Listening to a woman’s voice

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Tevet 5765/Dec 2004

Kol be isha erva, (listening to the) voice of a woman is indecent. This phrase is the source of some controversy. Is speech or singing involved? Does the injunction not to listen apply under certain circumstances specifically? Is there a Rabbinical prohibition or is the injunction Biblical? Rabbi Duvdevani examined these questions in the light of a number of sources.

Tractate Berakhot (24A) examines the propriety of a man reciting the Shema in bed together with members of his family in a state of undress. This is unacceptable. Shmuel adds: kol be isha erva because Scripture sates ‘for sweet is your voice…’, a statement made by the lover in the Song of Songs, declaring how attractive the maiden is. The man reciting the Shema needs to make sure that he does not see impropriety, the nakedness of his wife and older children, not even the hair of his wife, nor even hear her voice. This is not seen as a question of modesty but of respect towards the Almighty. The point is reinforced by a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Challa (2, 48), where the woman is reciting the blessing over taking ‘challa’ from dough before she is dressed. The situation is specific, an injunction not to recite a prayer while seeing or hearing that woman who is not dressed reciting her blessing.

A somewhat surprising extension of such impropriety appears in Tractate Kiddushin (70A), where asking about the welfare of Yalta, a woman, calls forth the response: kol be isha erva by Shmuel.

Maimonides restates the prohibitions (Hilchot Issurei Biya,21) but links them to sexual impropriety. It is not an absolute prohibition, since there are occasions when it is proper to see a woman. Rav Duvdevani explained that Maimonides saw the injunction as a Torah fence – not a Rabbinical one - around the law basic to the Torah, as in the commandment not to envy even anything belonging to your neighbour because of what this might lead to.

Shmuel’s phrase is discussed in a number of sources. Piskei Mordechai, on Berakhot, mentions that it is the sound of a woman’s voice singing that is referred to; Beit Shmuel, on the Shulchan Aruch agrees that the Gemara is concerned about a situation where prayers are being said, adding that the statement about Yalta in Kiddushin really refers to an intimate conversation, not a simple asking about someone’s well -being.

The question now arises, is the injunction Biblical or Rabbinical? If it is Biblical, it is unconditional; if it is Rabbinical, decisions in different times and places may vary. The Mishna Brura (75,17) states that it is not Biblical. The text adds that the Shema may not be recited when listening to a woman sing – unless, that is, one happens to be passing through a non-Jewish place. Rav Ovadia Yosef ,too,states that he has seen the prohibition referred to as Rabbinical. Like several other commentators, he sees the controversial phrase as referring to the recital of the Shema specifically. Moreover, he, like the Maharam Schik, makes the distinction between a woman who is present and one whose voice is heard, as on a recording. Rav Duvdevani explained, by citing the case of hearing the Megilla read on a recording –that would not count as ‘hearing’ the Megilla.

An interesting Gemara (Sota 48A) raises the question of chanting responses of prayers. If men chant and women respond, that is ‘frivolous’; where women chant and men respond, that is ‘a burning fire’. Rashi comments that this does not refer to two prohibitions, the second being there as the extreme reprehensible situation.

As regards men and women singing religious songs together, we see that the Sridei Eish of Yehiel Weinberg in post holocaust France permitted it, as did Hildesheimer and S.R.Hirsch in Germany, since a woman’s voice is not an issue then and the purpose is praise of the Almighty.

In all cases, the sources agree that a voice with sexual innuendo outside of marriage is unacceptable and a situation where this is likely has to be avoided. In prayer, even the voice of a man’s wife should not distract him. Custom varies as to what constitutes a situation leading to something inappropriate. Women’s self respect and respect for sanctity will also determine how they understand kol be isha erva.