the Gemara, that] “the voice of a woman is nakedness.” But in front of her face or an area that is not normally covered, or at a time when she is speaking in her regular manner, it is permitted [i.e. to recite Qiryath Shema`]. And even at a time when she is singing, if one is able to properly direct his heart toward his prayer as if he were engaging in an action during which he does not hear her, and he will pay no attention to her [i.e. even though she is singing], it is permitted [i.e. to recite Qiryath Shema`]. And there is no need to interrupt his recitation [i.e. should his wife begin singing in the middle of it]. And also if she uncovers a hand’s breadth [tefah] it is only forbidden [i.e. to recite Qiryath Shema`] if he then gazes at it, but just having it in his general field of view is permitted [i.e. during Qiryath Shema`].
The opinion of Rav Yehuda’iy Gaon – presumably of the Halakhoth Pesuqoth – is cited in the Sefer Yere’iym (392) and essentially echoes the sentiments of Rav Ha’iy in Ossar HaGe’oniym.
TRANSLATION (From שמואל to של אישה)
“Shemu’el said, ‘The voice of a woman is nakedness. As it is written, For your voice is sweet… – This refers to a singing voice. And all of this was explained by Rav Yehuda’iy Gaon z”l as being relevant to Qiryath Shema`. It is therefore forbidden to say Qiryath Shema` or another davar qedhushah while listening to the singing voice of a woman.”
The practical conclusions drawn from the ge’oniym are as follows:
 The statement(s) of Shemu’el apply – at most – specifically to Qiryath Shema` (and, presumably, to Shemoneh `Esreh) not to any general context of singing or talking.
 The singing and talking being referred to applies to any woman, even one’s own wife.
 Listening or looking is only a problem when it is done to derive pleasure or when gazing intently and, possibly, licentiously. Just listening to a woman sing or having [non-private] parts of her body in you general view is not forbidden and – if one can still concentrate properly – does not prevent him from being able to recite Qiryath Shema`.
 The passage in b.Qiydhushiyn 70 is apparently ignored and/or is considered to be aggadic rather than halakhic.
First of all, there is a divide regarding the parameters of qol iyshah that developed among the rishoniym that faults generally along mystical/ascetic lines and which coincides roughly with geographical boundaries. Whereas the Spanish (Iberian), North African, Arabian, and Persian (Babylonian) authorities take the position of the ge’oniym, those of France, Italy, and Germany – particularly those with a mystical or ascetic bent – interpret the Gemara as implying that listening to the voices of women at all – even while merely speaking, and not specifically during Qiryath Shema` – is expressly forbidden. This latter position comprises a very small minority among the commentators.
Yehudhah HeHasiydh (pop. “HaChasid”), a prominent leader of the 12th and 13th century gnostic/dualist group of Jewish ascetics known as the “Hasidey Ashkenaz,” forbids even listening to a woman talk on the basis of Shemu’el’s statement, as does Yesha`yah of Trani (pop. “Rid”) from Italy, and the Ra’avadh of Provence, France. The Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehi’el), although he resided in Toledo, Spain, was originally from Germany and at times expressed halakhic opinions like those of the Hasidey Ashkenaz, as did his son, Rabbi Ya`aqov ben Asher, the author of the Tur. This position seems, in my own estimation, to have been driven by predominantly ascetic concerns that are usually found among those who were also concerned with mysticism. An excellent example of this type relationship between sexual asceticism and kabbalistic concerns can be found in a book by the Ra’avadh on the laws of taharath ha-mishpahah entitled Ba`aley Nefesh.
