The Voice of a Woman – A Meqori Perspective

[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

The Gemaroth

There are two places in the Talmudh Bavliyb.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`:


Qol Iyshah - Berakhoth 24a

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.'”

(End Translation)

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:


b.Qiyshushiyn 70a - Qol Iyshah


“‘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’…”

(End Translation)

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.”

(End Translation)

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.

The Geoniym

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.


Ossar HaGe'oniym - Perushiym 102


[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`].

(End Translation)

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.


Sefer Yereiym 392

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.”

(End Translation)

The practical conclusions drawn from the ge’oniym are as follows:

[1] 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.

[2] The singing and talking being referred to applies to any woman, even one’s own wife.

[3] 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`.

[4] The passage in b.Qiydhushiyn 70 is apparently ignored and/or is considered to be aggadic rather than halakhic.

The Rishoniym

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.]:


Sefer HaRaavyah - Berakhoth 76 A

Sefer HaRaavyah - Berakhoth 76 B


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.”

(End Translation)

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:


Shitah Mequbesseth - Berakhoth 24a


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.”

(End Translation)

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.”

(End Translation)

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.

Kol tuv,


Women Covering Their Hair – A Meqori Perspective

[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.]

At the outset, I want to admit that what I put forth here is my own understanding of kisuy rosh le-nashiym (כסוי ראש לנשים – “headcovering for women”). As with nearly every subject, there will always be another who disagrees, but when one speaks he cannot be divided. Honest and sincere study demands that one arrive at an honest and sincere conclusion. There are certainly other ways to approach the covering of women’s hair from a halakhic standpoint, but what follows is the approach that I have arrived at based on my own study and consideration – while standing on the shoulders of others – in search of “where hokhmah will be found and in which location is understanding” (Iyov 28:12, see Rashi there). My conclusions are consistent with those of several major Sefaradiy poseqiym and allow me to be intellectually honest about this topic, so I am not worried that I have somehow misled myself.

Hair Down 1The subject of women covering their hair when in public has been, and continues to be, a topic of intense discussion among both women and halakhists alike. Who is required to cover their hair? Where are they required to cover their hair? How much of their hair is required to be covered? What type of covering(s) may be used? What is the purpose of covering hair, modesty or some other consideration? Is it a matter of cultural practice or positively enacted law? Although these are all important questions, it seems that many of them elude any explicit explanation by Hazal. In fact, because the primary sources seem to be so sparse on the subject, the few statements Hazal did make regarding kisuy rosh le-nashiym gave rise to a host of interpretations by the rishoniym. What’s more, the actual text of the Gemara uses terminology that unfortunately caused some expositors – including the Rambam, the Great Eagle on whose wings many are carried out of the darkness of ignorance  – to turn an explicit statement of the Mishnah on its head, as will be discussed below, leading only to further confusion.

It is my firm belief that the explanation put forth by the late, innovative, and intrepid halakhist, Rav Yosef Messas z”l (1892-1974) – Moroccan by birth and former rabbi of Tlemcen, Algeria and Haifa, Israel – cohesively explains all relevant texts and correctly contends that kisuy rosh le-nashiym is no longer a halakhic requirement in our times. The sole English translation of Rav Messas’ teshuvah on this subject is available for free download HERE. My understanding is largely based on his conclusions, but the majority of the analysis below is not covered in Rav Messas’ famous teshuvah. However, before we discuss the conclusion, let us begin at the beginning.

The Mishnah – Dath Mosheh & Dath Yehudhiyth

The entire subject begins with a short passage in m.Kethuboth 7:4[6] that is as follows:


אלו יוצאות שלא בכתובה העוברת על דת משה ויהודית איזו היא דת משה מאכילתו שאינו מעושר ומשמשתו נידה ולא קוצה לה חלה ונודרת ואינה מקיימת איזו היא דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע וטווה בשוק ומדברת עם כל אדם


“These are the women that are divorced (lit. “who go out”) without their kethubah payment: one who transgresses a matter of dath Mosheh or [dath] yehudhiyth. What is considered to be dath Mosheh? She feeds her husband produce from which terumoth and ma’aseroth have not been taken, she has intercourse with him while she is niyddah, she does not separate hallah, and she makes a nedher and does not fulfill it. What is considered to be dath yehudhiyth? She goes out in public and her head is uncovered, she spins thread in the open marketplace, and she speaks with any man who will engage her.”

