The Voice of a Woman

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Parsha Halacha/Parshat Beshalach – Shabbat Shira
Laws Relating to Kol Isha
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The Torah portion of Beshalach describes how, after Moshe and the Jewish people sang the song of the sea, the prophetess Miriam took the tambourine in her hand and led the Jewish women in song and dance.
When describing this event, the Torah writes, “ותען להם מרים – And Miriam called out to them,”[1] using the masculine form for “them” (להם instead of להן). This is unusual since it seems that she was calling the women as the previous verse says, “And all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances.”
The commentaries offer several explanations for this:
  • The verse is referring to the fact that Miriam began her song only after the men finished their song. According to this explanation the verse is to be understood as saying, “And Miriam responded (to the song of the men) with a song for the women.”[2]
  • At the time of the song of the sea, the women achieved prophecy which is more frequently achieved by men. (See tractate Megillah [14a] that in our history, there were 48 male prophets whose prophecy was relevant for all time whereas there were only seven female prophets who achieved that distinction. But see Rabeinu Bachaye[3] who says that these seven prophetesses correspond to the seven attributes.) The masculine term is therefore used.[4]
  • The angels had wanted to sing to G-d before the men began their Song of the Sea. But G-d told them to wait until the men would finish. After the men finished, the angels were unsure if they must also wait for the women to complete their song. So “Miriam responded to them (to the angels[5])” and invited them to sing before the women, considering that G-d had told them to wait only for the men.[6]
  • Some say that Miriam and the women repeated the words of the Song of the Sea after the men. This is why it says, “And Miriam responded להם – to them” in the masculine as her song was a responsive song to the men.[7]
Hearing the Women Sing
The Talmud says[8] that “Kol be’isha ervah” the voice of a woman is considered an ervah – a sensual matter that is forbidden for men to hear. This prohibition applies to the sound of a woman singing. (See below regarding the speech of a woman.) Based on this, the commentaries question[9] how Miriam and the women could have sung in the presence of the men. Several explanations have been given:
  • Rav Yonatan Eibeshitz says that the women played on the tambourines while singing so the men would not hear their voices.[10]
  • The Talmud says[11] that one who is in the presence of the Shechina (Divine presence) will not have sinful thoughts. Based on this, the Chida writes[12] that it was not forbidden for men to hear the Song of Devorah, the Prophetess, as she was uttering a prophecy and the Shechinah was present, for which reason the men would not have any sinful thoughts. The same can be said about the Song of Miriam.
The rest of this article will discuss some of the laws relating to kol be’isha erva – the prohibition of (men) hearing a woman’s (singing) voice.
Kol Isha – Source of the Prohibition.
In the Talmud,[13] Shmuel (of Neharda’a, a contemporary of Rav) cites the following verse from the Song of Songs (2:14) as the source for the prohibition of hearing a woman’s voice: “Because your voice is sweet and your appearance is beautiful.” Since the verse uses an admiring tone to describe a woman’s voice, it is understood that hearing such a voice can awaken sinful thoughts in a man. In addition, since the verse mentions both a woman’s voice and her appearance, the two are compared. Just as looking at a woman’s body can lead to sinful thoughts, the same must be true of hearing a woman’s voice.
An Alternate Verse
In the Jerusalem Talmud,[14] the same Shmuel cites a different verse as the source of this law. It is from the Book of Jeremiah (3:9) where it says, “And it will be that from the voice of her immorality that the land will be corrupted.” The commentaries explain that Shmuel simply taught the law of kol isha, and his students differed as to which verse was the source of the law.[15]
Although the verse from Jeremiah seems more explicit, the Babylonian Talmud chooses to prove it from the verse in the Song of the Songs as the verse in Jeremiah can be translated in a way that is not referring to the voice at all: “And her hastiness to debauchery will corrupt the land.” (They translated kol as something light or quick – as in kal, which is how the Targum and some of the other commentaries render it.)
Torah or Rabbinic Prohibition?
There is an argument as to whether it is forbidden by Torah or Rabbinic law for a man to gaze at a woman’s beauty.