Being from Germany, however, did not guarantee that a rishon would be an ascetic. At roughly the same time as Yehudhah HeHasiydh was leading the “Hasidey Ashkenaz,” there were other hakhamiym who seem to have been more inclined toward the talmudh and Geonic interpretations, rather than contrived stringencies produced by mystical speculations or re-reading and re-interpreting the language of the sughyah. For instance, Rabbi Eli`ezer ben Shemu’el of Metz (? – 1175 CE), the author of the Sefer HaYere’iym noted above, held as the ge’oniym did, and Rabbi Eli`ezer ben Yo’el HaLewiy (1140 – ca. 1220, known popularly as the “Ra’avyah”) also takes a very reasonable approach, both to qol iyshah and ssaniy`uth (modesty) in general, and strives to put the seemingly rigid statements made in Masekheth Berakhoth regarding the hair, exposed skin, thigh, and voice of a woman into reasonable practical parameters. He explains in his Sefer HaRa’avyah as follows [NOTE: The following version of the Ra’avyah possesses some small lacunae and inaccuracies, so in translation I am working from the latest critical version of the text. Each divergence from the scanned text below will be marked with an asterisk in the translation.]:
76. The Halakhoth Gedholoth ruled that all of these [principles] that we say here, i.e. “A hand’s breadth [tefah] of a woman is nakedness” – [it understands it to imply that this is] even in regard to one’s own wife, and with regard to another woman [the law is that] even something smaller than a hand’s breadth [is forbidden]. And also “The thigh [shoq] of a woman is nakedness.” And also “The hair [se`ar] of a woman is nakedness.” And also “The voice of a woman is nakedness” – [with regard to] all of these [the meaning is that] it is forbidden to recite Shema` in front of them. This is also the explanation of Rabbenu Hanan’el.
And I say that the reason that [the voice is included with the skin, hair, and the thigh] is that, although the voice [ha-qol] is not something that is visible to the eye, it can nevertheless arouse [licentious] thoughts. And everything that we mentioned* as being ‘nakedness’ is specifically referring to [skin, hair, thigh, voice] that they [i.e. women] do not normally uncover or show in public, but an unmarried virgin who normally does not cover her hair in public, we do not suspect that [she has violated the halakhah] since there are no [licentious] thoughts aroused by it [i.e. the sight of an unmarried woman’s hair]. This is also the case for the voice which she uses normally,* etc.
And a voice should not be likened to excrement that is visible from behind a glass partition [עששית – cf. Rashi on b.Berakhoth 25b and Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Qiryath Shema` 3:16] – in front of which it is permissible to recite Qiryath Shema`. For there [i.e. on b.Berakhoth 24a] the voice that is considered nakedness is like something revealed that the eye apprehend it in order to see it, and therefore it should be likened to nakedness that is revealed in front of a blind man [who, even though he is unable to see it is nevertheless disallowed from reciting Qiryath Shema` in front of it]. And this is also my opinion on the matter.
A proof of this is what we read in the Talmudh Yerushalmiy there [in the same sughyah – i.e. y.Berakhoth 3:5]: ‘Rav Iyla and his colleagues were sitting in front of an inn at night and they said to him, ‘Why not say some words of Torah?’ He said to them, ‘Since if it were day we would be able to see what is in front of us [i.e. the dung produced by the animals tied there – cf. Peney Mosheh], so it is seems that even now [i.e. at night when we nevertheless cannot see the dung] it is forbidden.’
Although it appears possible to be less stringent with regard to a woman’s voice since it is in no way related to what the eye sees [i.e. like hair, skin, and a thigh – it is probable that the Ra’avyah is mentioning this possibility due to the well-known position of Rav Ha’iy Gaon mentioned above], neither to him or to others. Although this possibility exists, it is more proper to be strict [i.e. and treat it with the same care as those parts of a woman which can be seen].