As is clearly demonstrated from the text, dath Mosheh refers to the “religious practice” (the actual meaning of “dath – דת”) established by the laws of the Torah, and dath yehudhiyth refers to the religious practices established by Jewish women. While dath Mosheh is never explicitly defined in the sources, dath yehudhiyth is, as the Rambam states in Hilkhoth Iyshuth 24:11[12]: “ואיזו היא דת יהודית הוא מנהג הצניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל – What is dath yehudhiyth? It is the custom of modesty that Jewish women practice.” Rashi defines it similarly: “שנהגו בנות ישראל ואע”ג דלא כתיבא – That which Jewish women practice even though it is not written explicitly in a Biblical verse.” Lastly, the Tosafoth HaRiydh defines it as follows: “דבר שאין בו איסור אלא שהנשים נהגות בו דרך צניעות – Something which is not connected to an actual prohibition, but women practice it as a part of feminine modesty.” But what is most important to note at this point is that the Mishnah places the uncovering of a woman’s hair in public (peru`ath rosh – פרועת ראש) firmly in the category of dath yehudhiyth and not in that of dath Mosheh.

Does The Gemara Disagree?

The attendant Gemara for the Mishnaic phrase “she goes out in public and her head is uncovered” on b.Kethuboth 72a-b is fairly brief, but its terse and somewhat unclear phrasing has become the occasion for volumes of commentary since the era of Raviyna and Rav Ashiy (the original redactors of the Talmudh Bavliy).


ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע:  ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא דכתיב ופרע את ראש האשה ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש [אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל – רי”ף] דאורייתא קלתה שפיר דמי דת יהודית אפילו קלתה נמי אסור אמר רבי אסי אמר ר’ יוחנן קלתה אין בה משום פרוע ראש הוי בה רבי זירא היכא אילימא בשוק דת יהודית היא ואלא בחצר אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה אמר אביי ואיתימא רב כהנא מחצר לחצר ודרך מבוי


“What is considered to be dath yehudhiyth? She goes out in public and her head is uncovered: An uncovered head is referred to in the Torah itself, and it is written, ‘And he uncovers the head of the woman’ (cf. Bamidbar 5:18). The school of Rebbi Yishma’el taught that it is a warning to the daughters of Israel that they should not go out in public with their heads uncovered. [Rav Yehudhah said in the name of Shemu’el – girsa of the Rif and other rishoniym], ‘According to the Torah, a qalathah (קלתה) is permissible, but [according to] dath yehudhiyth even a qalathah (קלתה) is forbidden.’ Rebbi Asiy said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘[While wearing] a qalathah (קלתה) she is not considered to have an uncovered head.’ Rebbi Zeyra raised a difficulty, ‘Where [is the statement of Rebbi Yohanan applicable]? If we say that [he meant] in the open marketplace, then [we already have a statement by Shemu’el that] it is forbidden by dath yehudhiyth, and if [he is referring to] a courtyard, then we will not be able to allow a single daughter of Avraham Aviynu to remain married to her husband [i.e. since there is hardly a woman who covers her head while in her private courtyard]!’ Abayey said – and some say it was Rav Kahana – ‘[Rebbi Yohanan was referring to a woman going from] courtyard to courtyard by way of an alley.'”

Several interpretive issues and questions should stand out at first:

[1] NOWHERE in the passage does it mention dath Mosheh, but only dath yehudhiyth. (The use of the term de-oraytha will be discussed below, but dath Mosheh is simply not under discussion here.)

[2] Much depends in this passage on the definition of qalathah (קלתה). What is it?

[3] What does “according to the Torah” mean? Is it indicative of a law, or is it merely discussing the implications of the Scriptural passage in Bamidbar 5:18?

[4] Where is the description of the headcovering? The passage never discusses materials, how much hair needs to be covered in each context, or what a covering is supposed to look like. Wouldn’t Hazal have simply told us the answers to all of these pertinent questions, especially when matters of family life (i.e. divorce) is at stake?

[5] What is the meaning of “uncovered” (פרוע)? What does it mean when the kohen “uncovers” (ופרע) the hair of the sotah?

The Meaning of “De-Oraytha”

Twice in the above passage, the Gemara uses the Aramaic phrase de-oraytha (דאורייתא), which is generally understood to mean the same as min-hatorah (מן התורה – “from the Torah,” i.e. a Biblical law), but it can also have other meanings. The Sedey Hemedh (4:19) demonstrates that there are instances where the term de-oraytha (דאורייתא) indicates something rabbinic in nature or that a law is merely hinted at in the Biblical text, using the passage as an asmakhta (“support” – i.e. a verse used as a mnemonic to remember a law, or to lend it Biblical credence, but not as the actual derivation of it). He writes as follows:


Sedey Hemedh 4-19


19: de-oraytha (דאורייתא) – We find that this language is used to describe matters that are not min-hatorah, but the Gemara only wants to say that it has a support in the Torah. This is what maran the Beth Yosef wrote in Yoreh Deah at the beginning of siyman 184 (beginning with the words “And at the time…”) with regard to the rulings of the Tosafoth, the Rosh, and the Sefer Misswoth Gadhol (Semag) with regard to the mandatory separation before the menstrual cycle, as determined by a woman’s weseth (וסת), being de-oraytha (דאורייתא) – see there. Our blessed teacher the Deriyshah writes similarly in Yoreh Deah (at the beginning of siyman 183) regarding the opinion of maran (the Tur) that such separation prior to menstruation is “a law of the Torah…” – see there. We also find that maran the Beth Yosef writes in Orah Hayyim 418 – at the end of the section beginning with “And the individual…” – that what it says in the Gemara regarding rosh hodhesh, that it is de-oraytha (דאורייתא), is only the Gemara wanting to say that its asmakhta is only hinted at in the Torah – see there. And look at the Shakh in Hoshen Mishpat 28:14 where according to both the author of the commentary known as Meghillath Ester and the Shakh himself, there is a principle of Talmudic interpretation that when it says that something is “de-oraytha (דאורייתא),” and is not saying so while asking a question, then it is possible to interpret it as indicating an asmakhta. Also the Afra De-Ara, in commenting the opinion of the Ara De-Rabbanan in 42:144, writes that what Rashi wrote on the Rif in tractate Beyssah (folio 37) that when it states that conducting business on Shabbath is “a Biblical prohibition” (issur de-oraytha איסור דאורייתא) it is not necessarily so since it is clearly only rabbinic in origin and the Scriptural verse only comes to strengthen it. In Heleq HaShitah 42b, writes in the name of the Mehazeh Avraham that he takes the position on the meaning of what Rabbenu Yonah writes in the third chapter of that Berakhoth when he says that it is min-hatorah (“from the Torah”) that he wanted to say that it is hinted at in the Torah. And he concludes by admitting that this is a strained interpretation of Rabbenu Yonah, but that it is reasonable to appeal to this idea that “the Scriptural only comes to strengthen it,” since, being that it is explicit in the words of the Rambam that it is rabbinic in origin, we are comfortable in our opinion that the words of Rabbenu Yonah are in agreement with the reasoning of the Rambam – see there. And there is a further support for this in that we see that also the holy masters mentioned above are comfortable with this interpretation. And see what I have written in the second volume of this work in sections 115 (beginning with the words “And thus”) and 116. Regarding what is stated in the Gemara about melakhah on holo shel mo`ed (b.Mo`edh Qatan 11b) where it says, “The laws of aveyluth (‘mourning’) are rabbinic, melakhah on holo shel mo`edh is Biblical (de-oraytha דאורייתא),” There are those among the rishoniym that maintain that the intention of saying it is de-oraytha (דאורייתא) is to indicate that it has an asmakhta from what is written in the Torah [not that it is necessarily a Biblical law]. See Rabbi Eli`ezer of Metz in the Sefer Yere’iym #113, the Hagahoth Maymoniyoth on Hilkhoth Yom Tov chapter 7, the Rosh at the beginning of tractate Mo`edh Qatan, and the Tosafoth on b.Haghiyghah 18, beginning with the words “The intermediate days…”

It is abundantly clear from the words of the Sedey Hemedh that the term de-oraytha (דאורייתא) does not always indicate a Biblical law, but often refers to a rabbinic law that has an allusion within the Biblical text. Le-`aniyuth da`ati, I believe that this is how de-oraytha (דאורייתא) in the b.Kethuboth 72a-b is properly understood. I am not alone in this, as Rashi there writes in response to the opening assertion that “An uncovered head is de-oraytha (דאורייתא)” that “…[if this is so] then why did [the Mishnah] not call it dath Mosheh?” (72a). In other words, if going out with an “uncovered head” is Biblical in nature, then why didn’t the Mishnah list it under dath Mosheh instead of dath yehudhiyth? Note this well.

We should hereby take notice of two things: [1] the phrase de-oraytha (דאורייתא) is equated to dath Mosheh [at least possibly] by Rashi (the Rambam and other rishoniym make this leap as well, as we will see), and [2] with the language of the Mishnah immediately available, why would the Gemara – if it desired to argue that covering the head was not dath yehudhiyth – not simply say “It is dath Mosheh” instead of “de-oraytha (דאורייתא)”?