  • The Rambam writes,[16] “It is forbidden to gaze at her beauty. One who does so purposefully would be given makot mardut (lashes for rebelliousness).” Since makot mardut are given to one who violates Rabbinic laws, it seems that, according to the Rambam, this is a Rabbinic violation.[17]
  • Rabbeinu Yonah writes[18] that, “It is said about the sense of sight, ‘Do not turn after your hearts and after your eyes.’[19] This is a warning that a man may not gaze at a married woman or at any forbidden woman lest he become ensnared with them.” This indicates that it is a Torah violation.
It has been suggested that this argument would also apply to the prohibition of kol isha, and, that according to the Rambam it is a Rabbinic violation whereas according to Rabbeinu Yonah it is a Rabbinic violation.[20]
Some say,[21] however, there is no argument between the Rabmbam and Rabbeinu Yonah at all. Rather, both agree that if one gazes at a woman in a licentious manner it is a Torah violation (and this is what Rabbeinu Yonah was referring to), while if one gazes at her without sinful intent, it is a Rabbinic violation (and the Rambam was talking about this case).
At All Times
 When the Talmud discusses the prohibition of hearing the voice of a woman (kol isha), it is in the context of reciting the Shema. Some of the commentaries say that the prohibition applies to one who is reading the Shema, praying or doing any holy activity.[22] The Shulchan Aruch rules[23] (based on many of the commentaries[24]), however, that this prohibition applies at all times.
Close Relatives
A man may hear the voice of his wife.[25] It would seem that the same would apply to one’s mother, daughters and sisters.
When Reading the Shema
One may not read the Shema or do any other holy activity while hearing the singing voice of any woman, even one’s close relatives.[26]
Singing or Speaking
It is clear from various stories in the Tanach and Talmud that it is permitted to hear the voice of a woman speaking. Here are several examples:[27]
  • Devorah, the Prophetess, judged the Jewish people.[28] Certainly, she spoke to them.
  • Eily, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), spoke with Chana, the mother of Shmuel.[29]
  • King David spoke to Avigayil who (at that time) was married to another man.[30]
  • Elisha, the Prophet, spoke with the Shunamit.[31]
  • Rabbi Yossi HaGlili spoke with Beruriyah, the wife of Rabbi Meir.[32]
  • Rabbi Chiyah spoke with his wife Yehudit who was disguised as another (married) woman, not realizing that it was his wife.[33]
This is why the Mishnah[34] warns against speaking excessively with a woman-because ordinary speech is not forbidden (as long as it is not excessive).
Convivial Speech
The Talmud says[35] that when Rabbi Nachman suggested that Rabbi Yehudah ask his (Rabbi Nachman’s) wife Yalta  how she was doing, Rabbi Yehudah refused, explaining that he would be forbidden to listen to her response based on the principle of “kol be’isha ervah” – that it’s forbidden to hear the voice of a woman. In accordance with that, the Rashba says[36] that the prohibition of kol isha extends to any type of speech that can lead to a feeling of closeness (kiruv hada’at).
Most of the halachic codifiers say[37] that the prohibition of kol isha applies only to the singing voice of a woman. But some cite the opinion of the Rashba.[38]
As to the story of Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nachman, there are various other ways to interpret why Rabbi Yehudah refused to inquire of Yalta as to her wellbeing:
  • Rabbi Yehudah was not interested in speaking with Yalta at that time, and he was using the concept of kol isha as an excuse.[39]
  • Although by the letter of the law it was permissible for Rabbi Yehudah to converse with Yalta, he felt that an important Torah scholar should be strict and refrain from this.[40]
  • In those days it was customary for women to greet people with a chant that resembled singing.[41]
  • Although one may converse with another man’s wife if necessary, Rabbi Yehudah felt that this particular conversation would be an unnecessary one and therefore forbidden. (See the Mishna cited above that one should not converse excessively with women.)[42]
  • It is forbidden to listen to even the ordinary speech of a woman if one has a lustful intent. Rabbi Yehudah feared that by initiating a casual conversation with a married woman, it might appear that he was enjoying her voice which would be forbidden.[43]
May we soon merit the Messianic Era regarding which it says, “‘Sing and rejoice, Daughters of Zion, because I am coming to dwell among you!’ says G-d.”[44]
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!

