[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 Shabbat, I spent some time during the afternoon – as I often do – sitting in the living room of a dear friend, enjoying the air conditioning, and engaging in discussion with couples from our community. 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. Upon hearing my friend’s wife singing and humming zemirot in the kitchen nearby, they began to pejoratively shout “Kol ishah! Kol ishah!” in the midst of laughter. I was immediately struck by this response, and noticed that the boys represented a mixed group of religious, 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.
“Um, that you can’t listen to women singing or you will go to hell?” They responded with sarcasm, looking at each other and laughing.
“Actually, no,” I said, “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 are able to ignore them and concentrate, then you don’t have to worry about it even then.” I explained.
Their sarcasm and deprecation almost immediately turned to intrigue. Their faces turned serious, their expressions a bit suspicious of my answer.
“Is that it?” They asked.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“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 issue of music has nothing to do with women or their voices.”
The boys began looking at one another and one of them spoke up:
“That makes total sense; way more sense.” He said.
Like many Jewish boys, these young men had been given a definition of kol ishah that was decidedly Haredi 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 very literally by having their bodies consumed with fire in hell. Apparently, this was supposed to be middah ke-neged middah (“measure for measure”) for all of the lust that would consume them by listening to women sing. 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 deeply out of step with reality.
Kol ishah, as will be shown, began with a reasonable and universal rabbinic interpretation, but ended up – for various reasons – being extended by a small number of European expositors into a general ban on listening to the voice of women (even their speaking voice!)
Before we begin digging into the mekorot, it should be noted that although the original parameters of kol ishah are fairly straightforward (and the various opinions among the Rishonim divide across regional lines), many of the sources themselves are intricate. In translating them, I did my best to present them clearly, giving bracketed explanations where necessary.
Kol Ishah – The Sources
There are two places in the Talmud Bavli – b.Berakhot 24a and b.Kiddushin 70a – where the halakhic issue of kol ishah (קול אישה) is mentioned. Both instances appear to be aggadic in nature (i.e. non-halakhic) that are ancillary to the sugyah in which they appear.
In Masekhet Berakhot (24b), in the midst of a discussion regarding where, when, and in what circumstances it is permissible to recite Kiryat Shema, the following list of statements discuss parts of a woman’s body that are considered to be ervah (ערווה – “nakedness”) and which, if they are visible, prevent the recitation of Shema:
TRANSLATION (Straight Read)
“Rebbi Yitzhak 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 Sheshet say, ‘For what purpose did the pasuk 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 Kiryat 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.’ Shmuel said, ‘The voice of a woman is nakedness. As it says, For your voice is sweet and your appearance is lovely.’ Rav Sheshet said, ‘The hair of a woman is nakedness. As it says, You hair is like a flock of goats.'”
“Rebbi Yitzhak said, ‘An [exposed] hand’s breadth [tefah] of a woman is nakedness [ervah].’ 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 Sheshet [already say], ‘For what purpose did the pasuk 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 [makom 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 Yitzhak spoke] regarding one’s own wife in the context of Kiryat Shema. Rav Hisda said, ‘The [exposed] thigh [shok] of a woman is nakedness [ervah]. As it says [i.e. in Yeshayahu 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.’ Shmuel said, ‘The voice [kol] of a woman is nakedness [ervah]. As it says [i.e. in Shir HaShirim 2:14], For your voice is sweet and your appearance is lovely.’ Rav Sheshet said, ‘The hair [se’ar] of a woman is nakedness [ervah]. As it says [i.e. in Shir HaShirim 4:1], You hair is like a flock of goats.'”
We will return to the meaning of Shmuel’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 at this point to explain that the word usually translated “nakedness” (ערווה – ervah) does not carry with it the sole meaning of “nudity” (which would be the word arom – ערום), but usually implies “sexual impropriety,” “immodesty,” being “unchaste,” etc.