The Mysterious Qalathah

Much of the discussion around this passage of the Gemara hinges on the definition and identification of the word qalathah (קלתה), referred to three times. Rashi (72b) identifies it as a small basket used by women for carrying goods – mostly likely the Greek work basket known as a callathus. The Rambam identifies it as a mitpahath (“kerchief” – cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Iyshuth 24:9). Other rishoniym also identify it with some sort of cloth. This is most probably due to the reference to a “scarf” in the Tosefta being removed from the head of the sotah (see below), but this doesn’t necessarily make sense since the Gemara here in Kethuboth is not discussing the sotah ritual at all.

What is the common thread driving these various identifications? Their relation of the Aramaic word qalathah to a root meaning “woven.”

There are several difficulties with these identifications, however, that occur to me:

[i] If it is a basket, then what does that have to do with the shaming of the sotah in Bamidbar 5:18? Does the kohen remove a basket from her head? Certainly not. Besides, the Tosefta in t.Sotah 3:1 specifically indicates that the kohen removes a ssa`iyfah (צעיפה – a “scarf”) from the head of the sotah during the process.

[ii] What are the descriptive parameters of such a basket, a scarf (צעיפה), or kerchief (מטפחת)? If qalathah was meant to refer to either of them, then why did the Gemara not simply use those terms?

[iii] If the assumption of a cloth or kerchief on the head is due to the implication of para` during the sotah ritual, as noted previously, and it may make some initial sense on its surface, but it requires an assumption of other headgear and perhaps even a series of garments by logical extension which are not even mentioned by the Gemara. This seems to be an overly-complicated solution to properly understanding the text of the sughyah itself.

Rabbi Ya`aqov Reischer (1661-1733), in his responsa collection entitled Shevuth Ya`aqov (1:103), suggested a unique position, accepted by several major halakhists (including Rav Yosef Messas z”l), that qalathah (קלתה) means “braids” or “braiding.” He relates the Aramaic qalathah (קלתה) to the Hebrew qeliy`oth (קליעות). This identification makes sense in the context of the sotah, since the Mishnah says in b.Sotah 7a that “ufara` – and [the kohen] uncovers” means that “he undoes her hair” and Rashi explains “from its braids (מקליעתו) – as the Gemara will explain below.” (see 8a)

It seems clear, then, that qalathah here is a reference to the woman’s hair while braided and/or tied upon her head, apparently even without a covering over the top of them (e.g. a scarf, hat, etc.) This understanding of the word qalathah is also maintained by the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, ca. 1635-1682), as is referenced in the teshuvah of Rav Messas z”l on this topic, available on the website.

The Meaning of “An Uncovered Head”

It is seemingly taken for granted by most commentators that the meaning of word para` (פרע) is “uncovered.” This, however, is not true – or, at least, not completely. What the word means – both in Biblical and Rabbinic usage – is “loose” or “unrestrained,” and has the connotation of hair that is uncovered and unkempt.

Here are examples of Biblical usage with regard to hair:

[a] Wayyiqra 21:10 – The kohen gadhol is not allowed to grow his hair “long” (and unkempt).

[b] Bamidbar 6:5 – The hair of the naziyr is supposed to “grow wild” throughout the neziyruth.

[c] Devariym 32:42 – Enemies described as having “long/wild hair.”

[d] Yehezqel 44:20 – The kohaniym not allowed to either shave or let their hair grow “long/wild” (i.e. unkempt).

Examples of para` not in reference to hair:

[e] Shemoth 32:25 – Mosheh saw that the people had “gone wild” or “become unrestrained” during the worship of the golden calf.

[f] Mishley 29:18 – Without prophecy, the nation is “unrestrained” or “loose.”

In rabbinic usage, the meaning of “loose,” “unrestrained,” “unkempt” is maintained. Also masekheth Kethuboth (15b), in the Mishnah there, discusses a virgin bride on her wedding day leaving her special canopy on the way to the huppah while “her head is ‘uncovered'” (roshah parua` – ראשה פרוע), signifying that this is her first marriage. Both Rashi and the Tosafoth HaRiydh explain that this means that her hair is loose and “upon her shoulders.” They further explain that this is the custom of how the bride is when she is escorted from the house of her father to the house of her husband.

Rashi makes a blanket statement in b.Sotah 8a regarding the word para` (פרע):


ופרע: בכל מקום לשון גילוי הוא


And he loosens: In every place it is the language of revealing.”

This is an interesting statement by Rashi, especially in light of his other explicit statements about the meaning of Bamidbar 5:18 to the effect that it means “to loosen [hair from its braids].” It seems clear, however, that para` in the context of the sotah implies the entire act of removing the covering from the head, revealing the hair underneath, and disheveling it so it is loose across the shoulders.