In Masekheth Hallah of the Talmudh Yerushalmiy, we read about what they taught in a mishnah: ‘A woman may sit and separates her hallah while nude.’ From this statement they said that buttocks are not considered nakedness [`erwah] with regard to the woman saying a berakhah, but [for someone other than her] to even just look at her [in that case] even her voice* would be forbidden. As it is written [in Yermiyahu 3:9, which says] ‘From the voice of her fornication the land became polluted,’ etc. There are those who explain that this is because it is the normal way of men to gaze [licentiously] at a woman while she is singing. This is like what they taught in a baraytha, ‘The one who gazes [licentiously] at the heel of a woman, it is as if he gazed at the house of the womb [i.e. the vagina]. And one who gazes at the house of her womb, it is as if he had intercourse with her.’ This implies that for making a berakhah it is not forbidden [to hear the voice of a woman singing], but to look at her is forbidden.”
The important things to note about the approach of the Ra’avyah are:
[a] He explains that the “nakedness” statements of the Gemara in Berakhoth are dealing specifically with hair, skin, and voice that is normally covered in either public or private. If something normally covered becomes commonly uncovered, like the hair of unmarried women for example (which, according to the original ruling of the Gemara, also needs to be covered in the public square), then the status of that part of the body changes and it is no longer considered “nakedness.” The potential implications of this reading are vast.
[b] The feminine voice that is mentioned in Shemu’el’s statements is primarily a singing voice, not a speaking voice.
[c] The forbidden aspect of a woman’s voice is only of concern while a man is gazing licentiously at her. Otherwise, there appears to be no iyssur at all. This probably means that the Ra’avyah agrees with the heter of Rav Ha’iy Gaon of being able to recite Shema` if one is accustomed to the speaking or singing of women to the point that he can sufficiently ignore them and still have proper intention during his recitation and the attendant berakhoth. However, he disagrees with Rav Ha’iy Gaon in that he would not permit this if the woman could be seen.
[d] The Ra’avyah, like so many others, places this entire discussion in the context of Qiryath Shema` and making general berakhoth.
These are the hakhamiym of Germany, France, and Italy. As for the rest [read, majority] of the rishoniym, they ruled very similarly – if not identically – to the ge’oniym.
The Rif (from Fez, Morocco) in his Halakhoth simply ignores the statements of Shemu’el regarding qol iyshah in both places in the Gemara where it appears. Apparently, according to the Rif, a woman’s voice was simply not an issue with much halakhic import. According to the style of the Rif wherein he simply omits those Talmudic opinions which he views as being either rejected or purely aggadic, his consistent omissions of Shmu’el indicate that he did not consider this statement to be halakhah. The Rif also ignores Talmudh Yerushalmiy in his Halakhoth, expressing his opinion that the Bavliy is superior and was composed later (cf. Rif on b.`Eruviyn 104b). He therefore also completely omits the Yerushalmiy passage cited above.
Other non-European rishoniym echo – or directly quote – the sentiments of the ge’oniym. The Ritva (13th-14th centuries, Spain), whose opinions and hidhushiym on the Gemara were compiled in an abridged form by the 16th century aharon, Rav Bessalel Ashkenaziy (Ottoman Palestine) and published as the well-known Shiytah HaMequbesseth. Rav Ashkenaziy wrote as follows:
“Qol be-iyshah `erwah (“The voice of a woman is nakedness”). Explanation: With regard to Qiryath Shema`. And there are those who say that these statements are specifically dealing with a singing voice and hair which is normally covered, but a non-singing voice and the hair that is [normally] outside of her hairnet – we do not worry about them.”
This is the general position of those rishoniym who lived in Muslim and Arab lands, including the Rambam, to whose words we shall now turn.
The View of the Rambam
With relatively few exceptions, the Rambam follows the Rif in the determination of which opinion in each sughyah is to be accepted as halakhah. He also affirms that the Talmudh Bavliy is the generally superior document in determining practical halakhah (cf. Haqdamah to the Mishneh Torah). Unlike the Rif, however – and more in line with the methodology of Rabbenu Hanan’el – the Rambam does not ignore the determinations of the Talmudh Yerushalmiy, routinely including them in his summations of various halakhic topics – and the topic of qol iyshah is no exception.