In Masekhet Kiddushin (70a-b), the statement of Shmuel regarding kol ishah (קול אישה) is mentioned within the context of a much larger story regarding a contention that arose between Rav Yehudah ben Yehezkel (of Pumbedita) 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 Yehudah to take his meat first before he was to be served, the Nehardean made a disrespectful remark, calling Rav Yehudah a glutton through an intentional mispronunciation of his name. Upon hearing this, Rav Yehudah put the man under a ban and pronounced him a slave (i.e. a “slave” from a legal standpoint). In response, the Nehardean brought a case against Rav Yehudah to be heard in front of Rav Nahman, the son-in-law if the reish galuta (ריש גלותא – “exilarch”), the political head of the Diaspora Jewish community. Rav Yehudah, however, was incensed and 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 Yehudah 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 Shmuel to do so – 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 reish galuta, 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 a level of respect for herself that was accorded to the greatest of hakhamim (cf. b.Berakhot 51a). Rav Yehudah, however, stubbornly refused to do so – as he stubbornly refused every other suggestion of Rav Nahman on that occasion – by citing Shmuel’s statement “קול באישה ערוה – The voice of a woman is nakedness.” So much did he insist on resisting the suggestions of Rav Nahman (even Yalta advised him that Rav Yehudah 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 Masekhet Berakhot, appears aggadic rather than halakhic. Rav Yehudah’s application is seriously disputed by Rav Nahman’s own commonsense, but, as has already been noted, this use of Shmuel was most likely due to his contempt for having to appear before Rav Nahman, rather than an actual halakhic position which he espoused.
The Talmud Yerushalmi
In the Talmud Yerushalmi, the statement of Shmuel regarding kol ishah appears only once. Although the discussion is characteristically brief, the hakhmei eretz 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 kol ishah at all (as opposed to the Rav Alfasi, as we shall 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 baraita, ‘The one who gazes [licentiously] on the heel of a woman, it is as if he gazed [licentiously] at the house of the womb [beit 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.’ Shmuel said, ‘The voice of a woman is nakedness.’ What is the reason for this [i.e. for saying so]? [Because of the pasuk in Yermiyahu 3:9, which says] ‘From the voice of her fornication the land became polluted,’ etc.”
It appears that in the Yerushalmi, kol ishah is viewed as 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 tzeniut (modesty) on both men and women jointly. Men must be very careful not to misuse women, degrade them, or treat them as sexual objects – i.e. 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” – i.e. females must acknowledge their sexual beauty 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 Rishonim.
In the areas of hashkafah and Biblical studies, Rav Sa’adia Gaon (also known as Rasag) is the premier Gaon with his HaNivhar Emunot Va-De’ot, Arabic tafsir (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 usually remembered as a philosopher and a grammarian, not a halakhist.
Halakhically, however, four Geonim stand above the rest, being extensively quoted by the subsequent Rishonim: Rav Haye Gaon, Rav Yehudai Gaon, Rav Shimon Kayara, and Rav Ahai Gaon. There were others, such as Rav Natronai Gaon, Rav Amram Gaon, and Rav Sherira Gaon whose quotations also found some prominence in the works of the Rishonim, but because they did not produce comprehensive halakhic codes or compendiums, they occupied a more limited sphere of influence on later authorities.
Rav Haye ben Sherira Gaon (969 – 1038 CE, Pumbedita) was considered to have been the last of the Geonim, as well as one of the most prolific. His teshuvot and personal customs are cited by numerous later authorities as proof of certain legal positions in various areas of halakhah.
Rav Yehudai Gaon (Reish Metivta in Sura, 757 – 761 CE) is most famously the author of a Geonic code known as the Halakhot Pesukot (sometimes referred as Sefer Halakhot Katan). This work is only extant in a partial manuscript from Yemen and citations in the works of various Rishonim. He is sometimes confused with Shimon Kayara, the author of the Halakhot Gedholot, another – and, perhaps the best known – Geonic codification of Talmudic halakhah.
Shimon Kayara (known also as the Bahag – Ba’al Halakhot Gedholot) appears to make extensive use of the She’iltot 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 Ahai Gaon (8th century CE) the author of a compendium of halakhic derashot which are organized according to the weekly parashah known as the She’iltot. Of a decidedly different style than later works, such as the Gedholot or the Pesukot, the She’iltot does not simply cull statements from the Mishnah, Baraitot, and Talmudim. Instead, it fuses a fair share of midrashim into its discussions, apparently tailoring them so as to be read to ba’alei batim on a weekly basis. Ahai also 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 rabbanim who served as Gaon, it is chiefly the works of these four men which are collectively referred to as “the Geonim” and which are viewed being generally representative of the shitot of that era.