Putting It All Together

With the language clarified, it is now possible to suggest a more cohesive reading of the Talmudic text. What I suggest is as follows:


ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע:  ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא דכתיב ופרע את ראש האשה ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש [אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל – רי”ף] דאורייתא קלתה שפיר דמי דת יהודית אפילו קלתה נמי אסור אמר רבי אסי אמר ר’ יוחנן קלתה אין בה משום פרוע ראש הוי בה רבי זירא היכא אילימא בשוק דת יהודית היא ואלא בחצר אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה אמר אביי ואיתימא רב כהנא מחצר לחצר ודרך מבוי


“What is considered to be dath yehudhiyth? She goes out in public and her hair is loose and upon her shoulders: Having her hair loose and on her shoulders is alluded to by the Torah, as it is written, ‘and the kohen shall loosen the woman’s head [of hair] from its braids [and let it rest upon her shoulders].’ And the School of Rebbi Yishmael taught that this passage is a warning to the daughters of Israel (i.e. Jewish women) not to go out in public with their hair loosened and unkempt. Rabbi Yehudhah said in the name of Shemuel, ‘From the simple implication of the Torah, having her hair up and braided while in public is permissible, but according to the custom of Jewish women even hair while braided in also forbidden to be worn in public (i.e. the braids need to be covered as well with some sort of hat or kerchief).’ Rav Asiy said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘While her hair is braided, we do not consider a woman to have infringed on the prohibition of having her hair loose (i.e. she cannot be divorced without her kethubah as described in the Mishnah).’ Rebbi Zeyra raised a difficulty with this statement, ‘Where [is the statement of Rebbi Yohanan applicable]? If we say that he meant in the open marketplace, then we already have a statement by Shemu’el that it is forbidden by the custom of Jewish women, and if he is referring to a courtyard, then we will not be able to allow a single daughter of Avraham Aviynu to remain married to her husband [i.e. since there is hardly a woman who worries about her hair while in her private courtyard]! Abayey said – and some say it was Rav Kahana – ‘[Rebbi Yohanan was referring to a woman going from] courtyard to courtyard by way of an alley.'”

So according to the Gemara, nothing – not a covering and not braids – is required either within a house or a private courtyard. Braided hair – as opposed to it being down and loose upon the shoulders – is acceptable when briefly going between private spaces via a semi-public thoroughfare. Another covering, presumably a scarf or a hat, is required by standards of modesty practiced by Jewish women. Although no garment specific is mentioned in the Gemara, it seems reasonable that Hazal assumed that the hair coverings used in each community by women – a practice that was nearly universal in the ancient world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa – would suffice to fulfill dath yehudhiyth and thus did not require an explicit description.

This interpretation makes much more sense and requires the least amount of innovation an assumption on the part of the reader.

The Talmudh Yerushalmiy

The text of the Talmudh Yerushalmiy is often terse and uses unfamiliar language and terminology – this case is no exception. This is not to say, as is unfortunately common, that it should be disregarded or that it is not useful as a halakhic source (haliylah). To the contrary, it is extremely valuable in a great many ways and for very important reasons. However, due to it being less-developed and less-studied throughout the centuries following its redaction, it often offers us less in the way of explanation than does the Bavliy – but this is certainly not always the case. So, for the sake of being thorough and in order to properly honor the hakhamiym of Eress Yisra’el, we will briefly examine y.Kethuvoth 7:6, which contains the following passage:


וראשה פרוע לחצר אמרו ק”ו למבוי רבי חייה בשם רבי יוחנן היוצאה בקפלטין שלה אין בה משום ראשה פרוע הדא דתימא לחצר אבל למבוי יש בה משום יוצאה וראשה פרוע יש חצר שהוא כמבוי ויש מבוי שהוא כחצר חצר שהרבים בוקעין בתוכה הרי הוא כמבוי ומבוי שאין הרבים בוקעין בתוכו הרי הוא כחצר


“…and her head [of hair] is loose – This was spoken in reference to a woman being within a private courtyard, so all the more so (קל וחומר) should this be the case in an alleyway. Rebbi Hiyyah said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘The woman who goes out with her qaflatiyn (קפלטין), we do not considered to have transgressed the prohibition of having her hair loose in public [i.e. she cannot be divorced without her kethubah payment because of this].’ This is what you say with regard to a private courtyard, but in an alleyway we do consider a woman to have transgressed the prohibition of having her hair loose in public [i.e. even while wearing her qaflatiyn (קפלטין)]. There is a courtyard that is like an alleyway – a courtyard into which the public traffic breaks. And behold there is an alleyway into which the traffic of the public does not break and it is like a courtyard.”