Similar to the Rif, the Rambam omits any mention of a prohibition on hearing the voice of a woman in his Hilkhoth Qiryath Shema`, meaning that he essentially ignores the statement of Shemu’el from Masekheth Berakhoth. He likewise ignores the aggadic mention of qol be-iyshah `erwah from Masekheth Qiydhushiyn. The passage found in the Yerushalmiy, however, he does include, but under the laws of forbidden sexual relations. The Rambam places it in the context of prohibiting men from deliberately attempting to derive sensual pleasure from either flirting, looking at, and listening to women who are forbidden to them (`arayoth – Hilkhoth Iyssurey Bi’ah 21:2). He codifies it as follows:
ואסור לאדם לקרוץ בידיו וברגליו או לרמוז בעיניו לאחת מן העריות וכן לשחק עימה או להקל ראש ואפילו להריח בשמים שעליה או להביט ביופייה אסור ומכין המתכוון לדבר זה מכת מרדות והמסתכל אפילו באצבע קטנה של אישה ונתכוון ליהנות כמי שנסתכל במקום התורף ואפילו לשמוע קול הערווה או לראות שיערה אסור
“And it is forbidden for a man to signal with his hands and feet, or to hint with his eyes, to any woman that is forbidden to him [ha-`arayoth]. It is likewise forbidden to flirt jokingly or to engage in frivolity with such a woman – even to merely smell the fragrance which is on her or to look at her beauty is forbidden, and the one who does so intentionally is given lashes for rebelliousness. And the one who gazes [licentiously] even at the little finger of a woman – and he intends thereby to derive [sensual] pleasure from it – is like one who gazes [licentiously] at the place of shame [maqom ha-toref, a descriptive term used by Hazal for the vagina – “shame” having only connotations of modesty, not negativity] – and even to listen to the voice of one of the `arayoth, or even seeing her hair, is forbidden.”
The association of leering licentiously at even the parts of a woman’s body that are normally uncovered (e.g. her feet, her fingers, etc.) with listening to her voice with similar intentions arises not from the text of the Bavliy, but from the Yerushalmiy.
It appears from here, and from the juxtaposition of various aspects of modesty into a single halakhah, that the position of the Rambam is that everything is dependent upon the intention of the listener or the onlooker. He quotes the baraytha that discusses looking at a pinky finger “to derive pleasure from it” – yet he does not suggest that women wear gloves to avoid that possibility! Only the hair, skin, voice, and yes, the pinky finger of one’s wife is permitted to be viewed by him in a sensual and sexual manner. As for qol iyshah during Qiryath Shema`, to the Rambam it does not seem to be an issue. And as for general interactions between men and women, it seems that it is upon men halakhically to be self-aware – it is not upon women to run and hide to keep men from having impure thoughts.
The Shulhan `Arukh
Rav Yosef Qaro in the Shulhan `Arukh records what seems like a soft prohibition in Orah Hayyim (75:3), “יש ליזהר משמיעת קול זמר אישה בשעת קריאת שמע – One should be wary of hearing the singing voice during Qiryath Shema`.” I say “soft” because he does not write “אסור לשמוע וכו – It is forbidden to hear…” only that “one should be wary.” He does, however, generally prohibit listening to women sing in Even Ha`Ezer (21:3). The Rama adds to the statement in Orah Hayyim, “ואפילו באישתו אבל קול הרגיל בו אינו ערווה – Even that of his own wife, but any voice that he is used to hearing is not considered as `erwah for him.” This is clearly being drawn from the position of the Ra’avyah.
It is important to note that the halakhic methodology of the Shulhan `Arukh differs greatly from that of earlier authorities. Whereas earlier halakhists sought to come to a conclusion after examining all of the sources, the Shulhan `Arukh seeks to combine all of the sources to form a new opinion. He is also took the rulings of various regional authorities and combined them, or at least recorded them side by side – a method advocated earlier by the Ramban. However, this methodology produced as many humroth as it did quloth, and commentators have spent as much time trying to unravel apparent internal contradictions in the Shulhan `Arukh as they have trying to determine halakhah from it.