Of these works, neither the She’iltot nor the Halakhot Pesukot appear to mention, or even record, Shmuel’s statement at all, not in the context of berakhot or Kiryat Shema and not in the context of general feminine modesty. The Halakho Gedholoth, however, does codify the statement of Shmuel, but places it under the laws of Kiryat Shema – an association that will make more sense as we proceed. Rav Haye Gaon – as his words appear in the Otzar HaGeonim (Perushim 102) – also place kol ishah squarely within the context of Kiryat Shema. He additionally makes several important distinctions in the arena of tzeniut.
[24a] “…but it is regard to one’s wife at the time of Kiryat 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 Haye 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 Kiryat 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 Kiryat 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 Kiryat Shema] if he then gazes at it, but just having it in his general field of view is permitted [i.e. during Kiryat Shema].
The opinion of Rav Yehudai Gaon – presumably of the Halakhot Pesuqot – is cited in the Sefer Yere’im (392) and essentially echoes the sentiments of Rav Haye in Otzar HaGeonim.
TRANSLATION (From שמואל to של אישה)
“Shmuel 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 Yehudai Gaon z”l as being relevant to Kiryat Shema. It is therefore forbidden to say Kiryat Shema or another davar kedushah while listening to the singing voice of a woman.”
The practical conclusions drawn from the Geonim are as follows:
 The statement(s) of Shmuel apply – at most – specifically to Kiryat 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 Kiryat Shema.
 The passage in b.Kiddushin 70 is apparently ignored and/or is considered to be an aggadic passage rather than a halakhic one.
First of all, there is a marked divide regarding the parameters of kol ishah among the Rishonim; a chasm 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 Geonim, 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 Kiryat Shema – is expressly forbidden. This latter position comprises a very small minority among the commentators.
Yehudah HeHasid (pop. “HaChasid”), a prominent leader of the 12th and 13th century dualist group of Jewish ascetics known as the “Hasidei Ashkenaz,” forbids even listening to a woman talk on the basis of Shmuel’s statement, as does Yeshayah of Trani (pop. “Rid”) from Italy, and the Ra’avad of Provence, France. The Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel), although he resided in Toledo, Spain, was originally from Germany and at times expressed halakhic opinions like those of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, as did his son, Rabbi Ya’akov 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’avad on the laws of taharat 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 Yehudah HeHasid was leading the “Hasidei Ashkenaz,” there were other hakhamim who seem to have been more inclined toward strict Talmudic and Geonic interpretations, rather than contrived stringencies produced by mystical speculations accompanied by an unprecedented re-interpretion of the language of the sugyah. For instance, Rabbi Eliezer ben Shmuel of Metz (? – 1175 CE), the author of the Sefer HaYere’im noted above, held as the Geonim did, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi (1140 – ca. 1220, known popularly as the “Ra’avyah”) also takes a very reasonable approach, to both kol ishah and tzeniut in general, and strives to put the seemingly rigid statements made in Masekhet Berakhot 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 Halakhot Gedholot 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 [shok] 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 Hananel.
And I say that the reason that [the voice is included with the skin, hair, and the thigh] is that, although the voice 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.Berakhot 25b and Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Kiryat Shema 3:16] – in front of which it is permissible to recite Kiryat Shema. For there [i.e. on b.Berakhot 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 Kiryat Shema in front of it]. And this is also my opinion on the matter.
A proof of this is what we read in the Talmud Yerushalmi there [in the same sugyah – i.e. y.Berakhot 3:5]: ‘Rav Ila 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. Penei 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 Haye 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 Masekhet Hallah of the Talmud Yerushalmi, we read about what they taught in a mishnah: ‘A woman may sit and separate her hallah while nude.’ From this statement they said that buttocks are not considered nakedness [ervah] 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 baraita, ‘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 Berakhot 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 Shmuel’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 isur at all. This probably means that the Ra’avyah agrees with the heter of Rav Haye Gaon of being able to recite Shema if one is accustomed to the speaking or singing voice of women, to the point that he can sufficiently ignore them and still have proper intention during his recitation and the attendant berakhot. However, he disagrees with Rav Haye 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 Kiryat Shema and making general berakhot.