Some differences – and possible similarities – with the sughyah in the Bavliy are as follows:

[i] Whereas the Bavliy uses the word qalathah, the Yerushalmiy uses another word altogether: qaflatiyn (קפלטין), a word that may possibly be in the plural. Both the Peney Mosheh and the Qorban `Eydah explain qaflatiyn (קפלטין) with the word mitpahath (מטפחת) and the `Arukh brings an opinion that it is Latin for hanging curls of hair and a pe’ah nokhriyth (פאה נכרית) which, according to certain opinions, means a wig. The Me’iriy, in his Beth HaBehiyrah on b.Kethuboth 72a equates qaflatiyn (קפלטין) with the qalathah of the Bavliy, which he views as being a kerchief (mitpahath מטפחת).

[ii] Rebbi Yohanan, if we assume that this is the same or a similar statement as the one attributed to him in the Bavliy, is understood here to be giving the law for a courtyard, whereas in b.Kethuboth 72a-b it is determined that he is giving the law for passing between courtyards briefly via a semi-private alley.

[iii] Perhaps the most obvious difference from the Bavliy is that the Yerushalmiy does not build its case from the parashah involving the sotah in Bamidbar 5:18.

[iv] The passage in the Yerushalmiy ends by stipulating that the status of both a courtyard and an alleyway is subject to change on the basis of the amount of public traffic they receive. The Bavliy makes no such stipulations.

Ssariykh `Iyyun.

The View of the Rambam

Due to the magnificence and centrality of the Mishneh Torah to halakhah, and particularly to meqoriyuth, we will now examine the view of the Rambam on this subject. And while I certainly do not believe, as is unfortunately the common conception in the Haredi-Hasidic world, that the Mishneh Torah is essentially a closed and incoherent work from which it is nearly impossible to perceive the position of the Rambam from Hazal on any given issue, in this case a complete understanding is, in some ways, truly difficult.

Completely elucidating the opinion of the Rambam with regard to the issue of kisuy rosh le-nashiym, dath Mosheh, and dath yehudhiyth is not the most difficult task at hand, however, as he does clearly state his understanding of the law in plain language. The most difficult task is actually understanding how he gets from the text of the talmudh to arrive at his particular position.

There is neither need nor space here to go through all the details that comprise the breadth of the view of the Rambam – which would be a major undertaking all by itself – but there are two main points I would like to address here:

[1] First, but not entirely relevant to the main point of our discussion here, is that in the Mishneh Torah, “dath Mosheh” does not refer only to things which are min-hatorah necessarily, but also includes things which are rabbinic in nature (as the Rambam highlights in Hilkhoth Iyshuth 24), yet they are nevertheless thought by the Rambam to be based on actual directives of the Torah itself. This ambiguity as to the definition of dath Mosheh – seemingly being composed of both laws that are min-hatorah and mi-divreyhem – is perhaps the central reason for the difficulties present in the Rambam’s expressed perspective vis-à-vis the text of the Gemara in b.Kethuboth 72a-b.

[2] Second, and most important to our discussion, is that while the Mishnah clearly lists “going out with an uncovered head” in the category of dath yehudhiyth, the Rambam lists is under dath Mosheh (cf. Hilkhoth Iyshuth 24:9[11]), creating an entirely different category for what constitutes a violation of dath yehudhiyth, namely going out without a full-body cloak known as a radhiydh (רדיד), which is analogous to the khimaar (خمار) or abaayah (عباية) worn by Muslim women (cf. Hilkhoth Iyshuth 13:13; 24:11 and Shiyr HaShiyriym 5:7). His understanding of dath Mosheh is his perception of a requirement from the Torah for women to wear a headscarf called a mitpahath (מטפחת – cf. Hilkhoth Iyshuth 24:9). So we can clearly see that the Rambam essentially relates dath Mosheh and dath yehudhiyth to two different garments, each increasing in their level of coverage respectively. But it does not stop there, as we will see shortly, when the Rambam assumes the presence of a third garment.

It is my firm contention, and I am not alone in this reading of the Rambam, that he more or less draws lines between the text of the Gemara to the pieces of women’s clothing commonly worn in the Arab-Muslim world in which he resided. The section of the Mishneh Torah that bears this out most clearly is in Hilkhoth Sotah 3:5, where he describes the shaming of the suspected adulteress as follows:


וכל איש שיחפוץ לבוא ולראותה יבוא ויראה והיא עומדת ביניהן בלא רדיד ולא מטפחת אלא בבגדיה וכופח שעל ראשה כמו שהאישה בתוך ביתה


“…and any man who so desires to come and see her comes and sees her, and she stands among them without a full-body cloak (רדיד), without a headscarf (מטפחת) – nothing except for her clothes and the cap (כופח) which is upon her head, just as a woman is dressed while within her house.”