[1] Exodus, 15:21
[2] See Rashi on the verse
[3] On Exodus, ibid
[4] Kli Yakar
[5] The Torah uses the masculine form when referring to angels, see Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 610:9
[6] Midrash, cited in Pirush HaRiva on the Torah and in the Torah Shleima
[7] Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Pano in his book Kanfei Yonah, section 3, Siman 36
See there for an additional reason as to why the women used specifically tambourines: To mock the Egyptians who worshipped the sun god. The tambourine represents the sun (perhaps due to its round shape) so the women were alluding to the fact that the sun god could not save the Egyptians from their punishment by the one and only true G-d.
[8] Brachot, 24a
[9] See below that some say that kol isha is a Biblical prohibition
[10] Tiferet Yehonatan on the Torah by Rabbi Yonatan Eibeshitz
[11] Niddah, 13a. According to one of the explanations of the Talmud there, it would be impossible for Rabbi Yehudah to have sinful thoughts while in a synagogue (and thus in the presence of the Shechinah). According to another explanation of the Talmud, Rabbi Yehudah always felt like he was in the presence of G-d and would never entertain any sinful thoughts.
[12] Devash Lefi, Ma’arechet Kuf, entry Kol Be’Isha Ervah
[13] Brachot, ibid
[14] Challah, 2:1 (12b)
[15] Nechmad LeMareh on the Jerusalem Talmud ibid, cited in Shas Metivta, Yalkut Biurim on Brachot 24a, note 132
[16] Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 21:2
[17] See Magid Mishnah on the Rambam. But see Atzei Arazim (Even Ha’Ezer 21:1) who points to several passages in the Rambam that prove that it is a Torah violation. (See Laws of Teshuvah 4:4 “That the vision of the eyes [i.e., looking at a forbidden women] is a grave sin which can lead to the immoral act itself as the verse says, ‘Do not turn astray after your eyes and after your hearts.'”) He suggests that the reason one would receive makot mardut instead of ordinary lashes is that it is a negative command that does not necessarily involve an action (lav she’ein bo ma’aseh) or that it is a general prohibition that includes many subcategories (lav shebichlalut).
[18] Sha’arei Teshuvah, Sha’ar 3, 64
[19] Numbers, 15:39
[20] See Sefer HaMakneh on Kiddushin, 70a D.H. Amar Lei Hachi
[21] See Otzar HaPoskim (Even Ha’Ezer, 21:7) in the name of the Penei Moshe
[22] See Rabbeinu Yonah on Brachot 25a D.H. Ervah. It is possible that Rabbeinu Yonah is referring to one who is unintentionally hearing the voice of a woman singing. Whereas to purposefully listen to a woman singing is forbidden at all times.
[23] Even Ha’Ezer, 21:1
[24] Rosh, Brachot, chapter 3, Siman 37. See Shas Metivta, ibid, note 137 for additional sources
[25] Even Ha’Ezer, ibid
[26] Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 75:6
[27] Although this seems obvious and the proofs seem redundant, the Otzar HaPoskim (21:20-2) cites them to counter the view of the Sam Chayim (by Rabbi Chayim Eshal, Likutim, 6b) who says that it is forbidden to even converse with another man’s wife.
[28] Judges, 4:4
[29] Shmuel I, 1:14 – 18
[30] Ibid, 25:24 – 34
[31] Kings II, chapter 4
[32] Eiruvin 53b. (See there that she reprimanded him for saying two unnecessary words thus transgressing on speaking excessively with women.)
[33] Yevamot, 65b
[34] Pireki Avot, 1:5
[35] Kiddushin, 70a
[36] Brachot, ibid, D.H. Veha. See also the Me’iri there
[37] See Levush, O.C. 75:3, Magen Avraham, 75:6 with Machatzit HaShekel, and Shulchan Aruch HaRav, 75:6
[38] Bait Shmuel, E.H. 21:4
[39] Yam Shel Shlomo on Kiddushin, Chapter 4, Siman 4
[40] Iyun Ya’akov on Kiddushin
[41] Ibid, based on Ketubot, 17a that the maidservants of the Caesar would sing when they greeted Rabbi Avahu
[42] Maharal in Gur Aryeh on Gen. 18:9
[43] Halachot Ketanot by Rabbi Yisrael Ya’akov Chagiz, vol. 2, Siman 93
[44] Zechariah, 2:10
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Aryeh Citron

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