This is not to denigrate the Shulhan `Arukh in any way (halilah). To the contrary, it is a very important and useful work of halakhah, and it certainly does not need my approbation. However, it must be understood what Rav Qaro was trying to accomplish when he wrote it; he sorted through halakhic opinions and chose to record one – many times arbitrarily. He also set aside unanimous opinions of the rishoniym – even the three that he generally selected in his haqdamah, the Rif, the Rosh, and the Rambam – and decides in favor of ideas expressed in the Zohar. A prime example is where he discusses the kabbalistic concept of an evil spirit dwelling on the hands that is supposedly excised by the morning washing, an idea that is rejected unanimously by the Rif, Rosh, and Rambam who explain the morning washing in terms of hygienic concerns.
It was because of this state of affairs in the text of the Shulhan `Arukh that many subsequent halakhists, although they consulted it and the Tur regularly, did not always feel constrained by its rulings. Instead, they drew from Hazal and their direct expositors in making halakhic determinations. Such hakhamiym include: the Maharal, the Maharshal, the BaH, the Gra, Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l, Hakham `Ovadyah Yosef z”l, Rav Yosef Messas z”l, the Rogathchover Gaon z”l, Mori HaYashiysh Rav Yihya Qafih z”l, Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, Rav Ratson Arusi shlit”a, Rav David Bar-Hayyim shlit”a, and many others.
From the standpoint of the sources, there are various positions that one could take in relation to qol iyshah and its implications and application, from a very limited stance to a very prohibitive one. And as long as no one turns to his fellow and condemns him for following the de`ah (halakhic opinion) that he or she has arrived at, they are all conceivably valid. Each person should always strive to look at his neighbor and judge him favorably, and should admit “yesh lahem misheyhu `al lismokh – they have someone on whom to rely” whenever it is possible to do so. This is unity and the opposite is sinath hiynam, i.e. finding an `aveyrah where there isn’t one.
From the standpoint of the future of orthodox Judaism vis-à-vis current realities, I believe – le-`aniyuth da`ati – that it behooves us to look at the history behind the development of the current Haredi-Hasidic definition of qol iyshah that is taken almost for granted in nearly every halakhic discussion of the subject. Like the young men with whom I spoke, many religiously orthodox Jews are simply unable to process the ascetically and mystically-charged position which is currently promulgated. Not only this, but many feel that when they listen to women singing (appropriately, of course) that they are living in violation of halakhah, which can be psychologically and emotionally damaging. Rabbis also feel as though they are “looking the other way” or “turning a blind eye” to the community members under their care and guidance when they know that they are routinely listening to women sing. But what if both of those situations could be alleviated by returning to the meqoroth as they were historically interpreted before the rise of kabbalistic and ascetic trends in the Jewish world? What if the young men who listen to [appropriate] music that features female voices could be confident that they are not sinning and also re-sensitize their moral consciences after years of telling themselves, “I know this is forbidden, but oh well”? This is not always possible as right is right and wrong is wrong, regardless of how we feel about it. But in the case of qol iyshah it certainly seems to be both possible and warranted to return to the historic majority pesaq of relating it to singing during Qiryath Shema` for various reasons.
In conclusion, it appears to me from the sources above that qol iyshah is about women singing (and possibly talking) while a man is reciting Shema`, even his own wife – this is the universal opinion of the ge’oniym. Based on Rav Ha’iy Gaon and the Ra’avyah, if a man is used to hearing such singing to the point that he can concentrate while ignoring it, then he does not need to worry about it even then. It does not appear that there was ever a blanket prohibition on listening to women sing, but even if there was originally such a prohibition, it seems that today, since we are used to regularly hearing women sing, that such a prohibition [if it did exist] would simply no longer apply. Perhaps I will discuss the general halakhoth related to music in another post.
More could be written and cited on this subject, but I will end here for now.