Headcoverings in MT - Table 3

Table 1.1

[Just a side note before moving forward: Whenever punitive “shaming” is mentioned in connection with Jewish jurisprudence, especially when it is a woman, it is important to clearly explain that it is always “measure for measure” (middah ke-neghedh middah). In other words, the person who is the object of the shame is first found guilty of shameful behavior. In the case of the sotah, it is not true that any jealous husband may simply subject his wife to the drinking of the mey ha-mariym hame’oreriym (“the bitter waters that cause curse” – cf. Bamidbar 5:18). She must first have repeatedly demonstrated the shameful and distasteful behavior of openly spending time alone with and talking flirtatiously with other men, even after her husband has asked her not to do so. Without these prerequisite actions on her part, establishing her behavior patterns through valid witnesses, and having been properly warned – not only should he not make her drink the waters of curse, it is forbidden by halakhah for him to do so (cf. Hilkhoth Sotah 1). Judaism is a system of order based on reason and law – it does not obsess itself with subjugating women and it does not indulge obsessively jealous husbands. דו”ק]

Headcoverings in the MT - Table 2

Table 1.2

Le-`aniyuth da`ati, the claim that the Rambam assumed Arab norms of dress and modesty, reading it back into the Gemara, is incontrovertible based on this text.  The kupah (כופח), which is a small “cap” similar to what some Arab-Muslim women wear under their hijaab, is also mentioned as being part of the kesuth (“clothing”) that a husband owes his wife according to halakhah (cf. Hilkhoth Iyshuth 13:1). No reference to this garment or the full-body cloak (radhiydh רדיד), however, exists in the words of Hazal.

Headcoverings MT vs Gemara - Table 4

Table 1.3

Ardent “Rambamists” must deal with this reality. It is incumbent upon them to admit that the construct – as presented in the Mishneh Torah and displayed in the tables above – is derived independently of Talmudic law and only alludes to it in a cursory manner. All of this is said, of course, with only the greatest respect and honor for the Nesher HaGadhol, Rav Mosheh ben Maymon z”l.

Practical Summary

In response to the questions posed in the introduction:

Where were Jewish women required to cover their hair in the times of the Gemara? In the times of the Gemara, when it was the standard “custom of Jewish women,” they were only required to cover their hair fully in the public sphere (“the marketplace”) and partially – or perhaps just braided and not covered – in a semi-public place (“an alleyway”). And these places, if frequented by the public may also be places where it is required for a woman to cover their hair (Yerushalmiy).

What type of covering is required? A type of covering required to be worn on a woman’s head is never specified by Hazal. Apparently there is a partial type of covering (or, again, more likely not a covering but a woman’s hair being braided), a mysterious object referred to as a qalathah. The required size, material, shape, etc. is never mentioned for the qalathah either.

How much hair needs to be covered – every single hair, most of it, part of it? The amount of hair required to be covered is never explicitly discussed in the sources of Hazal, the Mishnah and the Talmudh.

What is the purpose for covering the hair according to the halakhah? The purpose for covering the hair was for modesty and propriety because it was “the practice of Jewish women.” Rabbi Yishma’el only says that the pasuq in the Torah regarding the sotah is only a “warning” (אזהרה – azharah), not an actual law. Neither the Sanhedriyn nor any other beyth diyn ever ruled on this. The courts only upheld the common practice of women, just as they upheld common practices when it came to hiring day-laborers and other halakhic matters tied to the cultural context of a particular place and time.

Jewish women covered their hair in the ancient world because it was the custom of women in nearly every culture in those times to do so. This is the reason why it was not necessary to make it a law in the Torah or for Hazal to make it a ruling. Since the Torah did not make a law, Hazal did not feel it was necessary for them to legislate every detail of feminine modesty, but only to enforce the sentiments of propriety for married women in that time. Since the cultural sentiment of modesty at that time included women covering their hair while in public, and that not doing so was considered shameful, Hazal entitled a husband at that time to divorce his wife, should she carry herself that way in public, because it was embarrassing. This would also have also been the case, according to the Mishnah, for women who carried on conversations with men who were not their relatives, but today since women and men talk normally in public, no beyth diyn would grant a divorce without a kethubah payment for this reason.