These are the hakhamim of Germany, France, and Italy. As for the rest [read, majority] of the Rishonim, they ruled very similarly – if not identically – to the Geonim.
The Rif (from Fez, Morocco) in his Halakhot simply ignores the statements of Shmuel regarding kol ishah 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 Shmuel indicate that he did not consider this statement to be halakhah. The Rif also ignores Talmud Yerushalmi in his Halakhot, expressing his opinion that the Bavli is superior and was composed later (cf. Rif on b.Eruvin 104b). He therefore also completely omits the Yerushalmi passage cited above.
Other non-European Rishonim echo – or directly quote – the sentiments of the Geonim. The Ritva (13th-14th centuries, Spain), whose opinions and hidushim on the Gemara were compiled in an abridged form by the 16th century commentator, Rav Betzalel Ashkenazi (Ottoman Palestine) and published as the well-known Shitah HaMekubetzet. Rav Ashkenazi wrote as follows:
“Kol be-ishah ervah (“The voice of a woman is nakedness”). Explanation: With regard to Kiryat 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 Rishonim 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 sugyah is to be accepted as halakhah. He also affirms that the Talmud Bavli is the generally superior document in determining practical halakhah (cf. Hakdamah to the Mishneh Torah). Unlike the Rif, however – and more in line with the methodology of Rabbenu Hananel – the Rambam does not ignore the determinations of the Talmud Yerushalmi, routinely including them in his summations of various halakhic topics – and the topic of kol ishah is no exception.
Similar to the Rif, the Rambam omits any mention of a prohibition on hearing the voice of a woman in his Hilkhot Kiryat Shema, meaning that he essentially ignores the statement of Shmuel from Masekhet Berakhot. He likewise ignores the aggadic mention of kol be-ishah ervah from Masekhet Kiddushin. The passage found in the Yerushalmi, 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 (arayot – Hilkhot Isurei 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-arayot]. 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 [makom 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 arayot, 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 Bavli, but from the Yerushalmi.
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 baraita 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 kol ishah during Kiryat Shema, to the Rambam it does not even 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 Hayim (75:3), “יש ליזהר משמיעת קול זמר אישה בשעת קריאת שמע – One should be wary of hearing the singing voice during Kiryat 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 HaEzer (21:3). The Rama adds to the statement in Orah Hayim, “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 ervah for him.” This is clearly being drawn from the position of the Ra’avyah cited above.
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 many times to combine various sources to form a new opinion. He 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 humrot as it did kulot, 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 Karo 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 Rishonim – even the three that he generally selected in his hakdamah, 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 due to this state of affairs behind 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 hakhamim include: the Maharal, the Maharshal, the BaH, the Gra, Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l, Hakham Ovadiah Yosef z”l, Rav Yosef Messas z”l, the Rogathchover Gaon z”l, Mori HaYashish Rav Yihya Al-Qafih z”l, Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, Rav Ratson Arusi (יצ”ו), Rav David Bar-Hayim (יצ”ו), and many others.
From the standpoint of the sources, there are various positions that one could take in relation to kol ishah, 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 mishehu al lismokh – they have someone on whom to rely” whenever it is possible to do so. This is unity and the opposite is sinat hinam, i.e. finding an aveirah where there isn’t one.
From the standpoint of the future of orthodox Judaism vis-à-vis current realities, I believe – le-aniyut da’ati – that it behooves us to look at the history behind the development of the current Haredi-Hasidic definition of kol ishah (that is taken almost for granted in nearly every halakhic discussion of the subject), and to seriously re-evaluate it.
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 as a singular halakhic fact. Not only this, but many feel that when they listen to women sing (appropriately, of course) 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 sources 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 kol ishah it certainly seems to be both possible and warranted to return to the historic majority pesak of restricting the concern to distracting singing heard during Kiryat Shema.
In conclusion, it appears clear to me from the sources above that kol ishah is about women singing (and possibly talking) while a man is reciting Shema, even his own wife – ONLY. This is the universal opinion of the Geonim. Based on Rav Haye 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 kol ishah at all. 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 halakhot related to music in another post.