Other things we know:

The covering of heir is listed by Hazal under the category of “custom” not “law” – the Mishnah explicitly calling it dath yehudhiyth and NOT dath Mosheh. Placing it under “dath Mosheh” is a misreading of the Gemara by the Rambam (and those who followed him in his error) which was apparently motivated by Islamic cultural norms.

We also know that covering the hair is no longer “the custom of Jewish women” today. Nothing proves this more than the widespread custom of Haredi women to wear wigs in order to “cover” their hair. There is no difference, in either reality or halakhah, between a woman’s hair and a wig (a pe’ah nokhiyth is not a sheitel, and notice that the Gemara here in this sughyah doesn’t mention one either – cf. GR”A, Shenoth Eliyahu on Masekheth Shabbath 6:5). All that sheitels have proven is that even the most stringent sectors of orthodox Jewry are completely fine with women wearing a fashionable yet modest hairstyle today.

Finally, Who is required to cover their hair today? In reality, no one. Rav Yosef Messas z”l has written an unassailable defense of women no longer being required to cover their hair at all in modern times. A full English translation of his teshuvah can be downloaded HERE. He explains that since it was merely the custom of Jewish women tied to the broader context of feminine modesty in that time and place, since the societal norms have changed, so has the halakhah in this matter.

Final Thoughts

A great deal more could be written on this subject from the standpoint of halakhah, but perhaps more important is the over-arching religious philosophy connected to it. In other words, what are we trying to accomplish and what reality is before us? These are central questions that demand an answer.

When women are asked why they cover their hair today, they usually respond that it has to do with “tznius” (modesty), but when they are asked how wearing a wig – or even covering their hair in the first place – makes them more modest than the next woman who doesn’t, most women will respond that they do not think that a woman with uncovered hair is necessarily “not tznius” or immodest at all. Instead, they propose new definitions of modesty, such as “modesty does not mean being unattractive or hiding beauty” which of course cannot be true as this is exactly what the concept of modesty was in the ancient world, and to a certain extent it still is. In fact, the word for “modesty” (צניעות) comes from a root meaning “hidden” or “to hide.” Other times, women will express how covering their hair is a personal choice that helps remind them of their “submission to God.” This certainly a nice and meaningful idea, but really has no source in Hazal. Lastly, and this is especially true when discussing wigs, women often give kabbalistic reasons why they cover their hair. All of this is to highlight the fact of Rav Messas’ assessment that the status of women’s hair in our modern world has become completely different than how it was viewed socially in more ancient times. Because it is not seen as anything other than a personal religious choice, one which no longer contains any real moral value – only social implications – new reasons for continuing the practice of covering the hair in public needed to be sought out.

This is the reality in front of us. And so the next question is: What is the goal given this reality? Is it to re-create the past? Is it to re-invent the rationale behind Jewish practices? Is it to pretend that cultural norms in this area haven’t changed? As I have said before, other than examining the halakhah honestly, which is the duty of Jews for any subject in Judaism, I do not believe that women’s modesty really even needs to be on the docket. I have never met an honestly religious woman who was not modest. Women already have an innate sense of propriety within moral cultures and so there seems to be little need for Jewish men to worry about it. Maybe this is why the Sanhedriyn never ruled on this matter, but simply upheld “the custom of Jewish women” (i.e. dath yehudhiyth)?

Kol tuv,


First Review of Rav Messas’ Teshuvah in Translation

“Excellent translation and commentary. Yishar koach for your important work…”

– Rabbi Haim Ovadia, leader of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, MD

If you have not yet read the translation of Rav Yosef Messas’ teshuvah on the subject of women’s hair coverings – available only on – you may download it HERE.

Teshuvah of Rav Yosef Messas z”l on Women Covering Their Hair

When it comes to the discussion of whether or not women are required by halakhah to cover their hair in public, there is perhaps no teshuvah (halakhic responsum) more referenced or discussed than that of Rav Yosef Messas z”l (1892-1974), who served as a rav in Morocco, Algeria, and Israel (Haifa). The reason for this is that he presents a cogent and cohesive argument on the basis of the Mishnah, Gemara, and the works of several rishoniym that Jewish women today are not halakhically required to cover their hair.

Its Hebrew text has been transcribed on a host websites and forums, but the content has been largely inaccessible to most due to both language and learning barriers. Written in a thoroughly rabbinic style and containing text in both Hebrew and Aramaic, this brilliantly written letter in its original form is a challenging text even for those who are able to read and understand Hebrew. But now, for the first time ever, the entire teshuvah has been translated beautifully into English, complete with supplementary and explanatory footnotes. This expansive translation is extremely readable and easy to understand with all Biblical, Talmudic, and halakhic references noted.

The PDF is available for download HERE

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